Julian Davies, Call me (#BookReview)

Book coverI wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started reading Call me, the latest offering from that tricksy duo, novelist Julian Davies and illustrator Phil Day. But, it soon became clear that what was before me was a coming-of-age story. What, I wondered, was Davies doing writing such a novel? Then I remembered that this was the author who gave us, most recently, Crow mellow (my review), so I decided to relax and go with the flow. Sensible me, because this is a sophisticated take on the genre, geared to an adult audience.

The story starts in the first person voice of a young woman called Caddie, who is in bed with a young man called Pip. They are both in their last year of school, and the story spans the last couple of months of that year, through their eyes. However, the tricksiness starts here, because Caddie’s voice is first person, while Pip’s is third person subjective. Why? An author doesn’t make these decisions lightly, so I usually want to know why. It’s particularly interesting here because this is a male author choosing to write his female character in first person, and the male in third person. I’ll come back to this because right now you are probably wanting to know more about the actual story than these technicalities!

“This is Australia” (Pip’s friend, Stu)

So, the story. Caddie and Pip have been in a relationship for around a year at the start of the novel, but it’s geographically challenged because Caddie lives in the city (in Canberra, in fact) while Pip lives in the country, an hour or so’s drive away. Davies knows whereof he speaks because he too lives about an hour’s drive from Canberra. Caddie’s parents see themselves, according to Pip, as “high middle class”. They both run businesses, her father’s being an investment business called Capital Capital, and her mother’s an art gallery called Sense and Sensibility (because, as she apparently told Pip, “she was lapping up Jane Austen while her friends were still  playing with their dolls”). They keep “upgrading” their homes, and they fight a lot. Pip’s parents, on the other hand, describe themselves as “feral middle class”. Sydney escapees, they live in the not-quite-finished house they built themselves; they take a loving but laissez-faire approach to parenting; and they get on well. All this introduces the city-versus-country theme that recurs in Davies’ works, including Crow Mellow and his Meanjin piece about building his own home (my review). It’s pretty clear where Davies’ preference lies!

The majority of the novel takes place over 15 days, and chronicles, in lovely nuanced detail, the tensions that develop in Pip and Caddie’s relationship due to Pip’s decision to leave school only weeks before the end. Their thoughts and feelings are told alternately in chronologically named chapters, like “Day One” and “Day Eight (Still Later)”. Although Caddie is critical of her parents, in the way that teenagers often are, she’s following the traditional path of working hard at school and planning to go to university. She is totally into mobile phones and social media. Pip is a more independent thinker. He’s not interested in social media, and only has a phone because Caddie gave it to him. And yet, in a neat paradox, Caddie records her thoughts in a diary, while Pip records his into his phone! This is pure Davies, by which I mean nothing is simple or straightforward.

So, we have the city-versus-country theme, plus a subtle questioning of modern technology, including our reliance on it and its potential for misuse. A third theme relates to education. Pip’s decision to leave school stems from his refusal to live by external expectations that don’t feel authentic to him. He hates the “petty rules” and, as Caddie explains it, “the kind of society we live in that the education system feeds”. He has no alternative plans but feels incapable of “passively endorsing” a system he doesn’t believe in.

“What kind of person am I?” (Caddie)

Accompanying these more sociological themes are personal, psychic ones. Both Caddie and Pip are deeply concerned with their identity, specifically with what it is to be “a person”. Caddie, living in her “sheltered” house and uncomfortably aware of the material benefits provided by her parents, wonders not only “what kind of person” she is, but, more broadly, “what does it mean to be a person.” This question of personhood is frequently burdensome to her. Pip, however, has a different take, recognising that “he is only one person”. One of the challenges they face is negotiating their own and each other’s personhoods. Late in the novel, when their relationship is floundering, Pip wonders “did the new, distant Caddie undermine and diminish his sense of her as the person he thought he knew?” Meanwhile, Caddie “wonders who Pip is that he can hold this view.”

Call me, then, is essentially a book of ideas that questions, in a lightly satirical way, aspects of modern Australian society, but it’s not boringly didactic, partly because the ideas are explored though some engaging characters. These include two we met in Crow Mellow, making this book a sort of “companion piece”. The characters are the wise Phil Day, a teacher who, cheekily, happens to share a name with the book’s illustrator, and the ridiculously named cynic, Dick Scrogum (aka Scrotes). Scrogum’s opinionated banter and Day’s quiet conversations encourage Pip to dig a little deeper into the reasons for his decision.

