Archive for the ‘Non Fiction’ Category

The subtitle of this 2014 book is ‘Australia’s Greatest Citizen General’, which gave me hope that it might look at Sir John Monash as a citizen as well as a general. Alas, this was not to be. The book is a plea for a re-evaluation of Monash’s contribution as a soldier in World War I, and is central to Fischer’s campaign to have him posthumously promoted to Field Marshall. Tim Fischer is a former leader of the National Party and deputy Prime Minister of Australia, so I should have known better.

The book does give a brief outline of Monash’s career before the war as an engineer, and mentions his role as head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission after it. But most of the book concerns the various campaigns Monash was involved in, from Gallipoli to the Western Front, where he became commander of the Australian Army Corps. Fischer argues that Monash learnt from his own and other people’s mistakes and developed an ‘holistic’ approach to military tactics and strategy that was notably lacking in generals like Haig and Rawlinson. He was also much more concerned than many regular army commanders about keeping his men as safe as possible. A successful demonstration of his approach occurred at the battle for the village of Hamel in July 1918, and was repeated in later battles in August, which saw the last desperate German thrust towards Amiens repelled, and the war ended sooner than might otherwise have been the case. Some other senior military commanders were probably thinking along similar lines, but Monash was meticulous in his planning and implementation of a coherent plan of attack, and Fischer is likely correct that others followed his example.

Fischer notes that despite his undoubted successes, The Cambridge History of the First World War, published in 2014, didn’t even mention him. And he argues that having a university and a freeway named after him are scant recognition for him in Australia. So why didn’t he get – and hasn’t he got – the recognition Fischer thinks he deserves? He identifies four main reasons. Monash was a Jew of German heritage, at a time when anti-Semitism, to say nothing of anti-German sentiment, was common; he had come through the ranks of the part-time citizen militia, starting out in a university regiment, rather than from the regular army; he was a portly fifty years old in 1914, and it was openly known that he had a mistress. Perhaps as a result of such considerations, the influential war correspondent C.E.W. Bean took against him: in 1914 he wrote that Australians did not want to be represented by Jews ‘because of their ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves’ – a characteristic he freely attributed to Monash. He and the journalist Keith Murdoch, who also disliked Monash, were close to the war-time Prime Minister Billy Hughes and did their best – unsuccessfully on this occasion – to persuade him against giving commend of the Australian Army Corps to Monash. And Hughes himself didn’t like Monash; Fischer speculates that Hughes may have been jealous of his popularity with the troops. He made sure that Monash stayed in Europe until 1920 as the officer responsible for repatriation of Australian soldiers, and didn’t promote him from a three to a four star general when he could have after the war. In fact his promotion came at the hands of the Scullin Labor government in 1929, which also considered him for Governor General, though Scullin actually chose the Chief Justice, Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian – and the first Jew – to hold the post.

So all in all, Fischer, though he is certainly no historian, makes quite a good case that Monash has been unjustly neglected. The book is more of a polemic than a history; there are various non-sequiturs, and an attack on former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s view that the First World War was ‘devoid of any virtue’. Fischer is firmly in the camp that sees the ‘baptism of fire’ for the new nation as formative of the national spirit.

And this is where I was disappointed – though in retrospect not surprised – to find that there was almost no treatment of Monash as a citizen. As head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission, he belongs in a different formative tradition. Public utilities may now be out of fashion with governments, and privatisation all the rage. But the very establishment of a state owned electricity generator and provider, which Monash oversaw, stands in the same tradition of using the state to create a better life for people as initiatives such as the old age pension, the baby bonus, the basic wage and industrial conciliation and arbitration, all of which were introduced in the first twenty-five years of the new century. This is not to deny that Australia remained a deeply unequal society, or that organisations like the SEC were created piecemeal, without thought for an overarching political purpose. But it has always seemed to me that the national spirit is as much derived  from – and is reflected in – this cooperative thrust to use state power to ameliorate social conditions as it did from the more hierarchical and militaristic celebration of war, whether in defeat or victory. These strands are not mutually exclusive; mateship and courage existed at home as well as at the front. Monash himself summed up the potential divergence of these strands of ‘national character’ when he refused invitations to take part in the quasi fascist New Guard movement, saying that ‘the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate.’ I’d be happy to see him celebrated as both a soldier and a citizen.

