‘A Fuhrer for a Father’ by Jim Davidson


2017, 256 p.

After reading a string memoirs written by women that seemed to excoriate their mothers, I decided not to read any more. I probably should have stuck to my decision when I picked up historian and Meanjin editor Jim Davidson’s A Fuhrer for a Father.  But perhaps a memoir about a father written by a son might be different, I thought.  Indeed, beyond Germaine Greer’s Daddy We Hardly Knew You (which I haven’t read) and Raymond Gaita’s Romulus My Father (which I have), I’m hard pressed to think of other similar books, written by sons about their fathers. [However, I see that Shaun Carney and Mark Colvin have both recently released books that exactly fit this category].  Furthermore, I knew that Jim Davidson is open about his homosexuality, and the question of a father’s acceptance of his son’s sexuality is an interesting one, particularly when the father is a domestic and forceful martinet with a string of relationships with women.  And besides, a historian can bring a particular eye to memoir, able to interweave the personal  with the broader historical picture, as Graeme Davison did so well in Lost Relations So, read it I did.

For the first half of the book, I appreciated Davidson’s depiction of 1950s-60s upper middle-class suburban life in Melbourne that had echoes of Barry Humphrey’s Sandy Stone character and, although set in an earlier period, My Brother Jack.  It is the juxtaposition of the theoretical and domestic that is highlighted in the subtitle of the book:  “The domestic face of colonialism”. When Donaldson read the historian AP Thornton’s remark that everybody has experienced imperialism in the shape of childhood, he rose from the desk and danced around the room (p. 53). For as a historian, this is how he conceptualized his father: a symbol and wielder of imperialism as a form of power. Born in South Africa, his father worked in Fiji as a surveyor on a gold mine, travelled to New Guinea, and later in life became involved financially in the sale of Aboriginal artwork.  Within his family he was strident, manipulative, bullying and controlling, not only with his first wife (and Jim Davidson’s mother) Olga, but also with his ‘second family’ of Eve and his half-brothers Garry and Hank. The juxtaposition of colonialism and domesticity is a powerful and rich observation, and Davidson explores it in the first part of the book and reverts to it again at the end:

Imperial dominance rested on patriarchy – was almost its outward projection. This book has been an exploration of one telling example of that nexus….For Jim [i.e. his father] became an anachronism, an unbending projection of the past. His idea of indigenous people had been engendered by family experience of Africa, the romances of Rider haggard, and his own quest for the exotic in the Islands. (Arnhem Land was an autumn romance). Everything was firm, unequivocal, and placed him at the centre of events, which he felt enabled and entitled to control. The contest with various opponents was the thing; his women and children were just auxiliaries. Livestock. (p 251)

However, much of the last half of the book is a long, petulant complaint of one grown man as son against another grown man, his father.  While there is always an element of remaining the child in relation to your parents, in many ways Davidson seemed content to remain the dependent.  Money became a particularly fraught expression of their relationship. There are long complaints about being ‘written out of the family’ and especially being written out of the will.  Yet at the age of 48, his father was still giving him money for overseas trips, and he did not demur at the $10,000 being handed to him by his father here and there (as he interprets it, as a guilt payment for the will that was to follow.) At a more mundane level there are interminable reports of Christmas Dinners replete with bad behaviour on all sides, including Davidson, who hurls his Christmas presents at the recipients before storming out and deliberately choosing presents with nettles of malice.  It’s unpleasant, petty and reflects poorly on everyone.  Even his closing words reveal Davidson’s relishing of the ultimate last word:

I suspect [my father] rather fancied a book being written about him; the devil would be in the detail. Well, here it is…Not quite the book he wanted. (p.255)

Not one of my better book choices.



Somewhat missing in action….

There’s been very little going on in this blog recently because I’ve been busy working away polishing up my presentation for Heidelberg Historical Society tomorrow night (Tuesday 12th). On the 20th December it will be the 100th anniversary of the second Conscription Referendum, and I thought it might be interesting to look at it from the perspective of a rather middle-class suburb like Ivanhoe and Heidelberg.

And tomorrow night’s the night! It will be at the Ivanhoe Uniting Church Community Centre in Seddon Street Ivanhoe at 8.00 p.m.  if you should just happen to be driving past.

Mind you- I’ve known about this since about November 2016. So why then was I finishing it off at 1.00 a.m. this morning? You’d think I’d know better by now.