These characters, however, are only part of why the book doesn’t become mired in earnestness. Another reason is that, surprisingly, as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that there’s more to it than just Caddie and Pip’s relationship; there is in fact quite a plot developing. Who are the mysterious callers on Pip’s phone and what do they want? Should we be worried about them? And what about the gun that Pip has? It is pretty much de rigueur that once a gun is mentioned in a narrative it’s going to be used, but will it? Is this book not what it looks, but, really, some sort of crime-mystery-thriller? You’ll need to read it to find out.

And now, I’ll return to that question I posed at the beginning about voice. Both first person and third person subjective voices offer easy engagement with characters but can only offer limited perspectives. Telling the story through two such voices widens the perspective, by letting us see Caddie and Pip through each other’s eyes as well as their own. In other words, we get a little touch of omniscience alongside close engagement. But, why is one voice first person and the other third? I’m not sure really, but maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Pip is the main protagonist, and that Caddie, as the “I”, represents both herself and the reader (who is, perhaps, likely to be more like her – female, sincere, somewhat conservative, but also open-minded and keen to explore). By being more directly in her head, we are encouraged to question, as she does, certain assumptions and values. I suspect too that there may be something autobiographical about this novel. Is Pip like Davies’ younger self? And does putting Pip at one step remove provide him with a little space to interrogate the boy he was? Certainly Caddie seems to question who Pip is more than vice versa. I’m probably wrong about this, but at least I’ve given it a shot!

As I say all too often, there is so much to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on the gorgeous landscape descriptions of a region I love. Nor on the clever segues, nor Phil Day’s whimsical illustrations, nor the humour, nor, indeed, what a beautiful book is it to look at, hold and read. However, I’ve written enough for now.

Call me, then, is not only an engrossing story about the psychic growing-up of its protagonists, but one that also offers provocative commentary on both humanity in general and modern society in particular. Them’s big boots, but Davies pulls it off, resulting in a book that’s both intelligent and fun to read.

Julian Davies
Call me
Illustrated by Phil Day
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2018
ISBN: 9780994516541

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)

Finlay Lloyd: Celebrating 10 Years of Publishing

This weekend I attended a delightful event run by the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. It was an afternoon of author readings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of independent small publisher Finlay Lloyd, which is based in Braidwood, about an hour’s drive from here. It is run by two men, author Julian Davies and artist Phil Day.

Julian Davies em-ceed the event. He described Finlay Lloyd as a non-profit publisher, and said he is often told by other small publishers that they can be that without trying! Ouch! The press is, he said, a quixotic venture, established because many writers were finding it hard to be published by increasingly bottom-line focused publishers. Once, he said, publishers took risks but they now tend to be overly market driven. The press was also established in response to threats about the death of the printed book. For Finlay Lloyd, the book as an artefact is important as well as the content. I can attest to that. Their books have a lovely edge, even the little flsmalls.

Then the main part of the afternoon started, with the format being Davies introducing the writer, asking one question, followed by the writer reading an excerpt. It went for about an hour and a half. My post is rather long – despite my only quoting from one writer – but my headings will enable you to skim and skip if you desire.

Alan Gould and The seaglass spiral (bought at the event)

Davies’ question for Gould was about what he expected of the publisher-author relationship. Gould, whose The Lakewoman I’ve reviewed here, was the perfect choice to be first because he epitomises the reasons behind Finlay Lloyd’s establishment. He had expected it to be hard, he said, to find a publisher for his first couple of books but he then thought an author-publisher relationship would develop. That didn’t happen, so almost every novel of his has had a different publisher.

He introduced his novel, The seaglass spiral, by describing himself as a character novelist. He read from the beginning and a small except from Chapter 10. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There was a fellow called Ralf Sebright. He was decent enough, glad for the most part to be alive, and despite being able to swim, he had just sunk beneath the Pacific Ocean for the second time. Odd to think this about this plight really, that a lineage going back to the first caves of kinship might imminently be pinched off. For Ralf had arrived at a moment when he realised his existence might be in trouble.

In short, he was drowning.

