You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘biography’ tag.

The boat was so small that we were jammed into every crevice, corner and spare patch of deck. It was almost impossible to get downstairs into the hold, which was heaving with sweating bodies and the suffocating stench of old fish. Forty people had transformed this tiny fishing boat into a living, seething mass of human desperation floating in the English Sea.

I find myself wandering through Town Hall’s shopping area in Sydney each morning thinking fondly about how this is my home. It is not my home though. My status is still uncertain. There is no guarantee I will be granted residency in Australia. It is confusing sometimes, as having lived here already for a year this place feels like home to me. I am caught between two worlds, two different cultures – and despite people speaking English here, living in Australia is a very different experience from being in Ireland. I am an immigrant, it sneaks up on me every now and then, but despite the inconvenience of not being able to work, I enjoy a very comfortable life.

When I think about the experiences of refugees who come here to escape from war, persecution and impoverishment, I realize just how lucky I am. In the recent Australian election the term ‘boat people’, was bandied about like an unfeeling political football. For the experiences of so many refugees to be reduced to a pithy sound bite, this struck me as extremely unfair. Which is why I was very interested to read Anh Do’s story. Here we have a much loved Australian celebrity, who is a comedian, actor, screenwriter and unstoppable centre of charisma, and just also happens to be one of these much discussed ‘boat people’.

Anh Do was born in 1977 in Vietnam. His parents decided to risk the many dangers of travelling out of the country on a simple fishing boat to escape to Australia. Anh Do’s family survived pursuit from Communist soldiers, storms, marauding pirates and starvation, eventually arriving at a safe harbor and from there on to Sydney.

Anh attributes their survival to a welcome combination of incredible luck and his father’s quick wit. At one point following a boarding of the boat by pirates, the starving refugees were stripped naked, robbed, assaulted and in a final humiliation, their engine was stolen. Thankfully Anh’s father Tam replaced a missing rubber band on a second broken engine with a strip from the bottom of a shoe. The boat roared into life.

The family’s life in Sydney was free of the oppression they had fled from, but they were instead crippled by poverty. Thanks to the goodwill of charities and generous neighbours the refugee Vietnamese family managed to make a start of life in Australia, with Tam and his wife worked to support their growing family of three children. Eventually other members of the family made the trek from Vietnam, with the Do household often hosting more than one family, including other refugees who simply needed a place to stay until they had the means to move on. Anh attributes this to his mother’s enduring desire to help others, an aspect of her training as a nun. Troubled times were ahead for the family though, with Tam, having become more and more reliant on alcohol, eventually leaving his young family. With the household income suddenly halved, Anh took it on himself to help his mum make ends meet, excelling in his studies in the hope of one day getting a decent job to help buy her a proper house, so that she might never want again.

Who knew becoming a standup comedian could be so profitable?

Anh’s story is not a sentimental rags to riches story. It is sincere in its treating of inspiring themes such as the importance of family and the capacity of the individual to excel. The book opens with Anh finally tracking down his father Tam in Melbourne to confront him years after he walked out. It ends with him now the father of a family of his own, a professional film-maker along with his brother Khoa and an ardent supporter of local charities in the Sydney area that help disadvantaged youths.

He’s also a very funny bloke. This book is filled with moments just as likely to make you laugh out loud as cry. The Deal or No Deal appearance was my personally favourite sequence.

An amazing story.

As the car disappeared down the road, old Granny Frinda lay crumpled on the red dirt calling for her grand-daughters and cursing the people responsible for their abduction. In their grief the women asked why their children should be taken from them. Their anguished cries echoed across the flats, carried by the wind. But no one listened to them, no one heard them.

My copy of this book is actually titled Rabbit-Proof Fence and features a photo from the Philip Noyce film of the same name as a cover illustration. I have never seen the film as I felt the material would upset me too much. The thought of families being torn apart is very distressing. It also bothers me that many Australian colonials would have been Irish and we too would have been subject to racial/cultural oppression, only to repeat the racist measures towards the Aborigine people of Australia. All in the name of progress of course.

Nugi Garimara opens her story with a quick study of the history of European colonization of Australia. The displacement of Aboriginal tribes continues the further inland white settlements move, with the cattle trails used by drovers also commandeering watering holes in the outback itself, ever shrinking possible locations for habitation. What inevitably followed was the introduction of slave labour and as a consequence of that, the emergence of half-caste children, referred to as muda-muda. This was blamed on the promiscuity of Aborigine women, with a blind eye being turned to their exploitation at the hands of the whites occupying what had been their land.

The story begins in 1931 with three muda-muda girls from Jigalong in Western Australia being chosen for re-education as a result of their half-caste birth. This was justified as a policy designed to protect children of mixed parentage. Often muda-muda were bullied by other native children for their lighter skin. Daisy, Molly and Grace were cousins who had come to think of one another as sisters, having bonded over their outsider status. The Australian government policy was to obtain children and train them to be employed in white households as servants. This was regarded as a form of rescue, for the belief was that children of mixed-race parentage were in fact more intelligent than native Aborigines and would therefore make better workers.

