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In The Estuary: Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats

No More Boats
by Felicity Castagna
Giramondo
234pp
26.95 AU
Published June, 2017
ISBN 9781925336306

In Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats, we are repeatedly reminded that the novel’s locale, Parramatta, marks the shifting aqueous site in Sydney’s Western suburban landscape where ‘saltwater meets fresh’. Historically, this is the place where Australia’s early colonial explorers, travelling up the Parramatta River from Sydney Cove in 1788, could take their boats no further. It is also one of numerous sites of resistance to European invasion by the Aboriginal warrior, Pemulwuy. In Castagna’s hands, this rich and multi-layered history of place is embodied in the topography of the Parramatta River and its intricate estuarine environment, creating a wonderfully nuanced metaphor.

Fashioned by a drowned river valley ten thousand years ago, the Parramatta River is the main tributary of the Sydney Harbour estuary. The river’s estuary system subsists between ever-varying proportions of saltwater and fresh, increasing mangroves and dangerously depleting saltmarsh, and the numerous intangible migration routes that serve a diverse host of marine life. Literally and emblematically, the Parramatta River is a place of transition and movement, both richly fertile and ecologically damaged. Castagna’s novel delves into these generative but also traumatised in-between spaces as it probes the lives and anxieties of people who reside in the interstices of different cultures, languages, nationalities and racial origins.

No More Boats weaves together four different narrative perspectives over a short period of time bookended between two significant historical events: the Tampa crisis of August 2001 in Australia, and the 9/11 attacks in the same year in the USA. Despite these potentially overwhelming contexts, Castagna’s focus is very much on the local and the specificities of place. The novel locates itself in moments of transection between the local and the global, between an Australian family in Parramatta of multinational origins – the Italian-English Martone family – and the larger emergencies in which they find their lives entangled. It further evokes and scrutinises what Elizabeth McMahon has described as the ‘geopolitics’ of Australia as an ‘island continent’ and the anxieties of ‘contamination and infiltration’ of Australia’s watery borders. ‘Too many boats’, the narrator tells us in Castagna’s first chapter, ‘same thing they’ve been anxious about since yesterday, the day before that, two hundred years ago’.

In centring the book in multicultural and transnational Parramatta, rather than Sydney or Melbourne, No More Boats pushes into new urban literary territory. Castagna’s cast of characters is dominated by professional and highly skilled house-builder, Antonio Martone, Italian-born husband to Australian-born Anglo wife, Rose, and father of their two adult children, Francis and Clare, both born, schooled and raised in Parramatta. The walls of Antonio’s carefully crafted Australian identity begin to crumble after an accident at work results in the death of his closest friend, Nico. This incident leaves Antonio physically disabled and unemployed, compounding his already vexed sense of himself as an aging and redundant patriarch both at home and at work. His subsequent hallucinatory and sometimes intoxicated introspection on who he is and where he comes from soon begins to spiral outwards.

As the news reports flood in of the rescued Afghani refugees aboard the MV Tampa, Antonio’s ‘existential crisis’ slowly becomes enmeshed with a nation at war with itself over a perceived threat to its island borders. John Howard’s decision to turn the boat and its human cargo away is literally spliced across the page and interlaced with Antonio’s consciousness as he revisits in memory his own journey to Australia: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. As an individual life thus begins to ‘crack’ and split ‘wide open’ the novel exposes the fissures and fault lines of a nation that is asking itself who it is and where it comes from.

No More Boats, however, refuses to provide any easy answers. Instead, we watch Antonio, a postwar migrant from a Calabrian mountainside village ruined by floods and conflict, incongruously join forces with right-wing extremists who are protesting against sheltering refugees. The conflicted Martone family becomes a kind of microcosm of the nation in August 2001, and so too does Parramatta. Towards the end of the novel, Clare ruminates on her family history to a new friend as they take a misty walk along the upper reaches of the Parramatta River. As she oscillates between past and present in her own narrative, she imagines the mist moving through Parramatta – through both its violent European settlement origins and its urban present – and concludes that the mist is Parramatta itself, as well as its ‘many things hidden’. This is, Clare decides, ‘why Parramatta was the nation’.

