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August 2013

Escapist reading par excellence. Recommended for fast-paced fun. If a diversion is needed from the daily rut, try this novel.

This is the fifth Ethan Gage novel I have read and I have enjoyed them a lot. What's to like about them? First and foremost is the pace. They go a mile a minute. By page 50 Ethan has been involved in, always innocently, inadvertently, or mistakenly he would say, the burning down of a palace, a gigantic theft, a tumultuous revolution, a botched assassination attempt, and been bedded by the sister of a very powerful and angry brother who commands a battalion of villainous cutthroats. After the first 50 pages the action picks up speed! Whew.
Barbed-crown.jpg The fluid loyalties during the Napoleonic wars and peaces provide the context. As an American Ethan is sometimes welcomed by either agents of France or Britain or both, but only briefly as alliances, wars, peaces come and go. Ethan was there when the Rosetta Stone came to light in Egypt. He found the tree at the centre of the world in the Louisiana Purchase, he triggered a slave rebellion in the Caribbean, he was captured by Barbary pirates.....what a curriculum vitae he has.

Then there is Ethan's self-deprecating humour. Though he knows himself to be a bumbler extraordinaire his reputation as the James Bond of his time just grows and grows. He knows himself to be a peaceful scientist, though he has been instrumental in the outcome at the Siege of Acre and the Battle of the Trafalgar while trying to get home in time for dinner. He knows himself to be a faithful husband....

Can he help it if all the women he encounters are beautiful and throw themselves at him? His wife certainly thinks so and she has had to come and get him out of trouble more than once, cutlass in hand.

The novels are peopled by historical figures like Napoleon, Pitt the Younger, Toussaint Louverture, Horatio Nelson and others. These luminaries, constantly plotting against each other, see in Ethan a catspaw. They lie to him, manipulate him, tempt him and he has little resistance to any of it. Hope ever trumps experience, and Ethan thinks he can outsmart these puppet masters and he is always wrong. Fortunately he never learns and comes back for more in the next novel!

I went through a Napoleon phrase once. Why? I was fascinated by fragmentary accounts I had come across of his ability to multi-task anywhere, to micro-manage from afar, to shift gears in an instant from one problem to another, to size up a man and extract what he needed from him, coupled with the inability to see reality (think Russia or the catastrophic naval exercise at Boulogne), all of these made me wonder how he did it. I was also fascinated to see the practical improvements at Versailles to make work more efficient, e.g., a table in the bath, seats for secretaries to take notes while he performed 'the essential tasks,' as Aristotle called them. (Figure it out.) I read three biographies, all of them weighty tomes. I cannot list the titles because I did not find answers in any of them so there were no notes. Here he is again in these books, dominating much of the world.

NB there is a reference to Machiavelli on p124 'Napoleon was building a clan worthy of Machiavelli.' (Huh?)

I do hope Ethan Gage does not yet retire, as he often dreams of doing, because he has not yet visited his particular brand of mayhem on India. There another whole continent awaits him! I thought this one to be a return to top form, as I found the last one in the Caribbean a little forced. This one meets the rollick standard.

After the steeped sorrow of Carson McCullers, Ethan Gage is a welcome change of pace.

The long fallout from youthful idealism and the intoxication of creating a brave new world, Prospero, in the United Nations. Recommended for anyone who remembers 11 November 1975.

'Long fallout' is a geologist's term for the run of material in a seismic shift miles from the fault where the fracture occurred. If I remember it rightly from Wallace Stegner's novel Angle of Repose (1971). Freya, Simon, and Roy are the protagonists, centring on Roy through whose eyes we see most of it. By the end Roy's sister Alison, it turns out, was also a more of a player than Roy realized. Oops, that is a spoiler, I guess.
They were motivated by causes in the 1930s and carried those goals into government service during World War II. They had met many True Believers, including Roy's sister, fellow travellers, dilettantes, voyeurs, and Stalinists. At Oxford they individually had brushed against Left Champions like the Red Peer (who is Erridge in The Dance to the Music of Time). At times they do favours for each other or for friends of friends involving confidential information. At the San Francisco conference founding the United Nations Roy met Alger Hiss. Because of this meeting he is forever slightly suspect. Yet Roy is in but not of this coterie, always a little aloof and withdrawn.

Of course the title refers to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975 and the lead up to that event provides the context for the reckoning among the three. Will their respective pasts catchup to one or all three of them? What is it that is in the past of each anyway? Should they stick together or seal themselves off from one another?

