Thursday, July 2, 2020

The War Widow by Tara Moss

Billie Walker is an experienced war correspondent whose missing European husband may or may not be dead. Back in Australia in 1946, she finds women reporters are getting sidelined to provide jobs for returned men. Needing to earn her living while awaiting news of Jack, who remains incommunicado, she moves into her late father's old office to follow in his footsteps as a private investigator.

Ms. Walker is fashionably dressed and easy on the eye. Her lipstick shade is Fighting Red. She wears a double-breasted trench coat and smokes on occasion, but avoids drinking alone. Her ally in the police is a woman, and her street informer - observant, fearless and Aboriginal - is female. Sam, her assistant, has a war-scarred hand - an asset in a dust-up. Normally shy, he takes to champagne "like some kind of truth serum." 

As well as treating readers to fresh versions of private eye tropes, Tara Moss judiciously tucks in details that reflect the atmosphere of the era. We're told that Billie's mother, like Marie Stopes, is in favour of women controlling their reproductive destinies, "despite what gray-haired men of religion had to say on the matter." We are also informed that "the great divide in Australia and elsewhere" is between those who served in the war and those who didn't.

Though not yet ready to admit her probable widowhood, Billie is well aware of the fate of the war widows of Australia - "some were objects of pity, others considered a threat." Those with children "received but a pittance," while childless widows got no pensions at all, since the men in charge believed they needed nothing more than another husband. 

In contrast to the poor and unemployed of the city, readers glimpse the lives of Sydney's upper crust. Occupying homes with maids' quarters at the top, many show off their furs and jewels at fancy clubs like The Dancers, where gangsters are known to hang out. Unconcerned about provenance, they buy up pricey art at an auction house run by a well-dressed crook. 

It is rumoured that the Australian government plans to flush out cash hoarded by war-time black-market racketeers by calling in all existing banknotes and replacing them with a new issue. As she broods over this, the detective concludes that a certain auction house is a likely place for the dirty money to be laundered before it becomes worthless.

To keep her mind off her probable widowhood, Billie loves to lose herself in the excitement of the chase. She enjoys driving her Willys 77 roadster fast - even if it means using up her petrol coupons halfway through the month. She also carries a pearl-handled Colt in her stocking top in case of need. On receiving a hand-delivered note, she's hit by jolt of adrenalim, as she's unsure "whether to expect a death threat or an invitation to tea."

Tara Moss's book is an alchemy of humour and realism. Periodic references to the recent war are described in bald and  chilling terms with references to veterans walking around Sydney with skin grafts on their faces, the result of "airman's burn." We're also told that Ravensbruck women slaves "made parts for Daimler-Benz or electrical components for the Siemens Electric Company," while others worked on Hitler's V2 rocket or "were made to pull a huge roller to pave the streets." 

Yet except when describing such harsh historic realities, the tone of the prose is generally light. The setting being Australia, there has to be a reference to a crocodile: in this case, one that escaped from a zoo. The author also has fun with double entendres. In one scene where Billie is intent on her driving as and Sam follow a gunman in a high-speed car chase, her assistant tells her he's out of bullets. "Take mine...take it now," she instructs Sam, offering her own gun from her beribboned holster, just as the wind blows her dress up to expose her thigh. 

Later, when the country cops assume Sam is the driver and car owner, we're told the "sun had set on both the day and Billie's patience." She has good reason, as the rural police seem "more suspicious of her [a woman!] driving" than of the testimony of "a soldier's attempts to bring down a couple of criminals with his long-barreled farm gun." 

Back in Sydney, she has to report to Central Police Station, where she feels the male stares at her back "as palpable as hands" and can "almost smell the testosterone." This sexist attitude greatly annoys her, because she knows that her friend Constable Annabelle Primrose "could have wrestled bank robbers with only one arm, if only they'd let her."

Throughout the book, Moss's use of language surprises, delights, and reflects the character of the feisty detective. A corrupt cop clenches his fists "tighter than a pauper grips a coin," and the auctioneer "conducts himself in a sedate and formal manner that wouldn't have been amiss in a mortician." The paid thug who makes the mistake of kicking Billie looks "underfed and over-beaten." After she pushes her hatpin into his ankle, we see him "standing on one leg like a cowardly flamingo."

