Monday, January 11, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009

Or in this case, the Pleasures of Reading only, somewhat belatedly, at that.

Two ongoing reads stand out in 2009 for me. Last year I started working for the Australian Literature Database (making the few extra bucks per month the University no longer offered.) I was indexing “literary” items, which included short or serialised fiction, verse and tangentially literary columns from old Australian newspapers, one of them the weekly Northern Territory Times and Gazette, beginning in 1900.

Thomas Hardy is supposed to have found the basis for novel plots in his current newspapers. The indexer's is a different approach to the everyday reader’s, or Hardy’s, either. Rather than skim, or pick out sections, the indexer has to read *everything.* With the NT Times this is hardly a burden, since they usually run to 4 pages or so, but it intensifies the time-capsule effect of an old newspaper. Suddenly, you are immersed in a fossilized past/present, the minutiae of everyday life in a literal other world.

As in good SF, estrangement comes with cognition, if only from the well-known quaintness of old ads. Sarsaparilla cordial for stomach ailments, names of linen drapers and hair oil, advertisements for hotels and hoteliers gone a hundred years. At once strange and piercingly nostalgic, the minutiae of that other world, tied to us by time’s umbilical cord.

Other aspects of the time-capsule are less charming: in particular the ongoing, unselfconscious racism, then at the high tide of the White Australia policy. Editorials, letters to the editor, articles, every cliché of the inscrutable Oriental, the simultaneously feared, mocked and scorned Celestial, comes fresh and new upon the wincing modern reader’s ear. And with them, the 1900s portraiture of Aboriginals, exploited, scorned, condescended to - and feared. Aboriginal men, as in the US South, are always “boys.” Aboriginal women’s lot is too well known to need repeating. Aboriginals are confidently expected to die out soon, but when Aboriginals attack and kill white men, as happens more than once a year, the NT Times’ indignation is sure. By 1907, a headline containing the too-familiar “Outrage,” but that covered white men killing aboriginals and not vice versa, actually made me sit up and cheer.

But it’s the frontier, after all. The NT Times’ other major plaint is the Territory’s neglect or misrepresentation by the rest of Australia, and here again the time capsule takes effect. It’s like watching the end of Casablanca nowadays. WE know the war was won, but Bogart and Co. really didn’t. In the NT Times, with a novel reader’s hindsight, I can see the Territory struggling to a statehood I take for granted. And then, “yesterday’s cables” pass on the latest events at Mafeking. (“Colonel Baden-Powell is an accomplished swordsman with either hand.”) In 1906, there’s the first news of a disastrous San Francisco quake. And along with these come the warp and woof of local life. Seven years’ complaints about the non-existent mail service to Victoria River. Tenders to provide “fresh meat” in “Port Darwin,” to shoe government horses, to cut “ironbark fencing posts.” Notices about tick fever – and more gruesomely, news articles about the presence of bubonic plague, at Thursday Island, just over in Torres Strait, down south in Adelaide.

More rivetingly, the everyday chronicle can flow out into national consciousness. There are letters in the NT Times from men who carried a swag with Breaker Morant. There’s a particular frisson for Australians in reading rain reports from Elsey Station, sent by Aeneas Gunn – the Boss in We of the Never Never, beloved classic of my own youth. They stop without fanfare after 1903. The NT Times never even reports his death, though to us it’s one of the best known in the Territory.

And then there are the cattle-movements, the huge mobs travelling south to market from Wave Hill and VRD, trekking across the back of Queensland to meet “Mr. Buchanan” – Nat Buchanan, legendary bushman, founder of Bowen Downs, where Harry Readford stole the cattle that made his name as Starlight in Robbery Under Arms. The NTTimes mentions Buchanan's boss drovers, including “Mr. J. R. Skuthorpe,” Jack-Dick Skuthorpe, whose name I first fell over in Ernestine Hill’s 1903s populariser, The Territory. Among the cattle movements, including a mob so well tended that they reached New South Wales fit to win a pen prize at the Sydney Exhibition, The Times reports “Mr. Skuthorpe’s” return to a town for medical care: a three days’ ride after a horse came down with him, galloping round breakaways at night.

The Times preserves other serials that never made history. After dutifully reading years of sailing notices for the steamer The Australian, it was almost like real life to hear she had sunk in 1906. In 1907, almost every month carried another installment as the local nautical expert, Captain Strachan, first located, then insisted the wreck’s back was unbroken, then tried to pump out and raise her – 2009 ended with The Australian’s fate still as unsure to me as it was back then.

