Tag Archives: Book Reviews

American Pentimento by Patricia Seed

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One of the great frustrations of my life is trying to convince people the history of land use planning is a topic of great interest. I’m told I make it sound wilfully boring; that no one wants to hear about Robert Hooke’s regulatory reforms or the origins of the Plumbing Code. By contrast, it’s comparatively easy to talk about current politics, and the more contemporary cycles of planning law, property development, electoral cycles, economic forecasts and social in/justice. These can be discussed using recent terms and ideas that are readily accessible and have the ability to rouse passions based on immediate personal experience. Good examples include Sydney’s lock out laws, Westconnex or the sale of public housing.

The problem with this penchant for the contemporary is that it tends to present us with both a contemporary problem and a contemporary way of thinking about it. Consider this in light of Audre Lorde’s line “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” This suggests that if the only context and language you have to critique contemporary land use is the context and language that made the problem, you will struggle to find a viable solution. Instead, you’ll end up producing an opposition, rather than an alternative.

In this respect, I’ve been considering Buckminster Fuller’s belief that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is easier said than done if the only frame of reference you have is the existing reality.

Talking about this with Tess Lea a few weeks back, she lent me Patricia Seed’s book American Pentimento, which is a comparison of the legal frameworks involved in British and Spanish conquest of the Americas; exactly what I’m assured is inherently dull.

Mostly what Seed looks at is the different legislative attitudes taken to land use during the early phases of European empire. She draws a distinction; the Spanish generally declared land in the name of the Crown, and tended to leave conquered people where they were on the provision they pay homage to the Crown. They tended to legislate against European squatters or individual land owners as this was seen as disrupting the control of wealth – particularly mineral wealth – by the Crown. Whilst this legitimised through the ideology of a benevolent monarchy, it was basically a way of preventing the mercantile class from seizing too much power. Had the various merchants active in the Americas been able to ‘buy’ or seize land in a way recognised by Spanish law, they would have had a legal way to gain the kind of wealth which made them a threat to the monarchy.

The English had the exact opposite approach, having beheaded Charles I for asserting a very similar line of thought. Their argument was that private property ownership was a good thing because it diffused power, and that this diffused power over land ownership encouraged people to make their land as productive as possible, adding both to their own wealth and the collective wealth of the Empire.

This is still the logic involved in much urban renewal and public housing selloffs today; the logic runs that social housing adds no economically productive value to the public coffers, major development generates jobs and growth, and from that jobs and growth we can build more social houses somewhere else. It’s a logic that only works if you think of things in a sort of credit/debit logic, in which the negative social impacts of dislocation can be offset by using development contributions to build social housing in less economically productive areas – such as outer suburbs.

Which is exactly how the English were thinking of it after the death of Charles I. The value of land was based on its economic productivity, not on moral or historical possession. To accept the latter option was to legitimise monarchical rule, which is what the English were trying to avoid. In American Pentimento, Seed traces the formation of this logic into property law.  She starts with the concept of ‘Wasteland’ – a term adopted shortly after the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 “signifying uninhabited or relatively under inhabited ground.”  ‘Wasteland’ gave people of a particular class the legal right to fence and farm land that no one else was ostensibly using. It sat in counterpoint to the concept of the ‘Commons,’ which was land for everyone to use. At this point ‘waste’ didn’t mean rubbish. Instead, the term was used to designated land which could be ‘improved’, usually by the fencing of semi-wild animals to make them easier to hunt and domesticate.

Seed tracks the change through a couple of key texts. The first is Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which drew from Amerigo Vespucci’s (from whom we draw the word ‘America’) writings about his exploration of Brazil. In More’s book his ‘Utopians’ find a country populated by “a people which does not use its soil but keeps it idle and waste.’ In More’s logic, those who seek to use the land have the moral right to take it and, in doing so, make it productive for the public good, thus allowing them to build a utopia.

This connects through to Seed’s second source, Justice William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, a four volume set of writings on English common law. Blackstone is best known as the guy who set up the idea of ‘terra nullius’. There’s an oft site section in the introduction where he writes:

For it is held, that if an uninhabited country be discovered and planted by English subjects, all the English laws are immediately there in force. For as the law is the birthright of every subject, so wherever they go they carry their laws with them.