Billie also shares occasional terse philosophical observations. The motivations for murder, she opines, are "money, jealousy and power." Considering the relationship between war and wealth, she thinks about "those who did well out of the debacle," and comments to Sam that "'wars wouldn't be nearly so common if no one made money from them.'" On the sober topic of mortality, she realizes how "the proximity of death taught you that you only had this moment."

A classic of its type, this book lightens the tone and shakes up the trope. As a bonus, reading this mystery includes a chance to learn a bit of history. I hope we'll soon be hearing more about the cases of Billie Walker and her sidekick Sam.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Cairo during the War by Artemis Cooper

During the period this book describes, the world was a very different place from the one we inhabit now -- indeed, even from the era in which the work was published, in 1989. "The British occupation was not popular," the author says, and  Cairo, technically a neutral city, seesawed between support and resentment of the colonial power. Today it is jaw-dropping to witness the racism, sexism, and classism that prevailed as a matter of course.

The human antics of an immense and varied cast of Cairenes and foreigners alike are most absorbing. We learn how the GHQ desk jockeys claim membership in ironically named imaginary units like Groppi's Light Horse, and we hear how Lawrence Durrell had to work to persuade the parents of his second wife -- the model for Justine in The Alexandria Quartet -- to marry him.

We are present at a famous New Year's party hosted by Princess Shevekiar, and learn that King Ahmed Fuad of Egypt was one of her four ex-husbands. We also glimpse the drunken revelries hosted at "Tara" by SAS operative David Stirling. At one of these, his eccentric roommate, a Polish aristocrat, gets into an argument with neighbours after her pet mongoose bites their cat.

We learn of The Gezira Sporting Club with its polo and racing, and many other kinds of clubs. We learn how British Egyptian official and art collector Sir Robert Greg, nicknamed Pompy for his alleged pomposity, approached the Howard Carter estate and persuaded them to return King Tut's treasures to the Egyptian Museum. Cooper also relates the sad story of King Farouk's fabulously expensive gift of chocolates, a kind of low-key political bribe which he orders from Groppi's and which is sent to the UK via Khartoum, Lisbon and Ireland, only to remain unopened on arrival in London.

Indeed, we witness the more fortunate occupants of Cairo eating and drinking sumptuously, while remaining somewhat lackadaisical about following blackout regulations. On the other hand, we learn of bread riots, sugar and paraffin shortages, and how falling cotton prices cause immense hardship to poorer Egyptians.

We learn of the Flap, a temporary period when officials, considering the fall of Cairo to the Axis powers imminent, send their wives and children to South Africa for safety, then frantically burn papers in the British Embassy lest the enemy capture them. We are told tales of spies and of drunken soldiers in the streets, including Australians with a reputation (deserved or not, we do not know) for throwing prostitutes out the window of the brothel when they finish with them.

In this meticulously researched work we also watch Cairo pass through different phases. The chaos of war plays out against internal political upheavals, affording readers a close view of the events that shook the city. We see how the attitudes and actions of King Farouk, routine British political interference, and a series of ineffective Egyptian governments caused resentment, strengthening national aspirations. 

The Epilogue offers a glimpse of the rampaging "Black Saturday riot," when many of the buildings described earlier in the book were burned down in a single afternoon. A military coup followed on July 23, 1952, and the newly appointed Prime Minister was soon asked to deliver an ultimatum to King Farouk. According to the will of the people, he must abdicate in favour of his infant son Fuad, and his family should leave the country. It was a peaceful departure; as Farouk's yacht sailed out of Alexandria, the General in charge bid him a polite farewell in the form of a 21-gun salute. 

Encouraged by Hugo Vickers to embark on this vast project of history combined with mini-biographies, author Artemis Cooper FRSL has done a brilliant job of giving readers a powerful sense of having witnessed the history of Cairo during WWII. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Simon Fraser on a Pedestal

Pedestals from the past: Simon Fraser

Will this statue be the next one pushed in the drink?
Instead, in this present moment, let us stop and think.
Let's refrain from blaming the dead for deeds we cannot reverse.
The past cannot be altered, as Rumi says,
"The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on..."
The future cannot be improved by blame or erasure.
Instead of throwing rage upon dead symbols, let us observe and remember our human past -- witness, forgive, and move on.
We have only this moment, this breath.
In the gift of our time on this planet, let us not indulge in rage or harsh judgment.
Let us begin by forgiving and loving ourselves,
Then devote each precious moment to spending our love wherever we can.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Never Before, Never Again


Never before, never again


Spring evening by the sea

The same as other days

Yet not the same

This bird, these clouds, this tree

Never before, never again.


