Sunday, February 24, 2013

Marco Vichi "Death In Sardinia"

If you don’t believe in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder you might be inclined to suspect Marco Vichi’s Inspector Bordelli is eventually going to run out of wartime recollections to obsess over. On the other hand, when Death in Sardinia opens the war has been over for more than twenty years, and Bordelli’s still getting regular flashbacks, so if he hasn’t run out of them yet it’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Still, to keep a series moving you need new elements, and I can’t help thinking Vichi is setting things up rather nicely for the next couple of years with some of the sideline issues in this story set in Florence and Sardinia in December 1965 when the body of a loan-shark is found in his Florentine apartment with a pair of scissors sticking out of his neck.

At the same time his offsider Piras is recuperating after serious gunshot wounds at home in Sardinia and is faced with the apparent suicide of a family friend, which seems fairly straightforward and obvious until Piras notes there’s no empty cartridge nearby. Suicide victims aren’t in the habit of cleaning up after themselves, therefore someone else must have done it, which leads one to suspect it wasn’t suicide.

Bordelli, as it turns out, has been on the loan shark’s case for a while, and had attempted to obtain a warrant to search his apartment for evidence of blackmail and other illegal activities, and the murder delivers the opportunity senior figures within the Florence legal system hadn’t been willing to grant him. Bordelli had gone as far as visiting his old mate the burglar cum chef in jail, suggesting they might be able to co-operate on a quiet break and enter once Botta’s current spell inside has finished.

The murder rules that out, but delivers Botta into a situation where he can cook a French Christmas dinner for Bordelli and friends.

Now, with the loan shark dead and Bordelli assigned to the case he can search the premises to his heart’s content, musing all the while that if he’d been given the search warrant he originally asked for the victim might still be alive. Bordelli would, as far as he’s concerned, found something that would have sufficed to take Totuccio Badalamenti out of circulation, which would, in turn, have prevented the killer from getting at him.

Badalamenti’s apartment has been ransacked, but it’s obvious that whoever did it wasn’t as thorough as he could have been. Conducting his own rather more thorough search Bordelli finds a bundle of photographs featuring an attractive girl apparently named Marisa (that’s the name written on the back of each of them) in a variety of provocative poses behind a framed picture. He also locates the hidey hole where Badalamenti was wont to conceal the promissory notes that were the basis of his loan sharking. A call to the pathologist later in the day reveals the discovery of a gold ring inscribed with the name Ciro in the dead man's stomach.

Those discoveries provide a couple of leads that need to be tracked down, and since it seems fairly obvious the killer was either one of Badalamenti’s actual clients or someone very close to one of them the clue to the identity would probably lie in the bundle of documents Bordelli has found.

That’s the outcome of an equation something like Dead body + Ransacked flat = (Probably) Something the killer wanted but didn’t find, and on that basis it makes sense to return the promissory notes to the loan shark’s victims. It’ll be a nice Christmas present for them, and will, more than likely, deliver the evidence that unveils the culprit who, according to the infallible and predictably prickly pathologist Diotivede, is left-handed.

Doing that brings Bordelli into contact with a number of characters who could well become significant players in an ongoing series. There’s the Marisa from the photographs, a stunning beauty who might be making come hither noises to the detective who is old enough to know better and manages to resist the temptation for the moment, her brother, a pot-smoking Rolling Stones fan, and the son of a widowed mother who just happens to have inherited a rural property that just happens to strike Bordelli as an ideal place to retire to. Just to strengthen the links to the emerging sex, drugs and rock’n’roll culture, Bordelli’s ex-prostitute friend introduces him to the herb. Interesting.

Equally interesting is the unfolding string of events in Sardinia. Piras, as we are aware, is the son of one of Bordelli's resistance colleagues, and is impatient to get the recuperative process out of the way, ditch the crutches and get back to Florence and his highly attractive Sicilian girlfriend. With time on his hands, he is drawn into the events surrounding the suicide of a neighbour's cousin which, as previously mentioned, he begins to suspect is not suicide at all.

That supposition is based on the absence of the spent cartridge near the body, but regardless of whether it was actually suicide a bloke with time on his hands is going to dig a little bit to see what was happening around the victim in the days leading up to his death. That bit of digging around suggests he was in the middle of selling off his property, but negotiations had reached an impasse.

Fair enough, you might think. Financial issues (or whatever) prompt the bloke to put the property on the market, things break down, bloke can’t carry on and decides to top himself. Yes, a reasonable enough explanation in theory. But who’s the buyer?

Again, someone who has his plate full might leave it at that, but Piras has time on his hands, a motive to dig in the form of deeply distressed relatives who were close to the victim, and keeps on going. Checking out the buyer reveals a man whose background seems to lie in areas where all the official records had been destroyed, which is possible, but uncomfortably coincidental, and when a personal encounter reveals a prickly individual with a spent cartridge caught in the sole of his shoe...

