Monday, October 23, 2006

Secret River by Kate Grenville

One of these days, I really must get myself to the Hawkesbury River region of New South Wales: it looks to be very beautiful and remarkably remote, given its proximity to Sydney. But then, my only real information about the place is from watching the Oyster Farmer, one of my favourite movies from this year's film festival. In the meantime, my interest has been sparked again by The Secret River, another of the shortlisted Booker books for this year, which is largely set on the Hawkesbury, the "secret river" of the title - so-called partly because "a man could sail around for days and never find his way into the Hawkesbury" but also because it is a place of secret shames, things which can never be spoken of, even between husband and wife. The novel shares something with Nick Cave's recent movie, The Proposition: while things may now be peaceful, modern Australian civilisation is based on a very bloody foundation.

The novel started out very slowly: the first 70 pages are devoted to the life of Will and Sal Thornhill before they leave London. This part is largely to set up a comparison for their time in Australia: for Sal, it represents "Home" but William doesn't have any fond memories of the place. He's
a waterman, a bit of a dodgy character, who while carrying goods about the Thames for others in his skiff is a little light-fingered. It is when he is finally caught red-handed that he is sentenced to spend the term of his natural life in Australia - after managing to escape a hanging. I have to say that for some reason, as I was reading this early part of the novel, I found myself more and more prepared to dislike it, getting a little antagonistic even. Partly it was because there were a few factual assertions which just niggled (although the main one was down to a misreading on my part): for example, I had trouble accepting that William had been assigned a barrister to act on his behalf or that a special dispensation was needed in the first place to avoid hanging because it was very common to have the death sentence for minor crimes be commuted, partly so the new land could be stocked with people, I suspect.Then there were the tangerines Sal fed to him - my mind was going "but surely, they'd not been invented then" - it turns out they're a native of Tangiers, but still, they were not shipped to Europe until the 1840's so it is not likely Will would be eating them in London in 1803.

No matter, because once the story moved to Australia, my niggles disappeared. Things are very different for Will when he gets to Sydney, "a sad scrabbling place" known as The Camp because it was very much a "half formed temporary sort of place" in 1806. In an odd sort of arrangement, Will is assigned to Sal - convicts were not just turned loose but became a form of slave, a very "ingenious and thrifty scheme" as the master would have to support the servant, rather than be funded by the government. Grenville moves fairly quickly through this phase of theThornhills' life: they establish a grog shop, selling both legitimately obtained and stolen grog and Will gets a job as waterman. There is, however, a turning point: he becomes fearful of being caught for the crimes he is committing, which will lead to incarceration in Tasmania, somewhere you just don't want to go. More importantly, the major theme of the novel is introduced: relations between the colonists and "the black natives of the place". There are those, like Scabby Bill, who seem not to object to the occupation of their land and accomodate themselves to it but there are also those who are less visible, who are introduced as a threatening and hostile presence.

When Will is given his freedom by Major-General Lauchlan MacQuarie, buys his own boat and then moves upriver, some sort of confrontation becomes inevitable. Very early, we are told that it is upriver that:
the blacks were most numerous and most warlike. They gatherered by the hundreds, it was said, and descended on the lonely huts of the farmers. Tales came back of men speared, their huts robbed, their fields burned. The Gazette had a handy expression that covered all the things the blacks did, and suggested others: outrages and depredations.
Here's how the river is described when Will first sees it, after navigating the piled up rocks which conceal its entrance:
... the cliffs rose sheer on both sides, mouse grey except where the wind had exposed buttery rock, as if the landscape itself was a dark-skinned creature with golden flesh beneath.

The rock had been laid down flat, layer upon layer piled high like flitches of timber. As it had worn away, great slabs the size of a house had fallen off and tumbled all skewiff at the foot of the cliffs. Some lay half in the water. melting away. Where the cliff met the water a tangle of snake like roots, vines and mangroves lnotted around the fallen boulders.

This was a place out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky. Everywhere was the same but everywhere was different. Thornhill felt his eyes wide open, straining to find something they could understand.

It seemed the emptiest place in the world, too wild for any man to have made his home.
Of course, he finds a spot he wants to call home: while he is careful to ensure that under colonial law no-one had beaten him to it, it never enters his mind that there might be other inhabitants, people with a prior claim. He wants it and eventually he moves there - the deal with Sal is that after five years, they'll go "Home" because, to her, the idea of staying in this wild place for ever is unbearable. In the meantime, she does her cheerful best to settle in to life on the river.

