Book Reviews

TIME WARPS – John Gribbin (1980)

I haven’t read Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, although possibly a smarter version of myself in a parallel universe has. I’m sure Hawking wouldn’t rule it out. Or John Gribbin.

Is time travel possible? Gribbin takes us through the usual paradoxes and problems, then embarks for the outer limits of physics and metaphysics.

He suggests that time travel might be possible given that there may be an infinite array of universes playing out infinite variations of our pasts, presents and futures. All we need do is figure out how to visit them. Of course this may take some time.

Readers coming to this book 30 years late may notice its one unassailable timewarp, namely Gribbin’s very 1970s confidence that Stonehenge and other stone circles served as astronomical computers. The evidence for that is looking a little rocky these days, the last time I looked anyway.

Overall, however, time has had little effect; the central topic remains mindbendingly speculative and well beyond the current means of our species to prove either way. Which is all very good; an interesting universe must keep some of its mysteries, afterall. And it’s good to bend those little minds of ours once in a while, isn’t it?

 If you’re in Sydney….

Better Read’s Talking Heads:

Josephine Pennicott

Don’t miss award-winning local author Josephine Pennicott in conversation with Newtown Library’s own Gayle Donaldson. Josephine is a natural born story teller. She will discuss the inspiration and research for her new historical mystery novel Poet’s Cottage, give her own take on tips for being a writer and touch on the art of being published. 

 Josephine’s new book Poet’s Cottage is an absorbing historical mystery set in the bohemian 1930s and the present day. It’s a Tasmanian tale about a mother and daughter, Sadie and Betty, uncovering the truth about wild life and violent death of Sadie’s controversial grandmother, the free-spirited children’s writer Pearl Tatlow.

WHEN: Tuesday July 31, 6pm to 7pm 

WHERE: Newtown Library, 8-10 Brown Street, Newtown (Sydney).

Admission free, but book your place here 

Presented with Better Read Than Dead Bookshop

Very proud to say that Josephine’s new novel Poet’s Cottage (Pan Macmillan) is officially out and ready to leap from the bookshop shelves NOW. 

A mystery set in a Tasmanian coastal village in the 1930s and the present day, Poet’s Cottage concerns the wild life and strange, unsolved death of a bohemian children’s writer, Pearl Tatlow, and the divergent memories her daughters had of their unconventional upbringing. In the present day, Pearl’s granddaughter Sadie tries to solve the mystery of her death and also come to terms with the legacy of her life.

The German hardcover version is due in September. There has been quite a lot of publicity and reviews already. Here’s a feature by Steve Meacham – and photography by me! (brag, brag, brag) – which appeared in the Sun Herald (Sydney) on March 18. Click on the link here to read the full article

Years ago I pitched an article to a magazine on the latest hunt for mystery big cats in the bush near north-western Sydney. No, said the editor, because ‘nothing ever happens’ when people look for big cats.

[Even less happened with this short-lived magazine, by the way, except bankruptcy and, for hapless contributors, ‘cheques in the mail’ of which there have been, in stark contrast to said cats, no reported sightings at all – but I digress.]

He clearly thought yarns of big cats roaming the Australian bush were crap. Or scat. How wrong can you be…

Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers (Strange Nation Publishing) must be the most detailed compendium of Australia’s best documented cryptozoological conundrum. Authors Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang shine more light on the mystery than has ever been shone before.

There’s no doubt big cats are out there in the outback. The mystery is what kind of cat, and whether other animals account for some of the sightings. These range from feral dogs and foxes to rather more unlikely candidates such as the long-extinct marsupial lion.

The Grampians in Victoria host the most sightings but there are other hotspots across Australia; this is a mystery with regional variations and little chance that a single species is behind it all.

As expected there are no firm answers, but I came away thinking the most feasible explanation in most cases is that feral domestic cats are simply breeding bigger out there. We’re talking up to double normal size. Which, just like the whole story of big bush cats, is actually a lot bigger than it sounds.

So where was I over the summer holidays? Drunk in the gutters of Boston, juggling double albums and narcotics in the basements of Villefranche… vicariously of course. In other worlds, reading Keith Richards’ Life and Poe: A Life Cut Short, Peter Ackroyd’s new biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

Both of these men were significant innovators on their particular seacoasts of Bohemia. Poe, of course, is famous for taking poetry and prose in important and exciting directions, inventing the detective story along the way. Richards was the major (though not the first, as he reveals) importer of Spanish tuning into the Top 40 (Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar, etc). And, as revealed here on this website for the very first time, both chaps favoured startlingly similar white neckware. 

Life might be the best-selling Stones-related release  for decades. Certainly it’s had more attention than any new album since… anyhow, while it’s necessarily something of a greatest hits itself, with many an old yarn revisited, there’s also plenty 
that’s new re life and music in this most quintessential corner of the bohemian jetset. His overriding passion for the music is palpable, and thanks for the tip on playing Jimmy Reed! Overall, it’s perhaps the most entertaining book of its kind since Dylan’s Chronicles.