If you want to read a proper biography of Monash, try Geoff Serle’s John Monash: A Biography. (1982), or the more recent Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War (2004) by Roland Perry. You can read more about Tim Fischer here, and his crusade for justice for Monash here.


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When I recently read Bryan Appleyard’s Bedford Park – reviewed here – and came across Ford Maddox Hueffer, or Ford Maddox Ford as he is known, as a character in the book, I realised that although I haven’t read any of his books, I was already prejudiced against him. This is because of the way he treated his lover, the Australian artist Stella Bowen. He wasn’t physically cruel to her, but he was unfaithful, and even worse, he strangled her as an artist while she was with him. Stravinsky’s Lunch (1999) recounts their ten years together as part of a biography of Bowen. It also looks at the life of Grace Cossington Smith, another Australian artist whose work went unrecognised for years. I know it’s crazy to dislike a writer because of his or her life; it’s the quality of their work that matters. And I have set myself the task of reading at least one of Ford’s books about the First World War. But first, here’s the reason for the prejudice he’s going to have to overcome.

Stravinsky’s Lunch is more than a biography of two Australian painters. It takes its name from a story about Stravinsky: that when he was composing, he demanded that his wife and children remain completely silent during meals, on the grounds that they might interrupt his train of thought. Modjeska uses this idea to consider whether women’s art may be compromised by their love. Male composers, writers and artists often demand and usually receive the service of the women in their lives, to the detriment of the women’s own creative aspirations. It rarely works the other way round. Modjeska examines the lives and art of women painters in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and Australia, concentrating on Stella Bowen, with a section on Grace Cossington Smith, and reference to a range of other women who sought to make a name as painters, contrasting them with some of the men doing the same. The book can thus be seen as something of a history of modernist painting during these years.

Born in Adelaide in 1893, Stella Bowen did what most creative people did at that time – left provincial, conservative Australia for Europe as soon as possible. She went in 1914 to study art in London. In 1918 she met and fell in love Ford Maddox Hueffer, already a well-known – though not well remunerated – writer, poet and critic. There was already a legal Mrs Hueffer, and another woman who called herself Mrs Hueffer, so Hueffer changed his name to Ford Maddox Ford, and though they never married, Stella was often referred to as Mrs Ford. (The name change may also have been because Hueffer sounded too German, though he had carried it through his days of active service in World War I.) To Stella, twenty years his junior, life with Ford seemed to open up a world of creative achievement. ‘Of course you shall be a painter and see the great world,’ he wrote to her. After their relationship was over ten years later, she generously wrote that what she got out of it – besides her daughter Julie – was ‘a remarkable and liberal education, administered in ideal circumstances.’ But for those years, although she did paint a little, including some portraits of Ford, her time was essentially absorbed in looking after his many needs. He believed in ‘the Divine Right of the Artist’, and expected to be treated as a genius. As Bowen wrote later, ‘a man writer or painter always manages to get some woman to look after him and make his life easy, and since female devotion … is a glut on the market, this is not difficult. A professional woman, however, seldom gets this cushioning unless she can pay for it.’ After she left him, she devoted her life to her work – and her much loved daughter – but had a hard time of it during the depression of the 1930s. She was appointed an official war artist during World War II and produced a memorable body of work. But like other female painters, she was often ignored in the mainstream histories of Australian art. I can’t blame Ford Maddox Ford for all this – but I blame him for some of it.

The story Modjeska tells of Grace Cossington Smith is very different. Born the year before Bowen, in Sydney, she only ever left Australia for a two year visit to England and Europe. She never married, and domestic duties fell to her sister. She worked in a studio on the edges of Sydney, aloof from the artists and writers of the inner city, painting ‘what she saw’ ‘from the thing itself’, though clearly in a modernist idiom. Largely ignored, she was ‘discovered’ in old age and her work is now widely admired. Though Modjeska says she isn’t making a comparison with the life of Stella Bowen, she makes it clear that a life committed to the vocation of art wasn’t easy for either of them, whether or not there was a man involved. But I don’t really see where Stravinsky’s lunch comes into Cossington Smith’s story.

