Archive for August, 2015

The Weekend: by Peter Cameron

TW(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did his ‘Someday this pain will; be useful to you’. The chief characters in this book talk endlessly about the truths concealed behind etiquette. The only part of the book with which I could identify is that I once left very early after experiencing a painful situation as a weekend guest.

Tony and Lyle are an unlikely pair in this romance that focuses on homosexual partnerships. Tony is outgoing and brash, Lyle quiet and subdued. Tony likes loud parties and being the centre of attention; Lyle is the classic wallflower. Their relationship has its ups and downs, as does, but when Tony reports that he has AIDS, Lyle steps up and becomes his support and his caregiver.

TW 2Marian and John have a beautiful home in Upstate New York and share a baby son, Roland, who is Marian’s chief focus as she looks for sources of worry each day. Marian is the typical mother, who not only mothers her children but John’s brother Tony and Tony’s partner, Lyle. When things change on the anniversary of Tony’s death, Marian finds herself deep in “worry mode.”

Robert is a young man looking for his place in life, attracted to Lyle and welcoming the opportunity to accompany him on a weekend trip to a friend’s house. Robert is not prepared for all of the issues that will arise out of his relationship with Lyle, and Lyle’s relationship with John and Marian. The character development of Laura Ponti is worth the read.

TW 3The author has written a comfortable story about everyday people dealing with the issue of homosexuality. There is a note of familiarity in the story that brings to mind the drama of Judith Guest’s Seventies’ creation Ordinary People. Adults who like to have their ideas challenged and enjoy stories about damaged characters seeking to redeem themselves will enjoy this story. There are limited passages of sexual detail, but they are done with innuendo and description more than with physical details.

Quotations:

“It was strange to see someone you have only known alone begin TW 4interacting with other people, for that somebody known to you disappears and is replaced by a different, more complex, person. You watch him revolve in this new company, revealing new facets, and there is nothing you can do but hope you like these other sides as much as you like the side that seemed whole when it faced only you.”

There are things you lose you do not get back. You cannot have them, ever again, ex­cept in the smudging carbon copy of memory. There are things that seem irreconcilable that you must find a way to reconcile with. The simple passage of days dulls the sharpness of the pain, but it never wears it out: what gets washed away in time gets washed away, and then you are left with a hard cold nub of some­thing, an unlosable souvenir. A little china dachshund from the White Mountains. A shadow puppet from Bali. Look—an ivory shoehorn from a four-star hotel in Zurich. And here, like a stone I carry everywhere, is a bit of someone’s heart I have saved from a journey I once made.

TW 5TW 6return to the home page

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Sinister Street – Compton MacKenzie

SS 2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This book was banned by libraries. The author did not hesitate to explore controversial and topical issues, particularly such themes as homosexuality, infidelity, religion, Scottish nationalism, and espionage activities during World War I. (In his ‘The Four Winds’ Emil Stern is a 16-year-old ‘Jewish beauty’ and intellectual when we first meet him in love with Ogilvie at St Paul’s (St James’s in the novel). Emil will become a fervent Marxist, a British consul in the Levant and successful espionage agent in the war. Later he will suppress his homosexuality by an act of will, marry a humourless Swedish woman, and go to prison in the Twenties for attempting to incite mutiny in His Majesty’s Forces. (Mackenzie himself would be charged under the Official Secrets Act and tried at the Old Bailey after the publication of his own war memoirs.)

It’s a detailed account of a boy growing up in England in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. It’s pre-great-war England and the Boer war fills the boy’s heart with patriotism and fervour until a beloved uncle dies in the conflict.

We first meet Michael Fane as a small boy, who has just moved from the country to a house in London. His childish delights and concerns are believable and vivid –including the dreadful nanny who told him terrifying stories about what happened to bad boys, stories which he wholeheartedly believes. From childhood, he grows to boyhood–school days, fraught with battle–treats from the tuck shop–his favourite books—his enthusiasms, defeats and triumphs. Along the way, he learns to love his sister, a talented pianist. The first book ends with his entry into university, and his sister’s triumphant debut concert. So many stories, so much matter!

He and his sister Stella were both born out of wedlock, something which was frowned upon at the time, but from rich parents.

The details of childhood and adolescence, the agonies of social embarrassment and the happiness of boyhood adventures–including a beautiful and ethereal first love–are lovingly assembled and examined. England’s green and pleasant land is ever present in the background, with its lush fields, charming water meadows, spinneys and copses–and of course, the seaside, the cliffs and beaches.