The LaTrobe Journal No. 96 Sept. 2015

Ah…Number 96.  The September 2015 (No. 96) edition of the State Library of Victoria’s La Trobe Journal was a special edition focusing on Victoria and the Great War.  It is edited by John Lack and Judith Smart, both noted scholars in the field of social history of World War I. The very good news is that is is available for free online at the SLV site!


Fittingly, the collection starts  right at the beginning of the war with Douglas Newton’s article ‘”We have sprung at a bound”: Australia’s leap into the Great War July-August 1914’. He argues that rather than Australia being requested to assist the Mother Country,  it was the dominions, including Australia, who rushed with their offers of assistance to a Britain that had not yet conclusively made up its mind to embark on the war. The volume closes with Bronwyn Hughes discussing the stained glass windows found in many of Victoria’s churches.

These two articles form the chronological bookends for a number of chapters discussing different aspects of World War One as experienced in Victoria.  Judith Smart’s chapter ‘A Divided national capital: Melbourne in the Great War’ focuses on Melbourne as the capital city of Australia at the time, as the Federal Government was not transferred to  Canberra until 1927. Kate Laing’s chapter discussed two women’s organizations that emerged during the war: the Women’s Peace Army which, as the name suggests, undertook a more militant approach and the Sisterhood of International Peace, which set its sights on the desire for peace after the war had concluded. Rosalie Triolo traces through the attitude towards Germany that was promulgated through the School Paper, the monthly publication distributed to children as supplementary reading material by the Education Department.  Bart Ziino’s chapter picks up on the current interest in emotions as a historiographical approach as he examines ‘War and private sentiment in Australia during 1915’, a year that saw families confronting the deaths from Gallipoli and the Western Front that sobered the initial euphoria over the declaration of war. Jillian Durance looked at the military band and its use in the military funeral for Major General Bridges. It was a first for many reasons: he was Australia’s first military commander to die on ‘active service’; his body was returned for a State funeral in Melbourne as capital city and final re-burial at Duntroon (a very rare occurrence, despite the wishes of many bereaved families); and it was the first time that an Australian cathedral was the scene of a national funeral service for an Australian general killed in war. In her chapter, she hones in on Ray Membrey, a member of the Showgrounds Camp Band, which performed not only at the funeral, but also as entertainment for the first wounded soldiers repatriated to Australia.

My favourite chapters were those that looked at the war through individuals. Joy Damousi chose John Springthorpe as her focal point, the prominent physical, reformer and public intellectual, whose memorial to his wife I wrote about here.  She discusses three instances where Springthorpe stepped into the public limelight to publicize aspects of the war. The first was his denunciation of the Red Cross’ handling of supplies to Egypt in 1915, drawn from his own eyewitness experience and for which he was himself criticized for publicizing. The second was his commentary on the medical treatment of soldiers on the battlefield and his early recognition of shell-shock, and the third was his vocal campaign for conscription.

I enjoyed Catherine Tiernan’s chapter ‘In Search of Stroud Langford’, a man whose family home – remarkably- was the very house that the author had purchased the previous year.  Starting from the war service records, the chapter does have some family history hallmarks, but in the absence of any personally written narrative, she has had to research his story through the experience of other men who did leave records.

The absolute stand-out chapter for me was John Lack’s ‘The great madness of 1914-1918: families at war on Melbourne’s eastern and western fronts’.  Here the author takes two families: James and Edith Lewis from 41 Kooyong Rd Armadale, and Tom and Eliza Purcell from 21 Berry Street Yarraville.  The Lewis’ war is told through a number of memoirs written by Brian Lewis more than 60 years later, and the Purcell’s story is told through the diary of Thomas Purcell, written between 1915 and 1920, now kept at the State Library of Victoria.  Between these two families, Lack explores issues of class and religion in the response to the war.  It’s a terrific chapter: human and insightful.

Many of the contributors have appeared in different fora over the past few years. So, if you’d like to attend a seminar on World War I in Victoria without moving from your computer chair, find the journal online at the State Library’s site!


‘History of Wolves’ by Emily Fridlund


2017, 275 p.

This book was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize but I really can’t work out why. It does well enough as a first novel – and perhaps that is its appeal – but it doesn’t have the depth or skill that I would expect in a shortlist for an award of the calibre of the Man Booker. (That said, the Booker shortlist is not necessarily a fool-proof guide to quality!)   Its shortlisting only serves to highlight its shortcomings.

