‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony Marra

constellation

2013, 400p

Reading the debut book of a writer whose second book you really liked is a bit of a gamble. What if s/he only found firm footing with the second book? What if the first was a dud?

I needn’t have worried. There are similarities between Anthony Marra’s second book The Tsar of Love and Techno in that both books have sections set in Chechnya (in fact, the whole of Constellation is set there) and they both have oblique titles,  but this book focusses more on a small group of people and is ‘straighter’.

It is set over five days, and the book is divided into three sections (The First and Second Day;  The Third Day; and The Fourth and Fifth Day). But within these three sections the narrative slides chronologically- and I use the word ‘slide’ deliberately because each chapter is headed with a timeline spanning 1999 to 2004 with the year in which the chapter is set marked out in bold type. In 2004, in a small snow-covered village in Chechnya, the good hearted Akhmed watches as his life-long neighbour Dokka is arrested and his eight year old daughter Havaa flees into the woods.  Akhmed finds her, and knowing that they will come back for her too, he takes her to a Russian doctor in the city, Sonja Rabina, who is struggling to hold together her bombed-out hospital.  There’s lots of backstory to be filled in: why Dokka has been arrested; who informed on him;  who this doctor Sonja is, the relationship between the villagers, and the tension between Chechnyans and Russians. I know very little Chechnyan history, but I feel that I know more having read this book- and what an easy, seductive way to learn it.

All of this written with wisdom and compassion and with landscapes and people described so clearly that you can see it. Is this really only his second book and is he really only the age of my son? He’s good. Very good.

Delia Falconer wrote a very good review in the Sydney Review of Books.

My rating: 9.5

Read because: I so much enjoyed his second book.

Movie: ‘Loving’

Richard Loving, a white labourer, married Mildred Jetta  in 1958, in contravention of the miscegenation laws current in Virginia which banned inter-racial marriages. The American Civil Liberties Union took their case to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

You’d never know that Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard Loving, is Australian because his monosyllabic utterances are just as incomprehensible to Australian ears as the rest of the dialogue in the film. Mildred Loving played by Ruth Negga, is a more nuanced character, although her doe-eyed sorrow became rather lugubrious by the end of what felt like a very long film.

I’ve been grizzling lately about films which purport to be ‘based on a true story’ that insert dramatic scenes that did not occur.  I don’t think that I need complain about such things here. The court action takes place off stage, because neither Richard nor Mildred wanted to attend, and whatever Richard Loving was thinking, he sure wasn’t saying it.  There’s no high drama in this film, and no knock-em-dead scene: just the sense of brewing trouble and festering injustice.  It’s a sobering story, and one that we should know. But, as I said, it did feel like a very long movie.

Consistent with my usual belated reviewing, ‘Loving’ is advertised as ‘Last Days!’ at Cinema Nova.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Movie: Alone in Berlin

This movie is based on a book by Hans Fallada (whose book Little Man What Now I read forty years ago but still remember) that fictionalizes the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel.

I was struck by how quiet this movie is.  Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson play Otto and Anna Quangel, whose only son is killed fighting for the German army. Their grief is so overwhelming that they cannot say it out loud. But Otto puts it into words, scratched out onto postcards, which he leaves to be found by others. His brief slogans of protest, signed ‘Free Press’ exhort people to rise up against Hitler. For all their simplicity and crudity, these postcards taken very seriously by the Nazis.

This is not at all an action movie.  It’s quiet, slow and imbued with a quiet, threadbare dignity. Writing these postcards was a small and very, very dangerous act of resistance. I’d like to think that I’d be similarly brave, but I know that I would not be.