Go much further than that and you’re in spoiler territory, but that’s two of the three strands that run through the novel accounted for. The third, predictably, has a seasonal focus as Bordelli sorts out a Christmas present for Rosa and sets up a Christmas dinner to be cooked by Botta. He hadn’t been released from jail in time to help with the break-in that might have saved Badalamenti’s life but is just in time to look after the seasonal feast. There are, of course, other delicacies mentioned during Bordelli's visits to Toto’s restaurant kitchen and Piras’ recovery is accompanied by his mother’s Sardinian home cooking.

Three books into the series you might be inclined to gripe about the continued recurrence of wartime reminiscences and the repeated appearance of Fascist and Nazi nasties, but with five years to go until he retires that’s going to bring him into the middle of the violent years of the late sixties and early seventies, The Years of Lead with plots, coup attempts, bombings, intrigues, the rise of right- and left-wing paramilitary groups, and street warfare between rival factions.

Given Vichi’s habit of keeping characters from earlier episodes on the edges of the action is subsequent stories, you’d expect the long-haired dope-smoking Stones fans to stick around the periphery and they’re the sort of people who could well end up in some offshoot of the Red Brigades. On that basis you’d have to suspect Vichi has set things up rather nicely for a very interesting ongoing series.

Bordelli's world view, his friendships with ex-criminals, prostitutes and others who have been marginalised by mainstream society make it fairly obvious which side he’ll be leaning towards.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stanley Booth "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones"

There are a couple of things that help when it comes to telling a story that’s already familiar to your audience.

One, of course, is to wait a while before you do it. Give the audience time to lose a bit of the detail in the fog of distant memory. With The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones Stanley Booth certainly did that. Fifteen years after the end of the Rolling Stones tour of the States at the end of 1969 the book Booth was wrangling about through the events he’s chronicling here finally appeared.

Second, of course, it helps to be able to recast things so that your telling of the story is substantially different from what has gone before. Booth gets a walk up start in that department since he was on the ground in the Stones’ inner circle throughout the tour, so he saw things first hand that others could only pick up through hear say or rumour, and he’s found a three strand approach to the story that throws a new light on some of the circumstances.

Of course, it helps if you can really tell a story, particularly when you’re entering the same gonzo territory favoured by Hunter S. Thompson, where the narrator gets right inside the story and is an active participant. Thompson, for all his foibles and quirks, for all his wander and waffle, could, when the mood took him, write, and when he nailed a story it stayed well and truly nailed. His stuff might not have always worked, but when it did...

If you’re operating in that territory you’re not going to be over-prolific, and a glance at Thompson’s bibliography reveals a total of nineteen titles, four of them posthumous and most cobbled together from shorter pieces. Take a look at Stanley Booth’s bibliography and you’ll find, in the long form, a couple of incarnations of this title, a trio of Keith Richards biographies and the rather wonderful Rythm (sic, spelling taken from a mojo potion sold on Beale Street) Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South, which explains a fair bit of Booth’s access all areas status as the Stones toured the States in 1969 and collected articles Booth had contributed to magazines and newspapers including Playboy, Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.

Born in January 1942 in Gram Parsons’ home town (Waycross, Georgia) Booth spent his early years in a turpentine camp on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp where he saw a black man who worked for his family attempt to kill his grandfather. The family moved to Macon and on to Memphis in 1959, where he studied art history at Memphis State University before moving on to graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans, returning to Memphis without completing his degree due to lack of money and the fact that study distracted him from writing.

In between he’d done the Greyhound odyssey to Beat Generation Central in San Francisco, read Kerouac, listened to Miles Davis and met poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Zen scholar Alan Watts. That sort of CV would have allowed him to slot neatly into most hipster circles in the States and Britain, but by the middle of 1964 he was back in Memphis, acquiring a black belt, teaching karate and taking up a job with the Welfare Department that lasted until 1966, when, disillusioned with the system, he quit to try his hand at writing on a full time basis.

An ambition to be a full-time writer is all very well, but you need something (or someone) to cover the bills, and Booth got by on his girlfriend’s salary and what he was able to scrape together from freelancing, largely writing about music, which is where the link to the Stones, predictably, slots in.

He’d already had an article based on time he’d spent at Graceland with Elvis Presley in early 1967 published in Esquire (allegedly the first serious article written about Presley) and had been in the Stax studios with Otis Redding two days before the singer’s death, watching the session that produced Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay. That one was a commission from the Saturday Evening Post. He’d also drunk bourbon for breakfast with B.B. King the day after Robert Kennedy's assassination during one of the last interviews for an article for Eye magazine, the source of another commission in September 1968.

That one sent him to London to write an article about the Rolling Stones, one that turned out to be about Brian Jones' last drug trial. Booth arrived in London, rolled up to the Stones' office, told them I was from Memphis and that I knew people like BB King and Furry Lewis, and he was, more or less, in. He’d met Memphis blues man Furry Lewis through a friend who owned a club where Furry occasionally played, had spent mornings accompanying him on his regular gig as a street sweeper and had put him onto the War on Poverty: Memphis Area project South Summer Workshops Program where he made a thousand dollars for working for six weeks, two hours a day.

There’s a bit of street cred there that transcends hack journo status and provides the access that fuels two-thirds of the narrative threads that run through The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones and a fair bit of the third. As far as the Stones were concerned he looked and dressed the part, spoke with the right (Southern) accent, indulged in the right vices and, coming from Memphis had firsthand knowledge of the music that inspired them.