Castagna’s concern with the ‘many things hidden’ both in family and national life reveals itself in the various spoken and unspoken narratives that underpin the book’s individual stories and perspectives – those of Antonio, Rose, Francis and Clare – and brings those narratives into a radical type of circulation with each other and with national events. This allows the book to lend significance to the act of exposure itself and to illustrate the potential of such unveilings in resuscitating important lines of connection and communication. Except to Nico and Rose, Antonio’s life story remains largely untold and actively repressed, and this stirring point lingers throughout the novel as a major source of Antonio’s disconnection from others, including his wife and children.

Clare postulates that her father’s troubles stem from being ‘old and … angry that he’s not in control anymore’ and, in part, Antonio’s crisis is indeed embroiled in his hyper masculinised sense of himself as an aging ‘nobody’. ‘A working man’s man’ like his father, Antonio is left to wonder what he is meant to do when ‘no one wanted [him] to work anymore’ and when he can no longer walk through a crowded room ‘like he was a king’. Prior to his forced retirement, Antonio has already been displaced at work by a building site manager who recognises the economic virtues of ‘oversized houses’ made of cheap stick-on materials, what Antonio calls the ‘McShitboxes’ of Lot 185. Viewed against this fall from a working-man’s grace, Antonio’s initial attraction to John Solomon’s protest against ‘Australia’s Migrant Waves’ is less to do with his attitude towards immigration, and more to do with the fact that a ‘serious man’ shook his hand, called him ‘Sir’, and treated him ‘like he was someone to respect’. Solomon also reminds him of ‘the Nico he’d known twenty years ago, built big and broad like a labourer in his prime’. Francis recognises and feels the pain of his father’s ‘diminished life’ in these terms – as the loss of a very socially prescribed and physical type of masculinity – and he can barely look at Antonio in his egg-stained and threadbare underwear, ‘the outline of his flaccid penis beneath’.

Rather than fall into line with this conventional gendering, however, No More Boats critiques its damaging effects, particularly through Rose’s life of ‘self-sacrifice and discipline’. Rose concedes to herself that Antonio had ‘mistaken her for some sort of domestic woman’ but that she had also adopted the feminine foil to his masculine ways. She ‘adored him’ and he ‘spent too much time protecting her’, and because she loved him, ‘she cleaned for him’. To her children, she knows she must ‘look like a housewife in a 1950s movie’. Raised alone by a lonely and depressed mother, who committed suicide when Rose was sixteen, Rose’s childhood was spent looking outwards to a world denied her. The tragic freedom gained from her mother’s suicide sees her unwittingly choose another lifetime of being ‘tied down’. The house Antonio builds for them gives her life a shape into which she is forced to fit: ‘the house had turned her into the kind of woman who tried to care about fingerprints on windows and dirty dishes’.

Castagna drills further down into these narratives of gender and explores the deeper migrant complexities that drive them. Just as Rose’s often frustratingly passive behaviour lies rooted in her own private traumas, Antonio’s valorisation of solidly-built structures is not mere generational nostalgia, or social rage against housing market capitalist greed, but is the very framework on which his sense of self rests. This framework is clearly inflected by multiple damaging experiences tied to Antonio’s familial and racial origins, as well as his migrant journeying. Castagna’s novel is here sensitively attuned to the tragedies of intergenerational trauma, as well as the disastrous resurfacing of past unmanaged suffering.

As Antonio’s personal crisis deepens, we learn of the death of his parents in a mudslide in Calabria in the 1960s – an area known for its disastrous winter flooding – and of his subsequent flight. Piero Belivacqua writes that the devastation wreaked by floods and landslides in villages across Campania, Basilicata and Calabria in southern Italy was, in the 1950s and 1960s, intensified by the ‘human manipulation of mountain slopes’. Antonio also remembers how the Allied bombing of the slopes during the second world war further destabilised the land: the pockmarked inclines had ‘turned to water and turned to mud’. The effects of mass deforestation and war thus combine to destroy Antonio’s parents, who ‘floated, unconscious, in the houses that became their tombs’ (82). The subsequent depopulation of their home region – ‘everyone travelled North [or] got on boats and travelled even further’ – leaves the mountain slopes open to further environmental and economic calamity.