My rating: 8/5/10

‘Billy Sing: A Novel’ by Ouyang Yu

Billy-Sing-front-cover-for-publicity

2017,  135 p. Transit Lounge

In my grave my spirit lingers, the undead, if you believe that sort of thing, which I think you ought to, you beings so materialistic you forget that life is not just one life but multiple ones, so that, for certain people not tied to possessions and property, life travels forward as it travels back, in time, one’s spirit interconnected to spirits of a similar persuasion, with a mind large enough to encompass all times, all places and all people. Still, as I lie here, I envisage that in some future time someone will stop by and put his ears to my heart, separated by cement and stone, and find himself whispering into the ears of my spirit. I shall listen. I have done enough sleeping in life to live death awake. Conversely, if you have not lived enough death in life, you’d better mind your own business. (p.36)

The voice is that of the dead Billy Sing, a real-life Gallipoli sniper nicknamed ‘The Assassin’ by his fellow soldiers. But it’s an imagined voice- and here the subtitle ‘A Novel’ is important – and it’s a voice that probably belongs more to Ouyang Yu than the character he has created.  In writing this review, I googled ‘Billy Sing’ because,  I admit, I had never heard of him. In the Wikipedia entry, mention is made of a television mini-series made about Sing, which cast him as European.  Queensland National Party member Bill O’Chee, a member of the Billing Sing Commemorative Committee criticized this decision to ‘white-out’ Billy Sing, saying “When a person dies, all that is left is their story, and you can’t take a person’s name and not tell the truth about their story.”  Ouyang Yu couldn’t be accused of ‘whiting out’ his Billy Sing. Instead Billy’s mixed race, in an Australia which saw the White Australia policy as a founding issue, is a fundamental part of his personality and story, permeating not just his reputation but also the language with while Ouyang Yu tells his story. The issues of racism and national identity bookend Billy Sing’s life, silenced only by his stint in the trenches at Gallipoli where he shucks off his humanity to become a disembodied killing machine.

The subtitle of this book is ‘a novel’. As it happens I finished reading this book just as I read Judith Armstrong’s  rumination on the relationship between facts and fiction in her own writing of what she calls ‘biographical novels’ of Sonya Tolstoy and more recently, Dymphna Clark (wife of historian Manning Clark). She describes both these books as  a “hybrid method of rigorous research coupled with intuitive interpretation”  but found that there was strong marketing and cataloguing resistance to accepting them as ‘novels’, even though that is what she insists they are. Hilary Mantel recently raised similar questions in relation to her own historical fiction, where she described fellow historical-fiction writers as ‘cringing’ when they attached a bibliography.

  You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary”

More than ‘fictionalized biography’, these novels – for they all clearly identify themselves as such – stake for themselves a place for imagination and supposition. The authors do not claim to be writing history or biography: it’s a novel. In Ouyang Yu’s case, he has tethered his narrative around a number of factual, documented fenceposts.  One is the author Ion Idriess’ diary entry about Billy Sing, another is Sing’s Distinguished Conduct citation.  These he cites in a small bibliography at the back.  Beyond these, however, the author has let his imagination play.

When an author is faced with a dearth of documented material, which is the case here, that very absence can be turned into part of the character him or herself, and this is certainly the case here. Billy Sing asserts that others may scribble, but he will not write.

Every time I saw him pick up a pen and put something down in his notebook, a green-covered one featuring a thin blade of corn across the cover, I’d wonder what that would lead to and if, in the writing of things the person vacated himself, a husk of a being, hollow inside and substance emitted.  It would be infinitely preferable to just go and dream and go on dreaming, in a sleep that never ended, and, better still, in  a sleep that was coupled with love or the act of it… If I had the ability to put it down, it would not amount to much, either. I’d just let it go as most things in my life would do. (p. 73)

I found this a difficult book to get into. The language was poetic, but strange and didn’t seem to go anywhere.  It may be the historian in me speaking here, but it was only when I reached those footnotes and realized that there was a factual basis, that I felt as if I were no longer scrabbling on gravel, trying to get a foothold. It’s the sort of book that I enjoyed more afterwards, once I found out more about the real Billy Sing.  The dream-like, insubstantial nature of his telling of his marriage mirrors the historical uncertainty over whether his wife ever came to Australia or not.  Dreams and a sordid, visceral reality are intermingled, and it’s a slippery book to read.