They had earlier weathered the Petrov Royal Commission with Roy singled out for doubt, though nothing more. He lived it down at the Sydney Bar in the following years. He became a legal consultant to the Whitlam government and like everyone else is caught in the tsunami of the Loans Affair (which seemed then and seems now like something from a Marx Brother movie). If Roy's past is remembered will it sink the already sinking government? The captain and crew are the only ones who do not realise the boat is already sunk, as they row furiously on. Not sinking, sunk.

The telling is paced and methodical. The pieces slowly come together. The treatment of the many characters from Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Garfield Barwick, John Kerr, to Doc Evatt is even-handed. Some pseudonyms are used and it is fun speculating on who these creations represent. I thought Dusty was a slice of Alan Ramsay, not the whole man at the time but an aspect of his earlier self.

There are nice details like the furnishings of Yarralumla, and its origins, a state visit by Vice-President Spiro Agnew, the fishbowl of official Canberra. The formality of Canberra at the time seems a long time ago, seating by status even on a minibus to the airport, an entourage of eight for the Governor-General to go to Sydney for a private visit, etc. all that seems almost foreign, something from another country, not simply another time.

The novel closes with the frenetic effort to find a parliamentary and constitutional means to save the Whitlam government, as if a form of words, or application of an arcane parliamentary maneuver would have stayed the doom. A delay might have held off the doom a few more days but nothing more, but the stalwarts clutch at the straw that public opinion will change.

In 1950s Canberra Roy and company would have come across Edith Berry from Grand Hotel, Dark Palace, and Cold Light. She is a more fully developed character than anyone in these pages. The prose is...workman like. More like a brief that uses some fictional devices to lay out the material than a novel where we enter another world as seen by someone else.

Speaking of connections, Roy's wife, Judith, is the daughter of the architect of the amphitheatre at Castlecrag. Roy and Judith met at amateur theatrics there. Judith is merely a plot device, apart from that intriguing reference.

This counts as another Perth book because the author lives in Perth, but nothing in the book relates in any way to West Australia except some mentions once or twice of offshore islands considered for nuclear tests.

I have read several of his other novels, Quarantine, The Blue Guitar, Bellarmine Jug, Truant State, The Country without Music, and The Blosseville File. I was once on an APSA panel with Nicholas Hasluck and had lunch with him a few months later on Perth with his father who figures briefly in this book.

Read it in Darwin, August 2013.

An art history student's thesis research is presented through the cinematic conventions of a mystery. Recommended for adults. If you like X-Men XV do not watch this movie.

The student notices female figures in Watteau paintings: always these figures have their backs to the viewer. The more she studies them, the more she sees them in many of Watteau's paintings, and the more it seems to be always the same woman with her back turned. Who is she? Why is she always there, with her back turned?
Watteau.jpgA little tension is added to the plot with a thesis supervisor who discourages the quest. We discover he pursued the same line once and it came to nothing. Is he simply trying to steer her onto safe ground, or is he, brusk and uncommunicative, hiding something?

Then there is the mime in square outside the print shop where she works; he is young and handsome but begs for a living. They meet and she discovers he is a deaf mute but through him she finds a painting similar to a Watteau by an obscure painter called Opener.

With the single-mindedness and doggedness of an obsessive only child she tracks down this similar painting and acquires it (by selling a treasured watch from her deceased father). She has also tracked down every site in Paris that Watteau painted (miraculously most are still to be recognised these hundreds of years later) and lived, though this latter information is scarce. She also researches the people in his paintings. She triangulated onto the actress Charlotte Desarmes as the mystery woman, a prospect rejected by the supervisor as unsubstantiated.

She persists and persuades a friend to x-ray the Opener painting and voila there is a Watteau beneath it, as her supervisor is the first to acknowledge. It seems there was no Opener, but it was a second name that Watteau used for some of his painting when Charlotte rejected him. He could not bear to destroy his work but he did paint over it.

Her travels through libraries, archives, auctions, Parisienne sites are entertaining to us nerds. The silent boy friend remains a cipher. The landlord never gets the rent. Her mother remains at a distance, a reluctant banker at times. The boss at the print shop is sympathetic but has a business to run. Indeed all of the supporting characters are positive, if sometimes upset, distracted, or angry. I liked that. I find the cynicism of Hollywood cheap and no substitute for plot, story, or character. By 'positive' I do not mean singing and dancing but not cunning, malicious, sinister, predatory, sneering or anything like that. Just people going about their business; such people are seldom to be seen in Hollywood anymore because they do not interest fourteen year old boys.

