Sunday, 21 July 2019

We of the Never-Never, Jeannie Gunn

In 1902 Jeannie Gunn, a teacher from Melbourne, moved with her husband Aeneas to Elsey in the Northern Territory. We of the Never-Never is an account of her year there. Her friends at home tried to dissuade her from going and the locals were less than keen to have a woman there, but with time her expectations changed and she threw herself into bush life, making friends and earning the respect of the indigenous people that educated her on the ways of life in the bush.

The tale is not one of high adventure but everyday life in a harsh landscape. The postman visits eight times a year and Gunn is impressed by his endless good humour and punctuality despite the hardships of his job – his predecessor died on his route. The way in which humans are beholden to the land, becoming trapped by the Wet or Dry alternately, is made abundantly clear. The misunderstanding of life in the bush by those in the South is commented on. They wonder how bush-folk fill their time little understanding the challenges of survival and the beauty of life there. ‘Speed’s the thing,’ cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles [in three days] and gain all that is worth gaining – except speed.’

Having been written at the start of the twentieth century some of the language used can be offensive to modern readers, but there is a glimmer of modernity in her comments on the hypocrisy of colonialists who criticize the violence of the indigenous people while taking their land by force, not to mention the way in which they treated the captives brought with them.

An enlightening read on a way of life so different to that of a city dweller. Gunn is honest in her tales, including moments where she is laughed at and being open about how unprepared she was. During her year in Elsey she comes to have great affection for the land and its people and although I can’t help wondering if the locals would really have agreed with her including herself in ‘us bush-folk’ having spent only one year there, it nonetheless aids in telling stories that would otherwise go untold.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Circe, Madeline Miller

In Madeline Miller’s latest reimagining she takes Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, a character who fills only a few lines of Homer’s The Odyssey and puts her centre stage. An outcast among the gods for not being beautiful enough and the misfortune of having a mortal voice, she finds peace in her island of exile, Aiaia, but only when the gods allow it. Through her story we meet many famous characters – Scylla, Odysseus, Jason, and the minotaur birthed by her sister. Her story is in many ways a sad one but also one in which she proves her resilience and power.

Her separation from other divine beings gives her an appreciation of mortal values. She comments that they have to work hard to hone their skills but because gods are born with excellence they instead work on proving what they can destroy. They do not have empathy as mortals do, yet Circe does show some. Early on we witness the punishment of Prometheus, Circe alone takes pity on him. Penelope comments that Odysseus told her ‘that he had never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less.’ Her views on the division of mortals and gods is forged in her youth as she is rejected and abused by her kin, reinforced by her transformation of Glaucos from mortal to god and his simultaneous loss of love for her. At a number of points she seems to yearn for mortality. She envies the way mortal bodies have their history written on them, and that part of them doesn’t die but lives forever in the underworld, where she can never go. She shows us a different side to divinity and she is made to be more relatable to the reader.

The other main theme is that of the position of women. Even goddesses are seen as lesser beings. When nymphs are sent to Aiaia as punishment Circe reflects that having misbehaving daughters sent to her is preferable to sons, swiftly followed by the truth that it never would have been sons, as they are not punished. It is not merely moral expectation that is different but for females there is a very real risk of assault. Hermes jokes with her that nymphs always run screaming when he tries to take them to bed but that they are terrible at getting away. When sailors come to the island and realise she is alone, despite her power they try to rape her and hope to steal from her. This experience makes her more vengeful, turning dishonest men into pigs. In this way she takes back some control, although she acknowledges that she is always under the dominion of the gods.

Circe's story is told to us as a first person narrative and we experience the heartache and desire for control as her life goes through its many turmoils. At times it is hard to remember that the story unfurls over centuries, but unlike many of the other gods she seems develop emotionally over the years, making her a far more interesting protagonist. Not perhaps as gripping as I’d imagined it might be, nonetheless an interesting read that makes you think again about the mythology we’re taught in our youth.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

Mortimer takes the famous quote from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’ quite literally as he leads the reader through the fourteenth century in the form of a travel guide. His argument for this style in the introduction is convincing but the execution leaves something to be desired. When he gets into his flow it is entertaining and informative but in large parts he slips into a more traditional form of historical narrative. Within this it can feel awkward and sometimes confusing as to which period he’s referring to when he suddenly jumps back to addressing the reader like a visitor. Nonetheless, if you’re after an overview of life in the 1300s you could do worse than picking up this book.