Waves continuously lap the shore

Soporific, rhythmic, eternal,

Yet never precisely the same as before.

The sky, the clouds, the light

Each moment of this unique dusk

Approaching night.


Dear busy mind,

Filled up with thoughts of times ahead,

Of times behind.

Stand still now, in this perfect moment,

Be tranquil, make this moment mine.


Sunday, June 14, 2020

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

During his tenure as a staff writer for Time and the New Yorker, John McPhee has also produced 33 books. The writing courses he's taught at Princeton have been both generator and source of plangent observations about how to tackle the problems all writers share. This collection of essays highlights frustrations, insights and techniques.

For writer's block, there's the Dear Mother technique, in which you share your feelings of ineptitude and despair in a letter to Mom, insisting that "you are not cut out for this type of work." After whining and whimpering, you mention that "the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around, but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat." You go on like that "as long as you can." And then you go back and delete the salutation, the whining, the whimpering, "and just keep the bear."

The racehorse Secretariat brings us to a topic covered in the essay called Frames of Reference. Do your readers understand what you are referring to? This thorny question involves locale, culture, history, demographics. And it's changing all the time. Although students of Brookline high school in Massachusetts recognized Woody Allen, Muhammad Ali, and Winston Churchill, only a quarter of them had heard of Waterloo Bridge, Norman Rockwell or Truman Capote. Only one was aware of Laurence Olivier, and none had heard of Calabria, Churchill Downs, Bob Woodward or Samuel Johnson. Makes you feel old.

Also in the title essay, McPhee posits a "four-to-one ratio in in writing time," and explains the "psychological differences from phase to phase." Once the dreaded first draft has been laid down,  problems with the writing "become less threatening, more interesting." But first you must "blurt out, heave out, babble out something--anything as a first draft." No matter how incompetent you feel -- and "To feel such doubt is a part of the picture, important and inescapable." The box technique for editing is fascinating; I intend to try it when I reach that pinnacle of achievement, Draft 4 -- that is, if I ever finish blurting out the first draft of the novel I'm working on now.

The same essay contains some fascinating and arcane stories about how editing is done at The New Yorker. That includes tales of the first copy editor, Eleanor Gould, whose sage editorial advice was memorialized by inventing the verb to Gould. The copy editors who have come after her have "lived in her shadow" and "lengthened it."

Other tidbits offered involve the usage of further (degree) versus farther (distance), the silent 's' apostrophe, and demonyms -- Haligonian, Liverpudlian and Minneapolitan are on his A list. "The Chicago Manual of Style is a "quixotic attempt at one-style-fits-all for every house in America--newspapers, magazines, book publishers, blogishers." John McPhee's book is not merely a learning experience, it's a delightful read.

Monday, June 1, 2020

A Match Made for Murder by Iona Whishaw

In the latest Lane Winslow novel, Iona Whishaw elegantly carries off a feat rarely attempted by mystery writers: she marries her sleuth to the aptly named Inspector Darling.

As the genre demands, the honeymooners' Arizona idyll is fraught with danger. Even as tension mounts, a signature moment of light humour evokes a smile. When his captive asks a hired thug why he's driving her out into the desert, his sharp reply inspires her rueful reflection that she's "in the thrall of a sarcastic kidnapper."

Lane and Frederick Darling are surrounded by marital discord. A visit with Frederick's old colleague the Chief of Police reveals cracks in his marriage. Then at the inn where the Darlings are staying, Lane witnesses a fatal shooting, motivated, we eventually learn, by greed and jealousy.

While the Inspector honeymoons, in King's Cove, Sergeant Ames fumbles his current romance. In the course of investigating a strange murder, he stumbles on some delicate emotional territory that sours his relationship with Tina. Themes of emotionally bankrupt marriage and male violence against women arise again, and evidence turned up in the investigation challenges Ames to face certain uncomfortable realities.