But an obsessive would probably use them as she does with few qualms, especially when the trail is hot.

The supervisor has the best line: express your passion in your life, your work needs detachment and perspective. Of course, it bounces off the knight on the quest but they are words to live by.

I was interested to see the techniques and technology used in the research shown here. I found the image of the lion subdued by love very charming, and it is the key that opens the way to Opener. (Could not resist that.)

I did quite see what either the French or English title meant to the story, respectively, 'That which my eyes have seen' and 'The vanishing point.' I was also surprised when this penurious student produced a Visa card to pay 400 euros.

Thank you SBS television.

Only recommended for travellers who haunt museums and galleries. I read it because I liked Eucalyptus so much.

Inventive for the sake of being inventive. A show-off adolescent kind of clever. More a series of (forced) vignettes than a novel. There is no red line tying all the incidents together. Incoherent, in short, with more than one non sequitur.
Travel and traveling companions. What did Sartre say about other people? He must have met Garry Atlas of this book, loud, leering, and humourless joke-teller. Travel is enough work on its own but in this package tour the thirteen Aussies are always on duty. Noisy, sneering, crude, insensitive, imperceptive, well some of them. Nothing is as good as home, they bellow. They had to leave home to discover that, it seems, especially the beer.

The blind man is the mad photographer though his pictures seldom include the subject. The author is trying too hard to be offbeat.

Yet there is much to like: holographic equations from the science museum and the corrugated iron collection exhibiting its many uses. Then there is the leg museum in Ecuador. The marriage institute in the United States. I left out the Pygmy Collection in Africa. Yes, 'Collection' and that confused the travellers, too. 'Have you ever met an interesting Canadian?' That is a stumper on page 298. The Ayers Rock nose show, the aside on aerogrammes, the exhibition of extremities, the superfluous chapter on Russia, the centre of gravity, it just got to be show-off stuff, not a story, not a plot, not character development, not a study of relationships. Though I did like the demonstration at Lenin's tomb, I admit, Comrade.

The reference to airport architecture as Esperanto was good. The same everywhere and soulless. The flag falling onto one of the travellers was cute. Voss is mentioned as if a real explorer along with Leichhardt, Flinders, Cook, etc. I read that one years ago and swore off the sanctimonious Patrick White forever, filing him with Samuel Marsden.

Not as whimsical and enchanting as Eucalyptus but the same motif, a cast of characters with short stories inserted in it making it a novel comprised of short stories or vignettes.

Inventive, yes, but no plot, no story, no character development, no relationship among them. And no sense of place in any of the places. Still a prize winning novel that made his name. Go figure.

The introduction by Peter Conrad is just a summary.

Read it in Darwin, August 2013.

Cloudstreet (1991) by Tim Winton.

Exhilarating, depressing, amusing, frightening, confusing, boring, exciting, just like life. Recommended for adults. If you liked Iron Man III, do not read this novel.

The novel is a ramshackle chronicle of two families, the Pickleses and the Lambs. By twists and turns they come to share a house owned by the luckless and penniless Sam Pickles. Over more than twenty years at 1 Cloud Street the two clans together become a tribe through many trials and tribulations. Sam supports the bookies and his sodden wife Dolly likes men with pants. Their daughter, Rose, the oldest of three children, hates her mother a little more than her father (a deliberate ambiguity). Brothers Ted and Chub are, be it said, no more than ciphers. Oriel Lamb has the drive of a sergeant-major and her husband Lester was trained by the army in two wars to obey. Their children are Quick, Fish, Lon, Hat, Elaine, and Red. The first three are boys and the last girls, these being family nicknames.


From 1945 to 1965 they bounce off each other, spin out of control, try out the temptations of Perth, hate and love one another, punctuated by long periods of mutual indifference.

The Monster of Nedlands appears to remind us all how vulnerable the gravity is that holds us to this life. He also figures in Robert Drewe's Shark Net (2000). There is a pig who seems a relative of the one in In the Winter Dark by Winton.

The Lambs are noisy Baptists and the Pickleses are ... Nothing much. But Sam Pickles needs the rent and Lester Lamb needs the roof so they accommodate each other. Over the years an elastic modus vivendi keeps them in orbit around each other.

Sam waits for his luck to change while doing as little as possible, apart from blaming everyone else for making him a victim. Oriel does too much, too often, and makes her own luck with the loyal Lester at her side, when he is not in the kitchen turning our pastries and pies for the shop. That is the overarching theme, these two attitudes to life: the fatalism of luck or the energy of work.