The section that reverberated with my experience was a thinly veiled reference to St. Stephen’s Bournemouth. Michael is cycling along the copast and has an invitation to go there. Mackenzie portrays what amounts to a pick-up of the teenager at Solemn Evensong by a slightly older bank-clerk called Prout, closely followed by Michael’s initiation as a processional torch-bearer into the exotic world of the Anglo-Catholic sacristy: “The sacristy was crowded with boys in scarlet cassocks and slippers and zuchettos, quarrelling about their cottas and arguing about their heights. Everybody had a favourite banner which he wanted to escort and, to complicate matters still farther, everybody had a favourite companion by whose side he wished to walk.”

SS 3It is the vision of a whole elaborate social world–now long departed–that I found so fascinating. We encounter both dire cruelties and precious refinements unheard of today. The schoolboys say things like “beastly rotters”, “I say, this is awfully decent!”, “How jolly ripping!”

Max Beerbohm said of it: “There is no book on Oxford like it. It gives you the actual Oxford experience. What Mackenzie has miraculously done is to make you feel what each term was like.”

George Orwell loved it – one explanation, by his biographer Gordon Bowker is “It was not surprising that Sinister Street should so rivet young Eric. Its hero, Michael Fane, is studying Classics at a prep school, and moves with his mother from the countryside to Kensington (close to where Orwell’s Aunt Nellie lived). He spends holidays in Cornwall (as Orwell’s family did), visits Bournemouth (where Orwell’s Uncle Charlie lived), and meets a girl from an Anglo-Indian family whose father is away in Burma. He visits Eastbourne and thinks what a lovely place. (Hollow laughter from Blair and Connolly, no doubt). Fane envies a wild looking unkempt boy he sees wandering down Kensington High Street and longs to be ‘a raggle-taggle wanderer’.”

Literary critic Frank Swinnerton: “It is the picture of the development of a very precocious boy into a sophisticated young man of the nineteen-tens, and the picture is painted with a detail and wealth of reference unattempted by other authors of Mackenzie’s experience. It illustrates most of its author’s gifts, and all his faults. It is lavish, it contains rodomontade, it is literary, sentimental and florid. But it has no timidities; it is large and confident; it is a picture of something more than a single life. It is a record of a departed generation.”

John Betjeman: “This has always seemed to me one of the best novels of the best period in English novel writing.”

Henry James thought it to be the most remarkable book written by a young author in his lifetime.

SSQuotations:

‘Oxford was divided into Bad Men and Good Eggs. The Bad Men went up to London and womanised – some even of the worst womanised in Oxford’.

‘the great point of Oxford, in fact the whole point of Oxford is that there are no girls’.

How wonderful! The dim Gothic gloom, the sombre hues of stained glass, the incense-wreathed acolytes, the muttering priests, the bedizened banners and altars and images. Ah, elusive and particoloured vision that once was mine.

return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Ruling Passions – Tom Driberg

RP 2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The real life labour politician discovered anglo-catholicism and cottaging during the same weekend. He was well-know to the police but the establishment covered everything up so that he never got prosecuted.

This book was published posthumously and disclosed the conflict between the three passions that drove his life: his homosexuality (he pursued casual and risky encounters compulsively, going cottaging and using rent boys), his left-wing political beliefs, and his allegiance to Anglo-Catholicism.

The Sunday Telegraph claimed that it set “a new low which is unlikely to pass unnoticed by the rest of the world“, and The Sun called it “the biggest outpouring of literary dung a public figure has ever flung into print“.

He was educated at Lancing College, whose chapel he found depressingly moderately high church and uninspiring. He made friends with another pupil, Evelyn Waugh, but was required to leave following sexual advances to other boys. He studied classics at Christ Church, Oxford but failed to take a degree.

In the autumn of 1935 he gave two unemployed miners a place with him in his bed, but when his hands began to wander the men went to report him at the local police station. On 12 November 1935 Tom Driberg ended up in court at the Old Bailey on a charge of indecent assault, but he was found not guilty. His boss at the Express, Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), ensured that there was no press coverage, although Tom Driberg had to go to see the editor of The News of the World. Despite rumours on Fleet Street the story never made the papers.

He was prepared to proposition any man, no matter how securely heterosexual they might appear, with the notable exception of men with beards, which may explain why so many Labour party MPs had beards.

Winston Churchill described Driberg as ‘a man who gave sodomy a bad name’

Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, may have had Driberg in mind when the novel’s protagonist Charles Ryder is warned on arrival at Oxford to “beware of Anglo-Catholics… they’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents”.