Set in the late 1940s, this novel portrays the immediate post-war period, a time when women enjoyed far less freedom than they do today. Breaking the silence around sexual politics in The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir summarized with brutal clarity. "Man-the-sovereign will protect woman-the-liege." But in exchange for material protection and personal responsibility, she must "forego her liberty and become a thing." Male dominance feeds on female powerlessness.

In sharp contrast to this sad stereotype, the unflappable ex-spy Lane Winslow and her husband demonstrate the health of their newly forged union. In one scene, we see this through an honest discussion of their failings and imperfections. He opens up to her about his mortification at having been '"taken in by a slick, arrogant man.'" She responds by reminding him that in her youth she "wasted years on a man just like that," adding that he should not reproach himself since '"being dazzled and fooled can happen to anybody."'

Unlike many other war veterans, this couple are consciously aware of their demons of memory, and they work at coming to terms. When Lane relates a recurring war nightmare and shares her feelings of guilt about the events that inspired it, she discovers that opening to Frederick's perspective helps her achieve a kind of peace that diminishes the power of the traumatic memory.

In the post-war era, veterans frequently indulged unmanageable rage and guilt by violently lashing out. Women were brutalized, dark-skinned people victimized, and civil power structures echoed pyramid-style military hierarchies with their demand for unquestioning obedience.

For the male antagonists in this story, the ravages of suppressed emotion feed into fits of rage and violence, racist attitudes, and the unhealthy will to power at the expense of other people's rights and freedoms. Tacitly tolerated, the crime of rape saddles women with years of secret shame and self-recrimination.

As her fans have come to expect, Iona Whishaw tells a cracking good story while offering the reader many other satisfactions. Set seventy years in the past, this novel raises issues that remain sadly current as daily news media report on similar social ills.

Fortunately, good stories sustain the soul. Reading about Lane and Frederick gives me hope, and I am heartened by the thought that "the long moral arc swings toward the good." Let us hope that the rise of COVID 19 accelerates the increasingly critical human understanding that we are all one.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Love is Blue by Joan Wyndham

This rare book was well worth the search. By turns sharp, hilarious and heartbreaking, the voice of memoirist Joan Wyndham is filled with contradictions. She's a devout Catholic with divorced parents. Adhering to conventions inculcated by her mother, she attends art school and frequents concerts, galleries and theatres as well as mass and confession. On the rare occasion her artist father turns up, he takes her for a meal and then drinking at club after West End club.

Intelligent, convent-educated and artistic, Joan is 17 when the war starts. The RADA, to which she's already been accepted, closes indefinitely, putting paid to her plan of studying to be an actress.

Aware of her innocence, she's also guiltily determined to enjoy experiences the church forbids.

Along with jazz and wild parties, she discovers men. Innocent but filled with enthusiastic curiosity, she plunges into the convention-defying lifestyle of Bohemian London. After experimenting with some benzedrine found at her father's flat, she goes on to get the drug prescribed so she can drink copiously without feeling drunk. Experimenting with sex, she runs through a range of men from immature egotistical artists to depressed refugee philosopher-poets. She develops a special fondness for a gloomy sculptor, a German Jew who's terrified the government will intern him - and he does end up spending much of the war in a camp in Australia.

All that's before she gets involved with the displaced fighting Norwegians on Shetland and the RAF. As the war progresses, she interacts with a "conchie," and watches other artistic friends go to war. The mad party scene filled with art, jazz, booze, sex and drugs doesn't end, but continues in a different form when Joan joins the WAAF, and embarks on a whole new set of adventures.

One volume of a three part memoir of Joan Wyndham's life during WWII, Love is Blue offers an intimate glimpse of wartime life. Based on diaries the author wrote at the time, this volume is rich with details of cafes, bars, slang, mores, clothing, food and sketches of colourful contemporaries. We follow Wyndam through Chelsea and Soho, then on to Preston, Shetland, and Inverness.

The final scenes set down a living record of one woman's reaction to the shock of the liberated concentration camps, the exhilaration of VE day, the somber numbness of VJ day, and the emotional commemorative events that followed the end of the war.

In this deceptively simple journal format, Joan Wyndham portrays the great issues of her time. Refraining from comment, she allows readers to judge for themselves what to make of the rigid class system, the social expectations of women, the casually dismissive terms used for out-groups, and the devastating effects of war on the people caught up in it.