Did I enjoy it? I really don’t know how to answer. It is only short, and I was able to suspend my anxiety over whether I was ‘getting it’ over 135 pages, while I doubt that I could have done so had the book been 300 pages instead.  It’s the sort of book that I enjoyed more after finishing it, and once I’d established the ‘facts’ I was better able to appreciate the artistry and lyricism of the fiction. Somehow, I suspect that this is not the way the author intended his book to be read.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers, who has read a lot of Ouyang Yu’s work has reviewed Billy Sing here.

Source: Review copy

Movie: Jasper Jones

I’ve heard people speak about the movie Jasper Jones and felt quite bemused because it doesn’t sound particularly like the book I remember reading.  Parts of it – yes, but I don’t remember the strong emphasis on Jasper’s aboriginality. Looking back at my own blogpost about the book, I appear to be a bit underwhelmed and puzzled by the hype. I didn’t buy the basic premise of the plot – i.e. that Charlie would feel compelled to get involved – and I must admit that I still feel that way.

So I didn’t have great expectations of the movie (which was not my choice to see). But I was pleasantly surprised.  The acting was excellent, particularly Toni Collette as Charlie’s mother, who had slipped my memory completely from the book.  The small Western Australian timber town was captured faithfully, and it was a satisfying coming-of-age story that evoked shades of  To Kill a Mockingbird.  I really enjoyed it

My rating: 8.5/10

This Month in Port Phillip 1842: March 1842

Another month-long summary, in a vain attempt to catch up. I think I’ve been too ambitious with weekly summaries and unless I find myself with too much spare time, I think my summaries will be monthly from here on.

The mad boy in the watchhouse

You’ll remember that at the end of February we left the young editor of the Port Phillip Gazette, George Arden, cooling his heels in the Eastern Watchhouse, situated on the south-west corner of what is now Exhibition Street and Little Collins Street.  He had been sentenced to twelve months jail and a £300 fine for an article he wrote criticizing Judge Willis. Perhaps a comparable analogy might be Julian Assange cooling his heels in the Ecuadorian Embasssy in London.  In both cases, the men remained highly visible, despite their incarceration, through their untrammelled access to media outlets (in Arden’s case, his own newspaper the Gazette ) and through the support of other ‘friendly’ media outlets. The Gazette made sure to publish every bit of pro-Arden and anti-Willis commentary that was written in the newspapers of adjoining colonies.

Well, Arden’s still in gaol throughout March too, but the unanimity in criticizing this trampling of the freedom of the press had broken down amongst the three newspapers in town.  The Port Phillip Gazette and the Port Phillip Herald continued to publish articles supporting Arden, while the Port Phillip Patriot, owned by John Fawkner and edited by William Kerr broke away from the other two papers and turned on Arden. Now he was “the mad boy in the Eastern Hill Watch House” who “continued to belch from the  distance upon all who have opposed his mad career, his semi-weekly collections of watch-house filth…” [PPP 7/3/42]

Reflecting this largely media-driven controversy, two opposing petitions were drawn up. The first, more properly called a ‘memorial’ was a statement of support addressed to Judge Willis, circulated and promoted by John Fawkner and the Port Phillip Patriot. According to them, it was launched on a Thursday night and quickly signed by

magistrates, clergymen, merchants, professional gentlemen and settlers from all parts of the country; the remainder comprises the great majority of the respectable shopkeepers and tradesmen in town (PPP 21/3/42)

It was presented by William Kerr to Judge Willis in his courthouse, and Willis most conveniently had an eloquent speech ready to give off the top of his head.  I must admit that I find it hard to imagine a group of people trooping into the Supreme Court today to deliver a signed statement of support from the populace- but who knows?

Meanwhile, on the other side, there was a petition being circulated by Judge Willis’ opponents, spurred by articles in the Port Phillip Gazette and Port Phillip Herald. This petition, addressed to Her Majesty was scorned by the Patriot as being a ‘hole-and-corner’ production, and in fact it was held back for months before it actually saw the light of day.

Add to this a civil case brought by Fawkner against the publisher of the Gazette for posters designating Fawkner as being under pecuniary obligation to Judge Willis [a claim, which we will see, is not as far-fetched as it might seem]. Oh happy days!