And here are the last few sentences of his first excerpt:

Ralf observed the dominant emotion of drowning was not fear. It was guilt. He also noted that, even when a person says impossible he does not stop imagining deliverance.

Gould told us to remember that word “impossible”. It’s important in the book he said. I’m intrigued. Since I had frequently fondled this gorgeous-looking book when it first came out but had resisted the temptation given my bulging TBR pile, this time I gave in to temptation. See what an author reading can do!

Phillip Stamatellis and Growing up cafe (my review)

To first-time author Stamatellis, Davies posed a question about what the editing process had meant to him. Stamatellis responded that, given the book grew out of scattered pieces of writing he’d been doing, structure was the important thing he’d learnt. Haha, I thought! Here is a sentence from my review: “Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly”! Structure is indeed important to this book.

StamatellisGrowingFinlayLloydHe also commented on Davies’ obsession with commas, to which Davies interjected with the fact that John Clanchy says he doesn’t use commas enough! This reminded me of my 12 year-old-daughter, as she was then, arguing over a comma with her school principal, who was editing a little book for the school. The principal won but, some months later, she said to me, “you know, Hannah was right about that comma”!

Anyhow, Stamatellis read the first “story” in his book in which he describes a typical cafe scene – the cafe, being, as Davies said, the book’s main character.

Camel Bird and Fair game (my review)

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Introducing Bird, Davies proposed that the current discourse in our society is polarising, but Bird’s book, Fair game, he said, digresses and weaves, telling the story of Tasmania through her personal reflections. Bird agreed with this assessment, saying that “the digressive form is native to me.” And I love this form as I wrote in my review: “I love reading this sort of writing – it’s a challenge, a puzzle. Can I follow the author’s mind?” Oh, and Bird also said it was a wonderful experience to be edited by Julian.

Bird gave a wonderfully expressive reading. She loves being a little cheeky, as I also wrote in my review, and is clearly able to do that in person and well as in print!

Wayne Strudwick and The dark days of Matty Lang (bought at the event)

You meet authors in strange places, it seems. Davies met Strudwick through the latter peering into his eyes. Strudwick, you see, is an optometrist but, Davies soon learnt, also writes – and this led to the publication of Strudwick’s story, The dark days of Matty Lang, in the first series of flsmalls.

Given this story is set in a country town, Davies asked Strudwick about his interest in such towns. He responded that in these towns, everyone knows everyone else, which can be comforting but also claustrophobic. Traumas, he said, go through the whole community. His story is about a trauma, and the reading intrigued me, so I bought it too!

Bidda Jones and Backlash (my review)

Bidda Jones is Davies’ partner so the question was obvious: how did she find working on a book together. Jones explained that she’s a scientist not a writer. She did the book, she said, “through gritted teeth” and was very glad when it was over! But, she’s also glad, I believe, the story is documented.

Jones read an excerpt from the book describing how she and Lyn White took their research and footage to the ABC, but she also told us that already the book has been attacked in parliament. So, I went looking and found the speech by National Party Senator Barry O’Sullivan. My oh my! He name-calls, and he makes false statements about what the book does or doesn’t cover. But the clincher is that he concludes his speech not on proving that the government has made advancements in live export animal welfare but by attacking Jones and the RSPCA – attack after all being the best form of defence – for not focusing their effort on domestic pets and animals (as if they don’t do that too!), which he argued are the RSPCA’s “core and fundamental issues”. In fact, the RSPCA’s mission is broad: to “To prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection”. It’s hard to take such a speech seriously.

Paul McDermott and Fragments of the hole (my review)

McDermottFragmentsFinlayMcDermott’s book is heavily illustrated with his drawings, so Davies’ question to him related to the process of working with Finlay Lloyd’s Phil Day. McDermott, who attended the Canberra School of Art, told us that he is always writing little stories and making drawings and sketches. He described how creatively Day had used his drawings, making selections from what was apparently a big bundle, sometimes upending them, sometimes using only part of them.

McDermott, also an expressive reader of course, read the second part of his story “The boy and the goat” but I certainly won’t share that because it included the wonderful last line of the story. I loved this little book, but was a little disconcerted when, on having a copy of his book signed for a friend, he told me that he’d only seen one review of the book and the reviewer said it wasn’t for children, but it is he said! Hmmm, I thought, I reviewed his book. Was that I? I didn’t ‘fess up, because I couldn’t remember, but checked when I got home and it was. In my defence, though, I did qualify it by saying it wasn’t for “(most) children”. Oh dear.