Tom as he was known to his friends, was a charming and likeable man. A very ‘clubable’ man, in the language of the day, who spend his leisure hours at sundry Soho drinking dens, in particular spending his time at the aptly named Gay Hussar his favourite restaurant. He included within his circle of friends such names as Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, and Evelyn Waugh, in addition to many of his fellow left wing MPs such as Michael Foot. A regular guest, at the homosexual orgies run by the East End gangster Ronnie Kray (where some allege he was joined by his friend Robert Boothby), he once entertained the idea of persuading Mick Jagger to head a new leftwing party with ‘youth appeal’ (”Oh my, Mick, what a big basket you have!”).

Towards the end of his life, he surprised everyone by getting married (to the equally devout socialist Mrs. Ena Mary Binfield).

RPQuotations:

(Of his home town) “a place which I can never revisit, or think of, without a feeling of sick horror”.

chronic, life long love-hate relationship with lavatories“;

“enthusiastic apostle of the doctrine that there is no such thing as a heterosexual male, but some are a bit obstinate”,

(Of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson) “deeply prejudiced puritans

“The passing of the sexual offences act, welcome though it was, really made no difference to the problems of the lonely and the promiscuous…(For them, the best solution would be licensed male brothels, “run by respectable persons, with charges strictly controlled … such as I have occasionally patronised in New York and San Francisco”.

”Only sissies like women”.

Only a few hours after I had been introduced to the House, when I was still wondering about in a daze, and lost, Chips kindly showed me round the most important rooms – the Members’ lavatories. This was an act of pure, disinterested, sisterly friendship, for we had no physical attraction for each other.

The thrills were twofold. First came the exhilaration of danger: the permanent risk of being caught and exposed. Second was the sense of superiority that a double life could give. What bliss it was to enter the House of Commons, bow to the speaker, and take your seat amid the trappings of lawmaking, having five minutes earlier fellated a guardsman (and on one unforgettable occasion, a policeman) in the crapper in St. James’ Park.

sex was only enjoyable with someone you had never met before, and would never meet again

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.

Leave a Comment

Thin Ice by Compton Mackenzie

TI(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I thought that this was a thinly veiled book about Lord Tom Driberg. However, it was written before a lot of Driberg’s story became widely known so it’s also based on other politicians. By the time he was writing this, the author came to believe that homosexuality was ‘based on wrong choices.’

The author said: I began to study the phenomenon of homosexuality and was amazed to discover that so far from being the sign of a decadent society it was conspicuously prevalent in England during the first quarter of the eighteenth century when the national vigour was at its height. If the penalty of death was no deterrent then, what effective deterrent could the law devise to-day? … One day at my club I heard a top-notch Treasury counsel aver his belief that three-quarters of the male suicides in England were due to blackmail for homosexual offences. I was appalled. Yet I have to confess with shame that I remained silent because I fancied that if I showed too much TI 2interest I should be suspected of habits that exposed me to the possibility of being blackmailed myself.

Once considered a promising politician, Fortescue’s career suffers as his homosexuality becomes known.

The real life labour politician discovered anglo-catholicism and cottaging during the same weekend. He was well-know to the police but the establishment covered everything up so that he never got prosecuted.

Quotations:

‘Perhaps it was strange that George Gaymer should have become a friend of Henry Fortescue at Oxford in the last years of the nineteenth century. Politically they were poles TI 3apart. Henry, already president of the Union, had a brilliant future ahead of him; George was good-hearted but mediocre. Above all, Henry was a homosexual, George was not. Yet George’s loyal friendship stood many test across more than forty years, and was reliable when that of Henry’s own kind proved transitory or even treacherous.’

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.

Leave a Comment

Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas

L(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

I wonder how much of this is autobiographical, give that it’s his first novel.

Were we all as judgemental at that age?

I don’t understand all the drug-taking. Or why he hates himself and everybody else. Though it gradually dawned on me that this cry of despair is similar to the book of Ecclesiastes, whose writer sees the whole of life as ‘vanity and a chasing after wind..’

Whereas The Slap was a considered, panoramic look at Melbourne society, shifting subtly and successfully between eight different viewpoints, Loaded is a high-octane, drug- and sex-fuelled romp through 24 hours in the life of Ari, a 19-year-old Greek-Australian gay man living on the margins of society.

L 2Quotations:

 The aching longing to be somewhere else, out of this city, out of this country, out of this body and out of this life.

“they’re on heroin, I’m on speed, different drugs, different moods.”

