Mad Dogs and Englishmen

BlogMadDogsEnglishThis book is just right as a ‘coffee table’ book!  The pictures are amazing and the page layout uses the illustrations to good effect to give an overview of the British Empire over a hundred year period from 1850.  Each chapter has a theme exploring the century when the Empire was at its height.  Actually, the book does touch on the declining years as well, in part because Imperial attitudes continued long after the Empire had metamorphosed into the Commonwealth.  Sport, the role of British public schools, the military and trade all have chapters which show how the Empire was built and sustained.

I am fascinated by British Empire history, not just the idea of a small nation crossing the world and building countries in its own image but also the idea of a country that was influenced and altered because of its fascination with far away places.

Ashley Jackson has written a very good overview of the century when Empire was at its height. The sense of entitlement can be seen in the selection of images; advertisements, book covers and magazine articles all show that the Empire attitude felt itself to be beyond question.  It is striking to see the attitudes of some of the subject people who view Britain (or England) as a child views a parent.  Coffee table book by nature and probably design, the book is still worth reading in its entirety.  The text is as illuminating as the pictures.

My favourite chapter was the one that covered popular culture.  Many of the books were ones I read as I grew up with the imagery and messages of Empire even though I was born after the period covered here; the books were still here on the shelves in the London libraries I frequented in the 60s searching for a wider world I longed to visit.  It took a long time for Empire attitudes to fade away.

‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Holding the Man

This film version of the book by Timothy Conigrave is outstanding.  I always worry that film versions of books I love will fall short but this film enhances the story of high school boyfriends who have a life long relationship, cut short by AIDS.  The book is a poignant memoir of falling in love with a boy at school and continuing this relationship through university and into their young adult lives.  The fact that their relationship had to endure the negative views of family and others only lends the story more power.

The film version brings the book to life and shows what can only be imagined, especially the later scenes when Tim’s partner John is in the final stages of AIDS.  Their determination to remain together is inspiring.  In one scene, John’s father makes clear to his son and boyfriend that he thinks he is entitled to a section of the will.  His motivation for this is odd but the response from the couple is worth seeing, across faces and without words they are able to convey their feelings at this development.

In the end, the advantage of the film is that it can show the moments that have been written about. The courage of the boys who refuse to be ashamed when their relationship is revealed is, perhaps, more powerful on the screen than on the page.

I spent the whole film waiting for the ending which was inevitable, given the subject matter, and known to me in advance since I had read the book.  However, I still hoped that the outcome might be different for these two men.  The film is topped and tailed by Tim trying desperately to remember a detail for his book, a detail that is given urgency in the grief he is experiencing.  He receives the answer he hopes for and the film ends with the information that he finished the book.  The book must be read.  The film must be seen. Both are important!  Both are in my hinterland.

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The Lieutenant

bloglieutenantThis novel by Kate Grenville is another exploration of real events through fiction.  In this case, she has taken the first settlers of New South Wales and developed a story about the first encounters with aboriginal people. It is a wonderful story of how one man is changed by his encounter with another culture.

Daniel Rooke is a young man who has been out of place all his life.  At first, his gift for mathematics causes problems since it earns him a place at an academy where he does not fit in; all the other students are from wealthy families while he is a son of a clerk.  He loses himself in numbers and in the natural world.  When he grows up he joins the navy so that he can study navigation and the stars.  Once again he is out of place, surrounded now by the tough, military minded soldiers and sailors on the trip to the other side of the world.  His ship is full of prisoners sent to New South Wales as a punishment.

Once there, his gift for astronomy sets him apart and he is allowed to create a base of sorts away from the main camp, the better to study the stars and await an expected comet.  In this semi- detached state he meets aborigines in a closer encounter than is achieved in the main settlement of Botany Bay.  As the frequency of his meetings grow so does his desire to learn their language and develop understanding of their way of life.  Instrumental in this is a young girl whose inquisitiveness allows her to venture where others of her people fear to go.

Yet, the story must move towards the point where conflict arises; why would it not when the interests of the settlers and the aborigines are in opposition?  And so, Daniel Rooke, the accidental Lieutenant of the title finds his own conflict between serving His Majesty and serving science.  When he is given a direct order to carry out an act that offends his sense of humanity, he must decide which side of himself will triumph.

This is a wonderful recreation of period with a clear sense of the moral dilemmas that can be faced at any time, given the circumstances.  The ending shows what can happen to a man of integrity when the British Empire is in the way.

‘The Lieutenant’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

Barracuda

blogbarracudaI loved the Christos Tsiolkis novel about the young swimmer who trains to be a champion only for his dreams to be shattered when he reaches for the top.  I was eager to see the Australian television version and had the opportunity to watch it when the BBC made it available.