Meredith McKinney and Mori Ogai’s The wild goose (on my TBR)

Fiction, non-fiction, essays, and even commissioned translations, Finlay Lloyd does it all. Davies talked about how, as he and McKinney were working on this Japanese classic, they compared three translations of this Japanese classic from 1959, the 1990s, and Meredith’s 2010s. He enjoyed their discussions about Japanese language and the decisions that have to be made in translating it.

But, his question for McKinney was why she chose this particular novel (novella, really). It’s because, she said, she’s interested in pre-western-influenced Japanese literature. Davies commented that he liked the sympathy Ogai shows to his minor characters, and McKinney agreed saying that he exhibits tenderness for everybody. I’ve had this book on my TBR for a couple of years, and it’s time I read another Japanese novel, so I really need to find time to read it.

Julian Davies and Crow mellow (my review)

Julian Davies, Crow mellow Book cover

The event ended with Davies’ own book, Crow mellow, which was illustrated by Phil Day. He said he gave Phil Day complete free rein and he enjoyed seeing Day’s illustrations come through as he was writing it. While I love art, my main focus tends to be text, but it was hard not to notice Day’s illustrations wandering as they do all through the text. In my review I commented that they provided “whimsical and sometimes very pointed satirical commentary on the text”.

Davies read a scene in which two young women talk about sex. I remember the scene well. Its illustrations are a hoot, and it ties neatly, satirically, to the novel’s epigraph (from American author, James Salter) that “the new hunger was for sex”.

And on that, the event closed … I, and a few I spoke to, thought the format worked very well. I was only sorry that, due to other commitments, I wasn’t able to hang around for long afterwards.

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, BacklashWhen co-author and publisher Julian Davies sent me Backlash to review, he described it as “our latest and perhaps most ambitious book so far – non-fiction”. Hmm, I thought, that’s quite something from the publisher of some very interesting and, it seems to me, ambitious books. But now, having read Backlash, I understand what he meant. For a start, Backlash comes straight from the heart of its writers, but more than this, it is ambitious in that its goals and messages reach beyond the specific issue of live exports and animal welfare, as important as those are.

It’s unlikely, if you’re Australian, that you didn’t see or hear about the 2011 Four Corners television episode on the live export of animals to Indonesia, A Bloody Business*. While the actual audience on the night was, Jones and Davies say, comparatively small, the impact – in the short-term in particular – was huge. This book tells the wider story – how the program came about and what happened afterwards. In doing so, it explores the ramifications of the trade, weighs economic expediency against ethical considerations, exposes the democratic processes by which decisions are made, and asks us to think about what it all says about us as a people. As the subtitle says, it’s about “conflict of values”. Live export might be the subject of this particular story but, for Jones and Davies, it exemplifies something bigger, something to do with the sort of society we wish to be and how we might get there. For this reason, as for any, Backlash is a valuable read.

What I didn’t know, or didn’t remember, when I started reading the book is that co-author and zoologist Bidda Jones, head of science and policy at RSPCA Australia, along with Lyn White, animal activist and now campaign director for Animals Australia, were the people who took the issue to Four Corners. It was Jones’ research and White’s video footage which convinced Four Corners to do the story. After the broadcast, politician Barnaby Joyce asked Jones and White why they hadn’t taken the story to him and his Opposition colleagues. The reason was simple, they had tried approaching politicians but had failed to garner any interest. So, to the media it was.

There is no fancy writing here. The book uses plain, direct language as befits its aims. There is little use of flashy rhetorical devices to sway opinion. The authors focus instead on fact and logic to present their case. The book is carefully structured. It starts with an introduction which sets out the book’s aims and explains that although both authors contributed to the book it has been written in Bidda’s first person voice. Chapter 2 briefly recounts their experience of watching the Four Corners program. The book then moves back in time and, over several chapters, chronicles how the program came about: the research (which included Lyn White’s filming trip to Indonesia), the lobbying, and the strategic planning. We then return, at Chapter 16, to the screening of the program and a description of its content. The rest of the book discusses the show’s aftermath. They detail the main cases for and against live export of animals, the initial widespread strong reaction which resulted in the government imposing a short-term ban on live export to Indonesia, and the backlash against this decision which resulted in live export being restored. Since then, they argue (though others argue differently), no real progress has been achieved in improving the welfare of animals. It’s a distressing and depressing story about the failure of our duty of care to animals.