Noise connects with the pleasure emanating from my gut… LSD, the ecstasy, the speed, the dope, the alcohol rush around my body and I feel one with the pulsating crowd…

“home is the last place I want to be”

Every street around here looks like every other street, every stranger you meet walking along looks like the same stranger you passed blocks ago… East, west, south, north, the city of Melbourne blurs into itself

“meeting new people, getting excited about unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells… a couple of years away from the family and all their hang-ups and expectations”.

On this tape I’m listening to I have the Jackson Five doing ‘I want you back’. This is a supreme moment in music history, even if I’m the only one in the world who knows it. On one of my tapes I have one side of the tape only playing that song. When things aren’t going so well I play that cassette over and over and just walk around the city or walk around Richmond. I sit on a rock by the river throwing bread to the ducks, letting a young Michael Jackson cheer me up. In the three minutes it takes the song to play I’m caught in a magic world of harmony and joy, a truly ecstatic joy, where the aching longing to be somewhere else, out of this city, out of this country, out of this body and out of this life, is kept at bay. I relive these three minutes again and again till I’m calm enough to walk back into life again. I can’t meditate in silence, I haven’t got the patience. I meditate to music; I need something else going on.

—I don’t thing you’re a dag. She smiles back but I don’t let her off the hook completely. I do think you’re a wog.
—So what, I’m proud of it. And what are you? I don’t answer. I’m not a wog. I’m not sure what I am but I’m not a wog. Not the way she means. Mick Jagger’s voice comes on rough and soulful, the opening verse to You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Dina starts to sway to the song: she’s enjoying being stoned to it.

Ethnicity is a scam, a bullshit, a piece of crock. The fortresses of the rich wogs on the hill are there not to keep the Australezo out, but to refuse entry to the uneducated-long-haired-bleached-blonde-no-money wog. No matter what the roots of the rich wogs, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Arab, whatever, I’d like to get a gun and shoot them all. Bang bang. The East is hell. Designed by Americans.

My breathing seems loud to my ears. I allow the night breeze to tease my body, to cool me down, and I piss against the alley wall. I tuck my T-shirt into my jeans, tread on the cigarette, mixing the tobacco in with the come and piss on the ground and walk back through the car park and into the backyard of the pub.

The politics of sex and of the city dominate the narrative, but the characters outlive the length of the novel by demonstrating how real they are, how they are trying to break free of such constraints.

I have no interest, she tells them, in involving myself with progressive, so-called left-wing Greeks if it is the same faces, the same conservative mob of wogs, married, bourgeois, living in the suburbs, who happen to be able to spout Marx and Lenin. The woman across from me flinches. Ariadne continues: I want to be involved with the deviants, the mad, the creative, all those people that the Greek community despises, that the general Australian community despises. For Christ sake, she screams at them, communism is dead. She walks off.

I hate it, but the North is temptation. I take the bus from the city and roam the ovals and parks and river banks, searching out fat Arab men and chain-smoking Greek men who stand with their dicks out at urinals, cigarette in their mouths, waiting for you. A defiant stance, for I am a wog myself, and I have to force myself to my knees before another wog. I have to force my desire to take precedence over my honour. It is in the North where I search for the body, the smile, the skin that will ease the strain on my groin, that will take away the burning compulsion and terror of my desire. In the North I find myself, find shadows that recall my shadow. I roam the North so I can come face to face with the future that is being prepared for me.

The club is now crammed tight with people, mostly men. The music is a savage ceremony, men walking around each other, making eye contact, flirting, but flirting in a detached, cynical manner, to avoid the humiliation of rejection. The women are mostly on the dance floor, thrusting their hips to one another, oblivious to the games of male sexual conquest around them. A few very drunken men, or out-of-it men are putting on an aggressive manner and asking for sex from strangers, loudly and insistently.

“I saw John Cusack interviewed on late-night television and he looked like me”

In the East, in the new world of suburbia there is no dialogue, no conversation, no places to go out: for there is no need, there is television.

But it seems to me that there are two things in this world guaranteed to make you old and flabby. Work and marriage.

L3 the greying men in their ugly business shirts, shuffle paper around all day, have guilty sex in toilets or at the brothels on the way to the station, and return home every night to drop dead in front of the television. Television rules. School, work, shopping, sex, are distractions to the central activity of the Eastern suburbs: flicking the channels on the remote control.

Joe’s mother went into hospital in our third year in high school. The woman flipped out, went crazy, took her Bible in one hand, an egg beater in the other, and roamed the streets of Burnley screaming that the Antichrist was coming. The news rushed through the school, there were whispers and jokes made in the locker rooms, in the kafenio, across the counters of the milk bars. My mother told me, and I listened wide-eyed, that the priest from the Burnley Street church tried to take her by the hand and she started pounding him with the Bible. My mother crossed herself as she told me.