18C in 1842?

It was in the context of George Arden’s imprisonment that the Melbourne Debating Society conducted its March debate on the question “Ought there be any restriction on the publication of opinion?”. This nineteenth-century version of our 18C debate [i.e. about ‘freedom of speech’ or, as our Attorney General put it ‘the right to be a bigot’] drew on similar arguments to the ‘debate’ to which we’ve been subjected recently  [i.e. the right to free speech- although the Port Phillip arguments pertained to British rights guaranteed through the Magna Carta rather than Human Rights], and both ‘debates’ were equally rarified and self-absorbed.

Mr Smith then opened the question, referring to the benefits accompanying the investigation of public men and measures, by promulgating and analysing their probable tendency and results; he then alluded to Magna Charta [sic] in illustration of his opinions; his address insensibly fell into the unavoidable channel of the press, which he brought forward as the best and ablest corrective of public abuses (hear, hear) and deprecated the suppression of freedom of discussion and public opinion as one of the most serious invasions of constitutional right.  The press contained the greatest “expression of public opinion” and to that source, therefore, would the debate insensibly tend…. The strongest argument brought forward by the speaker was that adducable from the precedent afforded by the House of Commons, where not only the public measures and conduct of the highest officers are fearlessly canvassed, but even their private character and domestic relations aspersed. Yet there the public good promoted by the guardianship of the press, which if objectionable on one point, amply compensated by its public benefits of the other.  The speaker’s sentiments were well received and drew forth merited applause.

Actually, the question was a bit of a fizzer, because everyone agreed with the speaker and those speaking against the question “seemed little smitten with their side of the question”.   Unlike the 18C debate, the question kept coming back to freedom of the press in a political sense:

The members, as might have been anticipated, limited themselves to the sole consideration of the freedom of political discussion – one member certainly alluded to the promulgation of religious opinions, commenting on the various dangerous creeds existing in England, but like a bent bow the argument rebounded to its former political tendency.

No surprise, then, that when “at 10.30 the Chairman put the question to the vote, it was unanimously carried in the affirmative” [PPH 15/3/42]

A Day at the Races

The Port Phillip Gazette in particular was a hunting’ and racin’ paper, and so it expended many column inches to describing the March races which extended over several days. The first day seemed to be a rather rambunctious affair, exacerbated by the hot weather which in turn deterred the ‘gentle sex’ who might have been a moderating influence (or maybe not)

The first day was unhappily most ill-suited to the occasion- a hot wind set in at an early hour, and although deprived- owing to the lateness of the season, of much of the usual fierceness of our Australian Simoons [i.e. a dust-driven wind of the deserts of Arabia and North Africa], it could not but have a sensible-effect on the violent exertions of the horses, the excited motions of the men.  The heat and dust prevented the appearance of the usual number of carriages and of course of that fashionable attendance of ladies, to which we must admit the attracts of the fete owe half their grace.  At the hour for starting we may guess the numbers to have been at least three thousand, the mounted portion of which shewed appointments in horses and person of a decidedly good character.

The mounted portion, yes, but there was obviously a rabble there as well. Some of the earth-tethered individuals were soon the worse for wear and on being arrested, were tethered to a log in the sun.  Oliver Gourlay, riding past, expressed sympathy for the men shackled there, and ended up being arrested for his troubles. I’ve written about this in more detail previously. But I am interested in the sympathy that Port Phillip Gazette managed to muster for them, too (especially in the face of rather less sympathy extended to the indigenous prisoner Harlequin who was walked 153 miles while chained around the neck)

In the most public portion of that thronged area, a stake was driven into the ground, from which a bullock chain attached thereto by a ring was passed to a neighbouring tree; to this were dragged, as if with sacrificial terrors, the more unfortunate individuals who, earliest overcome with heat and exercise, were either drunk or noisy; handcuffed by the wrists, they were fastened on to the main chain and left to vent their ravings to the air under the rays of a sun, the heat of which on that that day attained the measure of 135 degrees! Picture to yourself, reader, a dozen human beings bound body and limb to a huge chain, their clothes rent, their faces begrimed with dirt and sweat, and streaked in many cases with the blood received in some previous fray- the beastly hiccoughs of intoxication mingled with the curses of brains maddened with drink and heat. The imagination can scarcely supply a more revolting scene. (PPG 5/3/42)

