Stopping to smell the roses

From my study window, I can see everyone who walks along our street [cue maniacal laughter].  The room has an L-shaped window, so I can watch walkers as they pass several houses either side of me.  Unfortunately for my thesis writing, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time looking out the window.

I’ve just seen a young man walking past the house across the road.  It has a white picket fence, behind which is a beautiful array of old, multicoloured roses.

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He stopped, put his bag down, and smelled the roses.  Then he picked up his bag and kept going.

Somehow I don’t think that anyone will ever stop to enjoy a pebble garden with cordylines.

‘The Many-Coloured Land: Return to Ireland’ by Christopher Koch

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2002, 244p.

How have I read the hundreds (probably thousands?) of books that I have without encountering Christopher Koch before?  I’ve been aware of the name on Miles Franklin lists (he won it twice) and I’d heard of the film The Year of Living Dangerously, which was based on his book.  But I’ve never read any of his work up until now.

The Many-Coloured Land is part memoir/part travel narrative/part history.  Koch grew up in Tasmania, but his awareness of his background centred mainly on his German heritage – reinforced, no doubt, by questions about his surname- and his Anglo-Irish background that had been thoroughly researched by a genealogy-obsessed uncle.  Suppressed within his family history was another great-great grandmother, Margaret O’Meara, a convict  from Tipperary.  His two Irish great-great grandmothers arrived in Van Diemens Land within five years of each other, in very different circumstances- Margaret O’Meara and Jane Devereaux- one convict, one free; one Protestant, one Catholic; one a servant girl, the other the daughter of decayed aristocracy.  The older Koch became, the more he was drawn to the story of Margaret O’Meara, and this book is, in part, the story of his pilgrimage to a ‘home’ land that he only really acknowledged in later life.

I put ‘home’ in inverted commas intentionally, because Koch is never anything but Tasmanian.  The opening chapters of the book are located in Tasmania and chronicle his growing awareness of his family, and particularly Irish, heritage.  It was in his description of Oyster Bay near Swansea, a childhood holiday spot, that won me over.  I’ve sat on the dunes of the beach myself in a pink-infused sunset, with a warm breeze riffling over the grass at my back, the waves shushing onto the shore, and as I read this description I felt as if Koch had been leafing through my own memories:

Coswell (his holiday cottage) was set on gently-rising ground a few hundred yards from … a beach, looking out over white-gold paddocks and long, drystone walls to the blue expanse of Great Oyster Bay. The paddocks’ open spaces were dotted with a few long gum trees, and dark little Oyster Bay pines grew in the hollows.  The beach was usually deserted, except for Coswell’s few guests.  A creek flowed into the sea there, with a rickety jetty and diving board; an old wooden dinghy lay near the marram grass on a dune, and had lain there for as long as I could remember.  At each end of the beach were great, smooth rocks of pinkish granite; beyond them, to the north, more white beaches could be seen, with a few tiny dots that were people, and occasional beached dinghies.  Set with tall towers of spume, these long, far beaches curved off into mauve and white distances whose features grew tiny and illusory, faint as a distant music: a region beyond Swansea and the common world; perhaps beyond the real world together. (p. 48)

Koch visited Dublin as a young man in 1956 and remembered it as a dismal, grey, sad place.  Returning in 2000 with his friend, the folk-singer Brian, he finds another Ireland.  Ireland has changed- it was at the peak of its Celtic Tiger power of the new millennium- but so had he.  He is unsettled by the brash, surface-level confidence of the new Ireland and it is only when he moves away from Dublin that he finds the layered Ireland that he seeks.

Nothing much happens in this book.  They go from one B&B to another; they drink the night away in the fug of cigarette smoke with the beat of Irish folk music thrumming at their feet; they stand on coastlines; they survey landscapes.  Koch finds the derelict Big House of his ancestor Jane Devereaux and is drawn to the story of the  Young Irelanders who ended up as aristocratic convicts in VDL.  Because all this research re-emerged in  Koch’s fiction work Out of Ireland, which deals with the Young Irelanders,  it reminded me a bit of Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, without the methodological angst.

There’s an unintended poignancy about this book, because we know, as Koch couldn’t when he wrote it, just how brittle and insubstantial that Celtic Tiger economy was to be.   There’s another poignancy too, in my realization that this writer that I’ve never read  passed away last year, and that all his deep inhalation of life, people and surroundings is at an end.

As a reader, I have little red flags that pop up when authors do particular things. I must confess that when the book started with family history, I inwardly groaned. Family history, while fascinating to the descendant, can be rather eye-glazing for other people, unless it’s contextualized and the author has convinced you that it’s going to be worth your while.  Nor do I enjoy descriptions of food, and I don’t really care what people look like.  This book violated all of these no-go zones at times.  Nonetheless,  I really enjoyed it. It’s a beautifully written plaiting-together of historic research, family history, travel narrative and memoir.  And I’m going to track down his other books as well.

My rating: 8.5/10 (although I know that others haven’t been quite so fulsome in their praise)

Read because: it was a bookgroup choice with The Ladies Who Say Ooooh

ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum: From Invasion to Federation

Last Monday 20 October I attended a panel forum presented by the ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, the first of four that will be conducted over the next year. This first one dealt with the era from Invasion to Federation; the next one planned for March 2015 will look at Federation to 1920; another in August will cover  1920s-60 and in October from the 1960s into the future.  Judging from the first session, the series has certainly got off to a good start.

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Given the time span delineated in this first forum, I expected Henry Reynolds to speak on the frontier wars between settlers and indigenous people, but he didn’t.  Instead, he spoke on the work he is currently undertaking on the Boer War (1899-1902), which coincided with Federation.  His presentation focussed on the Federation celebrations held in Sydney during the first weeks of  January 1901.

Australia had a great deal to celebrate. Along with New Zealand, it had the highest per capita income and better distributed housing and education than anywhere else in the world. It had strong institutions, a burgeoning labour movement that was represented at the political level, and a constitution adopted by referendum twice. It was one of the most advanced democracies in the world.  And yet, it was as if they (we?) didn’t know how to celebrate political achievements.

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Instead, the celebration was trumped by the military.  The Australian colonial troopers were engaged in the Boer War, the newspapers were full of military news, and when the returned soldiers marched in the Federation parades, it became a celebration of military might rather than political achievement.  The mother country had sent out a large contingent of  grandly decked-out imperial troops in what Reynolds suggests was a deliberate statement.  There was an emphasis on the glamour of war, empire and aristocracy, and the largest cheers were for Lord Hopetoun, the Governor-General.  Even then, there was the anxious pride that we be seen to be ‘punching above our weight’- an ongoing trope of insecurity that we’ve heard voiced again recently.  The newly federated Australia gambled on the permanent continuation of the empire, but it was an empire in decline.  We were a nation defined by race and culture rather than continent.  The sad reality is that India was always more important than Australia.

Reynolds was followed by Anna Clark from UTS who has been working for several years on the process of history-making, particularly in schools. Her interest is “historical inheritance”: not just what we produce, but what we consume.  History is to the nation, she says, as memory is to the individual.  The histories we create are inherently selective, speaking to the concerns of the current generation.

She spoke of her own family history, which she had understood to be that of an honorable pioneering family.  It was only when she realized that a massacre of an aboriginal woman and children on the O’Connell plains occured on her family’s property, that she came to question this family ‘truth’. Five men were charged for the massacre, and all were acquitted. This was her family.

Forgetting and the deliberate withholding of history is never benign, even though it may driven by motives of ‘protecting’ the family.  Especially in light of the recent recommendations about curriculum that call for “imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers”, there is a danger that we will forget that histories are always constructed, subjective and incomplete.

Then, Tony Moore from Monash spoke about his recent publication ‘Death or Liberty’ (review to follow when I finish reading it!), which will form the basis of an ABC documentary next year.

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The European historian George Rude estimated that there were 3000 political prisoners sent out to the Australian colonies, and Moore’s work examines these discontents of Empire who are often revered in their source countries but largely unknown here in Australia.  He emphasized the transnational radical scene of which they were a part, with an emphasis on the Scottish martyrs, which is appropriate given that the forum was being held in the Melbourne Unitarian Church (Thomas Fyshe Palmer, one of the martyrs, was a Unitarian minister).  Some of these political prisoners returned home, published and even became public or political figures in their home countries which had earlier sent them to the 19 century equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.  Some chose to stay in Australia.  The post-federation national focus has blinded us to the internationalism of these political figures.

Finally Clare Land spoke about solidarity between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in the indigenous struggle in pre-Federation Victoria.  She focussed on two people: Ann Bon, a critic and then member of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, and John Green, the manager at Coranderrk mission at Healesville.  She questioned what it meant (and means today) to be an ally of the Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia.  Always it is about land, but also constitutional reform (the referendum then, the Recognize campaign today).

The question-and-answer session that closed the evening was interesting. It is a sobering thought that Australia will be spending $325 million on the commemoration of the centenary of Gallipoli.  That’s two hundred times what the UK is spending and twenty times the expenditure of New Zealand on the same event.   Henry Reynolds left us with the observation that perhaps the ease of returning Australian troops to Iraq today has been made easier by this well-funded, twenty-year campaign to glorify war. (Again, I urge you to read his recent article ‘Militarism Marches On’ available here).  This ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, and the ones to follow, is just one step in countering this expensive, swaggering campaign.

Facing up to it

My heart has been gladdened by the words of two honest, wise women this week.

The first is Wendy Harmer, comedian and journalist who was featured this week on Julia Zemiro’s ‘Home Delivery’.  It’s available on iview until 24th December 2014.  In ‘Home Delivery’, comedian Julia Zemiro drives around with fellow comedians and media personalities, revisiting childhood places and reminiscing and reflecting on what has made them the person they are. Wendy Harmer, like me, is a ‘woman of a certain age’ and, like me,  has a cleft lip and palate.  She has appeared on Australian Story in the past, talking about the experience of growing up with a cleft and her career as a stand-up comedian- surely one of the most naked,  ‘look at me’ and razor-edge occupations there could be.  In this episode, there she is, being driven to the Last Laugh theatre in Collingwood where she made her stand-up comedy debut and Selby and Upwey in the Dandenongs, where she spent some of her childhood.

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The second is the writer Paddy O’Reilly’s  whose article  What it feels like to always be stared at by strangers appeared last week. Paddy O’Reilly who has gathered acclaim over recent years for her books The Colour of Rust and The Wonders, suffers from Graves Disease, and before she had surgery on her eyes, it made her look as if she was staring at people, who often stared at her.   “Yep, female Marty Feldman” she would joke pre-emptively, using humour, as she says “as the refuge of humiliation as well as of adversity”.

There is a particular pain that comes with looking and sounding different.  It’s completely intractable, no matter how many people assure you that they didn’t even notice.  In the very core of you, you don’t believe them.  It’s right there, as a little jab that can dart out to prick you with each new person you meet. Sometimes.  You think that you have it under control but it bursts out when there’s the look that lingers just a second too long , or the hot burning stare that you’re aware of, off to your side or behind you that, perversely, makes you feel shame.  It’s worse as a child because children don’t filter it, but it’s still there even in middle age.  It’s there when you hear yourself on tape, or as I’ve experienced just recently, in podcasts talking about a topic I know well, with work I’m proud of.  It gives extra power to that little gremlin of self-doubt that I know everyone carries around.  For us, no matter how good we might feel in that new outfit, or with that good haircut or how happy we might feel in our expertise and knowledge, that too-long look somehow makes it all fall away.  Not always, but sometimes.

And so, I knew the layers of pain that would have built up when Wendy Harmer spoke about shifting from school to school because her father was a school teacher.  A new start each time, but yes, a new scab to be picked off as well. And I know what her memory of pashing with boys up on the railway bridge would have meant.  And what her father meant when he praised her diction after her first television performance. I know her feeling of gratitude for husband and children, and the silent rage inside that dammit, I shouldn’t have to feel grateful.

In her article, Paddy O’Reilly quotes an American comedian, David Roche, who has a severe facial disfigurement from a facial tumour.  Everyone stares, she says:

… that accidental, snagged way we do when we see something different. It’s hard-wired into us to stare at novelty. Novelty stimulates the brain and the dopamine rushes in, causing pleasure. Yet we’ve been told since we were children that it is wrong to stare, so as adults we pull our gaze away, feigning nonchalance or indifference.

This initial stare is beyond our control. David Roche, an American comedian with a severe facial disfigurement, says that the first stare is not the time of hatred or prejudice or judgment. It’s about getting used to difference. The second look is what counts – what we choose to do once our initial curiosity has been satisfied.

That second look- what a powerful idea, and one that had never occurred to me before.  I wish I could go back and tell seven-year old me about it.

Thank you, my courageous, honest ladies.  I’ve hesitated about posting this -why???- but you’ve been brave, and I want to be too.