I’m not being entirely accurate in calling this book a biography, or even a history. Written in the first person, it is rather Modjeska’s own search for understanding of the lives of these two painters. Bowen at least left a memoir, Drawn From Life (1941) that gives insights into her thoughts and feelings, though Modjeska concludes that it hides nearly as much as it reveals. In Cossington Smith’s case, there are just a few letters and interviews, leaving Modjeska guessing about many aspects of her life and work. Cossington Smith said late in life that she knew little of the work of other painters. But it seems incredible that she did not visit galleries in England and Europe when she was there, and even if there were limited occasions in Australia to look at the work of the great modernists, that she did not take up the opportunities that did arise. But we’ll never know. What Modjeska has, on the other hand, are the paintings of both women, many of which are reproduced in colour in the book and are a joy to see. She is a thoughtful observer who is knowledgeable about modernism and sees much that illuminates the paintings for the reader. Though sometimes she gets a bit self-involved with her questioning, I feel that there’s far more to the book than I’ve suggested in this short review. It is certainly worth reading.

Modjeska has mostly published in the area of memoir – albeit fictionalised – and non-fiction. Her first novel, The Mountain, came out in 2012 I’ve started reading it a couple of times, but never finished it. Maybe I should add it to the list after Ford Maddox Ford. You can read more about Modjeska’s life and work here.

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This highly acclaimed memoir was published in 2000, and has since been made into a TV series released in 2003. Robert Drewe, first a journalist and later a novelist, has an arresting tale to tell, and the literary skills to tell it with affection, humour, some bitterness and a good deal of drama.

The memoir tells the story of his coming of age from a child to a man in Perth, then the remotest capital city in the world, during the 1950s and ‘60s. When Robert was six, his father Roy, who worked for the Dunlop Rubber Company, was transferred from Victoria to Western Australia and the whole family had to make the adjustment to life in the raw suburbs built on the sand hills around the city. After a short period of transition – where his mother makes him wear shoes and socks instead of the bare feet favoured by the other boys, and warms him against sunstroke (or boiling brain as she calls it) – Drewe finds much to love about his new home. Through the prism of his family life, he tells of experiences that were common to boys growing up in this period – adventures with neighbouring children, Saturday afternoons at ‘the pictures’, interaction with girls and a growing interest in sex.

Through the specifics of his own family, Drewe also manages to give a fascinating picture of the social setting of suburban life in Perth at the time. Roy rises fairly quickly to become branch manager for Dunlop – it is ‘a branch manager town’ – and the family mixes with all the other middle class business people who live nearby. Since Dunlop makes sporting goods like tennis racquets and sponsors sporting events, Roy and his wife often entertain famous tennis players and other sportspeople; Robert rubs up against fame much more often than most boys. But his picture of family life also has darker currents running beneath it. Roy is bluff and hearty to his mates, but bad tempered and demanding with his wife and children. Does he hit her? Is he unfaithful to her? Possibly and probably, though Drewe never says so directly. He grows up alienated from his father, and at odds with his mother. Because he is such a good writer, this combination of family concerns and social backdrop works seamlessly.

But there is an additional element to all this; right from the beginning of the book, we are aware of the fear and horror caused to the people of Perth by a serial killer who murdered eight strangers between 1958 and 1963, and committed a number of other violent crimes. The story starts with the man’s committal hearing; Drewe is present as a junior crime reporter, watching with terribly mixed feelings. One of the people he killed was a friend of Drewe’s and one of the murder weapons belonged to another friend. Drewe has met and spoken with the man a number of times. At several points in the book Drewe adds sections in which he imagines what the man might have been thinking and doing at various stages of his life. Not till quite a long way through the story, with all the suspense-building skill of a good novelist, does he eventually reveal who the murderer is.