Or in effect, if an Englishman arrives in a country and can’t see people planting things on it, tilling the soil, or enclosing the fields, English laws apply. This ties into book two of the Commentaries, which is dedicated entirely to the concept of ownership, particularly property ownership:

Property, both in lands and moveables, being thus originally acquired by the first taker, which taking amounts to a declaration that he intends to appropriate the thing to his own use, it remains in him, by the principles of universal law, till such time as he does some other act which shews an intention to abandon it: for then it becomes, naturally speaking, public juris once more, and is liable to be again appropriated by the next occupant.

Thus, within the Common Law rule books carried by colonial administrators, it was a law universally acknowledged, that land that isn’t being used can be claimed by anyone willing to use it.

As far as I can tell, these legal definitions were used in Britain to legitimise the Enclosure Movement, in which traditional Common land was declared ‘waste’ and could, by Act of Parliament, be fenced off and placed in private ownership. As Seed points out, when British policy and law makers moved into newly conquered territory they took Blackstone’s Commentaries with them as the definitive interpretation of English common law and began following the same logic. She writes:

An eminent legal scholar, William Blackstone, in 1765 transformed the traditional English understanding of waste into a colonial legal fiction that such land was unowned. He called this fiction terra nullius (literally, land of no one, land belonging to no one). However, Blackstone falsely implied that this cultural concept had a latin origin. 

Blackstone actually took a late Roman law regarding hunting animals, which were not viewed as private property, and used it as a ‘source’ to justify the English concept that relative underpopulation justified seizing land. Terra nullius exaggerated the English proclivity to interpret unbounded, non-plowed and sparsely settled areas as ‘waste’ or ‘common’ land by proclaiming that such land belonged to no one. 

She notes the appearance of this sort of logic in things like the South Australian Constitution Act of 1834 and India’s Waste Lands Rule of 1836. You can see the same logic – with the use of the term ‘wasteland’ in Bourke’s Proclamation, which I wrote about here.

And you can also see it in the 1830 formation of the Australian Agricultural Company “for the ‘cultivation and improvement of Waste Lands in the Colony of New South Wales.’

This latter example has its direct antecedents today. When we look at State owned urban development, public private partnerships and major redevelopment of city areas, they operate on exactly the same logic, and gain their moral legitimacy in the same way: that right to ownership is connected to productivity, and that non-productive use legitimises dispossession. It’s a logic that, paradoxically, undermines traditional notions of Common lands by asserting common benefit is generated by private ownership. Ostensibly, we all gain from major development through things like development contributions, brought about by the wealth created by individual investors.

When we consider the negative impact of this kind of ‘value add’ on Aboriginal Australia we begin to see the faults quite quickly, but this isn’t unique to the Australian situation. As Seed points out, it predates the British incursion into Australia, hinging on a legal interpretation that ties value to returns on private investment in land. But, as she also points out, there is still a pentimento evident; a term she borrows from the art world, in which the image of an earlier picture remains beneath what’s currently visible.  Her point, as I read it, isn’t that we can return to those earlier images of a pre-colonial or pre-capital world, but that we can still see, and can still draw from, radically different systems of valuing, and governing, land use – assuming we can see through the layers we’ve painted on top of them.

 

W.E.H Stanner’s ‘The Yirrkala Land Case: A Dress Rehearsal’: Common Law, Terra Nullius and the Gove Land Rights Case

Born in 1905, William Stanner was an anthropologist who spent his career critiquing what he called “the great Australian silence” around Aboriginal culture and land rights. He’s worth reading as one of the first white people who saw the British presence in Australia as invasive rather than civilizing, and this anthology includes most of his major essays.

Of particular interest is ‘The Yirrkala Land Case: A Dress Rehearsal’, Stanner’s 1970 essay on the Yolngu people’s attempt to prevent the Federal Government leasing their land to the Nabalco mining company. Better known as the Gove Land Rights Case, it’s gone down in history as the first major land rights case in Australia, setting up precedent for Mabo.