The story line is the gradual convergence of Rose and Quick. Oops, that is a spoiler. He is called Quick in the way a giant is called Tiny. Rose reads books, including novels like Jane Eyre. Moreover, she is diabolically smart though needs must and she leaves school at the legal age of 16.

I did not know what to make of Quick's wall of misery, newspaper cuttings of loss and destruction he cut out and stuck on the wall in his room when he was 14 or so. Still less did I know what to make of Quick's guardian angel, the aboriginal, who several times advises him, and appears at least once to another. More importantly, I did not know what to make of the house-mysticism in the book. It is often implied that the house itself has character or an aura but it is not manifested in the prose.

Some things are elided to concentrate on the story, like the paper work associated with running a small business.

I have read a couple of Winton's books before and liked them, e.g., In the Winter Dark and The Riders.

One of the blurb writers on the back cover says it is a working class novel. Well that is Sam Pickles but not the shop keeping Lambs, surely. As usual the bourgeoisie does not understand what working class means, never having done it themselves. It does not mean owning and running a shop (Lamb), or living off the rental of property (Pickles).

I read this in anticipation of going to a conference in Perth in September. I have several more Perth titles in readiness.

Read it in Darwin, August 2013.

File under ‘Might Have Been.‘ Sam Houston (1793-1863) might have been the 16th President of the United States. So the dream goes, a President Houston would have held the South to the Constitution while defending states rights, and yet found a way to satisfy the demands of the North, economic, political, and moral. With such a president there would have been no Civil War. As it is, he is in fact an American president though not of the United States but of Texas. (The 16th President was Abraham Lincoln, Class!)

Haley on Houston.jpg

Houston was a man of many parts: A staunch unionist, a Southern with unimpeachable qualifications, a hero in three wars, hand picked once by Andrew Jackson that champion of the west, known through the northeast coast as an informative and entertaining speaker, a vigorous opponent of the slave trade, an avowed proponent of states rights, a blood brother to Cherokee Indians, a man who read himself to sleep with the Odyssey and Cicero’s Offices.

Some indication of his political career can be seen in the elected offices he held. He was born in Virginia and went to the wilds of east Tennessee as a young man.
1819 elected Tennessee Attorney-General
1823 elected to the U.S. House of Representative from Tennessee
1827 elected Governor of Tennessee
1836 Elected first President of the Republic of Texas
1841 Re-elected President of the Republic of Texas
1846 Elected to US Senate from Texas and twice re-elected
1859 Elected Governor of Texas
Few are the curriculum vitae that can match that. Then there is his military service.

The list conceals as much as it reveals. The gap between 1827 and 1836 includes three years in the wilderness where he lived among Indians. He resigned as Governor of Tennessee when his bride of one-day rejected him and her relatives thereafter and for years heaped calumny on him. Bound by the code of a Southern gentleman, Houston made no reply. He gained himself in one day a lifelong reputation as a ravisher of women though it is plain he never touched his bride, and in the following three years he earned an equally enduring reputation as an alcoholic. He certainly deserved that for a time. He also found solace in an Indian woman, while still married to that bride.

What chance for such a man in civilized society? A ravisher. An alcoholic. An Indian lover?

What a fall from Attorney-General, U.S. Representative, and state Governor to pitiful wretch living on the charity of impoverished Indians.

Yet the frontier gave him another chance and by dint of his own hands he took it. GTT was the slogan of the day in the 1830s and so Go To Texas he did. There he tried to farm and developed a lifetime interest in agronomy and stock breeding. Having at the third try secured a divorce from his long estranged wife, he married a woman who swore him off the bottle, and he kept that oath. In fact, he became a national temperance speaker. He was completely devoted to his wife, Margaret. Yet he sacrificed everything for Texas, and at one point sold the family home to pay some Texas debts that were in his name.

When the convolutions of Mexican politics produced Santa Anna the Texas War started. Houston had fought in Indian Wars in Tennessee and in the War of 1812 against Great Britain. He was wounded in both and with medicine as it was, the wounds never healed properly. Indeed it is said that on his deathbed in 1863 his old groin wound opened.