Like many coming of age stories, this one can be seen as a loss of innocence, by both Drewe himself and by Perth as a result of the murders. The book’s title is clearly a metaphor on a number of levels. Near the end, he ponders the usefulness of shark nets –nets set up to keep sharks away from beaches and swimmers. The distance – mostly desert – between Perth and the eastern states, from which all things bad emanate, is its own protecting shark net. Perth beaches don’t have shark nets; the shark was in any case inside the society, killing at will. And in his own life, Drewe thinks that there are sharks cruising just below the surface of everyday things, just as there are in the sea he loves. Yet the book concludes on an optimistic note, as Drewe leaves Perth for a job on the eastern sea board, passing, if you like, to the other side of the shark net which may protect, but also stultifies.

In his author’s note, Drewe says ‘this is a both a book of memory and my portrait of a place and time. Memory may falter and portraiture is a highly subjective endeavour, but I have tried to tell a truthful story.’ I guess this pre-empts my usual gripe that no one can possibly remember so much of their childhood, including conversations, in such detail. The novelist doesn’t have to. It’s a case of creative remembering that adheres as best it can to the truth. But I did note what is left out, even if I didn’t really miss it. Some of his experiences ring true to my upbringing in another small provincial state capital at much the same time – bearing in mind the gender differences of course. But one huge dissimilarity is that the first question anyone in Adelaide asked then of anyone else was what school they went to. There isn’t any reference at all to Drewe’s life at school, or his intellectual life. Obviously he must have read more than the comics he admits to. But school? He’d never have got away without mentioning it in Adelaide.

You can read more about Robert Drewe and his work here. He doesn’t seem to have a web page, but here’s a long article about him – which fills in some of those school details. Perhaps he thought he’d sound like he was blowing his own trumpet if he put them in. The article was published at the time his second memoir, Montebello appeared in 2012.

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Subtitled A true Australian love story of the 1920s, told mostly through letters (2014), this modest book is Nancy Sarre’s tribute to her parents, Cherry and Horace, and to the families of her mother and father. Letters between the young couple and other family members tell mostly of personal circumstances but also touch on some of the broader social issues shaping Australia at the time.

The book starts dramatically with a letter recounting the death of Cherry’s mother in childbirth in 1893. ‘”Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate” is a quotation which might be applied with awful truthful literalness to one today,’ writes William, the bereaved husband. Cherry was their second child, and it was William’s second marriage, his first wife having died leaving one child (two others having died in infancy). We follow the story partly through letters, and partly through Sarre’s commentary. William married again quite quickly – hardly surprising since he had two babies to deal with – and fathered five more children. They lived in Coolah, as small town in central NSW, where William worked as a saddle and boot maker, among other things. Sarre suggests that the family was a happy one, but the prospects in Coolah must have been limited, and when she was 17, Cherry left to work in Sydney, living there with an aunt. She worked at first at David Jones, but in her twenties, trained as a nurse, and worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She said she expected to be an ‘old maid’.

She met Horace in 1926 when visiting a friend – a former fellow nurse – in Albury, a town on the NSW bank of the River Murray. Horace’s family were partners in a hardware store, where he worked. Cherry’s and Horace’s story is something of a classic romance: boy meets girl, there are obstacles, but these are eventually overcome. The obstacles are partly the good old tyranny of distance, and partly, it seems, hesitation on Cherry’s part.  Horace begins their correspondence correctly enough – ‘Dear Miss Cole’ – but moves quickly from ‘Your humble admirer’ to “My dear Cherry’ … ‘Your ardent swain’. Cherry isn’t comfortable with this. ‘Horace,’ she writes, ‘we don’t know each other, and we should not discuss, anything other than friendship, now.’ Horace bows to the inevitable. ‘I must possess my soul with patience, and be happy with the privilege of exchanging thoughts with you’. So over the next six months they write about work in the hospital, friends in common, the weather, gardening, birds, poetry and music. Horace plays the piano and the organ; he likes Schubert and reads Joseph Conrad and Robert Browning. Cherry likes the Messiah – though neither has much time for reading or listening. They write about friendship – ‘it depends a lot on the number of things two people have in common’ – but nothing more profound. Cherry even wonders whether she might join the Bush Church Aid Society – an evangelical organisation providing pastoral and spiritual services in the outback. ‘It is the work I’m most interested in,’ she writes – but such a project wouldn’t have included a role for Horace. Then just before Christmas, Cherry changes. Suddenly it’s ‘Horace dear’, and ‘my Dear one’. Horace is delighted, and in a couple of weeks they are engaged – though for the time being Cherry is still at the hospital. ‘It is a beautiful letter,’ she writes in response to one of Horace’s, ‘and you are very wonderful to love me so and to tell me so.’ Sarre, who unfortunately can’t say what brought about Cherry’s change of heart, writes that her parents’ love affair continued for the rest of their lives; she was his ‘sunshine from the North’.