Now, watching any film or television version of a book you love can be problematic.  When it is handed over to a team of writers, directors and actors it can be fantastic or quiet drastic.  In this case, I was bowled over by the production which brought out the drama of a young man who has greatness in his sights only to see it all slip away.  The production was of four parts, with the first showing his first steps into the elite private school that welcomes him only because of his swimming ability.  The final part was the most affecting.  Here Danny Kelly has turned his back on swimming and tries to find meaning in a life robbed of its central purpose.

The series works well.  Some of the grittier elements of the book have gone, including a spell in prison, but the portrayal of the main character by Elias Anton is spot on, emphasising the thin line between determination and self- absorption and playing Danny as a conflicted youth who is both excited and disgusted by what he sees at the elite school.  Frank Toma, the Hungarian coach who takes Danny under his wing, is given a greater role in the television version and it works.  In the book we have to wait for a coda to see how much coach and swimmer meant to each other.  Here, it is played out for us but done with such affection that it never becomes sentimental.  Matt Nable was brilliant as the coach with high standards.

Television wins with the visuals of the pool and the excitement of swimming events.  The book gives us what the television doesn’t: a first person glimpse inside the head of Danny Kelly, promising swimmer who could have had it all.

I’m glad I read the book first, I’m glad I saw the television series.  Both are in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Holding the Man

I arrived at this book by a roundabout route.  I heard the title first as a play being put on in London.  I wanted to go to see it but couldn’t but I was interested in the subject matter and was keen to know more.  I ordered the play script and read that first.  At this point I discovered that the play was based on the book and, only then, did I get a copy and read it.

The book by Timothy Conigrave is a memoir of his life with his lover and long-term partner John Caleo.  They met at secondary school in Melbourne, Australia. John was a talented football player and the title is a term from Australian rules football which refers to a fault which results in a penalty. It is an appropriate title since their love and happiness is affected when they are both diagnosed with HIV.

The book covers their story of meeting at school, falling in love, growing up and moving in together.  It then details the lengths Tim goes to nurse John and keep him alive.  This section of the book is the most harrowing since the end seems to be inevitable and the effect this has on two people who love each other deeply is hard to read.  The final passages of the book when a bereaved Tim remembers his lover are the hardest of all.

Yet, this is also a book about the triumph of love.  Love is where it falls.  The couple do not have an easy time of it in a society which was often censorious about gay relationships.

John died in 1992 and three years later, just after finishing this book, Tim died. The book was turned into a play by Tommy Murphy.  This was the play that I heard about and the start of the trail that led me to the book.  I am so glad it did.

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Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Book!

Of all the books I read this year, two stand out.  Several things connect them, one being the fact that they are both by and about Australia.  The most striking thing to me, though, is that I bought both over four years ago.  They have been on my kindle that long!  When I read them, this year, I thought they were both brilliant.

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey and ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville take the honours.

I buy more books than I can cope with at any one time, so there are always books on my shelf or on my Kindle waiting.  At the time of buying I am always ready and keen to read the book but I always have another book ‘on the go’ with the inevitable situation that a book has to wait its turn… and then, other books come along and books get shelved and I sometimes forget what it was that attracted me to the book in the first place.

Well, ‘cometh the hour, cometh the book’.  Perhaps I should reduce my book buying. Maybe, I should read books in strict order of purchase.  I could just wait for the right moment for each book.

 

Jasper Jones

blogjasperjonesI am a huge fan of this Australian novel which has influences from Mark Twain and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.  There are references to both in the book since the main character, Charlie Bucktin, is a book loving boy.  I used to love reading when I was young and finding stories where the characters got lost in books made me feel less odd.  It is still the case that I love coming across stories where the protagonist shares my interests.

Charlie is aware that his preference for reading marks him out as different and his best friend, the Vietnamese Jeffrey, is a fellow outsider. This is the 60s and the Vietnam War has aroused strong feelings in the community; Australia was a participant alongside USA even though Britain was not!  Even more of an outsider, though, is Jasper Jones the mixed race boy who is shunned by the people of the town because of his family history.

When a serious incident takes place, Jasper is convinced he will be the scapegoat and he seeks the help of Charlie since he reads books and thinks things through.  Charlie is surprised at the approach but decides to help.  This involves him in both keeping and discovering secrets.  Small towns are full of under the surface feelings and the novel cleverly shows how prejudice blinds people to the truth.  Themes of identity, race, community and fitting in are all covered by the excellent Craig Silvey.

I think this novel has the best description of a cricket game that I have ever read and the banter between Charlie and his friend Jeffrey is priceless.  There are many comedy moments but they serve to make the hostility of some of the other actions more shocking. The links with Mark Twain and with Harper Lee’s novel are deliberate and they enhance the status of this book.

 

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?