Abbott on MH-17

I see in an opinion poll today, that Abbott has been ranked well above Barak Obama and David Cameron on showing leadership in the wake of the MH17 disaster.  I note, too, that in terms of who respondents would prefer to stand up for Australia’s interests overseas, Bill Shorten came out on top. 

The results comparing world leaders do not surprise me at all. Neither Obama nor Cameron seem to be making it an issue of national identity in the way that Abbott has, given the relatively few victims from either of those countries.  A more sensible comparison would be with the Dutch and the Malaysian leaders, both of whom represent countries that have suffered, but who have expressed their sorrow without the hairy-chestedness of Abbott.

I do not feel at all reassured by Abbott’s handling of this tragedy. The man’s judgment is off. I have no affection at all for Putin, and I strongly suspect that evidence will point to weapons provided by Russia, but let the evidence fall where it will.  And it’s all about evidence.

In the immediate aftermath, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, Abbott declared Russia’s involvement:

I stress: it is not an accident, it is a crime, and criminals should not be allowed to get away with what they’ve done,” Mr Abbott said. “So, there has to be a full impartial international investigation and Russia should certainly not be allowed to stand in the way of that just because the aircraft has come down over territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels….

We also know who is very substantially to blame for those problems, and the idea that Russia can somehow say that none of this has anything to do with them because it happened in Ukrainian airspace frankly does not stand up to any serious scrutiny.

“I want to say to the Australian people that as far as I am concerned, when you have a situation where Russian-backed rebels appear to have killed Australians using, it may well turn out to be, Russian-supplied heavy weaponry, Australia takes a very dim view indeed and we want the fullest possible investigation….

“I just want to say that it is absolutely imperative if Russia is to maintain any international standing at all that there be complete Russian co-operation with this,” he said. “No provocation, no excuses, no blame-shifting, no protecting of people who may be backed by Russia but who may have been involved in this terrible event….

 
This instant rush to judgment is Abbott’s alone: both the Dutch and Malaysian heads of state cautioned the need for evidence.  No such qualms with Abbott.
 
Bill Shorten interjected his own bit of hairy-chested nonsense with his suggestion that Putin would not be welcome at the G20 and Abbott quickly adopted it as a “fair question”.  It’s not.  Australia may be hosting the G20, but Russia’s presence is not a matter for Australia alone.
 
Our response has been militaristic from the start, dubbed “Operation Bring Them Home”.  Then there was the declaration that we would be sending armed police to “secure the site”.  Oh we don’t want to get involved in the politics, says Abbott, we just want to bring our people home. As soon as Australian weapons are carried onto that soil, it’s political alright. Fortunately that thought bubble seems to have lapsed and wiser heads have prevailed.
 
He seems completely oblivious to the fact that there is a war going on over there. I note that neither the Ukranians nor the rebels have stopped fighting: in fact, the Ukranians seem to be stepping up their attacks to regain territory.
 
Australia did make good use of its Security Council seat to garner unanimous international support for an impartial enquiry: a Council seat that the Coalition had sneered at previously.  All this concern for international protocols is rather galling given the deliberate disregard for similar international protocols in relation to refugees.
 
It’s a good reality check to listen to European reports of the recovery effort: try BBC, or Deutsche Welle.  There you’ll learn that it is the Dutch-  those Dutch who have treated the victims with such grace and dignity, those Dutch who in the midst of their sorrow held back from lashing out until the evidence is in- who are taking the lead here.  Just as well, too.

Victor Hugo: Les Miserables From Page to Stage

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Well, the name says it all really. The stage version of Les Mis is back in town again and this display at the State Library explores the book Les Miserables and its adaptation for film or stage. It’s a paid exhibition ($15 adults; $10 for foundation members).

The highlight of the exhibition is the 1862 manuscript of Les Miserables- a real coup for the library as this is the first time that it has been seen in Australia. It’s a huge volume, and each page is written vertically on half the page only, so that Hugo could make his changes in the space on the other half of the page. The first drafts were written on loose paper, then transferred into the large bound book for further editing. A line was drawn through the loose paper version to show that it had been incorporated into the bound text.