The empty villages, his father’s rotting orchards, and the ever-present threat of the rains ‘closing in again’ eventually drive 23 year-old Antonio to permanently leave his home in August 1961: ‘he would hitch a ride on the back of a truck, and then walk and then hitch and then take a train and then walk again, until he arrived at the Port of Naples where he would eventually board a boat’. Antonio remains haunted by the Calabrian landscape he has forsaken, as well as the ‘earlier self’ he has left behind. He carries with him to Australia the unprocessed and deep trauma of not just the loss of his parents, but of ‘whole villages’ that ‘vanished just like that’. It is the ‘weak frames of houses that had been built too high’ and which collapsed around the ‘too many people’ squashed inside them that fuel Antonio’s later obsession with Australian houses of ‘old sturdy brick’, opposed to ‘apartments with walls made of pressed cardboard’. This slowly drawn backstory of Antonio’s life allows Castagna to arouse in her readers a growing sense of intimacy with her central character and, in turn, elicit both sympathy and understanding for a character whose actions are otherwise often abhorrent.

The detailed chronicle  of Antonio’s life sits in stark ironic contrast to the 438 Afghani refugees marooned on the MV Tampa. The intimate stories and traumas of the 369 men, 26 women (two pregnant) and 43 children have never been told, and their individual lives are distorted in the novel through the repetition of media images and rhetoric that suggest ‘inundation and floods, rising tides, tsunamis of human beings coming across the ocean’. These are the same newspaper images and text that Antonio has ‘taken to reading … with a religious fervour’ and which he has begun to collect in neat stacks that pile up in the corner of his living room. Floods and tsunamis begin to keep Antonio awake at night as he imagines people and turbulent water waiting to ‘invade’, eventually ‘crashing down around him’. Reality is here painfully disfigured by both the media and Antonio’s rapidly resurfacing memories. Consequently, his reactionary exploits to regain a sense of authority, safety and secure borders spin out in ever-increasingly unhinged behaviour.

Antonio’s son, Francis, struggles to make sense of the overwhelming national events that seem tangled up in his father’s erratic private and public breakdown. Francis can’t quite ‘get at the words’ of the TV coverage of Tampa but is struck by what is now a familiar and defining image of August 2001: ‘a big ship and a big ocean. The only small things were the tiny dots of people sitting around shipping containers on the deck’. Journalist Jack Rose situates this image as part of a wider dehumanisation of the Tampa’s Afgani refugees. This handling of the refugees in images, as well as in party-political rhetoric, argues Rose, was a ‘political masterstroke’ in the Howard government’s electioneering in 2001: ‘it set the battle lines to us versus them’. Antonio’s own ungenerous attitude to the work-exploited younger generation of migrants that came after him, ‘fresh off the boat’, corroborates this effect. The ‘Vietnamese or Chinese or whatever’ subcontracted male workers assigned to him by his foreman are just another ‘two of them … poor shits making $400 a week’ who ‘couldn’t do things properly’. Only when Antonio gets closer to one of the men does he realise that he knows his face, pauses, and concedes that his first distant impression is wrong. Not young, but old, papery dry skin and hair ‘flecked with grey’ – ‘they’d laid concrete together when they were building the foundations’.

The suppression of Antonio’s life story, both to himself and to his children, however, causes its own kind of psychological trauma and not just to Antonio. Francis and Clare are characterised by a relentless desire to escape their father and the suffocating family home. It is a home too loud with their father’s presence and where every inch of space is taken up by Antonio, even when ‘he was just sitting on the couch saying nothing’. Their peripatetic movements outwards and away from Antonio appear a weak tender to find some space to be themselves, but this leaves them with a more hardened sense of disconnection and rootlessness.

Clare lives in Surry Hills and walks the ‘impossibly hip’ streets in an attempt to ‘lose herself’ and ‘shake the Parramatta off her’. She has sex with a former boyfriend to remind herself that she no longer lives under her father’s roof and yearns to find something to ‘connect her in a sharp, focused way to the world’. Unable to cope as a school teacher and dismissed from her post, Clare works (unknown to her family) in a bookstore and dismisses those ‘middle-aged women’ who frequent the store looking for ‘a book to define who they were’. Without a story of her own, Clare has lost her belief in stories altogether.

Francis lives at home but is rarely there and matches Clare’s street wanderings with his own itinerant movement between friends’ houses and the streets of Parramatta, along with its clubs, pubs and fast-food outlets. A builder like his father, Francis recognises how he is ‘tied up in all the anxieties of the man who had raised him’ but finds intimacy and connection with Antonio awkward. Often stoned, drunk or both, he continuously seeks out ‘a trance state’ – whether it’s the beat in a nightclub or the machine-like beat of laying out bricks and mortar – in order to escape ‘the rhythmless world he didn’t want to be in’. Like Clare, he also hankers for something unnameable to ground himself, to ‘be in a tribe’.

As children of a mixed-race marriage and migrant parents, Francis and Clare already occupy an unsettled in-between space, like the estuarine environment of Parramatta in which they have grown up. Francis’ craving for the certainties of tribe are suggestive of a type of racial fixity that is impossible given his dual origins. At his place of work, Antonio registers that like-nationalities sit with like, but young white Australians sit with ‘the children of people like [him] who had migrated too long ago for anyone to remember that they were migrants too’. His son’s position in this younger grouping, however, is perhaps less assured than Antonio realises. Francis’ childhood games of football are marked by shifting hierarchical lines of race, similar to the groupings of men at the building site; ‘Italians and Yugoslavs versus Asians; the Asians always lost. On Sundays everyone teamed up against the Islanders, but the Islanders always won’. Moreover, Francis’ ability to sit with the ‘Aussies’ and the ‘everyone-elses’ on the building site, while the newer migrants – Vietnamese, Chinese, Arab – are left to their own national clustering, comes at a cost: the muting of his Italian roots and English heritage. With no real knowledge of their parents’ or their grandparents’ stories or histories, Francis and Clare’s search for an identity in the estuarine waters of an already racially mixed and indeterminate space is painfully hampered.

In his memoir, the Palestinian-American literary critic, Edward W. Said, wrote of a life-long sensation of feeling distinctively ‘out of place’. Said’s ‘unsettled sense of many identities’ compels a despairing wish in his youthful self that his family had been ‘all-Arab, or all-European and American … and so on’. Like Francis, Said grapples with a confused sense of origins and self and covets a ‘simple dynastic sequence’, an uncomplicated tribal identity with neatly drawn lines of heritage and belonging. Said’s attempts to come to know himself, however, are thwarted when he attempts to open himself to the ‘deeply disorganised state’ of his history and origins because he ‘never had enough information’. This broken familial storyline, and the resulting pain of Said’s dislocation, derives from his parents’ inability (or unwillingness) to communicate fully their past lives, particularly his father:

there were never the right number of well-meaning connectives between the parts I knew about or was able somehow to excavate … [my father] never told me more than ten or eleven things about his past, a series of unchanging pat phrases that hardly conveyed anything at all.

Like Said, Francis and Clare have no access to their ‘disorganised’ histories, to the stories that might have helped them to understand both themselves and their parents. Without any sense of a shared and comprehensive history, each member of the Martone family fails in their own way to find a common language with which to properly know and understand each other. Castagna’s novel repeatedly circles back to the broken lines of communication between Francis, Clare, Rose and Antonio: a constant avoidance of ‘real conversation’, an inability to ‘talk’ and ‘connect’, a failure to just ‘make sense’ of each other. Having falsely viewed and wooed each other through the lens of racial cliché – his ‘Italian swarthiness’, her ‘daughter of an English Rose’ origins – Antonio and Rose suddenly find themselves bereft of a language with which to ‘talk to each other with the ease of two human beings on the same level’.

Antonio’s family history, however, goes beyond a story simply lost through time, and the silencing of his life narrative is not just a straightforward act of withholding information. Antonio seems to adopt what Said suspects in his own father, ‘an assumed identity’, one that irons out the creases of his past and is embodied in his father’s streamlined response to questions of identity: ‘“I’m an American citizen’”. When Clare comes home from school with a collage of images of Italy for multicultural day, Antonio can only mutter, ‘“We’re Australian. I’m Australian”’, and he refuses to tell Francis and Clare ‘anything about his life’ before coming to Australia. Antonio’s emigration to Australia occurs in the still reverberating wake of the government’s ‘populate or perish’ policy, and his perception of identity is partially the result of a postwar economic reconstruction program that wasn’t interested in creating a multicultural nation. Karen Agutter and Rachel Ankeny explain that ‘through a strict policy of assimilation and mandatory 2-year work contracts’, European refugees and assisted-migrants from the late 1940s to the 1960s were actively encouraged to ‘adopt the “Australian way of life” and to disperse into the community’. Even before he reaches Australia’s shores, Antonio practices the ‘foreign shape of … English words in his mouth’ and thinks about the ‘new person’ he will have to become – at least ‘two-thirds white’ – to get past the Australian Immigration Office in Naples and successfully resettle in Australia. Antonio’s flight across Italy is thus accompanied by a process of self-denial, as well as a painful awareness of loss, that leaves him ‘scooped out, hollow’.