In the school yard the story became embellished with adolescent lewdness. She had tried to stick the holy book in her vagina, had tried to proposition the priest, the priest accepted, they fucked on the altar. The simple story was that the woman had gone crazy. The embellishments were nursery horror stories to frighten the children and to keep the presence of insanity away. Joe’s mother was normal, that was what scared everyone. An-eight-hours-a-day-factory-worker-with-two-normal-kids-and-a-fat-hard-worlcing-wog-husband. The woman was so normal, a standard Greek wife.

That day I began to feel alone in this world. I walked past Agia Triada, the Greek church in which I had been baptised in the blood of the holy trinity and I opened the iron door and walked in. I lit a candle and crossed myself, looking for God. No one answered. Of course. I looked at the icon of the Madonna, the picture in a gold frame, and looked past her mysterious smile, noticed the cracks in the purple of her robes, noticed the lipstick marks on the glass. The Madonna was mad. She too must have been beautiful when she roamed the streets of some middle-eastern village claiming that God had deposited his sperm in her belly. I remember thinking this thought, thinking that God would strike me now, that the chandelier hanging from the church ceiling would fall on my head. Nothing stirred in the church. I touched the icon, left the building and outside spat on the church steps. I turned, gathered my fingers into a fist and smashed hard against the iron doors.

The drugs are circulating through my body. My skin is alive in sharp bursts of electricity. My nipples are erect, my face is flushed, the hair on my naked arms tingling. I’ll have to dance soon, or fuck soon. The energy inside me is pushing against the confines of my body.

Drugs mould the club, drugs initiate the dancing, the search for sex… Without the drugs the music would be numbing, monotonous. Without the drugs the faces would be less attractive…

I must appear strong for him to want me. He too wants the one hundred percent genuine wog fuck… [but] I want to tell him I adore him.

“You’re either Greek or Australian, you have to make a choice. Me, I’m neither. It’s not that I can’t decide; I don’t like definitions.”

“I want to tell her that words such as faggot, wog, poofter, gay, Greek, Australian, Croat are just excuses. Just stories, they mean shit. Words don’t stop the boredom.”

 “we hesitate in our physical communions. Testing each other, not wanting to be the first to admit desire. The first to be the faggot.”

 “No matter how many hours spent at the gym, no matter the clothes he wears, the way he cuts his hair, the way he talks, a gay man always reveals himself as a faggot.”

“He was a momentary figure in my life. That’s what I like about casual sex with men; there’s no responsibility towards the person you fuck with.”

“insults have formed me, they have nourished me. In latrines and underneath piers I have enjoyed pleasures that are made sweeter by the contempt I know they bestow on me in the eyes of the respectable world I abhor.”

“It is impossible to feel camaraderie if the dominant wish is to get enough money, enough possessions to rise above the community you are in.”

“Pol Pot was right to destroy, he was wrong not to work it out that you go all the way. You don’t kill one class, one religion, one party. You kill everyone because we are all diseased, there is no way out of this shithole planet.”

 “Are you proud of being Australian? The old mans question feels like an interrogation. The answer is easy. No, no way. Proud of being an Australian? I laugh. What a concept, I continue, what is there to be proud of? The whole table laughs at this and Ariadne gives me a hug. They forget me and continue their conversation.”

“If they were very angry they might come in, turn off the music, throw your CD or cassette against the wall. The screaming could go on half the night, wake up the neighbours, wake up the dogs. They called us names, abused us, sometimes hit us, short sharp slaps. It was not the words themselves, but the combination of savage emotion and insult, the threat of violence and the taunting tone that shattered our attempts at pretend detachment; it was Peter’s sly, superior smile, my sister’s half-closed eyes which did not look at them, my bored, blank face, that spurred my parents on to greater insults, furious laments.”

Speed, if it’s good, can take me higher than I can ever go, higher than my natural bodily chemicals can take me. […] On speed I feel macho, but not aggressive. I’m friendly to everyone. Speed evaporates fear. On speed I dance with my body and my soul. In this white powder they’ve distilled the essence of the Greek word kefi. Kefi is the urge to dance, to be with good friends, to open your arms to life. Straight, I can approximate kefi, but I am always conscious of fighting off boredom. Speed doesn’t let you get bored.