Poe was  probably the first ‘weird tale’ writer I discovered (you too, perhaps). A dead woman stuffed up a chimney by an orang-utan, a king and courtiers chained to a chandelier and burned alive by a disgruntled dwarf, a prisoner about to be sliced up by a sharp swinging pendulum… these are not images easily forgotten.

Ackroyd’s biography is a very slim and pacy volume, focusing more on the wild ride of Poe’s life than indepth consideration of his writing. It’s a good place to go for a quick handle on Poe, being short, well-constructed, fair-minded, plausible and entertaining. My only quibble is its odd tendency to begin a lot of sentences with ‘So’, which gets a little distracting.

 The funny thing is Richards, for all the dissipation and rocker-most-likely-to-drop-dead status, emerges as  the more careful of the two. He was never going to be found dying in the street like Poe, wearing someone else’s pants.



Another excerpt from doctor/rugby international/author Herbert Moran’s surprisingly Tour-To-Hellish 1940s memoir Beyond The Hill Lies China (see previous post):

Here Moran, in London during the Blitz, tells how he found a metaphor for his life journey in the difficult flight into unknown territory undergone by convict runaways as they struggled towards an imagined freedom.

He is inspired and encouraged by how they staked everything on their belief, which he elevates to a vision of transcendence. Challis, his protagonist, is his barely fictionalised self.

Over to Moran:

‘He had come to identify himself with those convicts who, out of the enclosure of their settlement, had pushed forward, their pockets full of grain. Was he not kindred to them in a felony of the senses? The West Road was the symbol of their travail and their release. Did it not carry still the meager relics of their passing: crumbling stones with an arrow and a number, the dust over all? Yet those convicts had pushed on, exhilarated. They had seen summits and ranges with red dawns spilling over a distant peak. Beyond the Hill and across the Bay they had found a goal. God in His Mercy had given distance to their dream. What did it matter if, on the way, they shed the trivial remnant of their flesh?

Originally a gift in 1946

Challis thought on the years when he had blindly groped his way, years of precarious foothold, when the mountain peak was veiled in mists, when Faith had slumped through nights, when he had known the shame of self-pity and the yielding to it. He had been giddy on sudden heights and vain on little pinnacles. But now he, too, was pushing forward with those old shadows for company.’

Beyond The Hill Lies China (Dymocks, 1945) by Herbert M Moran is a thinly fictionalised memoir of Moran’s life and career as a doctor in Sydney about a century ago. It’s an obscure little gem, an interesting blend of everyday scenes with the odd quasi-mystical musing thrown in.

The title refers to one of the convict myths of place I write about in Tour To Hell, the idea that China (and freedom) could be reached by crossing the unmappped Blue Mountains near Sydney.

Herbert Moran: doctor, writer, poet, rugby international

I’d never heard of Moran, but click goes the computer and I meet the fascinating ‘Paddy’ Moran (1885-1945), a leading early Australian rugby player who captained the first Wallabies tour to England, back in 1908. He served in both world wars, and his interest in cancer treatment research led to him becoming the first doctor in Australia to use radium tube therapy. 

Moran wrote three books, all autobiographical. He was fascinated by Classical Greece and Rome, and alive to the poetic dimensions of the convict myths, divining how they tell one of the first stories of landscape evoked in the imaginations of Australia’s early settlers.

Here’s a quote from page 71 of Moran’s book:

‘But not all the convicts had submitted. He remembered the story of those who, moved by fierce nostalgia, had burst their bounds. Beyond the hill, across the Bay, lay China! Men whispered the news, their hearts excited. China! The freedom and romance of Cathay!

And so, some more daring or more desperate, had saved from their meager ration or pilfered from public stores, and then set out, with high hearts, to walk. Beyond the hill lay China! And on they went, and on, till failure of supplies or a black’s spear halted their dream. Halted their dream? No. They had but passed from physical suffering to transcendental joy. Had they not horizons beyond the fickleness of seasons or the illusion of a dawn? What if the casual drover still finds their pitted bones – resistent vertebrae and ribs that once hooped a great breath? These are but the lesser things of the flesh they shed en route.’


In history’s pages, the efforts that runaway convicts in colonial Australia made to reach mythical bush sanctuaries is a topic almost as obscure as the phantom colonies themselves.   

When I came to write Tour To Hell I soon found that, for well over a century, commentary on the topic had barely gone further than an incredulous escape anecdote or two, along with brief mention of the ignorance and desperation that clearly drove such attempts.  While no-one seems to have attempted the full story, over the years several writers have considered aspects of escape mythology that fall within the orbit of their primary concerns. 

The pattern was set in the 19th century. Ernest Favenc’s History of Australian Exploration From 1788 To 1888 briefly presented the journeys of the earliest myth-inspired escapees – mostly Irish and ‘panting for liberty’ – as a weird prelude to more conventional exploration of Australia. Favenc, who was an explorer himself, was sufficiently fascinated by the idea of mystery outback civilisations to write a Rider Haggard-type novel, The Secret of the Australian Desert (1895).

