Granny's Good Reads 

Sonia Lee is one of our most treasured customers and a voracious reader.

September 2016

 - Thursday, September 01, 2016


The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft 
($35) by Tom Griffiths gives us portraits of fourteen historians, most of whom were Tom’s teachers or colleagues in the History Department of Melbourne University. It’s the sort of book which leaves you with a nice long list of further reading. Top of that list for me is Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land, which I somehow missed out on as a teenager, though it was at the time a bestseller as well as a textbook. Dark’s historical novel is a meticulously researched story of Bennilong, who watched the ‘boat with wings’ sail into Port Jackson, bringing time to a timeless land. Dark was one of the earliest historians to refer to the Aborigines as ‘the Australians’, with Phillip’s marines and convicts, among whom was my ancestor Ann Forbes, cast as interlopers in an alien and often hostile terrain. The Dark family lived in the Blue Mountains, where Eleanor’s regular bushwalks gave her a special feeling for the land’s first inhabitants. (In a lighter vein she wrote Lantana Lane, one of my favourites, where rubbish is ‘chucked down the lantana’ and Nelson the one-eyed kookaburra flies in at breakfast time and sits on the teapot, depriving them of their second cuppa.) 

Griffiths gives Judith Wright and Henry Reynolds a chapter each for their books on the frontier wars, and another chapter to farmer, poet and environmental historian Eric Rolls, author of two monumental works, A Million Wild Acres on the Pilliga Scrub, and They All Ran Wild on the havoc wrought by introduced plants and animals, both of them ‘must reads’. Tom’s next subject is Donna Merwick, the American colleague who turned her students into historians by training them to do research from primary sources. I wish I had read Merwick’s Death of a Notary, her account of the 17th-century Dutch settlements on the Hudson River, before starting on Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which covers some of the same period. 

Another very moving chapter is devoted to Tom’s beloved ex-Jesuit teacher Greg Dening, author of Mr Bligh’s Bad Language and other accounts of the denizens and exploiters of the South Pacific. Historian Graeme Davison, author of Lost Relations, my favourite read in 2015, aroused the suspicion of two burly policemen as he tramped around Richmond wearing out several pairs of boots in search of relics of the early 19th century, giving point to RH Tawney’s remark that historians need good boots. 

In his chapter on Inga Clendinnen, Griffiths discusses her picture of our first inhabitants in Dances with Strangers and examines the problems which historical novelists like Kate Grenville have in turning frontier conflict into fiction while staying true to the historical evidence. All of Inga Clendinnen’s books are worth reading, especially her great work Aztecs. Other historians discussed by Griffiths include John Mulvaney and Geoffrey Blainey. I can’t recommend this book too highly.

What Happened to the Car Industry? ($25) by Ian Porter (with cartoons by Mark Knight and John Spooner) is another for the ‘must read’ list. It would seem to make sense for an island nation in a troubled world where sea lanes could be cut off to be as self-sufficient as possible. Porter asks why we subsidise mining so lavishly but can’t keep our car and steel industries going when they have been such large employers and generate so many spin-offs. Why, he asks, can’t we make electric cars with batteries from our own lithium deposits, using the old plant at Elizabeth?

Peacock and Vine ($31.99),
 AS Byatt’s latest offering, compares two masters of design, William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. All I knew about Fortuny is that Hilda in LP Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda had a Fortuny dress—a wondrous garment made from beautifully patterned silk with tiny permanent pleats. His creations, I learn, were inspired by Sir Arthur Evans’s The Prehistoric Tombs of Knossos, while his ‘Delphos’ dresses were modelled by his elegant wife Henriette. Fortuny also designed table lamps and furniture, patented a new type of photographic paper and devised a bowl-shaped portable theatre. Morris taught himself weaving, embroidery, calligraphy, stone- and wood-carving and devised loose artistic dresses for his wife Jane, whose dark, brooding sensuality attracted Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose model and mistress she became. Byatt was at the Museo Fortuny in Venice when the idea of comparing these two creative and versatile artists came to her, and she finished this account of them in time for her 80th birthday. She tells us that as she grows older she has become more interested in glass blowers, potters, and makers of textiles and the like, and reminds us that her forebears made pots in the ‘Five Towns’ in Staffordshire. Many of Byatt’s books bear witness to her passion for art. The Virgin in the Garden, still my favourite Byatt novel, begins with a glittering party in the National Portrait Gallery and she has written appreciatively of the ceramics of Edmund de Waal, while Morris makes an appearance in The Children’s Book, which is mainly about arts and crafts. Peacock & Vine is a sumptuously beautiful book with its peacock cover and ravishing photographs and designs. A sheer delight. Sonia