He discusses the strict hierarchical nature of society in England at the time with even the clothes worn being determined by social status. To be at the bottom of the class system meant being under the control of your lord your entire life. It was not just work and earnings they controlled but for villeins even who they married was decided by their lord with punishments being imposed if they did not gain permission or went against the lord’s wishes. Men’s status was decided by their work, for women it was their marital status, and even at the top they remained subservient to men. In an age far more violent than the one we inhabit women were in very real danger of assault and in the case of an abusive marriage they had no means of escape. It is clear throughout that the lot of women was hard but Mortimer does point out some advantages to their lower status. For example, in the case of a criminal couple the man would be hanged for his crimes whereas the woman could be excused by claiming she was merely acting under her husband’s will. It is also interesting to note that as the century progressed men’s clothing became more sexually revealing whereas women’s fashion remained with loose fitting garments.

Climate change being firmly on the modern agenda it was interesting to gain an insight into the disastrous consequences of it six hundred years ago. Temperatures dropped by one degree leading to crop failures, some of which never recovered, abandonment of villages as the land became unworkable, and eventually the Great Famine due to heavy rainfall.

Mortimer discusses the often scant sources available to medieval historians and gives the reader a glimpse into how historic knowledge is pieced together. He succeeds in showing how different life was but also makes the people living through it feel much more relatable and not all that different after all.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Van Gogh and Britain, Tate Modern

The Tate’s much anticipated Van Gogh exhibition showcases some beautiful work but falls into a familiar trap, trying to put Britain at the heart of great artists’ work. He spent almost three years in Britain before he had begun experimenting in paint, and although he may have been inspired by popular novels of the time and art by the likes of Doré that were inspired by the dark, dirty, crowded capital, the connection to Van Gogh’s signature vibrant paintings is stretched beyond reason.

It was a pleasure to see some of his earlier, darker works and the progression to his distinct style and remarkable use of colour. For years he had obsessed over painting working class subjects in mining villages and elsewhere. He walked remarkably long distances and often chose to live close to destitution. You won’t see much of his difficult, obsessive personal life in this exhibition however, where a concerted effort seems to have been made to avoid bringing in too many biographical details.

Starry Night Over the Rhone, lent by the Musée d’Orsay, is luminous, a painting one could happily stare at for hours, reproductions do not do it justice. Aside from the showstoppers lent by other museums and galleries there are also some beautiful examples from private collections. Although the main focus is Van Gogh there are many works displayed from other artists, Millais’ Chill October being a standout.

An interesting exhibition albeit with some areas that feel like filler content. The Tate has attempted to show how Van Gogh was inspired by Britain and then goes full circle by demonstrating his influence on British artists that followed. The framing may be weak but it is nonetheless worth it to experience the mesmerizing effect his works have on viewers.

Van Gogh and Britain is at the Tate Britain until 11th August 2019.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s Theatre, London 2019

Ibsen’s 1886 play Rosmersholm is rarely revived but in Duncan Macmillan’s masterful new adaptation we see how remarkably relevant it remains. After the death of his wife, Rosmer’s ancestral home lies dormant, her favourite room left to decay. Grief-stricken Rosmer (Tom Burke) has withdrawn from society, relying on the company Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), his wife’s former companion. Their bond has grown strong and Rebecca has shared her radical views with him, allowing him to see the possibility of a world beyond the straight-laced, pious life he has lived in the dreary house he has come to hate.

On the eve of an important election Rosmer reveals to his sternly right-wing brother-in-law Kroll (Giles Terera) that he has lost his faith and begun to see the potential for radical change. Kroll is horrified and threatens to smear his name in the press if he comes out in favour of the opposition.  This is not the only time the use of the press to manipulate popular opinion is alluded to. Kroll explains that politics is too complex for the average working man and ‘so the papers sell them a lie that it’s actually very simple. That it’s not about facts, it’s about feelings’, and so ‘they get duped into voting against their own interests.’ In the current polarized political state of Britain where emotion has been ramped up to the extreme, this feels painfully pertinent for a play written over a hundred years ago.