Stanner was advising the Yolngu as they attempted to negotiate the British legal system. Notably he was writing before Justice Blackburn found against them, and the essay is oddly hopeful. Beyond its impact on the Yolngu and Aboriginal land rights, the case says a lot about our legal system, and how it treats power and land use.

Traditionally, when the British invaded a country there were protocols around the absorption of pre-invasion property ownership into their law. Colin Bourke and Helen Cox cover this in their essay ‘Two Laws: One Land”:

The European legal view at the time [in the 1800s] was that the Crown had absolute title to all land. Under the doctrine colonising powers such as England could apply their own law to a land which they peacefully occupied, if the land was uninhabited, or was occupied by a people without settled laws or customs. In conquered or ceded (surrendered) countries the pre-existing laws of that country were applied until they were displaced or altered by the new sovereign.

In other words, if the British arrived in a place with no existing system of law, they could do whatever they wanted. But if a system of law already existed, they had to undertake a formal process of absorbing it into their systems, via something like a treaty. If they didn’t, it became possible for the invaded population to reclaim their land through British common law precedents around property ownership.

This (sort of) happened in the Cape Colony in 1835, with the Xhosa having their land returned by the colonial minister, Lord Glenelg, after he deemed its invasion illegitimate.

Why didn’t this principle apply to Yolngu land, given northern Australia wasn’t occupied by the Crown until the 1850s? Well, it (sort of) did.

When South Australia was set up in 1836, the Letters Patent (the legal documents founding the colony) reflected the Cape Colony experience and included a clause recognising Aboriginal land rights. When South Australia took over administration of the Northern Territory, this clause was part of the deal.

Stanner recalls this fact coming up in the Gove case, which “caused Justice Blackburn to look sharply over his glasses.” The reason the Letters Patent didn’t ultimately protect pre-British land rights appears to have been because no one got around to telling the Pre-British owners about it.

This was the case made by the Plaintiffs, led by Edward Woodward QC. As Stanner writes:

There was a presumption at common law that the native rights continued. This presumption could only be extinguished by legislation or similar action of a formal kind. No such extinguishment had taken place.

As Woodward argued, just because the Yolngu had never expressly claimed their common law right to their land, that didn’t mean it didn’t exist. There was, after all, no evidence they’d ceded ownership; no treaty, no receipt of sale, no transfer of deeds, or any of the other things you’d expect in a transfer of land.

There’s a corresponding question as to why the Yolngu hadn’t asserted their ownership prior to the Nabalco case in 1970. But why would they? Stanner recalls one of them asking him, incredulously, “does [the] Government really think we do not own the land?” They’d been there long before the British, and their own legal systems simply assumed their sovereignty.

Eventually, it was these formalities that led to Blackburn deciding against the Yolngu. There was nothing clearly stating who owned the land, or at least not in terms recognisable to British law. Given the lack of documentation, it was assumed (as per common law) that the Crown ultimately owned the Gove Peninsula and could lease it to whomever they wanted.

However, Blackburn did recognise the presence of a non-British system of laws, finding that:

The evidence shows a subtle and elaborate system highly adapted to the country in which the people led their lives, which provided a stable order of society and was remarkably free from the vagaries of personal whim or influence. If ever a system could be called ‘a government of laws and not of men’, it is shown in the evidence before me.

Asides from its relevance to Aboriginal Australia, the Gove case points at two things fundamental in how we govern land.

Firstly, the extreme ambiguity of it. As Stanner points out, the Nabalco case was unusual in that it was the first serious review of the legality of the Crown’s ownership of Australia. Two hundred years after British colonisation, it still wasn’t clear who actually ‘owned’ places like the Gove Peninsula.

Secondly, this ambiguity sided with power with and precedent. As Stanner concludes, Australia’s occupation had become a (sort of) legal habit. In the absence of any formal treaties or deeds, Crown ownership was assumed. As Stanner writes of the Crown’s Defence:

For good or ill we did not conquer Australia. We occupied it. The native system was displaced. ‘And that’, the Crown said in a memorable phrase, ‘was that.’

Of course, that wasn’t that. At a purely legal level, Mabo extended upon this judgement to recognise pre-British ownership, albeit with limited results.