The book is not, as they admit in the Introduction, “an unbiased examination of the different sides of the live export debate”, that is, they decisively argue the animal welfare case, just as Bill McKibben in Oil and honey starts from the basis that he is a climate change activist. However, they also argue that they don’t take “an inflexible ideological position”. They recognise that ours is a “pluralistic society” with many different stakeholders. I understand this to mean that they are vegetarians** who would prefer no animals be killed for food, but they recognise that there are many people who do wish to eat meat. Their position, then, is not to stop animal farming altogether, but to ensure that the welfare of the animals involved is given the priority it should in a civilised society.

Achieving better animal welfare, though, is easier said than done. In chapter after chapter, they demonstrate how “money speaks and is heard”, how bureaucratic processes are manipulated, how changes in political personnel subvert plans, how public policy is too often formed under the influence of power-plays and egos rather than logic and reason. And so, despite a huge public outcry and clear public concern, in the end economic arguments outweighed ethical considerations. The few recommendations made to improve animal welfare conditions were either watered down (such as mandatory stunning pre-slaughter made “a recommendation” not “mandatory”), were not given a proper regulatory framework, and/or got lost in the bureaucracy.

By now, you are probably wondering if the book is all about nay-saying, but it’s not. Jones and Davies propose a range of options, starting with improving the welfare of animals involved in live export. This means improving the selection of animals to be exported, improving the transport conditions under which they are exported, and then improving their treatment and slaughter at the other end. Better, though, they argue, would be to stop live export altogether and focus on the meat trade. This is what New Zealand decided to do in 2007 when it ceased live export out of concern for animal welfare and for its reputation as a country which cared about animal welfare. The problem is that ceasing live export requires longterm planning (including the rebuilding of abattoirs in northern Australia) but contemporary Australian politics is epitomised by “short-termism” underpinned by “a built-in avoidance of complex issues”. I don’t think many of us would argue with their statement that:

Altering the land management practices of pastoralists over millions of hectares requires a long-term outlook and courageous decision-making – rare qualities in today’s political climate.

And so, issues like animal welfare concerns, environmental degradation and insecure export markets are ignored in favour of short-term economic gains.

At the beginning of the book, Jones and Davies state that

a central premise of this book is that a well-governed society develops ways to reconcile economics and welfare so that both suffer as little as possible.

They stay true to this throughout demonstrating that it is possible to balance economic considerations with ethical concerns. (Just look at New Zealand for a start!) Australians, Jones and Davies believe, have shown that they (we) do not condone “entrenched cruelty” to animals, but so far people power has not won out. This story has a way to go yet …


* You can watch the program online (in Australia at least) but warning, it it VERY unpleasant viewing.
** Please see Bidda’s comment below clarifying that they are not vegetarians, as I thought I’d read.

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies
Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2016
ISBN: 9780994516503

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)

Delicious descriptions: Julian Davies on reading

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Julian Davies’ Crow mellow. It’s an enjoyable and at times provocative read. I’d love to share many descriptions and scenes from it but, since this is a reader’s blog, I’ve decided to share some thoughts relevant to my focus made by the main character, poet Phil Day. Much of the discussion in the novel concerns the creation and criticism of art, but here Phil is considering its consumption, specifically in this case, reading:

Reading, writing. If writing was a perplexing activity, reading had to be somewhat puzzling. What could be more passive? He was more of a reader than most, an absorber of information on trust, on a whim and a wish. And what did he believe he was getting from the activity? Entertainment? Well, of a sort, but that was never enough. Betterment? He wasn’t so benighted a romantic as to believe anyone was improved by books. If it was information, wasn’t it a bloodless sort of knowledge? What else then? No, the most he hoped from reading were some silent conversations. If the authors were long dead, the interaction seemed more animated. This was a simple paradox simply to be enjoyed.

