Books in review

By Diana Simonds

In this issue:

Set in Stone - the cell block theatre

Cover illustration of Set in Stone

Deborah Beck
UNSW Press $49.95

In 2005 Beck (MA ’10) published Hope in Hell - A History of Darlinghurst Gaol and the National Art School, and it led naturally to a deeper investigation of the former women’s prison. It’s as well she did, because although it’s arguably the most historically and culturally significant existing theatre in the country, very little is known about the Cell Block.

Now absorbed into the National Art School, where Beck is a senior lecturer, archivist and artist, the Cell Block opened its doors in 1958. It quickly became a hothouse where the flowers of Australia’s emerging arts community bloomed and ran riot.
The first production, Euripides’s The Trojan Women, suited the stark beauty of the place, which had so given visiting theatrical royals Sibyl Thorndike and Katharine Hepburn the willies, they contributed towards the building’s conversion.

Beck’s main obstacle in unearthing the theatre’s seminal place in the seminal ’60s and ’70s, was that it was always a space for hire: no company or artistic director around to collect properly the vital scraps of paper that tell the story.

Nevertheless, Beck has done a magnificent job of finding and making sense of what does exist and talking to those with vivid memories of the times. The book is beautifully illustrated and provides a fascinating browse to see what people looked like back then, such as Yvonne Kenny, David Malouf, John Bell, Jim Sharman, Nick Cave, Peter Sculthorpe and on and on. A must-have book for every theatre (lover’s) library.


Pozieres - the ANZAC story

Cover illustration of Pozieres - the ANZAC story

Scott Bennett
Scribe $36.95

While Gallipoli long ago captured public imagination and sentiment, Patrick Lindsay’s Fromelles and now this fine addition to the WW1 popular history genre, are important reminders that the Dardanelles were a fraction of the story. Poziéres, once a pretty village on the Somme, population 350, and finally a wasteland where one million-plus young men perished, is now indelibly added to the account of Australians in the Great War.

Bennett (MBA (Exec) ’04) gives us an immensely readable and well-written account of the pivotal and bloodiest battle of the war. Without histrionics, it’s nevertheless drenched in blood and sadness; and grounded in research and careful consideration of sources and context. His view of General Sir Douglas Haig, for instance, is measured, “Haig’s burden was that his Somme victory was so expensive it became indistinguishable from defeat.” And he concludes: “This viewpoint adds gravity the words attributed to a Roman general after conquering Carthage – ‘Another such victory will destroy us’.”


Schools in the landscape

University of Alabama Press
$US41.50 amazon.com

The United States, its culture and history remain a source of endless fascination for many. Ziegler (BA ’70) is one of those, and after a career in the upper reaches of corporate USA, she returned to Australia to do something about her interest. The result was a doctoral thesis at University of New England that examined the development of the public education system in Alabama between 1865 and 1915; and a wise editor who advised her to rewrite it – from thesis-ese to readable, lively English.

Alabama and Australia may not, on the face of it, have much in common but, as Ziegler describes the disparity between the rich soil of “black belt” lands and the meagre scratchings of the subsistence farming majority; rural isolation and the dispossession of original inhabitants; the link comes into focus.

The book begins at the end of the Civil War when only four states (all in the South) had more school-age children than tax-paying adults. All suffered high rates of illiteracy and low school attendance; while Alabama was ruined and embittered. Slavery was outlawed but discrimination against the black population remained rampant.

Alabama was shaken again in 1915 with the advent of the tractor and mechanisation of cotton production, followed by the Great Migration of one million African-Americans from the impoverished South to the industrial North.

The cover image of the one-room “Clarke County School, circa 1910” is sweetly similar to one where Bob Hawke’s mother first taught, as a young woman, now at Ceduna Museum.