Amidst the family concerns, there are some letters that shed an interesting light on wider concerns. There is, for example, a letter from Roy, Cherry’s brother, from a hospital in London to which he has been repatriated after being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. ‘It cannot go on for long at the awful cost we suffered in the Somme. The Australian public will get an awful shock when the particulars & casualty lists are published in full’. But he goes on to praise his comrades: ‘we, as a whole, did our jobs without thought of the reckoning.’ Just out of the front line and undergoing a series of painful operations, his comments seem frank, and without any over-blown patriotism. Then there is Cherry’s endorsement of prohibition: ‘I have always been keen for prohibition,’ she writes. Poor Horace prevaricates: ‘There are arguments on both sides, of course’.  But he inevitably comes down on Cherry’s side …

The letters of Cherry, Horace and their families have a further historical importance in showing just how impossible it is to generalise about life in rural Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. They are not the bush workers of the Australian legend – itinerant, unionised, disrespectful of authority. Nor are they the inhabitants of Don Watson’s The Bush (2014), who ‘battle to drive back nature and eke a living from the land.’ Cherry and Horace and their family were distinctly of the middle class of their country towns. Their letters show them as reflective, literate people who appreciated and participated in ‘high’ culture. They were beginning to engage with new technologies like wireless and motor cars. They loved the Australian bush, and noted with approval moves to preserve it. They moved freely between city and country – though increasingly the opportunities for work outside the home for women lay in the city, as shop assistant, nurse or teacher. I find it interesting that Cherry was thirty-three when she married; this challenges the idea that before World War II, marriage was the only acceptable role for women. They worked hard, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. They were certainly not rich, but could afford travel to visit relatives and for holidays. If public affairs or politics were important to them, they didn’t write about it.

Collections of letters like these are immensely valuable for teasing out such nuances in the social history of rural Australia. If you’d like to read more about country towns, try Struggle country: the rural ideal in twentieth century Australia, edited by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (2005). And here’s Professor Davison’s summary of the history of country life in Australia. If you like family letters, you could also try Growing Together. Letters Between Frederick John Cato and Frances Bethune, 1881 to 1884, edited by  Una B Porter.

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John Carey’s autobiography (2014) is subtitled An Oxford Life in Books. It is, as he explains in the foreword, ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it,’ a case study in ‘what kind of upbringing produces a preference for some books rather than others’.  One of the things that came of it is one of my favourite books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) by John Carey, so naturally I was interested to see the upbringing and outlook that produced it.

While it is true that the story of a life that is utterly different to one’s own can be fascinating and challenging, I tend to agree with Carey’s somewhat ironic comment that the autobiographies of ‘people who share your own views, are of course, the best.’ Not that Carey’s life has been anything like mine – for a start, he was way cleverer, which is why he gets to write an autobiography people might want to read and I don’t. But I was fascinated by the comparison of his student life at Oxford, and mine at a provincial university in the colonies, where Oxford set standards that were never quite lived up to. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Carey was a scholarship boy, the product of a good grammar school classical education; no one was exposed to that sort of education in post-WWII Australia, so a restrictive Oxbridge syllabus was fortunately never possible here. 1960s university Arts curricula may have cast wistful glances back at Oxbridge, but thank goodness we didn’t end our idea of ‘English Literature’ in 1834, as Oxford did when Carey was an undergraduate in the early 1950s. In later years he did much to change this, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues. He also tried to ensure that students received better teaching, in terms of how to read, what to read and how to criticise – an area where some Australian academics might have benefited from following his lead.