I was fascinated by this, because sometimes I wonder myself about whether this activity I so love is too passive. Should I be getting out there instead and doing something? There’s plenty to do – both around the house and outside it in the service of others. Of course, being a reader, I argue with myself that it’s not too passive, but on what grounds? Entertainment goes only so far – and anyhow, I’m not sure that I read specifically for entertainment, though reading is something I enjoy. And information is part of it, but less so – particularly if we are talking facts – from reading fiction. But betterment? This is a good one because there has been quite a bit of discussion recently about the value of reading.

In 2013 Huffington Post listed, with some supporting evidence, “7 Unconventional Reasons Why You Absolutely Should Be Reading Books” which include things like improved empathy and staving off Alzheimer’s. Last year, several newspapers reported on research published in Science which argued that “that social skills are improved by reading fiction – specifically high-end stuff*, the 19th-century Russians, the European modernists, the contemporary prestige names … [that] those who read extracts from literary novels, and then took tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, did significantly better than other subjects who read serious nonfiction or genre fiction.” Science writer, Christian Jarrett, at the wired.com, though, does put some breaks on claims that reading changes our brains.

So, I’m sort of with Phil. I hope reading helps stave off dementia (which is “betterment” for me) and I’m romantic enough to hope that reading might improve our ability to empathise, but I don’t think “betterment” is the main reason I read. Conversation, however, is another thing – silent conversation with the author, sometimes conveyed via marginalia, and conversation with other readers about what I’ve read. These conversations challenge my intellect. But there are other reasons I read too. I read to escape into other worlds, both near to and far from my own, and I read for the emotional hit – to laugh, to cry, to feel all sorts of emotions (although I try to avoid fear!!) What all these add up to in the end is something very simple: I read because it gives me pleasure.

I’ve titled the post “Julian Davies on reading” but it’s his character Phil Day speaking. Is this what Davies thinks too? Possibly, though Crow mellow being the sort of satire it is, I think all we can assume is that Davies is throwing some ideas out there and that, since these ideas are coming from Phil, we should give them particular consideration.

And now, you know what I’m going to ask: Why do you read?

* The high-end literary word used by the Sydney Morning Herald writer!

Julian Davies, Crow mellow (Review)

Julian Davies, Crow mellow Book cover

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Julian Davies, author of Crow mellow and publisher at Finlay Lloyd, has written six novels, some of them short-listed for significant literary awards, but, embarrassingly, I only became properly aware of him through his inclusion in the two Canberra centenary volumes that I reviewed in 2013, The invisible thread and Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue. It’s the Meanjin piece that immediately came to mind when Crow mellow landed unexpectedly in my letterbox last year, probably because I was fascinated by Davies’ description of building himself a place in the mountains south of Canberra near Braidwood. (In fact, I mentioned him in a Monday Musings post about the region). He wrote about people’s fear of the bush, about country versus city living, and about the challenges and paradoxes involved in trying to live a self-sufficient life. It’s not something I can imagine doing myself, but I love reading about people who have the passion to do so. Anyhow, this and the short excerpt from his novel The boy in The invisible thread were my introduction to Davies.

I was therefore intrigued when the odd-looking Crow mellow appeared. It is an unusual shape (longer and narrower than most paperback novels), has a dramatic orange and black cover, has no pagination, and is full of black and white drawings, so full in fact that it was a challenge for me to find space to pencil in my marginalia. I managed however! There are no blurbs on the back cover, just these two sentences:

This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.

I love this sort of cheekiness, so was looking forward to reading the novel produced by the mind behind it. The cheekiness begins with the title, which might ring a bell with some of you? It is a play, as Davies writes in his Introduction, on Aldous Huxley’s first novel Crome yellow (1921). Indeed, if you read the plot summary in the Wikipedia article on Huxley’s novel, you will have a decent summary of Crow mellow – just ignore the names – because, as the Press Release explains, Davies’ novel is “a contemporary social satire closely based on” Crome yellow.

Now, unlike Lisa (ANZLitLovers) who decided to re-read Crome yellow before reading Davies’ “riff”, I decided to read Davies’ book cold. While I cannot speak for how I might have reacted had I read Huxley first, I am happy to report that the novel holds its own as an independent read. Harking back to the tradition of the 19th century “English country house novel” (Wikipedia), it does have a whiff of the “old world” about it, despite its references to modern technology and financial crises. In fact, it’s a rather odd beast. Its set up – a group of artists staying in a country house/bush retreat with their patrons and admirers – suggests historical fiction, but it is firmly set in contemporary times. This past-present tension adds to the fun of it. The tension is compounded by other factors, one being Phil Day’s drawings which provide whimsical and sometimes very pointed satirical commentary on the text, and another being the fact that the novel’s main character, a poet/novelist who observes more than he acts, is named Phil Day! Games must surely be being played with us!