I had managed to sweep the streets with Furry Lewis, throw up at Elvis Presley's ranch (overdosed on the painkiller Darvon by Dewey Phillips, the first man to play an Elvis record on the radio), drink Scotch for breakfast with BB King, watch Otis Redding teach Steve Cropper 'The Dock of the Bay' ... (loc. 4925 of the Kindle edition)

Following that trip to England Booth had a publisher looking for a book about the Stones, though he was, in his own words, way too serious and high-minded. Things started to change with Brian Jones’ death on 3 July 1969, since his death was a mystery. I wanted to get to the bottom of that. Booth heard the news directly from Stones secretary Jo Bergman, so he was already, to most intents and purposes on the inside. He was also partly swayed by his mate Memphis producer-musician Jim Dickinson assertion that the Stones were bound to be good ol' boys.

The Brian Jones side of things provides one of the three narrative strands Booth uses to drive the narrative, a more or less chronological description of the rise of the Stones from the days before they were an unknown group in front of an audience that didn’t quite stretch to double figures at the Station Hotel, Richmond, through the scene at the nearby Richmond Athletic Club that produced, among others, the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things to the end of the Sixties, when they were at the height of their rock’n’roll power and mainstream media notoriety.

As far as the other two strands are concerned, one runs through the actual tour, starting from the various parties arriving in Los Angeles, running through the pre-tour rehearsals and then heading off on the circuit of dates that finished with the infamous free show at Altamont. The other, predictably, is Altamont, a slowly unveiled account of the whole shebang from a viewpoint within the Stones’ entourage. That doesn’t deliver a whole lot of new detail, but is told by an observer with an eye for detail and unrivalled access to what was going on behind the scenes.

Looking back on it, that Stones tour across America represents a remarkable stage in the evolution of the twentieth century rock concert, one that’s worth pausing a moment to consider. Forty-five years later matters relating to touring have been honed into a finely tuned mechanism, but here, having just emerged from the package tour where you get half a dozen acts in the space of two hours or thereabouts with the whole party travelling on a bus you’re heading towards a longer set by the headliners with a couple of support acts, and, in most cases, still two shows per night.

The Stones had moved into travel by chartered airliner territory, but when you read the details here the logistics of the whole operation seem completely ramshackle as the touring party weaves its way through the concrete underbellies and stage entrances of the sports arenas and basketball stadiums that seemed to be the promoters’ venues of choice. The logistical arrangements get them to the night’s destination, though you have to add the qualifiers just and eventually, there are seemingly interminable delays in airport terminals, on the tarmac and nights spent in anonymous identical Holiday Inns. They’re the sort of circumstances that don’t just encourage the travelling rocker to seek refuge in chemicals, but go close to making the rampant drug use close to mandatory for anyone who isn’t immune to sleep deprivation, flawed decisions, illogical logistics, and inept management.

Booth also gets the reader inside the session at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals studio, where they played for three days straight, cutting Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, and Fred McDowell’s You Got To Move, all of which, of course, ended up on Sticky Fingers. When the Stones needed a piano player for Wild Horses, Booth points them towards his mate Jim Dickinson, who he’d invited along to the session and introduced to the band.

Then, of course, there’s the issue that leads straight to the decision to play the free show, that is and to wit ticket prices.

The hip critics are down on the Stones for prices that are too high, though given another forty years of establishing what the market will bear by anyone with aspirations to sell out a major tour, what they were asking for the Stones plus supports (in most cases Terry Reid, B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner) seems pretty reasonable, even allowing for the effects of inflation.

Still, there are countercultural street cred issues at stake here, so there’s an agreement to play a free show for the kids, and in the wake of the previous year’s utopian peace and love vibe and events in Woodstock a couple of months earlier there’s no perceived need to hire security personnel.

From his spot on the inside "writer-in-residence" Booth ends up becoming Keith Richards’ friends and late-night sparring partner and there probably isn’t a better source to verify the accuracy of Booth’s account in The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones than Richards’ assessment that it’s the only one I can read and say, "Yeah, that's how it was." 

That story is told against a framework of gigs, travel and Booth’s attempts to sort out the contractual side of his book project, something that isn’t an issue as far as the Stones are concerned but is an issue for assorted hangers-on with their own irons in the fire.

As far as the mayhem, violence and murder that went down at Altamont and effectively killed off whatever remained of the late sixties’ peace and love vibe there isn’t a lot that can be said and hasn’t already been reported. Booth’s approach to it, gradually unfolding the detail as he works through the book’s other strands works, and his from the stage insider’s perspective and eye for detail delivers a gripping account of the ugliness that culminated in the death of Meredith Hunter, stabbed and kicked to death by the Hells Angels who were supposedly providing security right in front of the stage where the Stones were performing.

Booth's account, however, goes further than that. He points out that the Stones carried on for another hour and a half, delivering a brilliant performance in a setting where it seemed safe to assume that several people had been killed and things would become substantially nastier if the band had cut and run. Along with Gram Parsons, he’s one of the last to board the chopper that got them away from the scene, No one, he points out, could say that the Rolling Stones couldn't play like the devil when the chips were down.