He was a temporizer, having seen enthusiastic militia get themselves killed in earlier wars he advocated and practiced restraint and preparation. The Texas Revolutionary Council made him a General and he recruited troops, secured weapons, and trained the men. All of this was ridiculed by the hot heads who urged immediate action. To make matters worse when Santa Anna’s army approached, Houston retreated for he had read much of Napoleon’s destruction in Russia and thought the distances and heat of Texas might reduce the European trained and equipped Mexican Army.

When the armies at last met, he feigned confusion and fear, and this emboldened Santa Anna into several tactical blunders. The Texans prevailed at San Jacinto where Houston was wounded again.

There is much more to the story but let that suffice as a sample.

Houston was Governor when Texas seceded from the Union. He stalled this eventuality as long as he could, finally sitting at his desk while the secessionists acted in the room next door. When they demanded he take an oath of allegiance to the cause of secession, he refused and they declared the office void. At 67 he accepted this turn of events and went into retirement. He died in July 1863.

Between 1861 and 1863 his only forays into politics were to advocate the relief of the conditions of Union prisoners of war in Galveston, and to council dealing honourably with the Cherokees. The former was the more successful of the two.

Note, Houston wore an Indian blanket as a cloak when he took his place in the Senate and spoke there more than once on the terrible record of deceit and perfidy that the United States had visited on Indians. That cloak sent John C. Calhoun into one of his many rages. I rather think Calhoun was the intended audience for the gesture. To find out why, read the book.

The book is brilliantly conceived and written, starting with the Preface that explains why we need to know about Sam Houston and why this book is the one to tell us. It totals 500 plus pages and surveys the previous sixty biographies of Houston and plunges into the original source material. It is the product of fifteen years of research, writes the author. He has no university affiliation and I rather doubt a university would indulge such a project today. The demands of a three-year performance review, the imperative to secure a research grant whether needed or not, the premium on counting publications, and much more combine to make short-terms achievement the path to tenure and promotion.

My only knowledge of Sam Houston before reading this book, apart from schoolboy apocrypha, was the short chapter on Houston in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1955) that likened Houston to an actor standing just out of the spotlight. He was involved in great deeds but it was never quite clear what he was doing or why or how. That seems right in light of this volume.

Houston was capable of working on several levels at once, always had Plan B, C, and D in train if A did not progress. He knew the power of words to focus attention. He tried always to keep his word so that he could trade on it. Even when political difference divided him from friends, he tried to keep the personal relationship alive by letter and succeeded in many cases in retaining the personal friendship of sworn political enemies.

In death he is now more acceptable to Texans. Check this on You Tube

Cut-and-paste because hyperlink insertion does not work.

We found the time in our busy schedules of good works to go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see ‘Sydney Moderns: Art for the New World.’ The items ranged from 1909 to 1947, spanning both the World Wars.

It was well worth the visit to see the works gathered and to follow the narrative in which they were placed. In this case ‘modern’ seems at the outset primarily to have meant the dominance of colour over content. Several of the themes in the exhibition explored colour. Regrettably the pastels made me think of the 1980s.

The reference point for the moderns was the Sydney Harbour Bridge, because it dwarfed all else in the city (and the country) and represented, in their minds at least, the triumph of modern engineering over the natural barrier of the harbour.

But as we traveled through the exhibit ‘the modern’ took on other meanings, specific examples include the inclusion of machinery in art with painting of factories, train stations, automobiles. It also meant modern life which became in the period covered decidedly urban. Urban life meant apartment buildings higher than before, it meant crowds on the street, and it meant - those beloved temples of commerce - department stores capitalizing on the critical mass of consumers in cities. More generally, the modern also meant breaking with the artistic conventions of the past and so included Margaret Preston’s still-lifes and her experiments with Aboriginal motifs.

It was refreshing to see that the loose groups of Sydney modernists also embraced commerce and strove for decorative features in their works to sell to users, not just collectors, but users. In this respect the role of the magazine HOME was emphasized, and its pages were also open to photographs as a modern art form as well as the design of furniture.


We saw an exhibition last year or earlier of German art between the wars, Weimar, and it most of its works were dark, brooding, sharp-edged, and out of control. They portrayed a world teetering on the brink of a black abyss, even in the style of coffee cups! Quite a contrast. Sydney Moderns is on the whole optimistic and happy with the world.

While comparing it to the other efforts, a lot of this was going on when Castlecrag was developed but I saw no sign of interaction with it.

The narrative in this very well curated exhibition also makes clear the community of artists who cooperated, competed, and learned from each other. And those that sold decorative works seemed to have made a good living from it. Not the singular, starving artist of the garrett much loved in melodramas.

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