Night Street

Cover illustration of Night Street

Kristel Thornell
Allen & Unwin $23.99

Thornell (BA ’97), joint winner of the 2010 Vogel Award for an unpublished work by a writer under 35, is one whose imagination and discipline are on display in equal measure in this book. The former in devising a fictional, episodic account of the life of Clarice Beckett; the latter in doing so in a way that – quite extraordinarily – fashions the story in the same compelling, atmospheric, vivid yet subdued colours that the artist employed in her modernist depictions of ’20s-’30s bayside Beaumaris, Melbourne.

Beyond painting with unrelenting energy and a unique style, she lived in obscurity and relatively little is known about her. And, through neglect and misadventure, the bulk of her work was destroyed after her untimely death at the age of 48. Thus Thornell creates a portrait – from the bare sketches of facts – but she has withstood the temptation to turn it into something gaudy and unlikely.

As a dutiful daughter who cared for ailing parents, Beckett’s art life was constrained. Whether a reader approaches the book from the perspective of being an admirer of Beckett’s work, or simply in search of exceptionally fine and intuitive writing, there is no disappointment to be found here.


Dampier's Monkey: the south seas voyages of William Dampier

Cover illustration of Dampier

Adrian Mitchell
Wakefield Press $45

The author is an honorary research associate in the English Department at the University and was previously Associate Professor in the department and Director of Postgraduate Programs.

This book – in two distinct parts – is as much about Dampier’s influence on those who came later as it is about the man himself. Without his journal – held in the British Library and published here in full – it’s likely that, for instance, neither Gulliver’s Travels nor Robinson Crusoe would have been written. Swift read Dampier’s descriptions of the miserable inhabitants of the region and its strange creatures before embarking on the novel; while Defoe lifted Dampier’s account of the marooning and rescue of Alexander Selkirk for his.

More than that, however, Bligh, Cook and Flinders had his day-by-day descriptions, accomplished navigation and hydrographic work to go by – and did. Dampier’s painstaking work and endeavours – he circumnavigated the globe three times – are unparalleled and, in the 17th century, were extraordinary. It’s a little sad that those who followed him are now the household names; which is why Mitchell’s book is important and in many ways, revelatory.


The Wedding Shroud - a tale of early Rome

Cover illustration of The Wedding Shroud - a tale of early Rome

Elizabeth Storrs
Murdoch Books $32.95

The Etruscans have fascinated everyone else since there were Etruscans. It’s serendipitous then, that Storr’s (BA ’81 LLB ’83) richly researched and written historical fiction is published at the same time as an exhibition of Etruscan treasures is on at the Nicholson Museum: the two complement each other beautifully.

The novel’s heroine is Caecilia, a young Roman woman who is married off to an Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna, for reasons of treaty and business relations. The differences between Rome and the Etruscans’ Veii – just 20km away – are immense. Roman women were cloistered, put upon and silenced; Etruscan women ate and drank alongside their men, were included in politics and society and altogether had a much better time, as Caecilia soon discovers.

Nevertheless, she is still her husband’s possession and her main role in life is the production of heirs.

Storrs, a lawyer in real life, negotiates the sexual and social politics with skill and verve. Beyond that, however, the priest Artile – her brother-in-law and a dangerous man – represents the darker elements of ancient life and places Caecilia in the centre of tumultuous events.


PRIMAVERA – or the time of your life

Cover illustration of PRIMAVERA – or the time of your life

Giulia Giuffre
GAG primaverathebook.com

Rarely do memoirs come along like this one. Giuffre (BA ’74) and University Medallist, has condensed her Italian-Australian family saga into a sprawling, amusing, original and often-profound compendium of a life lived with eyes wide open.

She is an exuberant polymath, whose then teenage son said, on learning that his mother was about to write the book, “There’s no point doing it unless it’s true”. And so it turns out that Giuffre has tried to comply. The result is questions, answers and ruminations on all the important things in life, such as friendship, sex, reading, dogs and birthdays.

As has been noted elsewhere: what other book will give you instructions on cooking pasta properly and offer you reasons for writing?