More than that, he’s able to point to the way Altamont changed the Stones’ approach to performing, claiming that reasons of self-preservation prompted a turn toward comedy. Jagger would disagree, but it’s fairly obvious the whole tour experience, not just Altamont but the whole shambolic procession around the States shaped the way the band approached future tours.

Booth was in a position to note and feel the change. Following Altamont he’d lived in England at the Richards’ residence until a certain weekend [when] I decided that if Keith and I kept dipping into the same bag, there would be no book and we would both be dead, retreated to Memphis to begin working on the first draft of the book (uncapitalized, unspaced, uncorrected), that Stones’ assistant Jo Bergman’s astrologer reportedly suggested would cost him everything except his life.

It took a while to finish. A drugs bust in 1971 could have resulted in up to 140 years in prison, but thanks to an enlightened Attorney General he escaped with a fine and a year’s probation. Thanks to a a family inheritance, he got by in an Ozark mountain log cabin owned by his parents, where he spent the best part of the next 10 decade, emerging to return to the road for the Stones tour in 1972.

Having done the ’69 tour, he was in the right place to note the difference as socialites like Princess Lee Radizwell and Truman Capote climbed aboard an ugly scene full of amyl nitrate, Quaaludes, tequila sunrises, cocaine, heroin, and too many pistoleros. Booth, predictably, headed back to the hills and avoided the ’75 tour completely, dealing with clinical depression, drug problems and domestic upheaval as he attempted to finish True Adventures, which he eventually succeeded in doing in 1984. Along the way he broke his back and smashed his face falling from the top of a waterfall while high on acid in 1978, went through three divorces and ended up addicted to painkillers.

While True Adventures was a success as far as the critics were concerned, contractual disputes with agents and publishers meant Booth ended up making nothing out of it, and hopefully this republication, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones, will deliver something substantial into his pocket.

There are plenty of books about the Stones out in the market place, and while I haven’t read them all I’ve read enough to realise that this is the one to get if you have to limit yourself to a single volume. If you want to double that, go to Life, but that’s probably all you really need...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Colin Cotterill "Slash and Burn"

Having finished the eighth title in Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri series, one can’t help feeling the Slash and Burn in the title is reflected in an authorial desire to move on to fresh ground, in much the same way as practitioners of shifting agriculture are forced to when their current patch starts to run out of nutritional steam.

Having noted the existence of a new Cotterill series (Jimm Juree as the protagonist, two titles, Killed At The Whim Of A Hat and Granddad, There's a Head on the Beach to date) and the near death experience in Siri #7 (Love Songs From a Shallow Grave) it seemed safe to assume that we’d reached the end of the road as far at the National Coroner of the People’s Republic of Laos was concerned, but here we are with an eighth title and the possibility of intermittent episodes to come, a possibility that came to pass with the appearance of The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die at the start of this year.

Cotterill had, in other words wound things up, but left the way open for a sequel since, while Dr Siri Paiboun is looking down the barrel of a ninth decade (he’s pushing eighty, and is still, however reluctantly in the work force) and might be on the verge of actually retiring, there’s always the possibility his services might be needed (purely on an ad hoc basis, you understand) in the future.

This time around, with the paperwork relating to actual retirement lodged and apparently accepted, Dr Siri might be looking forward to retirement, coffee mornings overlooking the Mekhong, leisurely noodle lunches at his wife Daeng’s shop, long evenings of talking rice whisky nonsense with ex-politburo man Civilai, and nights stretched out against a triangular pillow in his illicit back room library reading French literature and philosophy, but he’s asked to undertake one last assignment.

In 1968 Capt. Boyd Bowry, son of a U.S. senator, went Missing In Action, presumed dead after the helicopter he was piloting exploded over a remote jungle village in northern Laos. With the American involvement in Indochina over, they’ve turned their attention to the servicemen registered as MIA, and given Bowry’s parentage, his disappearance is going to be given a higher priority than might otherwise be the case.

Having appointed Dr. Siri’s nemesis Judge Haeng to head the Lao contingent in the investigation, you and I might suspect Siri is the last person Haeng would want included in the excursion, but the Americans know there’s a National Coroner and have asked for him by name.

Seizing the opportunity, Dr Siri engages in a bit of coercion (well, blackmail really) to have his wife and his regular crowd of cronies included in what looks to be a preretirement junket, which is how he manages to get Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung, Dtui’s husband Inspector Phosy, ex-Politburo member Civilai and transvestite/fortune-teller Auntie Bpoo in on the action, joining a number of colourful Americans including the pompous US senator complete with white suit who’s there for the photo opportunity when they find the body, a a loudmouthed heavy-drinking ex-serviceman with a dodgy past.

Since Siri speaks little English he’ll need an interpreter, which explains Auntie Bpoo, and since American need one of their own we get a highly attractive girl named Peach, born in Laos to an American missionary couple, a Lao heart “forced to live in this big awkward farang body” (her words) with a sense of humour and looks guaranteed to break vast numbers of hearts with Judge Haeng being an obvious starter in that department.