I’m still getting my head around why that judgement didn’t do for Australia’s innumerable pre-British nations what it did for the Xhosa, given the Gove case tends to validate the same common law principles. But, as Stanner concludes:

It is bad lack for the Aborigines that their problems arise so acutely just as the mineral boom is reaching the phase of mania. […] The draconian quality of the attempt to snuff out all talk of Aboriginal interests in land is related to this excited background…

That was written in 1970 yet remains alarmingly current.

Incidentally, there’s a good article on Gove, common law and land rights here and there’s a quick overview of the case itself on Wikipedia here.

 

 

 

On the Subconscious City: Top Ten Books on City Regulation

In the last few decades, there’s been a real interest in urban design, yet its ugly cousin, regulation, remains largely unmentioned. To this end, Richard Florida’s Creative City is a best seller, yet the Building Code of Australia is now being given away for free. It’s odd what we value.

This isn’t new; people remember the Coliseum far more than Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s handbooks on building design because one is obvious and interesting and the other obscure and boring. Regulation is, almost by its nature, dull, but it’s also incredibly powerful; more so because of the limited degree to which it is understood and, subsequently, controlled.

A while back I was at a forum on artist run spaces in which regulation was described as a ‘many headed hydra’; you cut off the head of planning approval and liquor licensing pops up, and by the time you’ve cut that off, there’s building certification, and once that’s cut off there’s a re-zoning which has turned your shitty little gallery into a development hotspot. Each conflict is draining, depressing and seemingly illogical.

Yet, the problem isn’t that regulation is illogical, but that it has a logic that extends beyond anyone negotiating or enforcing it.

Much like the cities it governs, regulation is accumulative; formed across generations, outlasting the people who made it and the contexts from which it arose. Rather than a clear set of rules and laws, it works like the subconscious of a city; retaining the memory of past policy trends and traumas, to subtly control our behaviour at a level so deep we’re not even aware of it.

I read a fair few books about regulation, town planning and cities; some directly so, and some not so much. I thought I’d continue my theme of book reviews by picking a ‘top ten’ books about regulation as the subconscious of our cities.

I thought I’d start with that Freudian ode to town planning, L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz – which I’ll post in the next couple of days.

The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff

The first book I read last year was Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. From there, I went through the full Eagle of the Ninth and ended with the King Arthur Trilogy. I read a lot of great books last year, and books aimed for my own age group, but rediscovering Sutcliff’s historical fiction was a bit of a highlight.

In her King Arthur Trilogy, written to introduce children to the Arthur myth, she writes:

Some time early in the fifth century AD […] the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, and the British were left to hold off the invading Saxons as best they could. In the end, they failed, but they put up such a fight it took the Saxons around two hundred and fifty years to complete their occupation; and they never did take over all of the Western country. But none the less, the withdrawal of Rome was the beginning of what we call the ‘Dark Ages’…

The Eagle of the Ninth trilogy opens with this withdrawal, with the last legions shipping out from Rutupiae, their fort on the coast of Kent. In their wake came the invading Saxons, including a particular tribe called the Angles; now better known as the English.

At that point, the country was still occupied largely by Celts; descendents of the Iceni, Brigantes, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni, who had been Romanised for the better part of five hundred years. They fought the invaders tooth and nail. This is where the Arthur legend comes from; a Romanised Welsh king fighting to keep the English out of modern day England.

For a children’s author, Sutcliff does a remarkable job of unravelling the inherent multiculturalism of British and English identity. I was reading her books in Suffolk, one of the first place the Angles invaded, in a house next to a former Iceni hill fort. 1500 years earlier it would have been the front line of Saxon/Celt conflict.

Iceni Hill Fort with Hortse
                     The view from an Iceni hill fort in Suffolk.

Around the same time former Prime Minister Tony Abbott had declared “Aboriginal people have much to celebrate in this country’s British Heritage.” Asides from the obvious dubiousness of this statement, there’s an underpinning question as to what ‘Heritage’ Australia has actually inherited Britain. In London I went to a conference in which the British were discussing the various class and regional distinctions of their accents. Another Australian noted they had trouble understanding the divisions because “You all sound British to me.”