The West at night, as you drive over the Westgate Bridge, is a shimmering valley of lights. In the day, under the harsh glare of the sun, the valley reveals itself as an industrial quilt of wharfs, factories, warehouses, silos and power plants. And the endless stretch of suburban housing estates. The West is a dumping ground; a sewer of refugees, the migrants, the poor, the insane, the unskilled and the uneducated. There is a point in my city, underneath the Swanston Street Bridge where you can sit by the Yarra River and contemplate the chasm that separates this town. Look down the river towards the East and there are green parks rolling down to the river, beautiful Victorian bridges sparkle against the blue sky. Face West and there is the smoke scarred embankment leading towards the wharfs. The beauty and the beast. All cities, all cities depend on this chasm.

I’m not going to change a thing, no one will remember me when I’m dead. My epitaph; he slept, he ate, he fucked, he pissed, he shat He ran to escape history. That’s his story.

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.

Leave a Comment

The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

TNC 4(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

One review said that Hensher gives us a middle-class Coronation Street.

It’s a slow start in rather flat prose until page 161. Then it livens up.

In the opening scene, Katherine Glover hands round plates of nibbles while her teenage son Daniel lolls on the sofa leering at the female guests, who are perturbed by his ill-concealed erection. By the end of the book it is the mid-1990s: Daniel has settled down and established a modish restaurant in a redundant forge, where the starters come speared to a foil-wrapped potato.

I felt sorry for the boy and his pet snake. Parents would do better to indulge their children’s obsessions – he might have become a world expert on snakes.

There’s a very good description of starting a new school and being baffled by a different accent, particularly that a teacher speaks in such an accent.

I was reminded of George Orwell’s ‘Down the Mine’ when the boss went to the coal face.

The scene where Andrew breaks his leg during a rough game reminds me of a similar experience except that I sprained my ankle badly – which can be more painful.

We all probably remember fascist PE teachers.

And I remember the way the phone didn’t stop ringing all day, immediately after advertising for a lodger. And the sorry specimens I interviewed.

The description of different types in the swimming pool is spot on.

I have often wondered about shops that seem to have very few customers but which stay open and seem to prosper.

TNC 2And I’m glad that I am not the only one who lives near a neglected, rundown house: one house excited comment. It was the Warners’. There, in the front, the lawn grew unchecked over the pathway, and the asphalt in the driveway had cracked as weeds forced their way through. The doors and window hadn’t been attended to in years, and the paint peeled off in long strips, showing the already rotting wood underneath. In the porch, addressed and unaddressed mail formed chaotic drifts; outside, half a dozen unwashed milk bottles, half full of rain and antique mould had been sitting for weeks — the milkman wouldn’t collect them, and neither Warner nor his son was likely to take them back inside to wash them. It was generally thought that sooner or later someone ­’Probably me,’ at least half a dozen civic-minded people, busy­bodies really, from different addresses tended to think — would take pity, go up the drive, pick up the milk bottles and wash them themselves. It couldn’t be hygienic, leaving them moul­dering and festering away like that, week on week. Pity was what most people felt about the Warners’ house. In any other circumstances, someone would have had a word with the owner, pointed out that the shabbiness of the house might affect the value of the houses to either side, and that the weeds flourishing in the garden, both front and back, were no respecters of fences.

The middle class family go to church while the working class ones have a lie-in.

The council appear not to look after middle-class areas – I know this was the ‘Soviet Republic of South Yorkshire’ but all posh districts claim that. More likely, middle class people phone and write letters to pester the council and get things done more quickly that in less affluent areas.

The miners’ strike is fairly peripheral (though The Battle of Orgreave is described and it is more than hinted that the police provoked it) whereas the right to buy your council house features strongly – then again, that is how Thatcher bribed people.

By p. 556, we get to the modern world – brainstorming, hot-desking, the pink pound (‘great double rooms’ get readvertised as ‘fabulous double rooms’), AIDS, gastro pubs and focus groups. By now, I was so gripped that I read the rest of the book I one sitting.

Remember Amsatrads? Mobiles the size of bricks?

I liked the idea of a disused mill being opened as a dancing school led by a redundant miner.

And don’t we miss the hole in the road, the shoe repair shop, entrance to Yorkshire, Electricity, the underground entrance to C&A. tobacconist, sandwich shop, people who used to sell posters (laying them on the floor either round the edge or in the middle near the plants), stinky toilets, the Escalators taking you down and the small island of plants right in the middle?

Surely ‘conniption fit’ isn’t an English, let alone a northern, expression.

TNCQuotations:

“London had gone on for ever, its red brick houses and businesses clinging to the edge of a motorway, like small rodents to a balloon suddenly in flight.”