They’re off to the Friendship Hotel, a remote location on the Plain of Jars, with the Americans supplying transportation and prepackaged meals, and the location, a decrepit building in the middle of a field of unexploded ordinance raises issues involving the carpet bombing of Laos during the Vietnam war era.

That’s only a starting point, however. Other issues that turn out to have some bearing on the case include covert American operations during the seventies, the discovery of gold around the same time, and the legacy the war has left on the landscape, in the villages of Laos and on the minds of the citizens, who are out for whatever they can wangle out of the MIA caper. One of Dr Siri’s first tasks is to find a way to cut down on the vast number of false claims by his opportunistic compatriots who claim to have material that might be connected to a MIA case and are only too happy to sell.

Once that’s out of the way a couple of complications set in. First up, cross-dressing fortune-teller Auntie Bpoo advises Dr Siri that his days are numbered and the count is down to the fingers of one hand. Then, a member of the party is found dead, which begins a train of events that don’t seem to be entirely accidental.

Smoke from local fires obscures the countryside, which would be fine a few months further down the track, when it would probably be the smoke from locals practising slash and burn agriculture and clearing new patches of ground to farm, but they don’t do that sort of thing at this time of year. Dr. Siri is sure something is going on, and the poor visibility is probably a deliberate smoke screen. Communications with the outside world go down, the group is forced to stay to the point where the prepackaged rations run out, Madame Daeng takes over the catering and as everyone pursues their own agendas mysterious events in the Philippines suggest things are even more complicated than they seem.

Predictably, Siri eventually makes sense of the situation, announces what happened to the pilot and unmasks the murderer within the group, which is, ironically, not the actual point of the story or the series from where I’m sitting. The whole series is increasingly looking like an opportunity for Cotterill to engage in a little sardonic comment through his Laotian mouthpiece on the horrors inflicted on a small country that would have been quite happy to mind its own business but has been forced to suffer as the major powers manipulate events within and outside its borders in the nominal cause of a fight for freedom.

Dona Leon’s Brunetti series provide her with an avenue to write about corruption and related issues in Italy in general and Venice in particular, and I’m leaning towards a belief that Cotterill is engaged in a similar exercise with his humble and wonderfully humane protagonist. Last time around the Khmer Rouge, this time CIA involvement in the remoter corners of Laos. It’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with next...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Garry Disher "Whispering Death"

Six titles into the Challis and Destry series you sense Garry Disher has a few characters and situations at the Waterloo Police Station approaching their use by dates.

Hal Challis may have had his share of professional and personal troubles in the past, but he should be reasonably happy as he heads towards a new phase in his developing relationship with Ellen Destry, but she’s off to Europe on a study tour and will be setting up a new Sex Crimes Unit when she gets back. He’s still having issues with her daughter Larayne, and will be sort of house sitting and doing a few odd jobs around the place Ellen bought after the marriage broke up.

Scobie Sutton’s wife seems to be coming out of depression, while his daughter continues to be the apple of his eye and he’s starting to find the grim reality of police work difficult to deal with and Constable Pam Murphy has issues with anti-depressants after events in the previous episode in the series and the physical symptoms that ensue when you stop taking the things.

On top of the soap opera side of things Disher serves up an intriguing blend of plot lines that start out separately and end up intertwining neatly.

The first involves a rapist wearing a police uniform. Rogue cop or impersonator? That seems to be a fairly natural question to ask, and one that, at the same time, an investigating officer would be looking to avoid answering directly. When Challis is confronted by a journo who insists on asking it he responds with spray to about budget cutbacks in an area where the population is expanding rapidly. Predictably, this doesn’t go down well with his superiors.

The rape investigation brings a feisty sergeant from the Sex Crimes Unit into the picture. After she returns from Europe this role would be filled by Ellen Destry, but while Jeannie Schiff is on the scene she ruffles a few feathers among the male officers and lays down a possible soap opera development as far as Pam Murphy is concerned.

Matters are complicated by the fact that the rapist knows enough about forensics to make it difficult to track him down, and after the first victim is found wandering dazed and naked in a nature reserve, a second is found dead in the boot of a crashed car.

The second involves a female cat burglar who, by rights, shouldn’t enter into things at all. She lives across on the western side of Port Phillip but gets there on her way back from interstate jobs using the ferry that crosses from the Mornington Peninsula after she’s deposited the proceeds of her latest job in a safe deposit box in Challis’ base at Waterloo.

While she’s careful to avoid working in her own state, the result of careful grounding in the basics of maintaining a low profile delivered by a crooked former cop who is looking to track her down and even up a few old scores, a series of coincidences brings that policy unstuck.

You know the cat burglar will become involved in the main plot, though it’s not immediately clear how Disher’s going to do it, and he muddies the water a bit further by arranging a home invasion by the the bikies living next door to Destry's new house and having the bloke responsible for a series of bank robberies looking to be heading towards Waterloo as well.

Challis, meanwhile, has a Triumph TR4 sports car he may as well dispose of since it is finally starting to fall apart and a restored 1930s Dragon Rapide that he has worked on for a decade but since it represents a phase of his life that has come to an end it might as well go too.

