AHA Conference 7 July 2015

A beautiful crisp winter morning to start the conference.  The Keynote Address was given by Peter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History and Bailey College Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.  Titled ‘’The ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ in Comparative Perspective”, and replete with graphs and statistics,  it was an unusual opening address.  Confining himself to examining  recruitment to undergraduate degrees in US, UK and Australia , he argued that the “crisis in the humanities” has been a familiar trope since the 1950s, and that in fact, the sciences have fared even worse, without being characterized as being ‘in crisis’.  Instead, by broadening the definition of ‘the humanities’, the proportion of students in the humanities has remained remarkably stable despite the democratising shift to mass education and the corresponding dramatic expansion of subjects on offer.  Former polytechnics and technical colleges have been integrated into higher education, and they are not (despite their names) necessarily about technology but the humanities.  He noted that during the 1970s higher education was no longer seen as an “investment good” in terms of human capital theory, but instead as a “consumption good”: that people wanted to go to university.  This is still the case, despite lobbyists calling in the media for increased STEM uptake (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) as an economic growth measure.  The humanities are not ‘in crisis’, he argues, any more than the sciences are: the story is neither declinist nor triumphalist.


The first concurrent session for the day was History and Fiction. Bronwyn Lowe discussed Enid Blyton, who was wildly successful with young readers (particularly girls) in 1940s and 1950s Australia, but also widely disparaged by teachers, librarians and some parents for her repetitive  and formulaic plots, two-dimensional characters and more recently, on class and gender lines.  The BBC banned Enid Blyton’s books  as early as the 1930s, and even though not actually banned in some Australian children’s libraries until the 1960s, they were viewed as being ‘not the right sort of book’.  Some of this concern revolved around the quantity of Blyton and that some children would read nothing else- a similar complaint perhaps to the Harry Potter phenomenon (although by now the heat has gone out of the argument as there is more relief that children are reading something in these screen-based times.) By looking at reading surveys and interviews conducted by academics over the years, children’s pages in the newspapers at the time, autobiographies and nostalgic memoirs, she noted that Blyton books often became a currency in their own right among children swapping and collecting them, and that the concerns by parents about their deleterious effects were largely misplaced.

Christopher Bond then examined Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which has been criticized by some military historians for historical inaccuracy and inauthenticity by its melding of fictional characters with the historical figures of  the poets Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon and Dr Rivers.  He referenced Hayden White, who speaks of the way that historians deploy ‘emplotment of the past’ in the writing of their histories- a phrase I hadn’t heard before, but find interesting.   Although Tolstoy also combined historical and fictional characters in War and Peace, he has not been subjected to the same criticisms as Barker has, possibly because of his iconic status and detailed descriptions of military strategy- but also, he ventured, because Barker is a woman.  He noted that Paul Fussell, the venerated military historian, excluded all war literature written by women and citizens, and yet Stephen Crane, whose Red Bad of Courage has been highly acclaimed, was never a soldier.


After lunch I attended the Colonial Elections session. Chris Holdridge examined elections in Van Diemens Land, where the anti-transportation league was trying to flood the Legislative Council with their representatives.  Elections as public performances were an expression of political will, even though the majority of men were not enfranchised to vote.  He examined poems, posters and squibs in the 1851 and 1856 elections where the question of ‘character’ and convictism were deployed against emancipists. In particular, he spoke of the 1856 mayoral election and showed a hand-drawn election pamphlet which attacked mayoral candidate ex-convict William Thompson for his former ‘career’ as a flogger of his fellow convicts. Somehow this pamphlet nestled amongst the ephemera at the Mitchell Library- the stuff of historian goosebumps!

Naomi Parkinson compared the siting of  Jamaican and New South Wales colonial elections. In Jamaica, elections were held in the policeable space of the courthouse, with non-voters excluded, whereas  New South Wales held strongly to the English practice of out-door hustings where anyone could attend and question the nominees. Although women could not vote in either colony, electoral proceedings conducted outside made it possible for them to be spectators from windows or carriages.

Finally, Howard Le Couteur  used newspaper sources to explore the case of the Chinese candidate James Chiam who contested and won, in a landslide, a by-election for the Maryborough Municipal Council in 1861.  In his election speech (delivered in Chinese and translated for listeners)  Chiam identified himself as a naturalized settler who spent his money here (as distinct from remitting it to China) and identified with the working men of Maryborough, who were wary of Chiam’s business-men opponents.  Although Chiam only acted as alderman for a few months (possibly because he recognized the limitations of his poor English), his election demonstrates an overlooked example of  Chinese agency in local politics.

The final concurrent session of the day was part of the Religious History Association strand and I found it quite different to the other sessions. Mark Jennings spoke on Pentecostal Charismatic Christianity (PCC) as a manifestation and possible influence on late modernity. PCC is an ecstatic religion which sees the act speaking in tongues as proof of God. It makes up 23% of the population of the United States and is the fastest growing religion in France, with Hillsong and similar manifestations in Australia. I was surprised that the movement dates its origin only back to the turn of the twentieth century, with the American narrative placing its origins in 1901 in Kansas and 1906 in the Apostolic Faith Church in Los Angeles.  However, he argues that it can be seen as a broad set of movements, emerging in other places in the world at much the same time e.g. the Welsh revival of 1904, India.  He suggests that PCC and late modernity exist in symbiosis with each other, particularly through the influence of rock-and-roll.

The second speaker was Bernard Doherty who spoke on ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance and Subversion in Cold War Australia 1954-1983’ which traversed almost fifty years of interaction between Scientology and ASIO.  Since 2000 the National Archives of Australia have been releasing the ASIO files relating to Scientology going back to the mid-1950s.  It was a broad-ranging paper, encompassing Whitlam, Lionel Murphy, and the Ananda Marga and the Hilton bombing.  He suggested that ASIO gave low priority to Scientology (and likewise to its critics, most particularly ALP publicity officer Phillip Bennett Wearne) but Scientology’s belief that it was under surveillance became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It has, however, kept the question of ‘who watches the watchers?’ alive ( an even more salient question today given recent events).

This rather unusual and confronting session was followed by the Keynote Address for the Religious History Association given by Shurlee Swain. This was far more familiar territory for me, as she traced the nature of church/state relations in the delivery of welfare services.  Right from the start, Australia eschewed the Poor Law approach of England: either people had suffered under it themselves as bounty immigrants shovelled out of England, or because they did not want to pay taxes.  Hence Australia opted from the start for a subscriber charity model which was ostensibly non-sectarian but was, in reality, implicitly Protestant. During the second half of the 19th century there was increased Catholic provision and the proliferation of mission-based evangelical services.  By the 1960s the church/state partnership was beginning to fracture with declining church attendance and the increasing diversity of voices that had the ear of government.  However, in the 21st century, as the post-welfare state wound back government action, competitive tendering changed the relationship between church and state again into one of mutual dependence.  She then moved on to the current child-abuse commissions, noting that in the UK (think Jimmy Saville, politicians etc)  there is not the same narrow focus on the churches that we have in Australia. However, she suggests, there is an undercurrent that is beginning to question the charitable tax treatment of church organizations, while faith-based organizations are finding themselves providing a mission to their own professional staff. Strange times indeed, explored well in a terrific presentation.

Note to presenters: These are my impressions, gleaned from my rather inadequate notes at the end of a long day. If I have misrepresented what you said or included inaccuracies, please contact me at the email address in the ‘About’ section.

A day in Sydney

I’m up in Sydney for the rest of the week, attending the Australian Historical Society conference being held at the University of Sydney. A frugal little soul, I had booked the cheapest room in my 4.5 star hotel (indeed, it was cheaper than many more humble lodgings) and was expecting a cupboard-sized room but it’s fine.  I’m located close to Central railway station with a bus station at the doorstep and about a 20 minute walk from the uni.  The building was previously used as a post office, and prior to that was the site for the Sydney Benevolent Asylum.


I was able to check in early, then headed off for the Art Galley of New South Wales.  I passed the Lindt cafe. Even though journalists emphasized how central the location was, and the proximity of the Channel Seven building, I hadn’t really registered it.


Of course, as a historian of colonial New South Wales, I made a little pilgrimage to the Domain and the early buildings that surround it, and paid my respects to the statues of Lachlan Macquarie, a man I admired back in 1973 when I did Australian history for my VCE and who, more than forty years later and approaching a Ph D, I still admire.

Then off to the Art Gallery.  You know, I don’t think that I’ve ever been to the Art Gallery here- I keep getting it mixed up with the State Library, which of course I have frequented on several occasions.

There’s usually a  statue created by Mr Resident Judge’s grandfather  in the major Australian galleries: the sculptor Charles Web Gilbert.  The Art Gallery of NSW  had a cluster of bronzes- a positive swarm of nine Mackennals, with just one Web Gilbert and an Eva Benson.

'The Dutch Cap' by Charles Web Gilbert. An unfortunate name for a sculpture, perhaps.

‘The Dutch Cap’ by Charles Web Gilbert. An unfortunate name for a sculpture, perhaps.

Plenty of Mackennals.

Plenty of Mackennals.

Quite a few of the pieces had resonances with books I’ve read.

It was getting late- I need to find a bus to get to Sydney University. Thousands of buses, but where was the bus stop? I must admit that the whooshing, belching buses gave me a new appreciation for Melbourne trams. The opening reception was held at the Great Hall, a sandstone building resonant of pomp and tradition, with portraits of Great Male Chancellors (and as far as I could see, two Great Women Chancellors) on the walls.

IMG_20150706_183402a IMG_20150706_183408a

So let the conference begin!

A Medieval Modern Symposium

I’ve just spent a delightful two days at the National Gallery of Victoria at a symposium to support the current exhibition Medieval Moderns- the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which closes on 12 July 2015. If you haven’t seen the exhibition- do!

Alison Inglis from the University of Melbourne, the convenor of the symposium opened with ‘An Introduction to Pre-Raphaelitism in Australia’. She highlighted the depth and breadth of the NGV collection, which was bolstered initially by post-Gold Rush and Marvellous Melbourne prosperity, but continually enriched and supplemented by recent acquisitions. She emphasized the familial, commercial and institutional networks between artists and collectors in Australia and Britain.

These familial networks were demonstrated in Isobel Crombie’s presentation on the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. She lived close by to Tennyson, whose work was so influential on the Pre-Raphaelites, and on occasion she consciously modelled her own photographs on the paintings of the period. Her use of blurring in her photographs was perceived as a means by which the emotional ‘essence’ of the subject was captured. Amanda Dunsmore followed with a presentation on William Morris and his influence on art and design, with a particular emphasis of ceramics- several of which have been deaccessioned from the NGV’s collection over the years. Shane Carmody, now at the University of Melbourne took a slightly different direction, speaking on Sydney Carlyle Cockerell , the London advisor to the Felton Bequest between 1936-9 who clashed with the Menzies govt appointee over his attempt to procure the Holy Grail Tapestries designed by Burne-Jones.

The second session focussed on Pre-Raphaelite artists in Australia. Although Thomas Woolner is best known for his work in England, he first came to attention when he emigrated to the Victorian gold-fields with Edward La Trobe Bateman and Bernhard Smith. Caroline Clemente’s paper emphasized the artistic networks that revolved around the Howitt family and their connections with the gold-rush elite. This was followed by two papers on Edward La Trobe Bateman, and particularly his work on Plenty Station, Yallambie. There’s an excellent blog written by the current owner of Yallambie homestead, which is sited on the original Plenty Station. Lucy Ellem’s paper looked particularly at Bateman’s treatment of the garden, and the evidence of acclimatization techniques revealed through these sketches

I really enjoyed Bronwyn Hughes’ paper on William Holman Hunt’s famous picture ‘The Light of the World’.


The painting was an imperial exhibition phenomenon, which spawned thousands of reproductions and, in Australia, two hundred stained glass representations. John Payne from the NGV directed our attention to the frames used by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which eschewed the fashion for attempting to replicate metal frames and instead used gilded wood, often in a very simple design.

Day Two of the symposium required some rejigging, and commenced with an enthusiastic young scholar, Nancy Langham Hooper, who presented on John Rogers Herbert, the RA artist who specialized in biblical (and particularly Old Testament) works- a large example of which (Moses Bringing Down the Tables of the Law) is undergoing conservation treatment at the NGV currently. She made a convincing case for the links between Herbert and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, even though the connections are not at first apparent.


Conservation work currently being conducted in public view on the Moses painting, second floor NGV.

The rescheduled second session saw Juliet Peers speaking on Bernhard Smith, who travelled to Victoria with Woolner and Bateman, but is rarely associated with PRB influence in Australia. Unlike many of the other artists, Smith had to work for a living as a gold fields commissioner and judge and he took his sketchbook with him on his travels. Vivien Gaston followed with a presentation on William Dyce’s sketch of Prince Albert the Prince of Wales as a young child for his mother, Queen Victoria, and the detective work in tracking down the other sketches made as part of this series.

The session after lunch examined two paintings that are hung in the current exhibition: Princeps’ painting The Flight of Jane Shore, the royal mistress to Edward IV who was publicly shamed by Richard III, and Burne-Jones’ portrait of Baronne Madeleine Deslandes, a pensive and quiet portrait that in no way reflected this wild and flamboyant leader of a salon that attracted artists, poets, writers (including Oscar Wilde) and composers in Paris.

The final papers of the symposium examined Rupert Bunny , particularly his work on female saints which has been eclipsed by his Parisian-themed work, and Christian Waller. This final paper was again of particular interest to me, living as close as I do to Fairy Hills where the Wallers lived (in Dr Blake’s house from the television series no less!) and Grace Carroll’s paper focussed on the house as an expression of Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities that also came through in the artwork of both Christian and Napier Waller.

So, all in all a wonderful well-organized symposium, with excellent speakers and a wealth of information and insight. Even better, it was free: an act of generosity from both the NGV and University of Melbourne and the speakers themselves.

Hours of fun! Victorian Places

There’s a website created as a joint venture between Monash University and the University of Queensland called Victorian Places.

You can see it at  http://www.victorianplaces.com.au/

It was commenced in the mid-1990s at the National Centre for Australian Studies at  Monash University and has been updated using a template that was developed for Queensland Places by the University of Queensland.

Victorian Places aims to provide an historical and current assessment of all settlements in Victoria and addresses both metropolitan and regional growth issues in a readily useable fashion. It includes over 1600 entries (headwords) on Victorian settlements that now have or once had populations of 200 or more at any census. The entries include cities, towns, villages, suburbs and shires both old and new. It includes suburbs not only for Melbourne but for regional cities as well. The entries weave the story of place using extracts from gazetteers and handbooks and are illustrated with a wide range of images including historical postcards, recent photographs and tourist promotional material.

The ‘About Us’ section of the website includes the qualification that the website focusses on white settlement. They provide references for indigenous history of the landscape, and note in the entries themselves the Registered Aboriginal Parties throughout Victoria and attempt to comment on indigenous/settler relations when the sources allow.

So many places! 1600 of them!  I’ve whiled away an hour or two here, looking up places large and small. It’s fascinating to have the census information to watch the rise and decline (and sometimes rise again) of locations.

Fish and chip wrapping….today


I have had a long love affair with the newspaper.  I love padding out in my dressing gown to find it somewhere in the garden; I swear at the plastic wrap because it’s taking too long to get into it; I love getting lost in it and looking up and thinking “Ye Gods- is THAT the time?”

But if there’s one thing that’s going to push me over the edge into digital newspapers it’s reading two-day old news in ‘todays’ newspaper.  Jonathan Holmes on Media Watch some time back mentioned that because the Age sold its printing works in Tullamarine, the newspaper is now printed regionally, going to press at about 4.00 p.m. of the previous day.

To make matters worse, most of the articles in ‘today’s’ newspaper have been published online the previous day.  As a result, I flip through the paper thinking ‘read it, read it, read it’.

But the thing that really annoys me is that their stories are obviously written days earlier.  Take this paragraph in Friday‘s paper:


Adrian Bayley, the man who raped and murdered Jill Meagher is expect to appeal his convictions and sentence for raping two women before he attacked the ABC staffer in 2012.

Bayley’s barrister, Saul Holt QC is expected to hold formal appeal documents with the Supreme Court on Thursday.

I can only assume, then, that this article was written on Wednesday.  I noticed some time ago that the Age started naming the day of the week instead of saying ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’.  I assumed that it was to be more specific in an online environment, but when articles don’t appear for two days in the newspaper, it suggests that their definition of ‘news’ is no longer time-bound.

Then there’s the sloppy editing. I think that I could find five mistakes in every edition of the newspaper.  It wasn’t like that previously.

I suspect that all of this is intentional on the Age’s part to force people to read the newspaper online.   I don’t really like the Age’s app. I find myself swiping just to get onto the next story without reading the story that’s already there on my screen; I can’t remember anything I’ve read later, and I don’t have a sense of having finished the paper. Besides, sticky Vegemite fingers are not good for swiping screens.

Print-based media companies complain about the demands of the 24 hour newscycle,  and I acknowledge that it’s certainly changed the whole environment. But then they offer you news that’s well and truly fish and chip wrapping and you have to wonder how hard they’re trying.

‘Melbourne’ by Sophie Cunningham


2011, 272 p.

This book is one of a series published by New South where an established author  is given an open brief to write a ‘travel book where no-one leaves home’  of about 50,000 – 60,000 words about their own town.   There are nine in the series: Peter Timms (Hobart); Matthew Condon (Brisbane); Delia Falconer (Sydney), David Whish-Wilson (Perth); Kerryn Goldsworthy (Adelaide); Paul Daley (Canberra), Eleanor Hogan (Alice Springs);Tess Lea (Darwin) – and this one, Sophie Cunningham’s ‘Melbourne’.

As the commissioning editor Phillipa McGuiness said:

the inspiration for this series was literary, not some pointy-headed urge to make a grand statement about Australia’s cities….While people may read local histories, or dispassionate general histories about where they live, we rarely get the chance to read about our own cities in a way that resonates with our own experience and resurrects memories….So I wanted to ask some of our best novelists and writers to write non-fiction about the cities they lived in – or have adopted – in a way that would evoke intense sense memories for people who are familiar with them and give those who aren’t a sense of what it’s like to live in Brisbane or Adelaide or wherever.

In this book, Sophie Cunningham uses the seasonal year as her organizing structure, starting off with summer and moving through the seasons until finishing up with summer again.  Of course- in a city that is obsessed with weather- too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet- and famously has “four seasons in one day”, what other device could you use?  In particular, she uses the year 2009-2010, reflecting no doubt the date of commission, but that year was also a particularly memorable one for weather.  The summer of 2009 saw three days of excruciating heat (I wrote about it at the time, here) that culminated in the Black Saturday bushfires (that I also wrote about here) that razed Marysville and Kinglake.  I think that the fact that I can so easily link to four posts in this blog (and there are more than I could have linked) demonstrates how deeply these events are gouged into the consciousness of a Melburnian.

Cunningham’s book is consciously literary. Not only is she a writer and likely to bring a writer’s consciousness to the task, but the book was written in the wake of her resignation from Meanjin, a literary journal deeply embedded in Melbourne’s cultural identity.  She may have left Meanjin under contested circumstances, but her frequent citations of articles from Meanjin commissioned and published under her editorship suggest a continued identification with – and even a lingering sense of grief over- Meanjin.

For readers who are familiar with the city being discussed, there’s an internal comparison at work – “Would I have written the book this way??” Cunningham’s take is very much based on the inner suburbs of Melbourne, and a much younger perspective than I could bring.  She is gay, without children, and part of a literary milieu that as a mere reader, I can only observe from outside the window.  I think that if I were writing it, I’d be harking back to an older liberalism (all those Victorian worthies who in their way were quite radical), more architecture and possibly more politics.  I think I’d have to roam outside into the suburbs beyond the inner city, because I see Melbourne very much as a suburban city too.

The book is only small and beautifully produced- it fits well in your hands. It is by turns personal, historical, anecdotal and observational.  I did have a frisson of dissatisfaction near the end which seemed to have too many Melba-esque (pun!) farewells.  It was probably more the sense of rounding-off too many times, rather than the ending itself: in fact, I could have happily read another fifty pages more.

An interesting concept, and a really enjoyable read.

My rating: 8.5

Read because: It was on the library shelf

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

‘The Invisible History of the Human Race’ by Christine Kenneally


2014, 320 p & notes, Black Inc

The DNA Gods play a highly visible form of roulette with my family. Twenty-nine years ago I sat in a genetic counsellor’s office and had the statistic 11 to one batted around.  Eleven to one? That’s not too bad I thought….  Thirty years later my son sat in a genetic counsellor’s office, asking the same question but the answer he received was different: depressingly so.  How could that be? I wondered.  In many ways this book by Christine Kenneally explains why.  Our understanding of DNA has exploded since about 2000, with phenomena we have thought of as being cultural or idiosyncratic increasingly being exposed as being genetic in origin.  At the same time, there has been an explosion of interest in family history, turbo-charged by the Internet.  This book explores the inter-twining of these two forces.

Herein are studies from psychology, economics, history, and genetics, anecdotes and data from business, science, and the lives of many fascinating individuals.  They all exemplify in some way what gets passed down over the generations, and they all provide insights that resonate with one another.  As I hope to demonstrate by the end of the book, the concept of ancestry can bring genetics and history together fruitfully; perhaps ancestry will lead us to a place where we can make use of these different kinds of data in a more unified way. (p ix)

I’m not a science-y person at all.  The Introduction made me wonder if this book was going to be too science-heavy for me, but it actually started off with history, then prehistory, before moving onto DNA. Even the more science-y chapters started off with a human anecdote which tethered the content in the everyday before moving into more theoretical waters.

Early chapters explore the phenomenon of family history in the Internet age, its enormous popularity and yet its marginal status in relation to ‘academic’ history.  Family history also has its dark past:  eugenics has a sharp edge; the Third Reich deployed genealogy amongst its adherents to demonstrate their Aryan purity, and the Lebensborn clinics ensured that SS soldiers fathered more Aryan children.  Other regimes have silenced ancestry: we have the Stolen Generation and the brutalized children of orphanages whose identity has been stripped from them;  the Chinese government turned on the reverence for ancestors during the Cultural Revolution and insisted that centuries-old records be destroyed.  There’s an unsettling edge emerging with the hoovering-up of government and church archives into internet-based companies like Ancestry.com and the extensive databases owned by the Mormons who have their own religious imperative to posthumously baptize family members so that they can enter into eternal life.   The prospect of Anne Frank being posthumously claimed and baptised I find downright offensive.

The crossover of commercial genealogical companies into genetic analysis is also unsettling, and it leads Keneally into her exploration of genetic technology. Companies like Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA.com offer a selection of DNA tests and genealogical connections to the general public.  The banks of genomes held (owned?) by such companies become, in effect, crowdfunded and immensely valuable privatized libraries.  It is no surprise that much of this activity is based in Salt Lake City, the base of the Mormon Church where James LeVoy Sorenson, the wealthiest man in Utah and one of the richest men in the world sought out the possibility of analyzing the DNA of every individual in Norway to find his ancestors who were hidden from the documentary record.  The academic from Brigham Young University that he approached deflected Sorenson from the Norway proposal by a different plan whereby they would analyze the genome of 200 individuals from each of 500 different populations around the world. That collection of 100,000 genomes would form a microcosm of the human race, and would yield information about four generations of family history for each person.  In effect, “they would use science to personalize history”. (p 205)  First they started in Utah, then went to Africa, Asia, Kyrgyszstan on their quest to acquire more than 100,000 samples from all over the world.  DNA analysis can reveal the sweeps of migration across the globe over time, thereby interweaving the individual and personal with the large pulse of mankind over millennia:

In the same way that looking back into our immediate family’s past may change how we think about time and history and our place in it, so too does taking on the idea of our more distant ancestry.  Once upon a time, history was living memory plus all the increasingly fuzzy spans of time that came before it.  Now we may use written records and the artifacts and fossils that came before records.  Using all of these sources of information with DNA teaches us simultaneously about human history, the forces of evolution, and ourselves. Ancestry brings together history and science without any artificial seams between them.  It explains our immediate family in the context of the human family and vice versa. (p 262)

DNA analysis can ruthlessly strip away family story and patchy documentation, leaving the human individual to cope intellectually and emotionally with the overturning of what had appeared certainties.   There had been claims about Thomas Jefferson fathering six children with Sally Hemings, but DNA scotched the alternative scenario of the involvement of Jefferson’s nephew that had been offered by those wishing to protect Jefferson’s reputation.  But the Woodson family, who also had a powerful oral history tradition linking them to the Jefferson and Heming family were devastated to learn that the connection was not there.  One family was vindicated by DNA; another family felt stripped naked by it.

Christine Kenneally is a journalist who has written for the New Yorker, The Monthly and New Scientist, and it is her contribution to  this latter publication that encapsulates the flavour of this wide-ranging book.  My husband subscribes to New Scientist, and each week there is a deluge of new studies  that often disrupt older knowledge across the whole spectrum of disciplines.  There are footnotes to this book but they are not marked in the text at all (I didn’t find them until after I’d finished it) and many of them are very recent publications. Indeed, many of the examples in this book may already be negated or made redundant by new studies.

I feel completely at sea in assessing this book- it ranges so far and so idiosyncratically that I wonder if anyone could be as familiar with the material as she is.  In her treatment of things that I do know about (the Founders and Survivors project, for example) her narrative is sound, if somewhat simplified and compressed to support the argument that she is making.  I can only assume that her treatment of other material is likewise.

This is a big book about big data and its effect on knowledge, from the broad sweep of history right down to the micro-level of genes and cells. It engages and teases with ideas, without swamping the reader.  Occasionally I wondered if I was losing the thread, but then she’d give an anecdote or example that brought me back again.  The fact that it may already be outdated in places is a perfect illustration of the paradox that she is illustrating: that the very new can shed light on the very old.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.