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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Everything went wrong for the bamboo this year, then everything went right. A three-month drought was broken, then smashed, the warmth returned, expected animal attacks didn’t occur. Very high winds could still bring disappointment, but it’s all looking great. Visitors marvel at the new culms, but, curiously, it’s a boring time for the grower: the grove loses so much leaf that it becomes like light scrub. It’s only when the canopy grows back and the new culms add even deeper shade that you get your grove back. Of course, watching those culms lengthen by the hour is not too shabby.

***

Talking in the last post about Dante. I recently had a big Dante moment.

I’d decided to read all the Commedia during a stay in Siena a few months back. Kind of thing you do on a cultural break. In spite of good intentions, I usually stop at Paradiso, and did so again this time. Can’t get into the Aristotelian theories, theology tutorials with major saints, seating arrangements for Heaven etc. Sorry. (Some of the greatest slabs of verse are contained in the Paradiso, so I read those a lot. Am I off the hook?)

Before discussing my Moment, a further word about finding an entry point to Dante. I mentioned that an old copy of  the Divine Comedy first drew my interest because of the Doré illustrations. Something else that gave me a taste was an Faber anthology piece I can no longer find. It was Laurence Binyon’s rhyming (in terza rima!) translation of  the conclusion of Canto 27, Purgatorio. The episode relates Virgil’s farewell to Dante before the latter enters the garden of the Earthly Paradise, there to encounter Beatrice. You can say “sublime” too often…but not about the concluding cantos of the Purgatorio. No human utterance goes higher. But I gush!

The point is that Binyon’s translation of these lines had a certain sound. Through a curtain of inverted, antiquated English, a colossal music was audible. I did not have ask what it was.

Binyon is now among the least fashionable of Dante’s translators, for the obvious reason that a rendering of the Comedy into English triple rhyme must involve much inversion, archasim and general wrenching.

Yet consider alternatives. When a new translation is announced, it will no doubt be by some poet-in-leafy-residence type with plenty of academic cred, but also a bit of “edge”. Our translator may even have an ear-ring, a motorbike, or a taste for sky-diving. There’ll be talk of  “vibrancy”, “fresh-minting”, “new currency”, “vernacular”, “aural subtlety”…and it all will have a point. Dante didn’t write in archaic language, there was no Quaker talk, no thee-and-thou stuff. Italian is rhyme-rich, so there are few awkward wrenchings and inversions. But our much heralded new translation, for all its worthy qualities and relevance to a new generation of readers etc, will be flat. Flat as a lizard drinking.

The problems of rendering Dante into English have been discussed so long and hard that there’s no need for my own amateurish account here. Yet I’ll say this. The most respected versions, whether verse, free verse or prose, come nowhere near to sounding like the real deal. To restate: who misses the sound of Dante, misses too much.

Binyon is probably not worth the effort for all the reasons above and more. Yet that one  passage, for all its clunkiness, made a precious sound: the sound of Dante Alighieri. Providential nudge just for me?  Binyon in form that day? Never mind. I had a hook in to Dante. You run with these things.

So, as I was saying…

A few months back, I was riding along in a bus between Siena and Florence, doing my daily read, and came to this passage:

Our two poets come to the deep central pit of hell, and Dante imagines that there are towers rising from its edges. In fact they are giants, visible from the waist up, punished for their rebellion against Jove, though one of them, Nimrod, is biblical. (Dante often ditches prissy theology for these pagan horror shows.)

Of course, the image needs extending, so, in a famous passage, he compares the appearance of the giants to the towers of Monteriggioni, a castle-town built by the Sienese to help keep out the hated Florentines.

So, I look up from my book to check out the scenery…and there it is!

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EAST SYDNEY: A MEMOIR

Street,Sydney

When I worked there, the early seventies, it was known to outsiders for Harbour Bridge traffic and prostitution.

But there was plenty going on. Around Stanley Street, there were those drab Italian cafes, with “machines” in the rear. Men sat out front with their coats over their shoulders, talked soccer, mistresses, dopey Aussies.

Up the hill, there were Maltese clubs with no machines where the cards slapped the tables hard all night long. Those Maltese! One of the many Galeas I got to know had his own Swiss Fondue restaurant further up the road. He wore plunging body shirts, with gold Maltese Cross against coal black chest hair. Once, prowling in his Ford GT, he pulled over to the kerb to show me his tiny new revolver, which looked just like the sleek Derringers that female saloon singers carried in old Westerns. He probably had no use for a gun, but that sort of thing went over in East Sydney.