Those matters come on top of the rape investigation in a station that’s stretched as far as they can go. Challis lands himself in hot water for shooting his mouth off to the local media about budget cuts.

Meanwhile a socially conscious graffiti commentator is spray painting announcements like CASHED UP BOGAN LIVES HERE and I’M COMPENSATING FOR A SMALL DICK on driveway entrances that lead to architectural monstrosities erected (and I’m using that verb deliberately) by newly arrived residents with more cash than taste and no sense of humour.

Disher weaves these different lines around each other, keeping the tension between individual characters tightly wound and bringing the lot together at the end, filling in the relevant bits of back story for readers who aren’t up to speed on the earlier episodes,  doing it concisely enough so it doesn’t become an issue for those of us who have and leaving enough space for readers to go back and explore those earlier episodes should they feel so inclined.

That’s a rather tricky juggling act, but Disher, as long term fans have come to expect, carries it off with panache, delivering a complex story that works on just about every front. He’s a class act, who consistently delivers and this is one of his best.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Alan Frost "Botany Bay: The Real Story"

I have long suspected the conventional wisdom of the Australia in which I grew up and the condemnation of the so-called Black Armband historians in the recent History Wars spring from a common assumption there are things we would prefer not to know and, indeed, are better off not knowing.

Growing up in the Anglophile Menzies era, there was a definite perception that Australia didn’t really have much of a history, at least not when compared to the historical glories of the British Empire, and what subsequently became the conventional wisdom regarding the decision that despatched the First Fleet was clear cut, the judge’s decision was final and no correspondence was to be entered into.

As far back as the early 1950s, however, K. M. Dallas was suggesting Britain wanted a settlement to support an expansion of their interests in the Pacific and provide an alternative sea route to China. In this reading, it was the north Pacific fur trade, the development of sealing and whaling in the southern oceans and improved access to the China and South American trade that made the settlement of Australia viable.

While there would appear to be evidence to support that hypothesis (whale and seal oil were in high demand in Britain, and five of the ships from the Third Fleet had been whalers and reverted to their original function after the voyage) this sort of suggestion ran counter to the standard narrative of hard times, surly convicts, unsuitable tools and failed harvests that lasted until some time around the start of Governor Macquarie’s relatively benevolent rule.

Geoffrey Blainey's The Tyranny of Distance (1966) drew on Lord Sydney’s suggestion that the colony’s purpose was to be reciprocally beneficial, the only explanation given in official documents for the choice of such a remote location. In this reading, the benefit derived from a trade in flax, hemp, and timber for masts that would provide an alternative source for such materials should a blockade in the Danish straits cut off access to the regular sources on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

A second, and secondary, benefit lay in the possibility that empty convict ships could carry cargoes of tea on the return voyage, and there is no doubt the security of trade routes to China were of major concern, given the fact that the regular route between India and China could easily be cut in the Sunda and Malacca Straits.

From where I was sitting forty years ago all this made a great deal of sense, more sense, in fact, than the conventional wisdom that the American Revolution cut off the previous export destination for the criminal classes at the same time as changes associated with the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions were adding vast numbers of petty offenders to the onshore jails and hulks moored in the estuaries. There was nowhere else to send those sentenced to transportation across the seas and Botany Bay was far enough away to ensure that those who’d been transported were unlikely to return once their sentence had been completed.

After Dallas and Blainey others have questioned the conventional wisdom, and the questioning has produced a vigorous defence from the traditionalists. Frost's “real story" of the origins of Botany Bay draws on both sides of that debate, but does it by doing what someone should have done long ago and heading off to the primary sources, going beyond the obvious ones that fuelled the assumptions of previous generations of Australian historians.

Thirty-five years of delving into the primary sources in Australia and overseas (most notably the Public Record Office, or National Archives, in London) has given Frost, emeritus professor of history at La Trobe University, the chance to build up an archive of 2500 documents, enough material to deliver a thorough analysis of the decision to establish a colony in New South Wales.

Looking at the standard version of events the decision was based on the rising number of convicts who needed to be transported across the seas, so it makes sense for Frost to start by looking at crime and punishment in eighteenth-century England, tracing transportation back to the Tudor era, with convicts being sent abroad as early as 1597. They’d been used as a source of cheap labour in Africa, the Caribbean and India, and, after 1666, North America, the preferred destination until 1776.

The first item that comes under challenge here is the idea that most of those who found their way onto the First Fleet were guilty of trivial offences, innocent victims of 'dastardly oppression'. That’s a comforting thought for later Australians and provides a reassuring narrative. Yes, they were criminals, but they were poor displaced working class people who didn’t have any alternative, so they weren’t that bad...

In Frost’s version of events most of those sentenced to transportation were definitely poor, were considered to be hardened criminals, or guilty of serious crimes of violence or robbery, and many were repeat offenders who would find a sentence of transportation for seven or fourteen years a better option than a date with the hangman.