“little pie-crust collar Mrs Thatcher liked to wear on television

“like a bowling ball sitting on his shoulders”

“like being inside a huge body and listening to the… thunder of the heart”

“you could always tell a miner from the rim of black round his eyes, like make-up”

“like your dad on a weekend, and his hair, complicated in arrangement but perfectly held, glistened in the sun like a badge of distinction”.

At eleven, Malcolm got up, switched the television off, unplugged it, remarking that it was a relief all those power-cuts had stopped at last.

“no one seemed able to talk to each other. . . . They all had their reasons for concealing matters from or snubbing each other.”

“If you don’t say anything it can’t become important, but if you say it everyone’s ever after got to walk round it like a pile of rocks in the living room.”

“written over with the fact of her obligations.”

“For most of their lives together, it had seemed to him that he was admitted only to the public downstairs rooms of Katherine’s mind. The more intimate spaces and speculations, the whole upstairs and attics of her thinking were kept from him.”

“was tall and drawn-out in shape as someone else’s shadow.”

“I was wrong, deciding not to be shy. . . . Because if you’re not shy you go out into the world, but if you are shy then you stay at home, and it’s really better to stay at home. You’re going to be happy if you stay at home.”

“off from the guilt and burden of family. . . . She could feel herself shedding her ties like a dog shaking itself after a bath.”

`I don’t have a political position,’ Daniel said. ‘I’ve never voted in my life. They’re all the same.’

`That’s exactly what all completely right-wing people always say,’

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.

Leave a Comment

Barracuda – Christos-Tsiolkas

B Cuda  2The story is not told in chronological order and it jumps around along with Danny’s thoughts and feelings. It moves from the first to third person as the protagonist ages.

Like The Slap, this book starts slowly. One reviewer said that it took a good couple of hundred pages ‘before I started to feel even the remotest connection with Daniel, then the story of impressive failure really starts to get under your skin.’ One of our members gave up after a few pages but another said that it is worth going beyond the difficult bits.

Another said that it was a `marmite’ read – you’ll either love it or hate it. One of us said: I usually prefer chronologically written novels, but this worked OK.  I just think that EVERY chapter should have a time line heading to help the elderly.

Some of the characters are very shallow – or is that because Danny views them thus? I was surprised that one reviewer said that Danny is not a likeable character. Danny found it difficult to communicate with others. There were some reminiscences of ‘The Curious Tale of the Dog in the Nightime’   …..did Danny have some slight form of Asperger’s?

One of our members said: Having won a scholarship myself to a (minor) English Public School, I totally empathized with Danny’s feelings of being looked down on at the start and the need to establish oneself as ‘Good As You’.    I did that through Sport, like Danny (in my case Rowing, not Swimming), but it was the only way to become ‘accepted/admired’ (Two more of us identified with that sense of low self-esteem, too.) It raised huge questions about the ‘Losers’ in Sport…..or any other competitive field.  Our society idolizes the winners. Who cares for the losers?

An unflinching look at modern Australia, hopes and dreams, friendships, and families, class, sport, politics, migration and education: everything a person is: family and friendship and love and work, the identities we inhabit and discard, the means by which we fill the holes at our centre.

One member thought it was badly edited – it seemed as if the author wasn’t gay – but he is; wasn’t a political activist – but he is; and didn’t know Glasgow at first hand, because he writes about red brick buildings –but it turns out that he does know Glasgow. And a ‘selective comprehensive school’ is a contradiction in terms.

We know from early on that the ex-swimmer has spent time in jail, but the precise nature of his crime is lengthily withheld, although hinted at tantalisingly and sometimes with clever misdirection.

Daniel is known by several different variations of his name and by nick-names (“Danny”, “Dna”, “Dino” and “Barracuda”) a sure sign of confusion about where he fits in – not only within his family, but at school and in wider society.

One of us loved the dinner party with Martin’s Grandmother…..especially her confident opinions about the classes in Australia.  He also hated the racism..

The book is filled with watery metaphors: “drowning”, “floating” and “freestyle”, among other words, have both swimming and non-swimming meanings. And, after The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas has written another novel that deserves to make a big splash.

Danny is also a fish out of water.  At the start of the novel he has just won a swimming scholarship to a prestigious private school where his working class background sets him apart amongst the scions of Melbourne’s upper class sons.

We liked his descriptions of ‘Oneness’ with the water.  It reminded him of sailing a rough sea at daybreak.

B Cuda fishbarracuda = “a predatory marine mostly tropical fish, which attacks man.” .