Certainly, it’s much harder in Australia to pick the distinctions between the Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish, Cornish and so on. Most of us are an amalgamation of all of the above, and various other ethnicities. Yet our debates on multiculturalism or the legacy of ‘White Australia’ still tend to assume a dominant, common racial identity. Reading through Sutcliff’s various children’s books, it becomes obvious that most of our ancestors spent longer killing each other than sharing any common heritage. I thought it was an interesting lesson to take from a children’s book.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

Possibly. The font is a good size, she does like Rosemary Sutcliff, it’s good holiday reading. All the main characters are mail though.

 

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Last year my esteemed publisher, John Hunter, recommended Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. In return, I’ve so far failed to produce a second book and most of my writing is now absorbed into the thrills and spills of local government.

Hadrian was, of course, one of the great emperors of Ancient Rome. Today’s he’s most famous for building a wall, but Edward Gibbon wrote of him:

Under Hadrian’s reign the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy.

He was a brilliant policy wonk, dedicated to urban planning, administration, and good governance. Indeed, he was most renowned as the first Roman emperor who stopped invading places; who actually withdrew from the territories conquered by his predecessor, Trajan, to focus on better administration.

To that end, he’s a surprisingly good hero for lowly bureaucrats such as myself. Hadrian wrote an actual autobiography, which has unfortunately been lost. Yourcenar’s book aims to replace it; written as if on his death bed to his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius, he explains:

Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when they presume to anticipate custom.

It then takes what could be considered a quasi-feminist turn:

The condition of women is fixed by strange customs: they are at one and the same time subjected and protected, weak and powerful, too much despised and too much respected. In this chaos of contradictory usage, the practises of society are superposed upon the facts of nature, but it is not easy to distinguish between the two.

It’s almost a reiteration of Arendt’s claim that “thought and reality have parted company,” and it drives the book. In Yourcenar’s rendition, Hadrian spends most of his time trying to impose something beautiful, in the form of urban design, monuments and social policy, on something illogical, namely the Roman Empire, gradually wearing himself out in battles with Christian extremists, a Senate that hates him, and the death of his boyfriend.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

No. It’s about a dead old white owning class man. Also, the font is very small.

Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt

I read Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem right before I stared working in the fast paced world of local government and her analysis of institutionalization was pretty terrifying. There’s a great interview with her here, opening with a particularly stupid question about whether it’s possible to be both a woman and a philosopher.

In Between Past and Future, written in 1961,  Arendt cheefully announces “thought and reality have parted company”, before beginning a history of Western thought from the Romans through to the Nazis. Of the Romans, she writes:

Before the Romans such a thing as tradition was unknown; with them it became and after them it remained the guiding thread through the past and the chain to which each new generation knowingly or unknowingly was bound to its understanding of the world and its own experience.

From there, she makes the argument that people’s concept of who they are has increasingly come from where they think they came from, rather than where they are now, leading to a situation whereby the current is overwhelmed by fairly dubious ideas about origins, tradition and authenticity.

She puts this down to Rome’s obsession with its origins, writing:

…the most deeply Roman divinities were Janus, the god of beginning, with whom, as it were, we still begin our year [i.e January], and Minerva, the goddess of remembrance.

Lately I’ve been reading a few Australian histories and, arguably, the same argument makes sense of some of the more comedic moments of the Abbott legacy. You could probably make a case that the myth of Australian origins tended to eclipse a more pragmatic policy framework – for example, having a Minister dedicated to ANZAC, but no Minister for Science, climate change, cities or creative industries.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

She’d probably agree with it ideologically, but the font is pretty small and it’s pretty grim, and there’s not much on either dogs or gardening in it.

 

Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins

Just before I flew to London, I read Under Another Sky: Journeys Through Roman Britain, in which Charlotte Higgins documents her Grand Tour of Roman monuments in the UK. When I arrived, I enthusiastically followed in her footsteps, searching a car park for remnants of the Roman wall, visiting the amphitheatre’s ruins underneath the Guildhall, and almost falling in the Thames, where the future capital was first laid out.

