Sunday, 29 March 2015

Penguin no. 745: Remove the Bodies
by Elizabeth Ferrars

George was a short man, broadly made, with stubby, pink hands and a pink expanse of face. In its rosiness his features made only gentle corrugations. He had fair hair and mild blue eyes and wore a high-necked jersey tucked into trousers of a worn and shiny blue. Photographs of him, full face and profile, as well as a record of his finger-prints, were in the possession of Scotland Yard; but so, doubtless, are those of many other excellent people.

I have spent a fair few hours waiting in airports or travelling by plane  in the last fortnight or so, going from Perth to Canberra via Melbourne, and then from Perth to Adelaide, so I have had no difficulty finding time to read. But the varying time zones and competing distractions and obligations that come with working interstate have meant it has been a struggle to find time to write about the Penguins I have read recently. And so I have been fairly quiet of late.

Beyond Q, Curtin Place, Canberra
The best thing about having to head Canberra was the opportunity it provided to go browsing at Beyond Q, because the last time I planned a visit I ended up stranded in Katoomba en route by unseasonal snow.

Beyond Q is a below-ground bookshop in a nondescript arcade which has an entire wall of its in-house café (almost) devoted to numbered Penguins. They are sorted by colour, and then within-colour by author's name - rather than by number - which meant it was quite a search to find any I didn't yet own. But they have a great selection of older Penguins, priced around the $6 to $10 mark. This is perhaps not bargain-priced, but it is quite a bit cheaper than you would normally find such old Penguins selling for in Perth, and considerably cheaper than the incomprehensible prices I recently saw vintage Penguins selling for in Singapore.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Penguin no. 549: High Wages
by Dorothy Whipple

She could see the occupants of the first-class carriages playing cards, or fallen into unlovely sleep. They did well to avert their eyes from the landscape they had made. They had made it; but they could not, like God, look and see that it was good. Monstrous slag-heaps, like ranges in a burnt-out hell; stretches of waste land rubbed bare to the gritty earth; parallel rows of back-to-back dwellings; great blocks of mill dwellings, the chimneys belching smoke as thick and black as eternal night itself; upstanding skeletons of wheels and pulleys. Mills and mines; mills and mines all the way to Manchester, and the brick, the stone, the grass, the very air deadened down to a general drab by the insidious filter of soot.

H.G. Wells seems something of a hero to the protagonist of High Wages. His novels are presented as having made a real difference in her life: she is emboldened by having read them, and in one difficult moment - perhaps the most difficult she will ever face - she argues her case successfully by using arguments culled straight from his books. The many references to Wells suggest that the similarities between this story and Kipps cannot be inadvertent - High Wages seemed to me an extension of Kipps; its premise had been reinterpreted from a female perspective, but it had also been built upon foundations the earlier work provided.

 High Wages begins in 1905, the year Kipps was published, and Dorothy Whipple covers much of the same territory - there is a focus on the unnecessary hardships of the working poor, and on their vulnerabilities, and on the inequities inherent in a stratified society. Jane Carter is exploited by her employer because nothing constrains him from exploiting her, she is underfed and poorly housed by her employer's wife because to speak up would mean being left homeless, and she is harassed by a member of the upper classes because he can misbehave in this way without any consequences. The humiliations Jane is forced to endure are all inflicted by those well-aware that they are behaving unconscionably. But they behave so, and continue to behave so, because there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.

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