However, there were limits to the Gazette‘s sympathy and it recommended that the races be abolished completely unless they could be shifted to a location

[at] a distance, where the lower orders cannot so easily mix in their proceedings…. Race meetings should be encouraged, in order to encourage the breeding of horses, but if such scenes and such results destroy their advantages, LET THEM BE ABOLISHED.” [PPG 5/3/42]

People arriving: Sickness on the Beach at Pt Gellibrand

Even though  emigrant ships were flooding into Port Phillip, there was no formal quarantine station at this stage, and there would not be until the Point Nepean Quarantine Station opened in 1852.  When  the Manlius arrived on 16 February, Drs Patterson and Cussen embarked to inspect the ship, as was customary, only to find that 44 passengers had already died with fever. The surviving passengers were landed at Williams Town and taken by cart to Pt Gellibrand where they were accommodated in tents for two months [ a good report, about maritime infrastructure generally can be found here]. At first it was supposed that the disease had lost its virulence, but on 2 March, the Port Phillip Gazette reported that some previously healthy passengers had been taken ill, including the surgeon of the vessel.

A woman, otherwise in good health, left the tents to get water from the sea and was found, when her absence excited alarm, in a state of convulsion lying among the rocks. (PPG 2/3/42)

A further 17 passengers died, and were buried at Williamstown cemetery.

People leaving: Goodbye Rev Orton

In March 1842 the Wesleyan Methodists of Melbourne bade farewell to the Rev Joseph Orton when he returned to England.

Orton

https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Orton-264

Rev Orton had been in Australia for eleven years, working in both New South Wales and Van Diemens Land. Previous to that, he had served in Jamaica in 1825, where he fell foul of the law “through the arbitrary acts of certain magistrates, who determined to uphold the slave interest, sacrificed every other feeling of duty to that end”. (PPG 9/3/42) Refusing to obey an instruction not to preach the gospel at night to his slave congregation, he was imprisoned. The imprisonment broke his health, necessitating a return to England in 1829. After recovering his strength and “full of zeal for his avocation”, he sailed to  New South Wales, where he served for three years before his appointment to Van Diemens Land.  Learning of Batman’s excursion to Port Phillip in 1835, he visited Port Phillip the following year where, aware of the numbers of indigenous people there, he applied for and received orders to select a suitable reserve for the formation of a mission station. This was at Buninyong, near Geelong. Although he became increasingly critical of the running of the mission, he was persuaded to stay in the Port Phillip District to take over ministerial duties as first resident pastor until a replacement arrived. But by March 1842, in poor health, he had received permission to return home. The Port Phillip Gazette of 2 March reported that a sit-down dinner was held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Collins Street, attended by 150 people, followed by a religious service. Rev Orton was presented with a gold watch, but because he had lost his voice, he was not able to respond to the speeches given in his honour.(PPG 2/3/42) He didn’t have long to wear it, though,  because he died on the journey home. That was not the end of the Orton family connection with Australia, however, because his widow and children returned several years later.  Alex Tyrrell, who wrote a biography of Rev Orton, has written an interesting article in the La Trobe Journal (available here)

Speaking of ships…

I’ve long been aware that the ships moored out in the bay, unable to negotiate the shallows of the Yarra. Passengers either travelled out to the ocean-going ships by steamer or else by lighters.  I must admit that my imagination quails at the idea of unloading the cargo of ocean-going ships and their passengers onto such small craft. I was interested to see this scale of fees for transport to and from ships in the bay, Williamstown and Melbourne (PPG 9/3/42)

fees

Suburban Melbourne begins

Modern Melbourne is characterized by its ‘urban sprawl’ spanning 9,900 km2 (3,800 sq mi), according to Wikipedia.  In 1842, the spread of suburbs was greeted with pride. In March 1842 the area known as ‘New Town’ was announced as Collingwood (although parts of New Town are also in Fitzroy):

COLLINGWOOD. The suburb known as New Town, is to be, as already announced, properly laid out in the divisions of a town and streets aligned in a regular plan; opportunity has been taken of this act to give it a name, which displays on the Superintendents’ choice better taste than is usually adopted in colonial nomenclature. “Collingwood” is not only good, but singular and ejects at once the former commonplace designation. [PPG 9/3/41]

Later that month, the Gazette marvelled at the ‘villages’ surrounding central Melbourne:

VILLAGES AROUND MELBOURNE. In various directions the stranger may visit villages, which like offshoots from the town are springing up the beautiful suburbs of Melbourne. The oldest and largest of these, Collingwood, which from its proximity to Melbourne was long called New Town, will shortly be erected into a township. Continuing the course of the Yarra Yarra, in the direction that Collingwood lies, east of the town, Heidelberg presents, in its romantic name, an attraction which is enhanced by its pretty natural position, its productive qualities of soil, and its unobjectionable society. Pentridge lies to the north, on the line which is marked out for the principal road to Sydney- the small farms in the neighbourhood are numerous, and fill the fertile valley of the Merri Rivulet. To the south, on the seacoast of the harbour, Brighton has been lately founded, having been laid out on a portion of the first special survey taken in the province.  For invalids requiring the benefit of sea air and bathing this spot will possess qualities superior to inland localities. [PPG 30/3/41]

Stop thief!

My word- fancy robbing the Supreme Court itself!  It appeared that more than one daring thief forced open the window of the Judge’s chamber that overlooked the court yard of the Clerk of Works’ office.  They located the iron box of the Registrar, carried it through the court hose and made their exit by the folding doors in front, the key of which was inadvertently left inside. The safe was taken to Batman’s Hill and the cash taken, but not the documents. Unfortunately for Mr Pinnock the registrar, he had to make good the loss of about sixty pounds by this nefarious transaction (I wonder when it was deemed that employees no longer had to cover the cost of robberies?)  It appeared that the robbers had searched the Judge’s desk too, a half burnt tallow candle having been left close to the place where the judge sits.  (PPG 30/3/42)

Another robbery was perhaps less carefully thought through:

CURIOUS ROBBERY. On Monday night, between seven and eight o’clock some thieves walked into Mr D’Orme’s yard, the back of which runs upon Little Flinders-street and walked off with a tub full of dirty clothes put out there to soak before undergoing the regular process of manipulation. The fellows in their eagerness to secure the booty neglected even to run off the water, but succeeded in decamping without the smallest suspicion.  This is certainly the most curious instance of covetous taste that we have yet had to notice. [PPG 30/3/42]

Bedtime reading for the littlies

The Port Phillip Gazette of 2nd March carried an advertisement for the first children’s book written in the colony.

A MOTHER’S OFFERING. A copy of a little work, the production of a lady resident in Sydney, entitled “A Mother’s Offering” and intended for the use of children, was forwarded to this office by the Seahorse. Its chief merit is that it is the first attempt to write in the colony a work for children similar to those which in England are now looked upon with so much respect, as conducive to the cause of infant education. Its contents are in the shape of dialogues, and are well and easily supported between the mother and her family of boys and girls. Some natural phenomena peculiar to the colony are explained and a lively description of several shipwrecks which have happened on the Australian coast are detailed in an interesting style.[PPG 2/3/42]

It carried an extract from the book on 12 March which you can read here.  (The whole text, should you decide to read it, is here). It’s certainly a stilted way of writing for children, and the subject matter of shipwrecks and cannibalism seems a curious choice for children for whom any journey ‘home’ inevitably involved a long sea-journey.  For an absolutely fascinating account of the writing and authoress of this book, read Kate Forsyth’s blog post  about it (yes, the author Kate Forsyth). A great story on so many levels – probably better than the book itself, I should imagine.

And the weather?

The hottest day of the month was, as you might expect, on 1st March when the thermometer reached 90 (32.2), but it stayed warm right through March with 88 (31.1) being reached in the last week as well.