As you would expect from a “country house novel”, whether or not you’ve read one, the novel takes place over several days, and mostly comprises conversation, over meals, and in different parts of the house and gardens as the inhabitants while away their days. Davies writes in his Introduction that he was attracted to Huxley’s novel for two reasons – the idea of having a go himself at “a playful novel of ideas” and the fact that these ideas, in Huxley’s novel, have to do with “the value, purpose and pretensions of art”. He recognised the challenges in taking this on – novels of ideas are often criticised for being didactic, and “art about art risks disappearing up its own fundament” – but these challenges are of course what appealed to him.

Fortunately, I rather like novels of ideas. Ideas – plus character and language – intrigue me more than plots, so this novel with its flawed characters discussing the “important” things in life – art, love and money – was right up my alley. And of course, art-with-a-capital-A is the idea that interested me most. In an interview last year with journalist Sally Pryor, Davies described how, long ago, he’d become frustrated with the pretensions of the art world and, also, with how “venal” publishing had become, which is why he, with three others initially, had established Finlay Lloyd. He questioned publishing’s definition of “success”, saying:

We have a notion that you have to be a bestseller to be successful, but maybe it’s more interesting to do something a little bit weird and different and have a smaller audience who appreciates it.

Finlay Lloyd has succeeded with Crow mellow, achieving that difficult double of producing something different that is also accessible and fun to read.

And now, I believe I’ve done something different too. I’ve written a long so-called review without many specific references to the book itself. Do I need to I wonder, given the book, by its creator’s admission, closely follows Crome yellow’s story? Well, yes, perhaps I should say something. As I was reading, I made many marks in the book, noting ideas that interested me. Here, in Chapter 3, is cynic Scogum (also called, with appropriate Aussie adolescent humour, Scrotum) speaking to Phil Day about novels:

How many million novels would you say have been written in the last century and a half? Before that people seem to have got along well enough without the blasted things, but now every man and his word processor is blathering away putting words on paper, recounting some lame aspect of their own personal lives, celebrating their petty creativity, as though any other human being on earth could really give a damn. And what possible insight could you have to contribute that Tolstoy or Dickens or Proust or Joyce and so on hasn’t put on paper already? Seventy years ago Scott Fitzgerald had already despaired that the novel was obsolete. What original thought could you have, my dear Phil, what formal invention?

Of course, Scogum is not intended to be the last word on the matter. His is just one of the many views put forward about art in the novel. In another scene, Melissa, on the hunt for a love affair, expresses concern that artist Paul’s drawing is too “literal … where were the ideas in this picture, where the irony?” She asks him about his fine, but literal, charcoal marks:

… but don’t you intend to do something with them? I mean, pull them apart and put them in some sort of context that makes an ironic comment on art as a commodity?

And so the discussions go on throughout the book, sometimes pompous, sometimes sincere, but never reaching resolution because in our post-postmodern world, there is no resolution. And that, too, is part of the underlying, albeit tongue-in-cheek, tension in the book.

Meanwhile, Phil hankers for Anna, the daughter of his wealthy host, while she flirts with artist Paul, and Melissa searches for a love affair elsewhere. The set piece of the story is the annual masked ball to which the neighbourhood and wealthy friends are invited and for which the drawings are particularly exquisite. It’s flirty, and fun, but a little creepy too, in a Nero-fiddled kind of way!

Life, Oscar Wilde said, imitates art, more than vice versa. For Davies and Day, I suspect, life and art are so deeply entwined we couldn’t possibly say – but then that’s probably just what we would say in our highly-conceptualised world. Crow mellow is yet another good read coming out of a small publishing house. Do pick it up if it comes to a bookshop (or library) near you, and let me know what you think.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reviewed the book (including a good description of the art), and author Dorothy Johnston’s review was published just last weekend.

Julian Davies
Crow mellow
Illustrated by Phil Day
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2014
No numbered pages (but 384pp, says the Press Release)
ISBN: 9780987592941

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)