‘The Whitlam Mob’ by Mungo MacCallum

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2014, 234 p

I didn’t vote for Gough Whitlam in December 1972. I was seventeen, and far too young to vote in those days when the voting age was 21. But if I’d been able to vote for Gough, I would have. The exhilaration, the vision, the feeling of shucking off the grey dust coat of  a seemingly-unending Liberal government  has never left me really, and I’ve never in my life been able to countenance the thought of voting for a Liberal government. There have been individuals in the Liberal party  I could have voted for (Fred Chaney, Petro Georgiou; dare I say Malcolm Turnbull?) but never the party as a whole.

Mungo MacCullum’s book ‘The Whitlam Mob’ makes no pretence at being balanced. Mungo was/is a Labor man in the press gallery and this book is written with nostalgia, affection and loyalty. He is a comic writer, always on the lookout for the quick laugh and the quirky detail. Let’s face it- he’s a gossip and here he’s regaling us with yarns.

The book is written in two fairly evenly weighted parts: The Whitlam Mob and the The Other Mob. Each of the vignettes is fairly short, with the longest chapter devoted to Gough (19 pages) but everybody else despatched with ten pages or less (and as little as two!)

The first thing that struck me about this book was that there is only one woman: Margaret. I think of the Whitlam years as a watershed for women in Australia but when I check Whitlam’s three ministries (counting the first one which comprised just Whitlam and Lance Barnard), there were no women ministers at all.

The second thing that came through was that many of these men had been waiting decades to form government and many of them were old when they got there. Many of them had lived through World War I, the Depression and were WWII veterans; they had endured The Split that had formed the DLP; they had a history of years and years of Opposition. Clyde Cameron, for instance, held the parliamentary record for thirty one years in the House of Representatives, twenty eight of them spent on the Opposition benches.

Reading through this book, I realized that I have many misconceptions about that government over forty years ago (remember, I was only seventeen). The changes wrought by the ALP were (and still are) so BIG, both conceptually and in terms of political courage, that I forgot that Gough was from the Right of the party. I’d not particularly been aware of the struggle between the Left and the Right in the party. I’d forgotten that Jim Cairns had actually been seen as a potential Prime Minister. And looking back, the idea of two men (the duumvirate) forming the whole ministry, as Whitlam and Barnard did between 5-19 December 1972, seems unthinkable today.

I had forgotten how dysfunctional the Liberals were, even though the whole of my VCE Social Studies (i.e. politics) year in 1973 was spent preparing for the absolutely inevitable question on the end-of-year exam “Did the ALP win the 1972 election or the Coalition lose it?” or some variation thereof. What a spiteful man Menzies was. Apparently, one of the first things that Whitlam did on gaining office was to write to Robert Menzies:

It was a courteous, even flattering letter: Whitlam said that Menzies might be surprised to learn how much the Labor leader had always admired him, not only for his mastery of parliament and politics, but also for his resilience in coming back from defeat to shape the Liberal Party into a modern and dynamic force.  This, said Whitlam, was an example he had always held in front of him during his own long battles within the ALP.

Regrettably, Menzies’ reply was terse and dismissive: the Labor Party advocated socialist policies, which were wrong for Australia, always had been and always would be, and that was all that needed to be said. (p. 127)

I wish that there were pictures in this book because, quite frankly, I can’t remember some of the people he writes about. Most of the Whitlam Mob I can remember, although I don’t have a mental picture of Don Willesee. But for the Other Mob: Bill Wentworth, David Fairbairn, Magnus Cormack, Michael Hodgman- nothing.   When I think of Lance Barnard, I think of a grey hat- in fact, I think of hats for many of these men, because they were of the black-and-white generation that wore hats, no matter how much I want to drag them into the bright, full-colour and shiny ‘It’s Time’ frame.

Particularly for the Whitlam Mob entries, there are many times when MacCallum uses the adjective ‘complex’, but his sketches of the Other Mob are more one-dimensional. I don’t know if this reflects the subject, the author, or his access to them- probably a combination of all three. There are many ‘what-ifs’ and good ideas bungled amongst the short Labor grip on power. The Khemlani loans affair, for example- the stuff of pure farce, and yet what vision.

On this day, when I learn of Gough’s demise, I think of myself as very much a product of the changes wrought by the Whitlam government and the vision of a society that it promoted.  Thank you, Comrade.