Fourteen year old Linda lives in the backwoods of northern Minnesota with her parents, the last stragglers of a hippy commune that had disintegrated over the years. We learn from the opening pages that a little boy, Paul, has died and the rest of the book explains how. We learn that Linda is ostracized by her school mates, a fact which perhaps prompted the rather irrelevant blurb on the front cover “How far would you go to belong?” (yes, yes…I know that the author is not responsible for the marketing….) She hangs around the more unpopular kids and teachers, and it was her history teacher Mr Grierson who encouraged her to submit a project on wolves to the History Odyssey tournament. Her statement “An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason” resonated for her beyond the topic of wolves. When a young Christian Scientist couple, Leo and Patra and their young son Paul shift into a cottage on the lake, Linda gravitates towards them and through babysitting Paul feels that she is part of the nuclear family that she lacks. When Paul dies- again no spoiler because we are told that he dies from the start – Linda tells herself, without quite believing it, that “It’s not what you do but what you think that matters”.

The descriptions of landscape are excellent, especially those of the snow that blankets the lake and isolates them even further.  But there are too many themes in the book (belonging, dominance, the distinction between act and intent) and the writer labours them.  It’s not a bad book by any means and, indeed, I enjoyed reading it, but the marketing world of the Man Booker Prize has shifted it beyond its grade, and done it a disservice.

My rating: 6.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein’ by Janette M. Bomford


1993, 226 p & notes.

Vida Goldstein is remembered as a suffragist, social reformer and pacifist. The picture on the front Bomford’s biography encapsulates what we tend to think of as the quintessential first-wave feminist, in her Edwardian clothing and earnest demeanour. It’s a photograph of Vida Goldstein, taken by T. Humphrey and Co Photographers, holding a placard dated 28 June 1912 about the English suffragist campaign. At this time, Vida Goldstein would stand in the Melbourne streets – a shocking sight- posters pinned to her skirt, selling the newspaper ‘Votes for Women’ and her own  ‘Woman Voter’ publication.

Vida Goldstein selling Votes for Women newspaper.

Vida Goldstein selling “Votes for Women” newspaper. State Library of Victoria, Maurice Blackburn, Papers, MS 11749, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/360742

Vida Goldstein’s internationalism was just one aspect of her life that Janette Bomford highlights for us in this biography. At a time when women elsewhere in the Empire were still fighting for the right to vote, New Zealand and Australian women (who received the vote in 1893 and 1902 respectively) were feted in suffragist circles as an example of the new world to come (similar I suppose, to the way that Irish pro-marriage equality campaigners have advised during the current wrong-headed same-sex marriage ‘survey’).  She travelled to America as Australian delegate to the International Woman Suffrage Conference Fed 1902, aged 32 and was the delegate from the NSW chapter of National Council of Women to the Conference of International Council of Women, held immediately afterwards. She was elected Secretary to the International Woman Suffrage Committee,  serving alongside the 82 year old American feminist Susan B. Anthony who was President. While in America she undertook research into youth justice and criminology, two interests that she was to pursue throughout her life.

Nearly ten years later Vida Goldstein travelled to England in 1911 as a guest of the Pankhursts and the Womens Social and Political Union, spoke to 10,000 people in the Albert Hall and organized a contingent of ‘overseas’ women in the Great Suffrage Procession in June 1911. As Bomford points out, her contact with the most eminent suffrage workers in the United States and Britain brought her a sense of sisterhood and camaraderie that she never quite felt in Australia (p.219)

Goldstein’s commitment to women as voters and politicians in their own right dominated much of her public career. Born in 1869 in Portland Victoria, her mother had been involved in the Victorian Womens Suffrage Society in 1884, and young Vida cut her teeth as a committee member and organizer with the United Council for Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Federal Political Association.  It was this last group, later renamed the Women’s Political Association that proclaimed itself to be unaligned to any political party, a stance which probably cost Goldstein electoral support in her three attempts to stand for the Senate as a Victorian representative, and two attempts at the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong.  She was the first woman in the Empire to stand for political office, even though she was never successful.  During the election held between the two Conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917, she was accused (with good reason) of splitting the anti-conscription vote, even though she was herself an ardent pacifist.