Molly, the eldest girl, Grace and Daisy were taken by a man named Constable Riggs to the Moore River settlement, hundreds of kilometers south of Jigalong. They travelled by car and by boat, far out of territory known to the three girls. When they arrived at Moore River they were forbidden from speaking in their native language and instructed in English. At the settlement they are befriended by another girl Martha Jones, who tries to help them adjust to their new surroundings. She warns them of the danger of trying to escape, as the authorities employ ‘black trackers’, to return girls who run away, who are then locked up and fed only bread and water. Some of the girls who had been captured were even shaved bald and patrolled around inside the building, so the other Aborigine girls could see what happened to those who ran.

Despite the danger, Molly tells her sisters to save what food they can and then one morning leads them out of the settlement and into the countryside. Using what hunting skills they have the girls live off the land at first, until they decide to visit houses along the way to beg for food. This gives them an opportunity to spread misinformation, informing the whites they meet that they are travelling to different destinations, as their movements are being reported back to the police with every sighting. Molly’s plan is a simple one. Make for the rabbit-proof fence that runs all the way north to Jigalong and try to avoid big towns that may have police officers looking for them.

This incredible true story is all the more effecting for the simple and direct manner in which it is told. Ironically it was thanks to Molly’s white father, who first told her about the rabbit-proof fence, that she was inspired to flee the re-education camp at Moore River. Garimara writes with unfeigned emotion, something I am not used to in historical books.

It is a very sad story. I have nothing more to say.

If LA isn’t the first true American city, she is certainly the greatest. I think so many journalists and tourists report condescendingly on her because they don’t being to understand the depth of the culture-shock they have experienced. A shock nothing like as immediate as the one you receive from New York, but one which is in my view far more lasting and harder to cope with.

I bought this book from a second hand store shortly after J.G. Ballard died. I had just read Michael Moorcock’s tender obituary and was thrilled to discover more about their friendship. The girl in the shop remarked that she had been surprised so many folk were buying up Ballard books before she heard the news. It was a curious friendship between the two men, both writers who appeal to quite different perspectives on the world.

Ballard’s writing evokes a fascination with a coldly objective world, where humanity itself is a passing phase and the remnants left behind, abandoned cities and nuclear fallout, have just as much a claim to life. There is a fascination with an ordered vision of a world stripped of human failings and mortality. Moorcock by contrast takes a perverse pleasure in the grit and grime of fantasy realms, where stories are all lies and wonder is to be found in the rotten core of human history.

What I find odd about the correspondence collected in this volume is that the style is indistinguishable from the crooked authorial voice of his fiction. Indeed I began to question just how real these sights and encounters with the strange denizens of Hollywood were, as the adventures of Moorcock the Englishman abroad seemed too similar to those of his character Colonel Pyat in Jerusalem Commands. If this is fiction disguised as travel writing, it is a fine joke.

We are not privy to Ballard’s replies in this correspondence and Moorcock makes reference to painful personal events during the course of his stay in the States. His marriage had just broken down and emotionally crippled, he travelled to L.A. to visit a writer friend from his New Worlds days, Graham Hall, who was himself dying.  Moorcock gives an unsentimental account of his friend’s selfishness and hurtful decision to drink himself to death. He is also deeply affected by what he sees as the waste of a potentially great writer’s talent. While Moorcock’s name is frequently associated with psychedelic drugs, he eschews puritan hypocrisy in his lamenting of a friend’s life destroyed by drink. He contrasts the aspirational character of Californians, living in a beautiful landscape of sun and surf, with the fatalistic affectations of English Bolshieness, would-be working class heroes with a college degree and ideology in a bottle.

Moorcock’s attempts to raise funds to rescue his soaring overdraft – courtesy of his estranged family relations back in England – land him a position as a script-writer on a revisionist King Arthur film. He identifies the director of the picture only as ‘Ike’, an old Hollywood player who has just had a great success with the space opera genre. I assumed this was a coded reference to Irvin Kershner and a quick google would appear to confirm this. At any rate ‘Ike’ is something of a cartoonish figure, a monstrous ego on legs who insists on Moorcock introducing a black character into the Arthurian cycle on one day and homages to Kurosawa on the next. The well-worn dictatorial relationship between the director and the screen-writer is ploughed through, with Moorcock emerging shaken and disturbed.

Once again I begin to wonder just how real ‘Ike’, is. He seems more a collection of Hollywood player clichés, which does not mean he does not exist. Just Moorcock’s flights of invective remind me more of a fictional dilemma than an actual account. An earlier encounter with a sf fan tattoo artist also raised suspicions. The character in question is identified by the name Gulliver and bonds with Moorcock over Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. The main character of which is memorably described as having a number of facial tattoos, and named Gulliver Foyle. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it made me curious nonetheless.

For Hollywood itself is a place filled with unreality, where the ‘English countryside’, of a Robin Hood serial is just over the hill. Trust Moorcock to prove to be such a winning guide to the darker half of sunny L.A. Evocative and very intimately written.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers