Enterprize-ing at the Dockland Library

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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.

‘Auld Lang Syne’ at the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Well, it’s not quite over yet! You can catch this exhibition at the beautiful Art Gallery at Ballarat before it closes on July 27th 2014.

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When we talk of ‘British’ settlement in Australia, we often glide over the fact that this included English, Scots, Irish and Welsh settlers and officials.  Hidden in plain sight is the fact that Scots permeated the empire, both as agents of colonialism through their Scottish enlightenment skills in botany, surveying and art, and as settlers in their own right.  Once you’re alert to this, you find them everywhere in colonial Australia- and in my own research into Upper Canada and British Guiana, they’re there as well, as this Slaves and Highlanders site conveys.  Their Scots ties were not left behind, and they were reinforced in new colonies by the church (both Presbyterian and Catholic), Scottish organizations and the familial networks between new settlers.

This exhibition of artwork and artefacts underscores the importance of the Scottish artists who accompanied the First Fleet (think Sidney Parkinson), and those officials who dabbled in artwork in the early Port Jackson settlement (think John Hunter).  Their education and scientific learning , to say nothing of toughness), fitted them well as explorers (think Stuart and Sturt and Major Mitchell) and their financial acumen and entrepreneurial nous served them well as merchants (think Robert Campbell) and agriculturalists (think William Anglis).  They were governors (think Lachlan Macquarie) and firebrand preachers ( think John Dunmore Lang) .  When Queen Victoria adopted Balmoral into her ‘brand’, Australians did too, and Robert Burns and Highland games became incorporated into the Britishness that colonial Australians held onto while at the same time developing their own variation.

All these aspects are explored in this exhibition which covers the First Fleet to Federation.  There is, as you might expect in an Art Gallery, an emphasis on artwork which is drawn from many collections, including the Natural History Museum in UK.  (I liked the fact, conveyed through one of the information panels, that a wombat skin sent ‘home’ by one of the early Scots settlers is displayed standing on its two back paws). But there are some objects as well, including a silk scarf commemorating the Scottish Martyrs who were sent here as convicts (an EXCELLENT Radio National podcast on Thomas Muir here).  An introductory panel warns that women are not heavily represented in the display, but Georgiana McCrae had a presence.

The dearth of women might have been ameliorated by a stronger focus on family connections, which was hinted at with the displays on Thomas and James Mitchell, but not really brought to the forefront.  It could likewise have been drawn out further with Georgiana McCrae whose brothers-in-law popped up in different aspects of Port Phillip Society.  Family connections, the networks across colonies, and chain migration as one son, then another, then the whole family came across, ensured that the Scots spread across Australia and the empire generally.  They became part of, and shaped their new communities but retained still an emotional attachment to their Scots identity.

I would have loved to have purchased the book that accompanied the exhibition but it was just SO expensive.  It was available in hardback only, at $79.95.  I’d gladly buy a softcover book for $40.00 if it were available (even though the glue binding them is often inferior) but double the price is just too much.  The same applied at the Bendigo exhibition we attended recently.

I’m pleased that the regional galleries are mounting such well curated and well publicized exhibitions.  And we certainly weren’t alone in our enjoyment. It was a bitterly cold Ballarat Sunday afternoon, and the gallery was comfortably full.

 

 

‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld

wyld_allthebirds

2013,  229 p.

Well, it’s won the Miles Franklin. The author was included on the once a decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists List. Her earlier book After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was acclaimed everywhere. So why was I underwhelmed by All the Birds, Singing?

It certainly starts with a jolt:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p.229)

Jake is a sheep farmer on a remote, unnamed British Island, where she lives in a dank farmhouse with only Dog for company. We do not know how she came to be there, and why she is there unfolds gradually during the book.   It’s a visceral book, with not only carcasses of sheep and the bloodied life on the land, but the bodily violence of her other life- the one before this- as an abused prostitute in remote outback Australia.

The book is told in alternating chapters, with her life on the island told in first person past tense, and the Australian chapters told in first person present tense. It took some time into the book for me to realize that the Australian chapters were being narrated in reverse chronology. And so the author juggles two questions from the reader: ‘what happens next?’ as Jake gradually opens herself up to the company of an itinerant rambler who somehow ends up staying at the farm, and ‘what happened before?’ to bring her to such a lonely, cold and harsh environment.

The author is a master of setting. The whipping rain and inky darkness of the island is a stark contrast to the dessicated, searing light of the outback that opens the book. The motif of birds runs throughout the book like a soundtrack.