Right opposite the restaurant where we worked a human fly lived on the top floor. Yes, a human fly! He was a wispy young albino in ashram clothes who simply scaled the wall of the terrace and stepped in through his front window. Never saw him use a door.

A couple of houses up, where we often parked our cars, a crumbling old terrace was being preserved by a Green Ban: a union-imposed heritage order. That meant that no building union member could touch it. Which meant nobody could touch it. One afternoon there was an almighty crash. Rushing to the window, we could see the old house sprayed across the road. No one was hurt. In East Sydney,  you had to believe someone “dun it”. Was it a developer? An owner? Was it the union, embarrassed by their own Green Ban? The place had been more wreckage than heritage. Anyway, that’s how they sorted things out in East Sydney, even if there was an easier way.

Gentrification had come to the ancient warren of tiny workers’ houses below Oxford street. The strange monochrome “restoration” of a whole block – you learnt not to say “development” – was a mix of agencies and pied-a-terre living for outsiders referred to as  “trendies”. Locals tried to graffitti them out. PISS OFF TRENDIES was the most commonly seen slogan on the new walls. The developer – sorry, restorer – paid local kids to come round and cover the walls with any old graffitti. The campaigners gave up. I suppose that’s what makes a great developer in East Sydney. Sorry, great restorer.

We had the odd well known resident. A popular newspaper columnist had his “pad” in a stone cottage behind the restaurant. That man was beer made flesh. Swaying and tottering along Palmer Street behind his huge belly, with pulpy red face clapped in massive sunglasses, you’d wonder how he did it. How he did anything. Yet I once saw him sober. He was making his way to the Chevron, primly suited for Sinatra’s big reconciliation with Sydney. (Remember Sinatra’s previous time in Sydney? The unions wouldn’t let him leave because he called journalists “hookers”. Frank!) Anyway, you just knew that this story of the return of the Blue-Eyed One really counted. Our man was sober, and was moving with a light, even springy tread. I suppose that’s what makes a great journalist, at least in East Sydney.

One of Sydney’s more famous “business identities” parked his Bentley right next to our premises. One day it blew up, fortunately in another part of the city. Nobody hurt. Insurance? Publicity? Or was Business Identity more than just an identity? Typical questions for East Sydney.

Then we were burnt down. A fire bomb! Middle of the night, no-one hurt. I’d been the last person in the building, baking big terrines for the next week.

So I was interviewed by the police up at Regent Street. They asked me who the last customers were and I had to tell them: “A couple of priests”. The detectives burst into laughter. “A couple of pricks!” one of them repeated. So I had to stress: “No, priests. A couple of priests.” So they got to do the guffawing thing all over again. It was the truth, a local Catholic university rector and some visiting English counterpart, who talked like Laurence Olivier, had stayed on drinking till late that night. Hope the police never contacted them.

Who burnt us down? The never-seen Hungarian Jewish owner? The guy with the Maltese club downstairs, another Galea? My employers? Enemies of any of the aforementioned? No one thought it was accidental. Not in East Sydney. We were back in business after a month. The Maltese club wasn’t.

***

In another part of the city, East Sydney’s biggest hoodlum, Wayne Anthony “Jet” Jackson was gunned down.

I’d never met him, but locals described him as good bloke, good son etc.

This was big enough news. Then they found Jet’s will. In it, he confessed to the multiple murders of prostitutes and business rivals. He indicated that the remains were buried in the tiny yard of his terrace house. That house was in the lane across the road from our restaurant, just up from the corner where the Green Ban house had stood.

The lane was cordoned off. Police cars were parked everywhere. Excavation machinery was delivered. The street was full of onlookers, milling just below the window of our restaurant.

I ended up mingling with the crowd for a while.

Craig Farrugia and Warren Sultana, young Maltese cousins who washed our dishes on alternate nights, stood deliberately back and peered over the shoulders of the people in front. Craig was talking out of the corner of his mouth, but loud enough so a few around could hear: “Don’t show your face, Warren. Cameras everywhere, mate. If the pigs see us, mate….” Then a police officer came from behind, looked right at him, and said: “Thanks for staying back sir.” Then to the rest of the crowd: “Please be like this young gentleman and assist us by staying back!” I don’t know what the British or the Arabs or the Crusaders did in Malta…but I can tell you the Maltese don’t like to be accused publicly of law-abiding behaviour. Craig flushed, shook his head, glared over at me.  “Pigs, mate. They don’t know you till it suits ’em to know you….Warren, just keep back. Those cameras, mate.”