A decade later, George Boxall (Story Of The Australian Bushrangers) acknowledged escape myths in another context, noting that some of the earliest bushrangers were runaways with ‘incredible’ notions of nearby settlements. He reminded his late-Victorian readers that ‘the majority of the working classes at the beginning of the century could not read and had no knowledge of geography’.  

Fast forward to The Fatal Shore (1988) by Robert Hughes, perhaps the most famous general convict history. Hughes confines most of his brief escape myth commentary to one lengthy footnote, stating that ‘the fantasy of escape to China was one of the obsessive images of early transportation’, and that Irish runaways had created a ‘Paradise myth to alleviate their antipodean Purgatory’. Patrick O’Farrell (The Irish In Australia, 1986) regrets the convicts’ error offered such rich fodder for Irish stereotyping, which he finds echoing through our national story ever since.  

In 1987, Paul Carter’s Road To Botany Bay offered a new approach. Carter used the earliest examples of these escapes to illustrate a wider point that the colony’s ‘law and order were not self-fulfilling, but the offspring of the convicts’ collusion in the dream’. In other words, to go bush was to subvert the convict-driven empire-building which England’s plans for Australia required.  

Carter adopts a revisionist perspective that the convict myth was merely a story to hoodwink colonial officials. To me this is a false trail, untenable given the full weight of evidence, as Tour To Hell details. But to his credit Carter seems to have been the first writer to deeply consider the nature of the convict myth. As a poet preoccupied with his own idiosyncratic notion of ‘spatial history’, Carter prefers to see ‘Chinas and inland kingdoms’ as ‘metaphors which concealed, rather than revealed a plot to travel’. 

Martin Thomas, within the context of his Blue Mountains historiography The Artificial Horizon (2004) sees the convict myths of place as, ‘despite their indeterminacy, among the most important fragments that survive from the colonial period’. In them, he argues, we see how the colony was not just developed by ‘rational enterprise’, but by ‘the fictional, the fantastic, the imagined’. 

Thomas includes a rare acknowledgement that the myth outlasted the first Blue Mountains crossing, and also thoughtful consideration of the Aboriginal use of phantom settlements. He spends 18 pages on mythical settlements, delving more deeply than most other accounts.

In Tour To Hell my intention was complete immersion in the story of what was, above all else, itself a story, a convict story, probably the first piece of lasting folklore to arise in the Australian colonies.

HOLY TERRORS – Arthur Machen


Arthur Machen’s knack was revealing the mystic in the everyday humdrum. His subtly supernatural tales lift a veil on reality every time, and the best of his stories in this collection absolutely buzz with a sense of transformation.

Machen’s early triumphs (The Novel Of The White Powder is a fine example) were heavily influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson, though he soon found his own voice, epitomised by the morbid and mystical short novel Hill Of Dreams.

By some quirk of literary fate Arthur Machen is chiefly remembered for one of his lesser efforts, The Bowmen, a propaganda short with ghostly 15th-century English archers helping their WW1 compatriots repel German troops at the Battle of Mons. Published in the first year of the Great War, the story ran away with itself and Machen found himself the unwitting creator of the widely believed Angel of Mons legend.

Machen’s best and best-known short stories – The Great God Pan, The Novel of The Black Seal etc etc – are frequently anthologised and appear in his two-volume Tales of Horror & The Supernatural. The Holy Terrors set is not Machen at his very best but is still nevertheless excellent and highly recommended to anyone enchanted by his world and words.



Byron was that rarest of birds, a superstar poet. His poem The Corsair reputedly sold 10,000 copies on the day of its release in 1814 which, if true, must surely be a standing record for poetry sales.

Today Byron belongs to that exclusive club of achievers whose names are descriptions; the adjective ‘Byronic’ probably has greater currency than anything he actually wrote. He’s Mr Mad-Bad-And-Dangerous-To-Know even to people who know nothing else about him. His poetry, however, has long been eclipsed in critical regard by the work of contemporaries such as Keats and Blake.

But if Byron has faded as a poet, as a biographical subject he’ll always shine, mainly because his life reads like an X-rated Jane Austen novel. Utilising previously unseen letters, Eisler reveals a complex and twisted man, a carnal wit who was as proud of his long-distance swimming as his verses.

Here Eisler seeks to revive Byron’s poetic reputation by examining his verse in the context of his life. His creativity drew heavily on personal experience and he sneered at poets whom he accused of straying from earthy reality. Keats, for example, was derided for ‘frigging his imagination’.

Like many a rock star, Byron was a libertine but no radical. He wanted to break rules, not change them. Although his international jaunts frequently reduce Led Zeppelin tours to nuns’ picnics by comparison, his sense of humour and gift for the apt phrase have a tendency to save the day. And if they don’t, well, at least it can be said he never bores.

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