Part of my problem with this book might have been that I read it so quickly after finishing After the Fire, a Small Still Voice. When I look back at my review of After the Fire, I find that I could apply most of my observations about that book to this one as well. It’s almost the same story, with variations. Both books interweave two narratives. Both involve trauma and separateness that is heightened by isolation. In both, the setting is rendered carefully.  Even the titles are structurally similar and almost interchangeable.  Yes, there are differences- there are two characters in the first book and one in the second; the first book deals with the issue of masculinity, whereas there is a female main character in the second.   But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading variations on the same basic structure. Is this deliberate? Are these books elaborations on the same structure, rendered with different characters and scenarios? Is this part of a bigger project?

This year I didn’t get round to reading the other short-listed titles for the Miles Franklin. I think that I might just have to think “Well, interesting choice….”

awwbadge_2014 Posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Janet McCalman on the Founders and Survivors Project

A couple of weeks ago, Heidelberg Historical Society was delighted to welcome Professor Janet McCalman to our open meeting to speak about the Founders and Survivors Project.  This is a fascinating partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are using the convict records of the 73,000 men women and children who were transported to Van Diemens Land (VDL) between 1803-53 to create a collective biography of the transportation experience as it played out through succeeding generations.   Not particularly “Heidelberg-y”, you might think, but you’d be wrong: from among the records she found three ex-VDL convicts who settled in the Heidelberg/Diamond Creek/Whittlesea district, and in many ways their lives illustrated the ‘lifestories’ approach of the project as a whole.

The Van Diemens Land records are one of the most complete databases of the bodies and lives of an entire population in the world- so unique that it has been placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2007.   The Founders and Survivors Project links them with another parallel database: that of those who served in the AIF in World War I.  These two data banks form the bookends of a project that looks at the convicts as a population, rather than as individuals, gathering data on their lives before sentence from which to infer their early life influences, examining their progress through the penal system in VDL, then tracing their lives after sentence.  It moves onto succeeding generations, looking at the  occupations, life span, families, mobility and social location of their descendants ending up, if possible, at the AIF records.

Using the methodology of prosopographical demography, it is a project built up from small records into an over-arching collective biography.  The convict indents are a starting point, but it widens out to genealogical records, shipping records, newspapers and institutional records as these individuals move through different life stages.  As you can imagine, this is a hugely labour-intensive process, involving records from all over the world.  In a way that just would not have been possible twenty years ago, the grunt-work of the project has been crowd-sourced, with local historians, family historians and genealogists from all over the world making their contributions.

You can see a video and read a transcript of Janet giving a talk similar to the one she gave us here at the State Library of Victoria website.

The people of Port Phillip during Judge Willis’ time liked to pride themselves on belonging to a ‘free’ society rather than a penal colony.  However, as I wrote about here, there were many convicts in Port Phillip, and through the Founders and Survivors project,  they have established that many of them were attracted to either Melbourne and its suburbs or the goldfields.  I was not surprised to learn that of the ex-convicts they were able to trace to death (just under half), the majority of men did not marry, but I was surprised to learn that 30% of women did not marry either.  Moreover, the majority of the women they have traced did not have children, although as Janet explained, a large tranche of the earlier female transportees were street-walkers whose venereal disease may have affected their fertility.   One of the criteria that the project has used for ‘success’ in later life is the presence of grand-children. Grandchildren suggest that the former transportee was able to carve out a life that was sufficiently secure to raise children to adulthood, and that those children, in turn,  were able to find life partners with whom to start their own families.  It puts the present-day pride in convict ancestors into another light: as far as VDL convicts are concerned, those who went on to sprout forth large family trees were very much the exception rather than the rule.

Two comments that she made struck me in particular- probably because they have resonances with events today.  The first was that of the punishments inflicted during transportation, solitary confinement seemed to be correlated most strongly with poor life outcomes, with fewer marriages and children afterwards.   Physical punishment (e.g. lashing) declined over time, as the system moved towards more psychological punishment.  Women in particular suffered from transportation (or the life prior to transportation), with their life expectancy some ten years lower than that of  free settler and native born women.

The second observation that Professor McCalman made was that it was government activity that gave many of these ex-convicts a leg-up.  Many were employed on the railways, and moving beyond WWI, those who served in the AIF and received returned-service homes managed to avoid the worst of the depression.  Many from later generations worked on the large infrastructure projects- Yallourn power station; roads etc.  In a world today of for-profit, public-private partnership, it underlines the importance of government activity in infrastructure, not just in its construction but its ongoing operation as well.

This project combines big-picture analysis with fine-grained family stories. There’s a wonderful, beautifully-designed  site called Founders and Survivors Storylines that presents these family stories through video, song and words.  Well worth a look.