Carey researched and taught at a number of Oxford colleges during his long academic career. From the first, he was aware of the class distinctions that operated in most of them, Balliol being an honourable exception. Of Christ Church, ‘just walking through it was an object lesson in how architecture can be used to make people feel small.’ At Keeble, he encountered one academic whom he loathed, seeing him as ‘a symbol of the monstrous injustice of Oxford, its crooked admissions policy and its shameless favouring of wealth and privilege.’ Of course he met with much intellectual honesty and generosity, as well as friendship. But it was the sense of superiority evinced by many of the academic staff that was the seed that germinated as The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Carey comes from a solid middle class background, of parents who had no particular aspirations towards high culture. His father was an accountant, understandably proud of his clever son. It occurred to Carey that people like the snobbish don he met at Christ Church – who pointedly refrained from ever addressing the young Carey – would despise his parents, and that thought eventually turned into The Intellectuals and the Masses. This is a study in cultural history of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who created what is now called ‘modernist literature’. Carey argues that many intellectuals resented the ‘semi-literate masses’ produced by the compulsory education reforms of 1870. In response, they excluded them from high culture by creating a literature which the masses couldn’t understand, because it ‘cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions.’ Carey is not saying that this literature was necessarily bad; indeed he very much admires some of the work of D.H. Lawrence, one of the writers he uses as an example. Others he comments on are T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells.  Needless to say this analysis was met with howls of fury, but I found it wonderfully liberating.

Most of Carey’s early academic work is high quality commentary on Milton, Donne and Marvell; later he wrote about Dickens, Thackeray and William Golding. But he is more broadly known for his collections of reportage and science writing. More recently he again shocked his academic colleagues with a small book entitled What Use Are the Arts? (2005), in which he considers what is a work of art, and whether exposure to works of art makes you a better person? The answers he reluctantly arrives at are that anything can be so considered, and unfortunately ‘no’. But he concludes that what matters is whether a book – or a painting, a piece of music – gives ‘joy and satisfaction’, and surely there could be no better test.

You can read a little more about Professor Carey here, including a list of his major works, and an interesting profile of him here. If you don’t fancy the autobiography, try the Faber Book of Reportage (1987) – eyewitness accounts of history – or the Faber Book of Science (1995). Or, of course, The Intellectuals and the Masses.

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The Alhambra (titled Tales of the Alhambra in later editions) was published in 1832, and now forms Volume 14 in the standard edition of Washington Irving’s complete works – and there are at least ten more volumes in the set. But who, these days, has heard of Washington Irving – except maybe to remember that he was the creator of Rip Van Winkle? Yet in his day, he was considered a major – possibly the major – American literary figure. A travel writer, a writer of tales and histories rather than a novelist, he fitted the now rarely used category of a writer of ‘belles lettres’, and his work was popular in both Europe and America.

Born in 1783, and named for a hero of the recently successful American Revolution, Irving travelled extensively in Europe, and lived in Spain in 1826-9. There he wrote a book about the life and journeys of Christopher Columbus and a history of the conquest of Granada by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1829, he lived for some months in the Alhambra, and as a result, produced this mixture of journal, social commentary, history and legend.

The Alhambra palace and fortress complex was constructed in something like its current form in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, a place, Irving says, ‘of grace and beauty’. When Irving saw it in 1828, and lived in it in 1829, some of it was in ruins and much of it was deserted. According to him,  it had been saved from the ‘absolute ruin and desolation that were overwhelming it’, not by the Spanish, but by the French forces that occupied it during the Peninsular War of 1808 -14; they had fixed leaking roofs and restored the water supply, the fountains and the gardens. On leaving they had also blown up some of the watch towers around the walls, which is perhaps why some Spanish commentators blame the French for all the decay. Irving also gives credit to Granada’s governor of the day, who was beginning the restoration which would slowly bring the site back to life. But it is in their very dereliction that Irving sees the abandoned halls and gardens as full of ‘poetry and romance’.