It doesn't take long before Will meets the locals - they do a fair amount of talking to each other but: "there were too many people here, and too little language to go around", although it is clear the Thornhills are being told to go back to where they came from. I think that in time, the Thornhills would have actually worked things out with the locals - Sal makes mates with the aboriginal women, one of their sons spends a lot of time with them, learning their ways and even Will shows the potential to make some sort of breakthrough with them. He learns, for example, that contrary to the stories, the aboriginals were not lazy good-for-nothings, but had developed a life which was in perfect accord with their natural surroundings, and even gets to envy the way they can stroll into the forest and find dinner while the Thornhills are scrambling in the hot sun to establish their imported crops. Although Will is a little patronising, he is getting there:
Thornhill would have said all the blacks looked the same, so it was somewhat surprising to realise after a time how easily he could tell them apart. He began to give the men names: humble sorts of names that made their differences less potent. It made something domestic - just another kind of neighbourhood - out of this unpromising material.
Unfortunately, there are other white people upriver as well, and they are completely antagonistic to the aboriginals; disregarding any notion that they had been here a long time and worked out their own patterns of living. So, people like the evil little man Smasher Sullivan are continually ranting about "the blacks" about whom he found "no story too terrible to repeat" and vowing vengeance for all the wrongs he sees them as having done to him, with no recognition that in the views of the aboriginals, he is a trespasser.

As a result, trouble is brewing and Will is ultimately faced with a terrible choice, between having Sal and the kids all leave to go back "Home" or to put the trouble to rest, once and for all, so that Sal can feel safe in her new home.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Kaikohe Demolition

My family spent a few years in Kaikohe; although I never lived there properly, I did have two summers there working during the University holidays at the Pioneer Village and then at the Department of Social Welfare. Of course, since we lived in Okaihau in the 8 years before I went to University, Kaikohe was our big smoke: I had many an hour poking around in the second hand shops or wandering the main street. Every so often, we'd all go off to the local hot springs at Ngawha - pretty grungy, mud floors, all corrugated iron and timber, not at all flash.

I don't recall any of us being involved in the car club so it isn't really a surprise to me that when Florian Habicht decided to make a documentary about their demolition derbies, I wouldn't recognise any of the people involved. Two of the central characters, John and Uncle Bimm, are pictured above enjoying the water. The rules of the demolition are very simple: everyone has a gallon of petrol, no ramming of the driver's door and last car still moving wins.

I don't think this car made it, somehow! About half of the hour long movie was footage of racing, if you can call it that - it was never quite clear which direction cars were supposed to be going on or indeed if there was a required direction. Instead, cars would be busily ramming each other, shooting around the track in reverse and generally going all over the place. That's when they were moving at all: apart from the contestants to contend with, the track was very muddy for several of the races. For the one summer race I saw, they got the old water tanker out to give it a good sprinkling. Just to show how democratic the sport of demolition derby racing is, a 15 year old girl won one competion. Behind the scenes footage revealed, however, that she might have had some assistance at one stage, and a little extra tender treatment. Still, cool that she won.
I even think it might be her car in the lead in this photo.

The rest of the movie was taken up with getting to know the guys - about how they got involved in the sport, their philosophies, about life in Kaikohe. Nothing too serious, just gently good humoured. Unusually, the special features of the DVD were as long as the main, if not longer - there were two full races, with "commentary" from John and Uncle Bimm largely consisting of jokes about making tea on all the busted radiators and advertising the various cars for sale, as they became immobilised. Good plain fun. Another special feature was the footage of the world premier in Auckland - most of the crew went down and made speeches:Uncle Bimm was threatening a sequel "Once Were Demolition Car Drivers". Half the audience (as well as the Ratana Brass Band), apparently, had made the trip down from Kaikohe - which must have made seeing it very special, as they recognised their town, friends or even themselves on screen. The bit that really touched me, however, had nothing to do with the racing. Florian was being interviewed on Bfm: instead of showing that, we saw a bunch of young kids, just skylarking, playing it up for the camera.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Holiday? What holiday?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. My dissertation on The Third Policeman was due in last Friday, and I had a conference to speak at on the Saturday in New Plymouth. Since I had only ever stayed the one night in New Plymouth, I thought I'd take a short break. My first problem came when I couldn't get a flight up there on the Friday without paying a million dollars or so; since Thursday was much cheaper I thought "oh yeah, I'll get my diss done and have an extra day up there - sweet as". Famous last words - three hours before I was due to catch my plane, after working on it all night, I sent off a worried email to my supervisor to see what the extension policy was. Luckily he was OK with a couple of days, but those couple of days were my so-called holiday. Ah well, it is all over now - I have caught up on my sleep after the all-nighters I had to pull to get the thing finished (I wrote myself to the point I simply could not write any more - if I was running a marathon, it would be a collapse 50 metres short of the finish line) and I am having some interesting trademe purchases turn up, bought as a displacement activity.

It was not all work: as part of the conference, we had a very nice dinner at Arborio in the wonderful Puke Ariki complex - it is a combination information centre, museum and library which overlooks the Tasman sea, right on the waterfront.

Of course, I was also able to check out several of the fine cafes New Plymouth has to offer - about the only good thing Tom Cruise has done in a long time is to come to New Plymouth to film The Last Samurai which inspired half a dozen cafes to open. One thing I could not handle about the town, however, is the way everything closes at midnight - no all night supermarket, no late night kebabs or fish and chips, no lamb curry pies - just whatever can be scavenged from a service station.

The other thing I did while I was up there was to take a quick trip on the Forgottenen World Highway through the Republic of Whangamomona (a town which seems doomed to die - all buildings save for the pub are derelict, and it seems to be the place where men come to grow beards) to Taumarunui to see my mum, and then back through the near ghost town of Ohura. Curiously, the town has not died because its major enterprise, the prison, moved away: instead, the prison had to close because no-one was willing to live in Ohura to staff it. So, now there is a 97 person prison sitting empty and for tender, while prisons are bing built at enormous cost elsewhere in New Zealand.