Our Swiss Fondue Galea cruised past in his GT, steered to the curb when no police were watching. He waved me over to chat.

“They all thought it was the meat grinder at the Texas Tavern. But this is where he put ’em. Lucille, Sally…that Chinese market bloke. He as good as told me. Bloody Jet, eh? He wasn’t racialist, you know. Mad bugger never touched a Maltese. Thought too much of Perc…”

“But…what about Falzon?”

“That fat turd? He was from Gozo. I’d better take off. I’ve got a boot-full of you know what…”

I didn’t know what. It was probably a boot-full of table linen.

Shortly after there were shouts and people started pointing away from the lane. What was happening?

Human Fly had arrived home and was walking up the wall of his house! The crowd, most of whom had never seen it before, surged forward, shouting and pointing.

A policeman came running down the lane to see what had happened. In his haste, he dropped a sack which he’d been carrying from Jet’s house. Something came spilling out. Bones. Lots of bones.

Our journalist only had to stumble the short distance back to his pad to phone in the discovery. Which led to that headline with its deathless alliterations:

JET’S LAST JOLT: LETHAL LANE

***

By the next day it was known that the bones were the remains of years of lamb dinners, hoarded and buried by Jet Jackson to send the cops down one final dead-end. He got ’em from the grave.

And I suppose that’s what makes a great criminal…in East Sydney!

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AFTERWORD: This happened, but not exactly as described. I changed names etc, and dramatized a bit. Funny, once you change a few facts for good reason, you feel free to invent more.  What I didn’t mention is that the restaurant used to be the home and brothel of notorious Tilly Devine, of Razorhurst fame. Here are the premises in 1943:

devine

No commercial use allowed.

Across the road was the notorious Tradesman’s Arms, just a pub by the seventies, and now renamed. It was  a bloodhouse back in the days when Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh sent out razor gangs against one another. Why, people even smoked!

east-villageBoth pub and ex-brothel now figure in old Sydney gangland tours.

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When things flower madly around here it doesn’t mean it’s spring. It just means: pollinate me.  These beauties won’t have much trouble finding pollinators.

smaller grev

Moso bamboo knows it’s not time too send up shoots yet. In fact, after an ideal cool season, there’s now the chance of a dry spring and summer. That can mean later and fewer shoots. To take one’s mind off the frustrations of El Nino…what about some book talk?

Stefan Zweig was a depressive, Jewish, middle-European intellectual who wrote psychological studies of…Whoa! I’m losing you, aren’t I?

zweig_stefan

But stay with me. Zweig was an entertainer. His studies of European historical figures don’t pretend to be either history or biography. Rather, he selects a character who can’t fail to interest and lets you see the times through that character. The result can read a little like a novel and Zweig is not above the odd Hollywood flourish to keep a bit of juice in the mix. Yet for all his narrative vibrancy, he was a scholar and respected interpreter of history. The style is clear, like Orwell’s, and, like Orwell, his emphasis on character and human nature gives his work appeal to readers of all political colours.

I’d heard that his study of Fouche was a great read, but didn’t get round to it till now. Yes, it’s a great read. And what a subject! (He’s Foo-shay, by the way. There’s supposed to be an acute accent over the “e” in Fouche, but I have trouble with  tech stuff.)

school_portrait_of

I’ll avoid spoilers – but was there ever such a brilliant, twisty, amoral survivor as this guy? Starting his career as a prig, a demagogue and mass-murderer in the French Revolution, he took more shapes and turns than seems possible for one man. Still loathed by nearly all to this day, Fouche was nonetheless recognised by Balzac as a genius, and Zweig, while harbouring no illusions on the character of his subject, exhibits that genius. One is even tempted to think that France and Europe were better off for his unlikely, unwanted influence over such titanic figures as Robespierre and Napoleon. Probably more lived than died because of the unloveable Joseph Fouche.

As you read the book, you find yourself shrieking: “How is Fouche going to make the next switch? Surely, he’s washed up this time!” It’s not unlike watching Indiana Jones.

A possible lesson. A guy who can walk into a room and have everyone like the way he looks and talks can make great career strides quickly. But a man who struggles from birth against a general and spontaneous dislike of his person might well develop psychic muscles others know nothing about.

Another lesson. If a screaming demagogue comes round to your house one morning, seizes your property, publicly condemns everything you stand for, then publicly shoots you into little pieces with a big cannon…Don’t worry! He probably doesn’t mean it. He’ll probably feel completely different about things by afternoon. Such was Joseph Fouche, Duke of Otranto.

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