The tales Irving tells about ‘this Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land’ are written with a light touch, with humour and acute observation. Some of them are about his day to day experiences, such as his journey to Granada, moving into what had been the Governor’s quarters, exploring the halls and gardens and the country round about; he finds the Alhambra to be ‘an elegant memento  of a brave, intelligent and graceful people’. There are a number of legends, which he embroiders from the tales told to him by the locals. There is often a touch of magic to them, reflecting the fancies of the locals who view the faded magnificence of the Alhambra with superstitious awe and believe that there must have been magicians involved in its creation. These legends echo the Moorish tradition of tales such as the Arabian Nights. My favourite is ‘The Legend of Ahmed al Kamel’; I like how Ahmed can’t control his magic horse.

Some of Irving’s ‘tales’ are musings on the history of the Alhambra; for example he traces the route taken by the ‘unfortunate’ Boabdil, the last Emir of Granada, when he left his beautiful palace to go into exile after the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. ‘You do well to weep as a woman,’ his mother said, ‘over what you could not defend as a man.’ By Irving’s account, this was an unfair comment; the Moslems that still remained in Spain were fighting among themselves as well as against the Christians, and Boabdil’s only option other than surrender was to die in a losing battle. Perhaps that was his mother’s point. But Irving sincerely feels for poor Boabdil. ‘He was personally brave,’ writes Irving, ‘but wanted moral courage … [and this] deprived him of the heroic grace which would have given grandeur and dignity to his fate, and rendered him worthy of closing the splendid drama of the Moslem domination of Spain.’ Again, a very romantic view of these events.

In fact, Irving is a thorough-going Romantic. He sees Spain in general and the Alhambra in particular as almost part of a fairy tale; ‘there is a romance,’ he says, ‘about all the recollection of the Peninsular dear to the imagination.’ It might be thought from this that his interest in the exotic remnants of Eastern culture he found in Spain were part of the movement in nineteenth century Europe that has been called Orientalism. Following the thesis of Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism, critics have claimed that the nineteenth century western visitors and writers who established that the East was glamorous but outlandish, played to the idea that the East was both ‘other’ and ‘inferior’, indeed by definition, the opposite of the West. It’s true that Irving does occasionally slip into the common stereotype whereby the east is supine and impractical, as when he talks about the ‘voluptuous lords of the Alhambra’ indulging in ‘that dreamy repose so dear to the Orientalists’. But for the most part, he admires the Moors far more than the Spanish peasants who have replaced them at the Alhambra. His aim, he says, is both ‘to record the regal and chivalrous traditions concerning those who once trod its courts and the whimsical and superstitious legends of the motley race now burrowing among its ruins.’

When we recently visited the Alhambra, our guide told us that Washington Irving’s interest in the Alhambra, and the interest in it generated by his book, helped persuade the Spanish government to pursue its restoration. It seems that the move to restore it began before Irving’s book was published, but I like to think he may well have contributed to the impetus that has produced the magnificent World Heritage site that exists today.

You can read more about Washington Irving here. The Wikipedia entry for the Alhambra is here, and if you want to follow up on Washington Irving and Spanish Orientalism, try this and this.

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This memoir (2006) is a sequel to Godwin’s earlier book – Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (1997) – about his childhood and coming of age in Rhodesia – later Zimbabwe. This one covers the years 1996 to 2004, with flashbacks to 1924 and 1940. Godwin is now a reporter living abroad, mostly in New York, and the book records his experience of going back to Zimbabwe on assignment and/or to visit his family. It is thus an account of his observations on the state of the country, and of his relationship with his family, particularly his ageing father.