Higgins book says a lot about the ambiguity behind the concept of ‘Britain’. London was a Roman outpost, and the idea of a discernable ‘British’ identity is much like our concept of ‘Aboriginal Australia’; a blanket term used by a colonising power to describe disparate peoples with their own identities, languages and land.

On the British capital, Higgins writes:

The first notable event in the history of Londinium was its destruction. The name of the city first appears on the page in Tacitus’s account of the rebellion of Boudica. There is a line of black in the archaeological layers that is said to be the charred matter from her flaming of the fledgling city.

Boudica, the marauding Queen of Iceni, destroyed London in 60AD as part of a war so vicious the Romans seriously debated leaving the whole island. Oddly enough, there’s a statue of her on Westminster Bridge near Embankment, set up in 1902 as a sort of weird homage to Queen Victoria.

The primary source on her, Roman historian Tacitus, describes a rousing speech she gave to her troops before her final battle:

It is British custom to fight under female leadership, but on this occasion I fight not, though offspring of great ancestors, after kingdom and wealth. Instead, I am one woman from the crowd seeking retribution for liberty lost […] But the gods side with just vengeance. A legion that dared battle has perished and the remaining men are hiding back at base and looking for escape. The din and shouting of so many thousands will not be withstood, let alone onset and combat. If you weigh troop numbers and war’s reasons with me, we should either win on that field or perish. That is a woman’s intention. You men may survive – enslaved!

It’s doubtful she would have described herself as ‘British’. Tacitus was writing decades after her death, using terms the Romans had invented. She lost the battle, committed suicide, and the Iceni nation was absorbed into the Roman Empire. There’s a thrilling Time Team episode on the subject here:

Higgins sums up Boudica’s legacy after visiting a statue of her in Colchester, of which she writes:

Boudica is, at best, an ambiguous heroine for Colchester, since her sole connection is that in AD 60 or 61 she and her men took and burnt the town, and massacred its inhabitants.

The process by which an Iceni queen became a British martyr says a lot about the capacity to extract narrative from ambiguity. The idea of a unified British identity, with its own history and traditions, didn’t exist when Boudica was alive.

One thing I got from Higgins’ book was a sense that a unified ‘British history’ is a relatively recent idea. The traditions that bind it together obscure the almost continual conflict between Celtic tribes, and the Roman, Saxon, Angle and Norman invasions. Today being Australia Day, it makes a nice counterpoint to the celebration of an Anglo Australian identity.

Incidentally, Charlotte Higgins is the culture editor for the Guardian. You can read some of her articles here or order her book here.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book

She’d probably read the chapters on Boudica. Whether she’d finish it probably depends on what the weather was like, what she’d picked up from Bunnings that week, and whether the dog wanted a walk.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Last year I set myself two goals for the year.

  1. To only read books by women, more on which here.
  2. To blog about each one.

The first was a great success, and the latter an abysmal failure.

One of the unexpected oddities of my year of gendered reading was a surprisingly large volume of histories of Ancient Rome, ending when I got Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome for Christmas.

Beard herself seems quite the character. She has her own documentary, which opens with her pedaling down the Appian Way.

Her history starts with Romulus, Remus and their fateful encounter with a lactating she-wolf, and ends with the emperor Caracalla giving citizenship to everyone within the empire. It’s thematic, rather than narrative, and focuses on legacy rather than historical detail. As she writes:

To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps us to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world and our place in it.

I’ve been listening to the marathon narrative of the History of Rome podcast, and against which SPQR provided a context: the ‘What’ to it’s ‘When’. As Beard concludes:

…I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and pose, their controversies and their arguments.

This is an apt summary of the other books on Roman history I read last year, which circled less around Rome’s history and more around its trace. I thought I’d explore this through another sporadic foray into blogging; starting with Charlotte Higgin’s Under Another Sky, Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, then wandering back to the start of last year, with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon.

You can read Mary Beard’s blog here or buy her book here.

 

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?