It is in the Villawood Migrant Hostel, where Antonio is placed on arrival in Australia, that he meets his friend and fellow Calabrian, Nico. Nico helps Antonio find work and teaches him how to ‘talk to Australians’. Nico’s psychological and social support is crucial to Antonio’s emotional and practical survival. He provides both a nod back to Antonio’s Italian past, and a sense of stability for moving forward in a world that is suddenly deeply uncertain. Speaking from the dead, however, Nico’s undoing reflects Antonio’s living demise:

I was everything they told me to be, I did the jobs they told me to do, never complained, worked hard, stopped speaking my own language, looked the other way when they called me names. Now, everything is different, what a waste. They laugh at me when I speak.

Castagna’s novel sheds important fictive light on Australia’s postwar migrant hostels, a history that has only in recent years attracted attention. While government photographs of hostel life unsurprisingly paint a uniformly positive outlook – happy smiling children, adults grouped together learning English – Sally Pryor notes that they don’t show the inevitable flipside of migrant experience, the ‘loneliness, isolation and homesickness’, or the hardships for many families ‘struggling to make the best of the often cramped conditions’. No More Boats exposes the transition of the Villawood Migrant Hostel to its more recent incarnation as the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. Despite the ironic comparisons between the Department of Immigration posters of the 1950s enticing migrants to the ‘land of tomorrow’, and the more recent Department of Immigration and Border Protection posters of 2014 – ‘No Way. You Will Not Make Australia Home’ – Antonio’s neighbour and fellow hostel resident, Lucy, reprimands Rose’s naïve perception of migrant hostel life as wholly different from what is now shown on on the television news. Lucy reminds Rose of the ideological similarities between the migrant hostels and the rooftop protests, hunger strikes and self-harm that more recently mark the detention centre in the public eye: ‘Not so different … you weren’t there. Not really. Not in there.’

If Antonio’s obsession with the quarter-acre block and sturdily built brick home derives, in part, from his own traumatic experience in Italy and subsequent reverence for ‘those things that didn’t wash away’, it also comes from his equally difficult experience of coerced assimilation in Australia. Antonio’s identity as an Australian is founded on a denial of his Italian origins, but also an embrace of home building and home ownership as an outward sign of successful settlement, adjustment and citizenship. Fiona Allon argues that by the mid-twentieth century ‘home ownership had become synonymous with the “Australian way of life”, illustrating an individual’s commitment to citizenship and the nation’. The insecurities of migrant hostel life, a life of multiple in-betweens, are very literally paved over in the building of Antonio’s house, allowing him to falsely believe in what Allon describes as an ‘uncomplicated sense of secure moorings and a reassuring confirmation of identity and purpose’. Likewise, Antonio’s attraction to John Solomon’s anti-immigration protest is less because he understands what Solomon is saying, and more because Solomon believes ‘Antonio was a great Australian’. Antonio’s house meets Allon’s definition of a ‘nostalgic utopia’, a building that evokes the surviving sandstone houses of Italy and recreates the orchards of Antonio’s childhood, a garden landscape under which lies buried the protecting totem of Saint Francis of Assisi. It is here, ‘pruning tomato vines’, that Antonio finds himself at his ‘most calm … somewhere in the past’. When Rose mistakenly digs up the buried figurine, St Francis (like Nico) very literally rises from his garden grave to haunt Antonio with the realities of his past losses. The neat straight lines of Antonio’s vegetable patch descend into chaos and disorder as his own mind disintegrates – the watermelon vines ‘choking’ the other vegetables ‘to death’ – and the sandstone walls of his house, chiselled from gravesite headstones, begin to echo the collapsed tomb-like walls of the houses that became his parents’ graves in Calabria.