As the Port Phillip Gazette reported on 30th March:

After a long “spell” of delightful weather the falling season seems to have revived for a few days, and resumed all the heat of summer. On Friday last the atmosphere attained a degree of closeness which gradually increased through Saturday, Sunday and Monday, to a height of sultriness that was hardly exceeded in January; the north wind which blew during a great part of the time was not so intensely heated as in the earlier part of the season, but was equally oppressive. As it is now upon the verge of April, it may reasonably be calculated that we have fairly bid the Summer adieu and that the heat lately suffered is but the expiring gasp of his hot, unwelcome breath.

 

‘Badge Boot Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms’ by Craig Wilcox

badgebootbutton

NLA Publishing, 2017, 141 p & notes  $44.99 RRP

It’s a paradox that even though a uniform is supposed to mark its wearer out from the general population, we often become so inured to them that they become invisible.  Craig Wilcox’s book Badge Boot Button brings the uniform to our focus as an expression of institutional intent. Covering 200 years of Australian history, from convicts to Olympic Games volunteers, Wilcox casts a wide net in his analysis of uniforms, describing their design and manufacture and probing the purposes for which they were prescribed.

On the basis of his association with the War Memorial, and through his work on the Boer War, it’s not surprising that military uniforms appear multiple times during Wilcox’s  chronological account.  Wilcox has written several books based on military themes and he mounted a spirited , and I think completely appropriate, challenge to the historically anachronistic attempts to ‘pardon’ Breaker Morant. However, in this book he ranges further to discuss school uniforms, airhostesses, nurses and sportsmen.

As Wilcox explains in his introduction:

Uniforms are authority’s signature, its sartorial sound bite, speaking to a local community, a city or state, sometimes the entire world. And like any language, they reveal origins, status, aspirations and insecurities…. But there are always two voices speaking at once- that of authority, naturally, but also that of the individual. Unofficial variations in uniforms, or simply the angle at which a hat is worn, hint at personal attitudes to school, to an employer, to work, to life itself.  (p.1)

The book is structured chronologically. The first chapter ‘The Age of Livery’ starts with the military red coat that  constituted authority in convict-era Australia but which, as he points out, was often not worn on a day-to-day basis.  There were, after all, no army inspectors to enforce dress standards, and soldiers themselves began to modify their costume.  Nonetheless,  when governors and troops needed a display of authority, they donned their red coats and gold epaulets. Think, for example, of the picture of Governor Bligh being hauled out from under the bed by three members of the NSW Corps in full dress. Bligh was in his ceremonial outfit too, although as he himself admitted, he had put it on just before his arrest. “Just before I was arrested, on learning [of] the approach of the regiment, I called for my uniform”. Think too of Bungaree, Governor Macquarie’s go-betweeen with the Kurringgai people, in his red army coat.  Convicts wore a uniform too, the degrading motley of the ‘magpie’ convict uniform of grey and yellow.  The red coated soldiers were there at Eureka too, that conflict between uniformed upholders of the established order and their un-uniformed challengers.  Meanwhile, naval officers wore blue (think James Cook), and this was adopted by the mounted police seconded from the military garrison as a type of cavalry and the military pensioners who were used for civil policing on the goldfields.

In Chapter 2 ‘Civic Authority & National Identity’ Wilcox traces through the adoption of uniforms by civilians. The ‘Volunteers’ local citizen army, part of a world-wide movement in English-speaking countries during the 1860s,  adopted the grey uniform chosen by their English counterparts. A civic blue uniform was worn by police and railway staff, and increasingly by post-men and firemen.  When NSW sent a military contingent to the Sudan in 1885, their red coats were quickly substituted  with the empire-wide  khaki by their British army quartermasters.  The khaki was not enthusiastically adopted by all and the slouch hat seemed alien at first, with some describing it as “the worst and ugliest” military costume, strongly resisted by citizen soldiers in the cities.  However, during WWI it became visual shorthand for the AIF and it took on “some of the aura of an athlete’s laurel wreath” (p. 65).  The AIF was disbanded after the war “but there seemed no question of the militia wearing anything other than the uniform that had just toured the world” (p. 69).  But uniforms extended beyond the military. Sporting teams adopted uniforms: footballers wore caps and coloured jerseys and guernseys (including Melbourne Football Club in their startling magenta) ;and cricketers’ whites were enlivened by a sash around the waist and necktie. Nurses wore veils evoking the nunnery, and adopted the British red cape or tippet- much to the resentment of British nurses.  Australian maid-servants – always a more contingent and undisciplined class than in Britain- resisted wearing the mob-cap because it was perceived as a sign of servility.