His view of the state of country under the rule of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party is easy to sum up: it’s terrible, and getting worse, with the fastest declining economy in the world. He argues that at the time that black majority government was achieved in 1980, when the new Prime Minister Mugabe welcomed white settlers to stay in Zimbabwe and help build the nation, there was a hope of creating a prosperous multiracial society. But that hope has vanished, as Mugabe has increasingly used attacks on ‘Western imperialism’ and incitements to racial hatred to defeat opposition to his progressively more tyrannical government. It is, for example, a crime to bring the President into ‘ridicule or disrepute’. Zimbabwe is in effect a one party dictatorship.

At the time of majority government, the land of some white farmers was seized by so called ‘war veterans’ who may or may not have fought in the war for Zimbabwe’s independence.  I noted in an earlier post on Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight (2002) by Alexandra Fuller, that though her family lost their farm at this time, by 1990, 70% of arable land was still owned by whites. Godwin identifies Mugabe’s defeat in the 1990 constitutional referendum, and the rise of Morgan Tsvangirai’s multiracial Movement for Democratic Change, as the catalyst for unleashing a virtual war on white farmers, using the so-called war veterans. And he argues that increasingly, it was cronies of Mugabe who ended up with the land. Corruption is endemic. The examples that he cites are many and distressing. The land taken from farmers in his examples is wantonly wasted. As a consequence of the disruption of commercial farming, he sees widespread unemployment among the thousands of black farm workers, food shortages and scarcity of just about everything. To call inflation rampant is an understatement: by 2004, a local stamp costs $2,300 in the Zimbabwean currency.

Why do his parents stay? His father is a retired engineer, his mother a doctor. They see their friends killed or driven away, and experience violence and extortion at the hands of armed intruders. The police do nothing; the rule of law seems to have broken down completely. Godwin’s sister has left, in fear of imprisonment or worse. But to his parents, Zimbabwe is home. Just exactly how far this is true is one of the most interesting aspects of the memoir, and accounts for the flashbacks to 1924 and 1940. Godwin’s father George has always been a little remote, and scarcely ever talks about his past. He does not tell his son until 2001 that he is in fact not English by birth. Rather, he is a Jewish Pole, who happened to be in England when World War II broke out, and thus was not swept up in the Holocaust that killed his mother and his sister, his father only surviving through the kindness of a Polish friend – his former barber. Godwin’s mother is English – his parents met at university after the war, which George fought in as a member of a Polish regiment based in Scotland. Africa seemed a good place to make a new start, so he became George Godwin, not Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb. Now there is nowhere to return to, even if they wished to do so. After his father’s funeral – we know from the prologue that he dies during the period of the memoir – Godwin realises that ‘finally, in this most unpromising of places, where he [his father] could never be regarded as truly indigenous, finally, he belongs’.

There is little overt comparison between the situation of the white settlers in Zimbabwe and the Jews of Poland, but including the stories of the brutalities suffered by both in the memoir makes comparison inevitable. Godwin is not saying that the scale of the disasters is remotely similar, but I think he is saying that dictatorship and racial hatred produce misery and injustice where ever they exist. But he ends on a note of something like hope: through his dictatorship, Godwin says, ‘Mugabe has managed to create something hitherto so elusive; he has created a real racial unity … a hard-won sense of comradeship, a common bond forged in the furnace of resistance to an oppressive rule.’ Let’s hope he’s right, though current divisions within the MDC don’t give much ground for optimism.

This is memoir, not history. Godwin’s powerful and empathetic writing has the reader thoroughly onside, but naturally he writes selectively. He doesn’t, for example, talk much about Mugabe’s persecution of African people from tribes other than his own, which probably amounts to ethnic cleansing. Nor does everyone agree that the ‘land reform’ program has been as unsuccessful as he suggests – though even now, Zimbabwe can’t feed itself. ‘Do Africa’s problems reside principally in the continent’s underlying environment, or with imposed colonial distortions or with the travesty of Africa’s post-colonial leadership?’ Godwin poses the big questions, but doesn’t really try to answer them, except through the prism of his own experience.  Such, maybe, are the limits of memoir.

For a detailed account of Mugabe’s regime and its history, try this. Nothing seems to be getting much better – for example try this. For more information about Peter Godwin, here is his website. It advertises his new book – The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe (2011).

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