No, it’s a bit too long, but she would enjoy the TV show.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

There’s a review by Laura Millar, published in The Guardian on February 11th 2015, that describes this book as “strenuously quirky”. Millar didn’t like it, writing:

Eccentricities, as uncountable as the sands of the Sahara, drift and blow through this book, piling up in dunes that must be scaled by characters and readers alike.

She concludes with:

It’s true that if you dig deeply enough, you can find something bizarre about almost anyone. When, however, the focus for nearly 300 pages is on a relatively small cast, the multiplying weirdness becomes unamusing absurdity.

Four days earlier, the same paper published another review on the same book by Eva Wiseman, arguing that the word ‘quirky’ is deliberately used to dismiss women’s work as silly. Wiseman writes:

To be quirky is to be whimsical. To be frivolous, naive, awkward, self-conscious. To have disproportionately large eyes and a faraway gaze. It is to be twee. It defines a character by her eccentricities rather than inviting you to see them as a whole.

I’m guessing some of this is less about The First Bad Man, and more about July’s earlier work, like this:


And this:

Based on that, I’d had a few people tell me I’d hate this book; that it would be too emotional or too wacky for my taste.

This turned out to be incorrect. Rightly or wrongly, it reminded me of some of my favourite authors: John Kennedy Toole, early Evelyn Waugh, Mitford and, dare I say it, Wodehouse. If we look at something like Waugh’s Scoop or Mitford’s Wigs on the Green, they rely on caricatures whose ‘quirkiness’ acts as a device to parody serious topics; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and British Fascism respectively. If you read those books seeking to avoid absurdity and encounter ‘whole’ characters you’ll be disappointed.

July’s novel seems so much in the same tradition I was honestly surprised to find people treating it as a Realist novel, wanting to ‘dig deeply’ into her characters or trying to see them ‘as a whole’. Not being particularly familiar with her other work, I read The First Bad Man as satire. Her characters aren’t that much different from Waugh’s inept William Boot, Mitford’s precocious Eugenia Malmain, Toole’s Ignatius or any number of ‘quirky’ Wodehouse characters.

Indeed, the book’s narrator, Cheryl, seems decidedly Wodehouse; mawkishly likeable and bumbling her way through various antics until she reaches her happy ending. I thought it notable that both Wodehouse and July have written for film, because their books both read like ensemble pieces, built on dialogue, very few locations and slapstick. Like Wodehouse, July takes familiar tropes, rhetorical devices and narrative arcs and pushes them just far enough they become hilarious.

The critique of ‘quirkiness’ seems to come from a thwarted attempt to read The First Bad Man as some sort of realistic portrayal of the author’s emotion. Is this because of her gender, because women aren’t meant to be funny or satirical, or simply because there’s too many reviewers hell bent on assuming smart writing has to be painstakingly earnest? Who knows. I thought this was a great book.

Would My Mother Like This Book?

Possibly. It portrays a middle aged woman, isn’t about heterosexuals or men, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Tove_Jansson_1956Tove Jansson is best known for her children’s books on the Moomin trolls, but Sort of Books has just translated and published a bunch of her non-children’s books. They’re all great, but Fair Play has the added benefit of being the first book I’ve read this year I think my mother would actually like.

More than a children’s book author, Jansson is something of a bohemian icon; supposedly the original sketches for the Moomin family came from a derogatory sketch she drew of Immanuel Kant. There’s a documentary on her here:

I’ve read three books by Jansson in the past few months. I’ve been told they read like Banana Yoshimoto or Haruki Murakami; sparse in that Raymond Carver way, with a similar tendency towards narratives that work around the point, rather than towards it. That’s true, but Jansson is much more elegant and unique.

Fair Play is a series of vignettes based on Jansson and her partner, the Finnish designer and academic Tuulikki Pietilä. Jansson tends to write entirely pleasant short stories, of a length and tone perfect for someone who gets distracted every fifteen minutes or so by their dog, their garden or the need for a quick nap. This is true of all her work, but Fair Play has the added distinction of being about old women having adventures by the beach, as this picture shows: Tove JanssonFor this reason, I think it’s a safe bet my mother would like it.

 

Would my Mother enjoy this book?:

Yes, font size is good, can be read between naps/gardens/dog walks, and it is about old women going to the beach.