Ch. 3 ‘Loosening up’ notes the waning of the authority of the policeman, priest and school master  as uniforms became more practical. Sports gear changed as footballers adopted shorts, women began playing tennis, and bathers became common.  However, khaki maintained its sway, although during WWII it shifted towards camouflage gear for fighting men. Groups like Boy Scouts and even the Girl Guides wore khaki between the war, and during WWII women in the Australian Land Army were dressed in masculine army attire above the waist.  Early air-hostess and pilot uniforms had a military influence at first. Although nurses’ uniforms remained uncomfortable and in need of careful ironing (itself a form of discipline), school uniforms and the uniforms of transport workers became less formal. Although the liberalization of uniforms may have moved slowly, the image of Sir Robert Menzies receiving his gong as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports highlighted how antiquated the naval outfit with its tail coat, cocked hat and ceremonial sword had become.

In Ch. 4 ‘Promotion, Protection and Equality’, Wilcox moves to the second half of the twentieth century and the rise of designer-created corporate livery.  Now extended to commercial costume – think airhostesses, banks, hotels- he attributes the spread of corporate uniform to several factors.  First, publicity units began driving changes in organizations. Second the clothing industry wanted industry contracts  and, especially with trade liberalization and the flight of the TCF sector to Asian countries, was happy to make the Australian-made uniform a marker of patriotism.  Third, commercial emulation meant that  if one company adopted a corporate uniform, others were sure to follow.  Fourth, taxation law made the cost of providing and laundering uniforms a deduction for companies and employees. Fifth, the idea had the imprimatur of overseas practice and here I think of fast food companies. Finally, a corporate uniform was ‘sold’ to employees as a ‘wardrobe’ from which employees could ‘choose’.  Sportspeople have become a virtual working billboard for their sponsors. After a trend towards abolition, school uniforms have again become a marker of educational earnestness, supported by Julia Gillard’s statement that “Part of a high-quality uniform is learning how to present yourself to the world and that’s what a school uniform is all about”(p 133).  Meanwhile, when authority figures want to exert a frisson of menace, they turn to dark uniforms- and here I think of the Border Force uniforms and Victoria Police’s eschewal of the pale blue shirt for a dark blue one evoking New York coppers (both choices that I find sinister). While even judges’ costumes (I think they’d baulk at the term ‘uniforms’) have liberalized, they still remain set apart. His discussion of the semiotics of the vestments worn by Bishop Barbara Darling at her consecration was instructive.

The book is generously leavened with photographs and illustrations, with ‘break out’ displays every couple of pages that gave the feeling of looking at an exhibition rather than reading a book. While they lightened the reading experience, I did find that they disrupted the reading of the narrative.  Sometimes I’d stop and read the break-out then and there; other times I’d follow the narrative and then go back and read the break-outs later.  I suppose that it’s a book design that mirrors hypertext, but I found it disruptive. The book concludes with an encouraging list of further reading, references and sources for illustrations.

However,  I was rather non-plussed by the ending of the book, which seemed abrupt and overwhelmed by break-outs- almost as if  the author had been shunted out of the room by examples.  It was a pity- I’d enjoyed the presence of Craig Wilcox as a friendly and informed guide, and I felt that the end of the narrative deserved better.  My awareness of the uniforms depicted in historical images and around me in everyday life has been piqued by this book as another way of ‘reading’ history and society more generally.

Source: Review copy Quikmark media