Having dealt with that one, Frost turns his attention to the build-up of criminals sentenced to transportation held on the allegedly overcrowded and unhealthy hulks in the Thames, Portsmouth and Plymouth, and suggests those run by contractor Duncan Campbell were, at least by contemporary standards, clean and well run, and not especially overcrowded (unlike the jails). The allocated rations were sufficient to keep most prisoners in reasonable health, death rates on board were not particularly high and a number of prisoners were pardoned by the crown on the condition that those pardoned would enlist in the armed forces to serve overseas.

Still, when transportation to the American colonies ceased after the American Revolution those convicts needed to be sent somewhere and the conventional wisdom asserts Botany Bay was chosen because there was, effectively nowhere else.

Frost looks at a number of schemes proposed to deal with the problem, including a scheme organized by a group of merchants whereby criminals sent to the African Gold Coast would be left to their own devices and, if they survived, become the core of a new colony.  One does not need to be Einstein to figure out why that proposal didn’t get up.

With Canada reluctant (based on prior experience), planters in British Honduras preferring African slaves to British convicts, West Indian slave traders reluctant to have their interests weakened by competition from English jails and plenty of cheap labour already on the ground in West Africa things would appear to be sliding towards the conventional wisdom.

Frost, however, points out that apart from the colonies in the Americas and the trading ports on the west African coast, Britain's empire in the late 1780s mostly consisted of a series of trading depots in India, China and elsewhere, and those interests, being on the other side of the globe, needed to be looked after. A ship was sent to survey Das Voltas (Alexander) Bay on the present day between South Africa and Namibia, which would have provided a staging port on the route to the East, an alternative to the Dutch-controlled Capetown.

That investigation found an unsuitable climate and an infertile hinterland, which brings us to the Matra proposal, put forward in August 1783 by James Matra, who had sailed on the Endeavour with Cook, and supported by the influential Sir Joseph Banks, who apparently campaigned actively against some other possibilities in the region, notably New Zealand. Banks apparently didn’t like the place.

Matra’s proposal wasn’t, however, based on relocating convicts. He wanted somewhere to relocate those Americans (such as himself) who had remained loyal to Britain in the War of Independence, referring to good soil, the possibility of cultivating flax cultivation, the availability of timber for ships’ masts and spars as well as the possibility of trade with China, and it’s the question of flax and timber that, in Frost’s view, tilted the decision in Botany Bay’s favour.

He goes into the political, strategic and logistical considerations behind those issues in some detail, exploring the complex political warfare, diplomatic struggles and commercial rivalries involving England, France, Holland and Spain, and makes it clear England saw itself as under threat from the French and Dutch, with the strong possibility that the next war would be over India. In that eventuality an alternative source for spars, masts and rigging would be useful, if not vital.

In that light Botany Bay becomes more than a convenient or last resort (take your pick, it’s the same horse with a different jockey) avenue to remove some undesirables from the old country, it’s an opportunity to gain a strategic advantage over Britain’s continental rivals, assume control of strategic resources so sorely needed by the Royal Navy.

But wait, there’s more. In Frost’s reading of the evidence, the settlement was part of an ambitious plan developed by Pitt the Younger and his advisers to expand British trade and acquire strategic bases in the Pacific and Indian oceans, promote a massive expansion of British trade with east Asia, the Spanish colonies in the Pacific coast of the Americas, the northwest Pacific coast and Kamchatka, survey coastlines and islands, create new bases along shipping routes, negotiate new trade agreements with China and, hopefully, Japan, and reduce or do away with the monopolies of the East India and South Sea Companies.

And it doesn’t (or didn’t) stop there. According to Frost Botany Bay would provide a naval base and a port to repair and maintain ships, and deliver a pre-emptive claim on the territory Cook had named and claimed and, as well as supplying strategic naval resources would produce cotton, sugar and spices.

The key document in all of this is the "Heads of a Plan" devised by Evan Nepean (Under-Secretary of the Home Office) in 1786, which amounted to a cabinet submission regarding the First Fleet venture, which offers, in its own way, support for both the traditionalist and revisionist arguments. It lists reasons for the proposal, including crowded disease-ridden jails and obtaining supplies of flax and timber found by Cook.

Nepean’s first task was to come up with a rough estimate of the cost of sending a warship and a tender of about 200 tonnes and transports for 750 convicts, 200 marines, a handful of the civilian officials (a governor, lieutenant-governor, deputy judge-advocate, and others, including surgeons) and the stores that would keep them alive until they could feed themselves.

Nepean worked from figures provided by Duncan Campbell (who had been in charge of the Hulks and would therefore know the expenses involved) and came up with a figure of £32 per annum, around £4 more than it would cost to hold him on a hulk in Britain. With that figure under his belt, the next task was to make a case to justify the expenditure, and you can see where he was going from the full title of the document (my emphasis): "Heads of a Plan for effectually disposing of Convicts, and rendering their Transportation reciprocally beneficial both to themselves and to the State, by the establishment of a Colony in New South Wales".

The first point was the effectual disposing of the convicts concerned. Working from Cook and Banks’ accounts he reckoned Botany Bay was "peculiarly adapted to answer the views of government" with a suitable climate, fertile soil, and ready access to wood, water and seafood, and was therefore a suitable site for a settlement. If necessary, livestock could be obtained from the Cape of Good Hope and the Moluccas and according to Nepean they should be self-sufficient in around three years.