And there’s F. A. Stibe, mailman, who went missing in December 1901 on the way from Katherine to Anthony’s Lagoons – the dry stretch that threatened the Fizzer, mailman extraordinaire in We of the Never Never. Over some 6 months I followed real-time articles reporting that the mail was late, concerns about the mailman’s fate, reassurance that he was a good bushman, searches that found nothing. Then in March 1902, discovery of a body, the white man accompanying Stibe, at the end of a string of dead horses, and the mailbags, intact. In June, more horse tracks, 80 miles south of the usual route; then a horse with its throat cut. And at last Stibe himself, with the Aboriginal woman who stayed with him to the end, and the unsparing details of death by thirst in the bush: the bodies under a tree, a quart-pot with traces of blood, two large holes, and the fingers of the dead worn down from digging – worst of all, that the tracks had gone in circles, in the classic mode, so they died only 6 miles from the water they tried to reach. Two months later, the final episode for so many: a Public Trustee’s notice in the NT Times, calling for claims on the estates of four men who must have died intestate, including Stibe.
(You can poke around for yourself in the NTTimes at
It’s ironic to be reading 1900 newspapers in digitized form, but a lot easier than microfilm.)

The other pleasure of 2009, diametrically opposed in some ways, was Alexander McCall Smith’s later Isabel Dalhousie books. Fiction rather than faction, set in Scotland rather than Australia, and interesting first for just how far McCall Smith has pushed the original detective/mystery envelope that made his name. The Mma Ramotswe books are openly detective fiction, but Isabel Dalhousie began as a philosopher, and her books have moved steadily away from solving crimes toward moral dilemmas.

Nor is it just the content that's changed. Nowadays we’re all supposed to write like John Grisham. Short sentences. No details. Small vocabulary. Plenty of blood, and action from the go-git. But here’s McCall Smith, sans most action and nearly all blood, with a vocabulary going over the edge of academic, references to Kant and Schopenhauer and modern philosophers only Isabel has ever heard of, sentences longer than the Clyde, and a style that drifts like the original absent-minded professor. There’s a dry interest in imagining what shrift anyone without the name would get, trying one of these on an NYC editor.

What does align the Dalhousie books with the NT Times is the cultural framework: the Botswana books always leave me slightly uncomfortable because, however whimsical and yet gritty they appear, however much McCall Smith genuinely admires Botswana and loves Africa, they remain the voice of the colonizer speaking for the (once) colonized. And then, there’s a certain angle developing, particularly on Mma Makutsi, that raises my feminist hackles. Mma Makutsi triumphs over numerous handicaps in her life, and by book three she’s an independent entrepreneur improving her place on the income from her Men’s Typing School. But then McCall Smith suddenly shifts the goalposts. The Typing School evaporates. Mma Makutsi is left facing a crude choice between disavowing the name ‘feminist’ and losing the man without whose support she supposedly won’t survive. I dislike discontinuity in a big-selling series as much as I detest apparently engineered reductions of single independent women. If there was an explanation of the Typing School’s demise I might be appeased. As it is, the Botswana books continue to move into gray ideological areas for me.

But in the Dalhousie books, McCall Smith is on his own turf, and it’s a local turf so far removed from mine that it’s like another secondary world. His Edinburgh abounds with local “colour” past and present, from the statue of Hume whose clothes Isabel criticises to the pipe band playing “Dark Island,” outside Jamie’s window, to a sight of Professor Higgs, the boson-seeker, walking down Heriot Row, from the spectrum of wholly unfamiliar (to me) Scottish artists to the painting of a family in the Diaspora that reminds Isabel of “Lochaber No More.” The language itself is Scottified: Jamie reads a story to their son in Scots, characters quote Hamish Henderson: “Nae mair will our bonnie callants/ Merch tae war when our braggarts crousely craw,” or poets using dialect so thick McCall Smith does have to supply translation: “Strang, present dool/ Ruggs at my heart. Lichtlie this gin ye daur:/ Here Robert Burns knelt and kissed the mool.” Unlike many writers about Scotland, McCall Smith disdains the cliches of what's actually Border dialect, but elsewhere, words like “sheep fank,” or “bidie-in,” for a de facto, slide through the otherwise standard English.

This is a copybook tactic of the resisting post-colonial writer, presenting his own culture without compromise, as does Amitav Ghosh in The Calcutta Chromosome. And in the Dalhousie books, McCall Smith is in his own culture, not appropriating, however kindly, someone else’s. Scotland is a sub-culture, has been and still is a resisting area of Not-English – or, nowadays, Not-American – digging its heels in against cultural imperialism, and McCall Smith’s occasional comments, as on the disappearance of triangular oatcakes, emphasise his side of the fence. There have been a lot of comments on his work's warmth, humanity and whimsical sense of humour. For me the highest pleasure of the Dalhousie books is that, as with the NT Times, they are like reading a variant of good fantasy or SF: the one estranged in time, the other in culture and place.

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