I am no prude but I was quite disgusted by his eating tissues smeared with various bodily fluids. But another member found this quite erotic.

Amusing that one girl seems to be named after a pizza – Margarita.

Is the happy ending somewhat contrived or does this reflect the coach, who had nobody else in his life apart from those he encouraged, for whom he wanted some sort of legacy.

Overall, we liked the redemptive aspects of this book.

 Quotations (from the book):

“We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we’re toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks.”

“He’s going to be ashamed of this moment for the rest of his life.”

He found their worlds too insular, their style too self-conscious and ironic”

B Cuda 3Quotations (from the author):

 “I knew I wanted to write a story about contemporary class”

 “It wasn’t the initial story that I thought it was, but the connection is still there. It’s like with Nick D’Arcy ­­– can you come back from doing something so completely terrible and ugly? Can you forgive yourself and can you be forgiven?” (The idea for Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel came from a misheard news report. When he first found out about Olympic swimmer Nick D’Arcy assaulting teammate Simon Cowley in 2008, Tsiolkas had thought he caught a detail about D’Arcy being from a working-class background – instantly, the picture of a frustrated young athlete forced to move in a world of privileged ‘golden boys’ began to paint itself in his mind. The tidbit turned out to be incorrect – D’Arcy’s father is a successful surgeon – but the picture stuck: Danny Kelly, the teenaged swimming star from the wrong side of Melbourne’s tracks and protagonist of Tsolkas’s Barracuda, was born.

“How do you be a good man?”

“It’s not an autobiography, but it is from within me.”
B Cuda 4
“I’ve been running away from this for a while, and I’m still working through it, but it was the experience of going to university that tore me away from my working-class roots. Becoming a student in that world, I had some amazing experiences, but I no longer was working class.”

“I wanted to create a gay character where there was no element of the coming out story. You can trust the readership to fill in the gaps, that story has been told so many times. And in terms of our context, it wasn’t useful, just like you don’t read a book about a heterosexual character and want to know how they came to terms dealing with their sexuality in their teen years.”

“I’ll do a little bit of research on this subject and then three hours later you’ve watched three pornos and 25 youtube videos, and just feel like shit!”

it’s historical, set in the world of early Christianity, and the question I’m asking myself is, ‘What did Christianity answer in the Mediterranean world that couldn’t be satisfied by pagan religion?’” That’s quite a task, we offer. “Yes, it’s a challenge. My books have always been about the contemporary world so it will be interesting to see what I can outside of that.

I wanted to make Danny’s mother a Jehovah’s Witness so that we get a sense of Stephanie having had to make her own choices and sacrifices in her youth when it came to belonging. It also meant that she was an outsider in the Greek community of Melbourne. I thought that would be more interesting, that it would allow for an exploration of family life rooted in ideas of faith rather than in nationhood or ethnicity. I think that the excommunication that Stephanie experiences is brutal, but I didn’t want to be superficial or arrogant about the truth of such religious belief. I wanted Bettina, Danny’s Jehovah’s Witness aunt, to have a real presence and sincerity, so that we respect her even in her apparent hardness. I grew up Orthodox Christian—a religious experience based on ritual, celebration and tradition, a form of religion very different from puritan and evangelical Protestantism. I am attracted to the discipline and commitment of Protestant faith but also repelled by the austerity and the rigidity of it. It may be my own fear or weakness, but I am not interested in the God of Judgment. Yet, I am fascinated by people who try and live their life with the burden of such a faith—fascinated and frightened by them in equal measure. All this is a roundabout way of trying to explain that I am a man of faith without a faith, and that the enigma of religious experience will be one that I will return to, I suspect, for the rest of my writing life.

my father entered the country in 1955. He worked on the hydroelectric schemes, worked on building the Olympic Village for the 1956 Melbourne games. The prejudice my parents experienced here was real. They were seen as “not quite white,” even though they were European Greeks. The White Australia Policy was only officially terminated in 1972—within my own lifetime.

In Barracuda, I wanted to trace my own continuing struggle with the questions of class. I am proud of coming from a working-class home, terrifically proud of it, but I also realize that I can’t assume that identity the way my parents could. They were laborers in factories. I am an educated man, I write for a living, I live and work and exist in another kind of world. I am so very glad for the opportunities that my parents’ hard work has afforded me—I’d be an idiot not to appreciate them—but I can’t help sometimes feel a melancholy at how far removed I am from that working-class world. I think Demet, Dan and I share that melancholy.

There’s an earlier review at https://gaymensbookclubbristol.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/barracuda-christos-tsiolkas/

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.

Comments (1)

Older Posts »