Like T.S. Eliot’s ‘hollow men’, who exist in purgatorial limbo and to whom Antonio is drawn when Clare reads him Eliot’s poetry, the new person Antonio becomes on Australian soil leaves him emptied out and permanently in-between an old self that he attempts to stifle, and a new feigned self that eventually falls apart. From olive farmer to house builder, he struggles to reconcile the ‘straggly boy wandering’ the mountains of Calabria, and the man who built a house ‘close to the Parramatta River, where salt water met fresh and the boats could go no further’. In this regard, Antonio here occupies what Clair Wills calls in her new history of British postwar immigration, ‘the limbo of migrant culture’. This midpoint space is a central focus for Wills’ reasoning but it is also one that historian Andy Beckett bewails as an unoriginal insight, albeit ‘true and important’, on an ‘emotional aspect of migration’. Beckett certainly isn’t alone in his opinion, at least not more broadly on the intermediate spaces of migrant experience, and Castagna’s novel is an essential corrective to these somewhat trivialising lines of thinking. No More Boats pays testament to the intersectional dimensions of this feature of migration, and illustrates how what has perhaps become an over-familiar rhetoric of life in the in-between still contains unexpected tangents. No More Boats further and rightly insists on recognising the intergenerational transmission of the migrant experience, its fault lines and ongoing traumas.

As much as No More Boats is about people, it is also crucially a book about place. Home is an especially fraught concept in the migrant experience, and no less so in Castagna’s novel, but the book also explores this concept via an invitation to its readers to examine in more detail our own relationship to place. In this sense, and given its Parramatta setting, it is an appealing text for the classroom, particularly in Sydney’s western suburbs, where I teach. As Cheryl Glotfelty notes of her own experiential teaching experiences, allowing students to read books about their own region or place ‘has the effect of making a nowhere become a somewhere’. Whether they are students or not, such moments of union with a text can serve to legitimate individual, familial and communal experiences for readers. No More Boats certainly returned me back to some of my own touchstone moments as a university student and recalled the personal and intellectual profit of those reading encounters. This is, perhaps, especially true because the complex migrant story that validated who I was, is one that rarely featured in anything I had been made to read at school or university, fiction or otherwise. Reading Said’s painful existential tussle with his ‘fancy English name’ and ‘its Arabic partner’ was nothing short of revelatory to an English–born daughter of an Irish mother and an Iraqi father. I had suddenly found my place on a map I never even knew existed. Castagna’s novel, ultimately, understands this complexity of place and our deep relationship to it and No More Boats is an important text for a place that is still arguably grappling with the anxieties of who it is and where it comes from.

Works cited

Karen Agutter and Rachel A. Ankeny, ‘Understanding Ethnic Residential Cluster Formation: new perspectives from South Australia’s migrant hostels’ in Australian Geographer 47.4 (2016): 455-469.

Andy Beckett, ‘Nine White Men Armed with Iron Bars’ in London Review of Books 39.21 (2017), online edition.

Piero Belivacqua, ‘The Distinctive Character of Italian Environmental History’ in Nature and History in Modern Italy, eds. Marco Amiero and Marcus Hall (Ohio: Ohio UP, 2010), pp. 15-32.

Felicity Castagna, No More Boats (Sydney: Giramondo, 2017).

Cheryll Glotfelty, ‘Thinking about Women in Place’, in Teaching About Place: Learning from the Land, ed. Laird Christensen and Hal Crimmel (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2008), pp. 67-82.

Jane Lydon, ‘Friday Essay: work a thousand words – how photos shape attitudes to refugees’, The Conversation, 29 July 2016.

Elizabeth McMahon, ‘Encapsulated Space: the Paradise-Prison of Australia’s Island Imaginary’ in Southerly 65.1 (2005): 20-30.

Sally Pryor, ‘A place to call home: migrant hostel recollections’ in Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 2014, online edition.

James Rose, ‘From Tampa to now: how reporting on asylum seekers has been a triumph of spin over substance’, The Conversation, 14 October 2016.

Edward W. Said, Out of Place. A Memoir (London: Granta, 1999).

Clair Wills, Lovers and Strangers. An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (London: Allen Lane, 2017).