One thing I haven't done is to find a replacement for my camera, the one I sold in a fit of exasperation when I could not upload pictures to my computer and then found the solution.
Here is Anika Moa, playing at the Oamaru Wine Festival, way back in March. I have been assiduously bidding on suitable replacements - several imes I have found what I thought to be a great camera, gone away to have a coffee before commiting to the purchase and come back to find someone has done the buynow thing. I seem to have a nose for a bargain, but an inability to close the deal. In fact, on Friday night I found a brand new version of the camera I have most bid on, this one was in a shop downtown and still cheaper than most have sold for on trademe. Me being me, I went across the road to a competing shop to check out the price: sure enough, when I got back to do the deal, some fellow had jumped in and scooped up the bargain - the last for sale at that price in all of New Zealand, according to Bond & Bond. Ah, well, here is another shot of Anika, who I did not go to see when she was in town on Friday, because I was kidnapped by students and taken to dinner.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland

It is January, a dark Sunday in winter, and I sit with my mother and father at the kitchen table. My father sits with his back to the table, his feet pressed against the wall, a book in his lap. My mother sits to my right and her book rests in the table. I sit close to her, and my chair, which faces the window, is near the heat of the range.
There is a pot of hot tea in the middle of the table and we each have a cup and a plate. There are ham and turkey sandwiches on the plates and, if we want more to eat or drink, there is plenty. The pantry is full.

From time to time we stop reading to talk. It is a good mood, as though we are one person reading one book - not three people apart and alone.
So starts MJ Hyland's latest novel, featuring one John Egan as its narrator. When I first read these lines, I was a little confused, as I knew the author to live in Melbourne, yet here she is with January being mid-winter. The explanation comes soon enough: the novel is set in Ireland, in Gorey (North Wexford). As might be expected from the extract I quote, it is a very domestic novel, but domestic life here is far from cosy. The first note of discomfort is soon struck, when John's mum takes him aside and tells him off for staring at her: he is 11 and thus just entering puberty and curiously tall for his age. Throughout the novel, there is a hint of some sort of sexual charge between mother and son - something she seems far more aware of than he is:
"You were staring at me, John. You shouldn't stare like that."
"Why can't I look at you?"
Because you're eleven now. You're not a baby any more."
I am distracted by the cries of our cat, Crito, who is locked in the cupboard under the stairs with her new kittens. I want to go to her. But my mother presses harder.
His father at first seems like a very cool dad, in the way that he knows interesting things and pays a lot of attention to John; there is a lot of laughter in the earlier pages. This impression gradually unravels. He has not worked for several years, ostensibly because he is a student: the reality is that he is lazy and undisciplined, and reads the kinds of books we might expect serial killers to - such as Phrenology and the Criminal Cranium. As the novel progresses, what we don't really know is whether he is getting worse, or whether John becomes aware of more details of his father: his gambling, his visits to prostitutes, his violence, his sense of entitlement to his mother's assets. I tend to think it is the former, because their life takes a turn for the worse when they have to move into a horrible council flat in Dublin, and mum smiles less and less by the day.

John is a bit of a misfit: he can normally tough it out, but not always.
As his mood alters, so too does the doll stuck up a tree he passes by on his way too and from school. He is obsessed with getting into the Guinness Book of Records: an obsession which gets him into no little trouble, as he can't really think of anything to do until the day he tries to see how long he can avoid going to the bathroom, with embarrassing consequences in school. His life has already been one of isolation; now he loses his one and only friend. Soon afterwards a new kid turns up at school, Kate, who is unrelieving in her horribleness to John: I did find this part of the novel just a little lacking in nuance. John's other claim to fame is that he has some special ability to detect when people are not telling the truth, but insufficient wisdom to know when to keep his mouth shut or that people are quite naturally duplicitous: he feels a sense of wrongness when he detects a lie.

I liked John: I wish the world was more accomodating for young fellows like him, because you just know he's going to have his idealism and his thirst for knowing things knocked out of him. His parents don't quite know what to do with him, and try to get doctors to cure him when really, there is nothing wrong with apart from being a bit different. Only one of his teachers, the really rather splendid Mr Roche who has some great teaching methods, seems to get him but he is only a short-lived influence in John's life. I think that instead of curing, all that John needed was some encouragement or affirmation; the tragedy is that there won't be any. He knows it too, I'm sure, even if he can't quite articulate that understanding. There is one point in the novel, towards the end, when he engages in one violent act, so bad that the Social Services put him in a home. One commentator has said that this signifies his "desperation", but I think when read in context, it is more about his desire to back to when life was peaceful and innocent. In a way, it works, although you're left wondering how long things will stay stitched together after coming apart so badly.

It is funny, as I was reading this book, about a month ago now, it didn't strike me as a very serious piece of writing, and not at all Booker material. Re-reading it, I see more to it and empathise more deeply with John. That probably makes me a freak, as most people writing about him say that he is one.

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