With the increased frequency of travelling library exhibitions over recent years in Australia, we have been exposed to more and more of these draft versions of great books. For example, the National Gallery’s ‘Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries showcased a number of first-draft documents.  It is almost unthinkable to many of us now to contemplate writing much by hand, although some writers still do ( but surely they will be a dwindling band in the future). [As an aside, there was an interesting segment on the Media Report about a journalist who decided to write everything by hand for -ahem, two days- then photographed her handwritten version to distribute electronically as usual.] I know that the State Library of Victoria holds Peter Carey’s laptop but  the machine is not the same thing as its contents. There is something so material and human about seeing the towering tome of volume one of Les Miserables with its additions in cartoon balloons on the blank side of the paper. What happened, I wondered, when he ran out of room on the blank section?

It took Victor Hugo seventeen years to write the book, much of it while in exile from France after he was involved in an attempt to overthrow Napoleon III – or “Napoleon the little” as Hugo dubbed him in a pamphlet smuggled into France.  I am rather embarrassed that I was completely oblivious to Hugo’s political involvement. On the basis of his eminence as a man of letters, he had been elevated to the peerage by King Louis-Phillipe  in 1841 and entered the higher chamber (similar to the House of Lords). In 1848 he was elected to the house as a conservative, but seemed to become increasingly progressive in his views about poverty, education, the suffrage and abolition of the death penalty. When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized power, Hugo left France.

I also hadn’t realized that the release of the first two volumes in 1862 was such a big occasion. It sold out almost instantly, and public readings were quickly organized for those who missed out. Within three months 100,000 official copies of the book had been sold, worldwide.

The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first deals with Hugo, the book, artistic depictions of the main characters, and sketches and photographic images of pre-Haussman Paris. As you might expect for a book that has been filmed so often, there were clips from the various versions, spliced together into a film loop. I was disappointed that the clips weren’t dated and labelled: there was a small panel to one side identifying the version, but once you moved back to see the film, you could no longer read the panel.

The second part of the exhibition is displayed in the Experimedia section of the library, which worked well as a space. This section is devoted to the Boubil and Schonberg “Les Mis” in its different manifestations all over the world.  It is appropriate, perhaps, that a book that had such a commercial and international debut 120 years earlier should spawn a truly global theatrical phenomenon.  There are publicity materials from productions all over the world: I found the Japanese Les Mis particularly interesting. This section was perhaps a little too commercial for my liking- capped off by the obligatory exit through the gift-shop- but I must confess to spending a good twenty minutes watching a film clip of the concert version.

And, I admit, I walked out humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

Exhibition open 18 July – 9 November 2014

10-6 Daily, Thursday until 9.00 p.m., State Library of Victoria

Other links:  The Conversation has an interesting review from the perspective of a Dickens scholar.

Bill Bryson ‘The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid’

bryson_thunderbolt

2006, 375 p.

When feeling that I need to justify being in a CAE bookgroup when, heaven knows I surely have enough reading that I should be doing, I often say “Well, you read books that you wouldn’t normally choose”. This is very much the case with this book. As it happened I didn’t really mind sinking into its fairy-floss peaks, aware that I had only two days to read it before our bookclub meeting. I’d just finished reading N and was feeling exhilarated and supremely sated, and I would have found it difficult to turn straight away to a challenging or complex book. Fortunately, in this case then, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is neither of these things.

I’ve read a couple of Bill Bryson’s travel books, and find them wryly amusing. Although this is a memoir, he approaches it in much the same way: it is a travelogue around his childhood memories. The book moves chronologically towards his adolescence, but is structured thematically with chapters titled (among others) ‘Hometown’, ‘Welcome to Kid World’ ‘Birth of a Superhero’ ‘Boom!’,’What, Me Worry?’ and ‘The Pubic Year’.

Bryson was born and raised in Des Moines Iowa in 1951. Unusually for the time, both his parents worked at the Des Moines Register, his father as sports writer and his mother in the women’s section. Bryson’s viewpoint is unashamedly child-centred, with his parents benign but almost peripheral characters, and his sibling almost invisible. Bryson is much attracted to lists, and they pepper the book- a rather lazy way, I think, of leaving the reader to recognize and make the connections. There are one-liners on every page, and it’s the voice of the raconteur that you hear.

One of the things that struck me was how self-containedly American his life was. He lists his favourite television programs (all American), films (all American), comic books (all American) and school readers (all American). It reinforced for me how much an Australian childhood (albeit five years later than his) was a mixture of British, American and Australian influences.

This is not to say that there’s not some social commentary in here as well. He points out the disjunction between the fears of the time (polio, Communists, nuclear war) and the sunny abundance and self-confidence of affluent, middle class White America.   He deals with racism in a couple of pages because it was not on his horizon at all.

All in all, it’s an affectionate, humourous wallow in nostalgia. It reminded me a bit of the television show ‘The Wonder Years’.  I enjoyed it in half-hour episodes but I know I would have drowned in schmaltz had it gone on for an hour.

Like a sit-com or a travel book, this book could have stopped ¾ of the way through, or gone on for another 100 pages, although at nearly 400 pages I think that it was plenty long enough.

I’ll leave the last words with him:

What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid.

Enterprize-ing at the Dockland Library

docklands

A brand-new library opened down at Docklands at the end of May.  Not before time, say I: the benighted place desperately needs some sort of civic and communal infrastructure to bring people together as distinct from commercial businesses and high-rise apartments.

I notice that on the fourth Thursday of the month, the Docklands History Group hosts a talk between 6.00-7.00 p.m.   Last month they had the always-fascinating Robyn Annear, and this coming Thursday 24th July they are featuring the Enterprize.  The original Enterprize was John Fawkner’s vessel that warped upstream along the Yarra to finally tie up at William Street on 30th August 1835.

Michael Womack, Jess Murphy and Helen Ebsworthy will be talking about the Enterprize (in both its original and replica forms, no doubt), John Fawkner and the early settlement of Melbourne.

It’s free, but you can register here.  And how do I know about such things? Because I met a lovely woman on the train and she told me about it!

 

‘The Case behind the Case Books’ at Rare Book Week

Tuesday 22nd July, 1-2 p.m.  Royal Historical Society, 239 A Beckett Street, cnr. A Beckett and William Street, Melbourne

Rarebooksweek

‘N’ by John A. Scott

N

2014, 597 p

I remember that when I finished reading War and Peace, I didn’t really want to read anything else for a while because of the sheer big-ness of Tolstoy. I felt somewhat the same way after finishing John A. Scott’s big 600 page book N. It’s not War and Peace to be sure (although that certainly sums up the content), but both books are large in their scope, long in their pages, and peopled with memorable characters. And for me, I just wanted to luxuriate in their big vision for a while, before turning again to the small-canvas books that seem to fill the shelves today.

N. opens in war-time, amongst a bohemian group of artists and writers who gather in the coffee shops and studios of inner-city Melbourne. There are multiple narrators and at first I found myself wondering how I was going to keep them all straight, having forgotten completely that there was a Dramatis Personae at the front! But the book settles into the stories of four or five main characters who each bring in a constellation of smaller characters. One of these is Missy Cunningham, disillusioned and unhappy wife of Roy Cunningham the Social Realist painter; there is Reginald Thomas, clairvoyant writer and latter-day Tiresias who writes up his visions into radio plays; Albie Henningson, a writer of far-right political persuasion; another is Robin Telford, public servant in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office.

War-time politics are on a knife-edge. The balance of power is held by two independents, and when one of them is found dead in a public toilet-block, Sir Warren Mahony, already a member of Fadden’s War Council, takes up his position as Prime Minister of the Emergency Cabinet. The widow of the murdered independent politicial, Norman Cole, approaches the public servant Robin Telford, asking him to dig deeper into the death of her husband. Britain and the United States withdraw their attention and military support to the northern hemisphere; the AIF returns home but is no match for the Japanese, who quickly spread down from the north. The Mahony government sues for a truce with the Japanese, and becomes a Vichy-like government operating out of a large house at Mount Macedon. Critics of the government, activists and members of the intelligentsia are silenced or disappear completely, and out of the direct sight of the Mahony government, the Japanese inflict cruelties on soldiers and citizens alike.

The book combines real life characters with fictional ones. The writer Frank Clune is there, but his ghost writer, the real-life P. R. ‘Inky’ Stephenson is rendered through the fictional Albie Henningsen. There are real artists combined with fictional ones, and the Social Realist art show that brings the wrath of the Mahony Government to bear against the artists has resonances with the activities of the real-life Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition in Melbourne. Even the whole political scenario of two independents in a war-time cabinet echoes the real-life Arthur Coles (of G.J.Coles fame- and a name very similar to Scott’s fictional Norman Cole) and Alexander Wilson who voted in 1941 to bring down Fadden’s government.

The narrative voices and genres that mark the different characters are playful and well-rendered. Missy Cunningham’s sections evoked for me the writing of M. Barnard Eldershaw and even reminded me a little of Neville Shute’s On the Beach.   Robin Telford, the public servant, speaks in careful bureaucratese, while Albie Henningsen is fervent, passionate and driven. The whole thing is a pastiche, and a baggy pastiche at that, but I loved it for its sweep and noisiness.

It is appallingly violent in places, and I recognized situations from Iris Chang’s horrific Rape of Nanking. At times the disappearances and conspiracies stretched credulity, but they shouldn’t in these days of disappeared boats and the ‘you don’t need to know about that’ of our refugee policy.   It was no surprise to me at all when Scott breaks out of historical fiction mode at the end of the book to comment on such things and remind us that this ‘what-if’ scenario is not so absolutely far-fetched.

I’m a fan of John Scott, and I’ve read most of his books over the years: the erotic narrative trickiness of What I Have Written; the bleak flatness of The Architect; the carefully rendered setting of Warra Warra. I can’t say that I’ve always felt that I understood the book at the end, and must admit to sometimes being bemused by the digressions and spin-offs.   But I don’t know why he’s not numbered up there with the Flanagans and Careys, because, like them, he writes across a number of genres and takes risks. And like them, he keeps me coming back for more.

Other reviews:

T.W. in The Saturday Paper didn’t think much of it;  Susan Lever in the Sydney Review of Books had some reservations; as did Peter Pierce at the Australian But Lisa at ANZLitLovers loved it and it was her enthusiastic review that launched me into reading it.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe

darkemu

Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

156 p. 2014, Magabala books

On July 3rd, just 3 days before NAIDOC week, my Prime Minister (who had dubbed himself the first ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’) made a presentation to the Australian-Melbourne Institute.  In extolling the benefits of foreign investment for Australia he said

As a general principle we support foreign investment. Always have and always will. Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment.  I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

There is a particular argument that could be posed about the word ‘settled’ in relation to the law of colonies, but Abbott here was talking economies, not law. You can almost hear the wheels turning in his brain as he thinks “oops- not ‘unsettled’ because I suppose that they were there, I guess-‘ scarcely settled’- that’ll do”.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues directly against the idea that Australia was ‘scarcely settled’. It was, he argues, very much settled in a way that forces us to reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that is often used to describe pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.

The start of [the] journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to inter-cultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity. P. 156

Bruce Pascoe has a Bunurong/Tasmanian indigenous heritage, and if you watched First Footprints, (my review here) you will recognize him as one of the talking heads on that wonderful, paradigm-rattling documentary. He is not an academic historian as such, and described himself in his earlier book Convincing Ground (2007) as a “mug historian with no training” (p. 200). His interweaving of personal, current day narrative with historical analysis, in both this and his earlier book, places his work in that uneasy space between local history and academic material.

In his preface, Pascoe says that he conceived the theme for this book in the wake of writing Convincing Ground, when he was inundated with letters and information from fourth-generation farmers and Aboriginal people. These responses, along with material that he had tucked away unused from his earlier book, suggested to him that not only had the Frontier War been mis-represented, but that the whole economy and culture of Aboriginal people had been undervalued. (p. 11)

His methodology was to return to the diaries of the early white explorers, surveyors, pastoralists and protectors. These men (for they were overwhelmingly male) espoused the racial superiority of white settlement, decried the primitivism of Aboriginal culture and predicted the inevitable extinction of Aboriginal ‘nomads’. Yet at the same time, they described large structures capable of sheltering thirty or forty people, stockpiles of ground seed and grain, dams and redirections of water courses, fish traps, and storehouses. They were unconscious wreckers (or at least one hopes they were unconscious): eating the grain that had been carefully piled up waiting for consumption at a later date, gladly taking advantage of a clay-daubed shelter, or rather more ominously, testing the strength of the roof of a shelter by riding over it. It strikes me as deeply ironic that explorers, starving, blinded and maddened by bites and sun, could look at aboriginal people serenely co-existing with the environment, and then write about them as ‘primitive’.   He finds example after example in the words of explorers Major Mitchell, Sturt and Howitt, early colonists Isaac Batey, James Dawson, and protectors and missionaries George Augustus Robinson and Joseph Orton .   He reproduces some of their sketches that, when you extract them out from the scrawled text that surrounds them,  demonstrate much more deliberation and ingenuity on the part of the constructors, than the 19th century authors’ commentaries convey.

Major Mitchell is one of Pascoe’s most heavily used informants, and Pascoe captures well the contradictions within Mitchell’s work, and the ambivalence with which he views him:

Mitchell talked in sorrow about the demise of Aboriginal Australia… but despite this compassion Mitchell writes, a mere two paragraphs later, ‘We again (on the Hunter) find some soil fit for cultivation, and the whole of it taken up by farms’… At one moment he expresses sorrow for the losses of the Aboriginal population but within a page he’s extolling the value of the lands forcibly taken from them.

On his previous explorations Mitchell has seen the use Aboriginal people made of their lands, although some of the food production techniques were too discreet to capture his attention or understanding, but then opines mildly about the future of Australian farming as if Aboriginal food production had never existed. He looks down the valley at the sheds and houses of the settlers where smoke dwindles from the chimney and squares of amber light glow at windows and revels in the domesticity. Only a year before he was envying the warmth and domesticity of the Aboriginal village, but now he prides himself on opening up this land to to his own race.

He’s a good man, Mitchell, but he shares the ambition of every British man in the colony: land… The confidence of Mitchell to assume that the land had been waiting for Europeans and their animals is at the heart of European intellectual arrogance. (p. 141-2)

Pascoe draws also from the work of anthropologists, well known ones like Stanner and Rhys Jones, but also some maverick ones who are challenging established understandings. There are a number of places in the book where you sense Pascoe sitting in on conversations, listening carefully to the debates, and weaving in their work into his argument.  Some of the texts he draws upon are small productions, well outside the mainstream, like a small saddlestitched 70 page book produced by Peter Dargin for the Brewarrina Historical Society, or a similar book by Rupert Gerritsen, published in London for want of Australian interest, and No. 35 on a Google search into ‘Australian Aboriginal Grain Crops.’ He does his own work no favours by including (albeit with misgivings) wild estimates of Aboriginal occupation of Australia going back 120,000, alongside other figures of between 40,00 -65,000 years. Nor does he burnish his own reputation by citing Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, a book largely dismissed by academic historians.

The book has eight chapters. In the first, ‘Agriculture’, he focuses on the yam and grain harvesting, irrigation, and the harvesting of emu and kangaroo. Chapter 2, ‘Aquaculture’ examines fishing operations, particularly in Brewarrina and Lake Condah, and watercraft on the rivers and seaboard. Chapter 3 is titled ‘Population and Housing’, where he argues that villages marked the movement towards agricultural reliance, most particularly where there were stone constructions. Chapter 4 ‘Storage and Preservation’ explores the use of pottery and stockpiling , while Chapter 5 examines ‘Fire’ in the creation of grasslands. Chapter 6 is a divergence into ‘The Heavens, Language and the Law’ where he explores the theories that posit a qualitative shift in the ‘intensification’ of food production and technology about 4000-5000 years ago. This chapter is largely the representation of other people’s theories, which he views rather sceptically. I found this chapter rather hard to follow, although it seemed to resolve into an examination of concepts of land ownership, and what he called “jigsawed mutualism” whereby people had responsibilities for particular parts of the jigsaw, but could only operate that part so that it added, rather than detracted, from the pieces of their neighbour (p. 138). Ch. 7 ‘Australian agricultural revolution’ is only four pages in length and suggests several Aboriginal crops that could be farmed commercially in the future. The final chapter ‘Accepting History and Creating the Future’ is a plea for an acceptance and re-visioning of Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement, and allowing this to inform the future.

It is perhaps unfair to review a book by making reference to another author’s work, but in this case it is almost unavoidable. Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth was published prior to Pascoe’s work, and indeed Pascoe cites him in several places. A beautifully crafted and lushly produced book, Gammage’s work has been debated within academia and received the Prime Ministers Prize for Australian History in 2012. The two books, although mismatched in production values and ‘clout’, cover similar material and arguments. However, having only just flipped through Gammage’s book, it seems that he speaks more of land management, with a particular emphasis on fire.

Pascoe’s much smaller and more modest book, on the other hand, concentrates rather more on economic and social systems, with rather more emphasis on interventions in settled places as a challenge to the ‘hunter-gatherer’ image. A challenge, too, to a Prime Minister who sees the land as “unsettled- um- scarcely settled”.

Posted as part of Lisa’s  ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week.

indigenous-literature-week-2014

Yvonne Perkins has reviewed it as well.