Rebecca is an intriguing character – confident, intelligent, and holding herself to impossibly high standards, she is, as Kroll declares in disgust a ‘liberated woman’. Women do not have the vote, are not expected to take an interest in politics, and yet she can hold her own. Kroll may not like it but he does recognize her power, threatening to publicly embroil her in scandal.

The set design is beautifully realised. Rosmersholm gives the sense of claustrophobia and stifling history. At the beginning of the play it is in darkness, paintings covered but gradually it is brought back to life as Rebecca encourages the light back in and adorns the room with flowers. We come to learn of the importance of the building to the local community and the burden Rosmer has always felt living there. Events within do not only concern its inhabitants but all around it. This sense of being trapped in a system he can’t stand, the responsibility of the family name and its dark history that he can’t convince others to care about, ultimately lead him to distraction.

Rae Smith’s thoughtful designs create real atmosphere and extra punch to the closing scene. Atwell’s Rebecca is composed yet capable of high emotion. Wracked with guilt at the path events have taken, she is a troubled character. Burke plays a conflicted John Rosmer and Terera is brilliant as Kroll. An excellent production that is running until 20th July.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Ox-Tales: Earth

In 2009 Oxfam published four short story collections to raise money and awareness of their work. The first, based around the theme of Earth, contains stories by Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Coe, Marina Lewycka, Nicholas Shakespeare, Rose Tremain, Marti Leimbach, Hanif Kureshi, Jonathan Buckley, and a poem by Vikram Seth.  With such a varied and talented group of contributing writers there are certainly some treasures within. The theme is very loosely applied, more obvious recurring themes include death and relationships.

The book opens and closes with stories that feature famous names. The first, The Jester of Astapovo by Rose Tremain focuses on the stationmaster who looked after Tolstoy in his last hours. An interesting story about an event that previously I knew nothing of. The closing story from Nicholas Shakespeare weaves the story of a middle-aged African woman with the death of Marat. The president of her country runs a cruel dictatorship and so she aligns herself with Charlotte Corday, who took Marat’s life. It is an intriguing story that discusses how we embed our homeland in our identity and how even after we leave, it will always be a part of us.

In between you will find stories of struggling marriages, people who find themselves as outsiders of society, and parents struggling to connect. A stand-out for me was Boys in Cars by Marti Leimbach which discusses the difficulty for a child with autism to attend a birthday party. The resilience of his mother and his determination to try are movingly written so that you feel the struggle, even in such a short space. 

Overall a varied read. Not all the stories were entirely captivating but almost all will make you feel something.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Why Grow Up?, Susan Neiman

In this short book Neiman discusses the challenges of growing up and how society has created a world where growing up is no longer appealing. She looks back to the Enlightenment thinkers and their ideas that have become ever more relevant - the explosion of consumerism distracts us all with the desire to accumulate new toys while others make important decisions for us.

She talks of the difficulty that arises from constantly telling young adults that they are living through the best years of their life. Not only can this be distressing during what is in reality a challenging time but also ingrains the idea that there’s not much to look forward to in the rest of their life. Society glorifies youth and mocks and dismisses old age yet studies have shown that people generally become increasingly happy as they age. It is not only this false idea of carefree youth that makes it so hard for people today to feel positively about growing up but the lack of meaningful work with which to fill adulthood. Even manual jobs that have an obvious purpose and result become demeaning when forced to make products that are designed to fail. Planned obsolescence became popular in the mid-twentieth century and although having products that need replacing regularly keeps businesses running and people in work, it takes the satisfaction out of the job as well as having a hugely damaging impact on our environment.

The Enlightenment thinkers were convinced of the importance of the gap between how the world is and how it ought to be in our mental development. It is how we respond to this lack of moral justice that defines how we grow up. Kant believed that it takes courage to know that you won’t get the world you want but to not talk yourself out of wanting it. Neiman agrees with this, believing that we should hold on to the outrage of injustice even if society will label us as childish.

An interesting, accessible book that gives an overview of some of the major schools of thought on the challenges of ageing. It you are at the age of transitioning into adulthood you may find comfort within its pages and an understanding of why growing up feels quite so daunting. Whatever your age, there’s plenty to be gained from picking it up.