In any case, in a sort of cost/benefit analysis, bearing the "great object to be obtained by it" in mind, the £4 difference was "too trivial to be a consideration with government", and, in any case Botany Bay was too far away for convicts to return home without permission.

There’s a reference to the overcrowded prisons and hulks in the “Heads of a Plan” (fuel for the traditionalist argument) but the key issue in the argument comes with the reciprocally beneficial. In the traditionalist view, the benefit to the State, which would only come at  considerable expense, was "he removal of a dreadful banditti from this country."

Nepean goes on, in the last three paragraphs of the document to spell out three other areas whereby the State would benefit. One concerned "the cultivation of the New Zealand hemp or flax plant ... as our manufacturers are of opinion that canvas made of it would be superior in strength and beauty to any canvas made from the European material .”

A second concerned the possible cultivation of "the Asiatic productions” (spices and cotton) which were, at the time, largely in the hands of “our European neighbours.”

Third, there was “the possibility of procuring from New Zealand any quantity of masts and ship timber, for the use of our fleets in India ... It grows close to the water's edge, is of size and quality superior to any hitherto known, and may be obtained without difficulty."

Drafted by Nepean and signed off by Colonial Secretary Lord Sydney, the title "Heads of a Plan" is, in Frost’s reading, a concise enunciation of the key aspects of the proposal, and he points to the existence of a number of other similarly-labelled documents from the period.

The traditionalist reading, when it comes to the flax, cotton, spices and timber, is to suggest that they’ve been tacked on at the end and are, therefore, inconsequential window-dressing and to argue conditional verbs ("may not be amiss", "may also be proper to attend") reinforce that conclusion. Frost, on the other hand, finds such terminology in common usage in similarly-labelled documents.

Then, given the lack of official references to the use of the settlement as a naval base, the traditionalist reading is to rule it out completely since it wasn’t specifically spelled out, while Frost argues the idea  was left out deliberately. You don’t, after all, advertise your intentions when it comes to these matters. There are also interesting references to Arthur Philip’s role in naval intelligence prior to his appointment as Governor.

Frost explains that lack of documentary evidence in the form of a written plan or account detailing an intention to expand British interests in the Pacific by suggesting Pitt and his advisers worked it out verbally, and pieces together enough hints and glimpses in the documents he’s uncovered to support the suggestion. Interestingly, Frost claims Pitt himself took personal responsibility for the scheme, and Colonial Secretary Sydney is portrayed as lazy and ineffective. Nepean, according to Frost, did the work and Sydney signed off on it.

Frost asserts the First Fleet scheme was well-organised and thought out and that from the earliest stages of the plan, the voyage to Australia was undertaken with the ultimate aim of developing a free settlement. He goes on to point out that the eleven ships chosen for the expedition were all under five years old, in good condition and well fitted out. There also seems to have been a partial selection process and both convicts and Marines were chosen for their knowledge of farming, carpentry, construction, weaving and mining.

The Fleet carried two years worth of medicines and surgical items including bed, flour  made ‘from good sound corn and calculated to keep for a good eighteen months’, and interestingly, the death rate on the voyage was much lower than expected (around 2%). Things might not have worked out as well as expected, but the convicts were not just dumped ashore and left to starve.

To Frost, the convicts were a secondary consideration in a wider strategic plan, there to build the port, dress the flax, fell the timber and work on the plantations. Norfolk Island, offered the prospect of timber and flax and within a week of hoisting the flag at Port Jackson and before he had landed the convicts and unloaded the ships Phillip advised Lieutenant Philip King that he would be taking a specialist party to occupy Norfolk Island and harvest the flax. King sailed a fortnight later.

If there’s any single fact that suggests a broader strategic motive for the settlement this is it. Traditionalists may argue the flax industry, if it eventuated at all, would an additional benefit to England but sending a subsidiary expedition to a remote location known to lack a safe anchorage within three weeks of arrival suggests a sense of urgency that can only be explained by an urgent need for the goods the island was expected to provide.

Looking at it from this perspective it’s obvious the traditional version of the First Fleet story needs tweaking, at the very least, and the decision that sent those eleven ships on their way was based on far more wide ranging motivations than simply relieving the overcrowding in His Majesty’s prisons.

Sure, the decision resolved the convict problem by expelling them from England and, further down the track provided an avenue whereby social agitators could be silenced, but it also had important implications for the whaling and sealing industries that provided this country’s export income before Macarthur’s merino sheep came into the picture. It secured an alternative route to China that was safely out of range of Dutch (or French) interference,  and limited French, Spanish and Dutch the territorial ambitions, did something

More significantly, once the infant colony found its feet it was, by and large, a self-funding exercise rather than a drain on the Exchequer and a site that could accommodate as many law-breakers as the British authorities needed to expel. Frost’s work should lead to a reassessment of the story, and needs to be followed by further research into the British side of the story using that lode of documentation Frost has managed to unearth.

That might, of course, reveal some unwanted truths. Maybe the convicts on the First Fleet weren’t all the harmless petty criminals they’ve been painted to be.