 

Our very own new grassy knoll

There’s an art installation on the steps leading up the State Library.  You might think of it as a garden, but it’s not.  (Click on the photos to embiggen)

Created by Linda Tegg and titled ‘Grasslands’, it is

a living installation that gathers over 10,000 indigenous plants.  This organic composition aims to recreate the vast grass plains that stretched over this site before the State Library of Victoria was established in the mid nineteenth century…. The result is a transformation of history and nature by artistic imagination, inviting us to visualize the layers of memory and place.

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It’s a good place for it.  I think of the grass outside the State Library as being the real heart of Melbourne.  As soon as the sun’s out, there we are, stretched out on the lawn with our shoes off, wriggling our toes.  The former City Square on the corner of Swanston and Collins opposite the Town Hall is now a gritty unpleasant desert since they sold half of it off and covered the rest with granitic sand.  And don’t get me started on Fed Square that alternates between icy blasts and baking heat.  I’m horrified that there could even be any consideration of letting high-rise buildings block the State Library forecourt: a planning restriction that we were told was sacrosanct (huh!). Just like the overshadowing of the south bank of the Yarra, which it seems is another no-go zone that becoming somehow negotiable.

Back to Grasslands.  It’s not intended to be a permanent installation. When you look at it closely, the grasses are still in their containers, laid out in pallets directly onto the concrete.

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It’s only intended to be there for six weeks.

There’s a fantastic little timelapse video of it being installed.  Watch it- it’s good! And just as I said, you can see people coming to sit and lie on the grass either side of the installation.

http://media.theage.com.au/news/national-news/timelapse-grasslands-by-linda-tegg-5868696.html

Having read Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, I’m seeing my city differently.  A good history does that.  Gammage takes seriously the writings of early settlers when they described the land around them.

Here’s John Helder Wedge, Letter to Mr Frankland on settlement at Port Phillip, VDL Magazine, 1835 :

The country between the rivers [Maribyrnong and Yarra] extending to the north forty or fifty miles, and to the east about twenty-five miles… is undulating and intersected with valleys; and is moderately wooded, especially to the east and north-east; to the north there are open plains… The surface is everywhere thickly covered with grass, intermixed with rib-grass and other herbs. (cited in Presland, p. 27)

Or here’s the gardener James Flemming, who along with Acting-Lieutenant Charles Robbins and Charles Grimes the acting-surveyor-general sailed to Port Phillip in January 1803, prior to the Collins settlement at Sorrento.  They sailed right round the bay- the first of the British visitors to do so.

4th February 1803. Started at six and came to the branch we passed before [junction of Maribyrnong and Yarra] at the entrance the land swampy; a few miles up found it excellent water, where we saw a little hill [Batman's Hill] and landed… went on the hill, where we saw the lagoon seen from the hill where we first landed.  It is a large swamp between two rivers; fine grass, fit to mow; not a bush in it [West Melbourne Swamp].  The soil is black rich earth about six to ten inches deep, when it is very hard and stiff. About two miles further went on shore again, the land much better and timber larger. (cited in Presland p. 13)

Although, then there’s George Arden’s report from his Latest Information with Regard to Australia Felix, the first book published in Melbourne.  He claims to be an eyewitness

When the writer first saw this settlement (Melbourne) in January 1838, a few months after its authorized establishment, it presented more the appearance of the villages he had seen in the interior of India; a nucleus of huts embowered in forest foilage and peering at itself in the river stream that laved the thresholds of its tenements, than any collection of buildings formed by European hands. (p. 68)

Hmmm. Don’t know quite what to do with that description.

And finally, good old Edmund Finn (writing under the pen-name ‘Garryowen’). Linda Tegg used this quotation on her explanatory panel:

From the spot whereon Melbourne was afterwards built to the Saltwater River confluence, the Yarra Yarra flowed through low, marshy flats, densely garbed with ti-tree, reeds, sedge and scrub.  Large trees, like lines of foliaged sentinels, guarded both sides, and their branches protruded so far riverwise as to more than half shadow the stream… As for herbage, it luxuriated everywhere, and two persons still living, who walked through un-streeted Melbourne in 1836, have informed me that in the places now known as Collins, Bourke, Elizabeth and Swanston Streets, they waded through grass as green as a leek and nearly breast high (Garryowen, Chronicles of Early Melbourne p. 497)

References:

Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)

T. O’Callaghan, ‘Fictitious History’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 11, no 1, Mar 1926, pp 6-37  (accessible through the SLV site)

Gary Presland Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People, 2001

A.G.L. Shaw A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, 2003

 

 

Peace in Australia: the untold story

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I’m going.