Her commitment to pacifism split the Women’s Political Association in the early years of the war, when there was strong support generally for Australia’s involvement. It led her to split with the Pankhursts in England, despite her involvement in the suffrage campaign there  less than five years earlier. It brought her into the spotlight of public attention as she campaigned with the Women’s Peace Army, of which she was a founding and highly visible member (I’m sure that her selection of the same initials as the Women’s Political Association was no accident- and it made taking notes on this book a nightmare!) She was mainstream middle-class, stylishly dressed  and a very capable public speaker, and she spearheaded the ‘No’ case during the Conscription referendum campaigns.

In many ways, the different aspects of her political life often clashed up against each other: the support for militant suffragism and yet strong pacifism; her determination not to align herself with a political party, even though it hurt the left of politics to which she more naturally leaned. As Bomford explains, she was a strong but inflexible character. Her parents had given her a good education, first at home with a very capable governess, and then at PLC. However, in a foretaste of what was to come, the family split over the issue of women’s suffrage when her parents publicly took diametrically opposed views. Through her parents, she became involved in the Charity Organisation Society of which they were founding members, which took a ‘case study’ and causal approach to poverty, and championed dignity in work rather than handouts to ‘deserving’ cases as practised by the Ladies Benevolent Society.  It was to her family that she looked for emotional sustenance, living with her sisters and brother-in-law in South Yarra for the last thirty years of her life.  Despite her name (which she always pronounced with ‘eye’ in both her first and surnames) she was not Jewish. Her religious and spiritual life was nurtured through Rev Charles Strong’s ministry first at Scots Presbyterian and then the Australia Church, and increasingly through Christian Science, to which she devoted her passion post WWI.

As Bomford explains, with Vida Goldstein there is no cache of personal papers for the biographer to mine. Fortunately, her correspondents often did keep her letters, most particularly her friend Stella Miles Franklin.  As a result, Bomford has had to rely on newspaper reports, Vida’s own writing in her various newspapers and speeches, and the reports of the government censors and security organizations. The constraints of material have constrained Bomford to write mainly of Goldstein as a public figure.  Nonetheless, I think that Bomford does a good job in giving an internal logic and unity to Goldstein’s politics, even though her inflexibility so often worked against the causes she believed in, and cost her many allies.

This is an academic text, with quite a few initials for organizations, which is just as much part of the territory in discussing political activism today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century.  It takes a strictly chronological approach, and most of the character analysis takes place in the ‘Afterword’ that closes the book.  It is probably not widely available today, given the ferocious culling of texts in libraries and short shelf-life of books in bookshops, but Vida herself has taken on even more prominence with the recent interest in the conscription debates of WWI and the toxic politics around Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership.  ABC’s Hindsight program had an excellent episode about her in 2009 which is available as podcast and transcript here . Claire Wright also discusses Vida on a Podcast from La Trobe University’s Biography series available at https://player.fm/series/biography/vida-goldstein  (the text is similar to Wright’s entry on Goldstein at the Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia).  She also wrote a very good essay ‘Birth of a Nation?’ in Griffith Review 51 available here.


I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.






‘Australian Lives: An Intimate History’ by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson


2017, 425 p.

It’s hard to know how to review this book and, indeed, it was hard to know quite how to read it, too. It is the print-based outcome of the Australian Generations Oral History Project, a collaboration between historians at Monash and La Trobe Universities, the National Library of Australia and ABC Radio National. It has been well-mined by the various partners, with the ABC producing five episodes on their much-missed Hindsight program and a rich page produced on Monash University’s Arts Online portal.  Much of the base material can be accessed through the National Library of Australia site, where by accessing the ‘Related Records’ field of the catalogue entry, you can listen to the original oral histories and read the entire transcripts, subject to the access conditions stipulated by each interviewee.

So why then would you bother to read the book, if it’s all online? Well, apart from the portability of a book, the 300 life histories produced as part of the project have been curated here into a more manageable 50, all of which have permissions allowing access to the sound file and transcript now (rather than at some future date) on the NLA site. They are arranged in chapters of two types. The first type are life course chapters (Ancestry, Childhood, Youth, Midlife and Laterlife) and the other chapters are thematic (Faith, Migrants, Activism and Telling My Story). Within each chapter, there are further subdivisions that group oral histories by topic.

There is a chronological spread of interviewees, spanning from one born in  1923 through to participants born in 1989. There are indigenous respondents, Australian-born respondents and participants from many other places: Bosnia, Batavia, Cairo, Malta and Sudan.

The interviews are arranged chronologically within each chapter, but it’s not always the same subject.  It is possible to follow through the same character by looking them up in the Narrator Index, where there is a very brief synopsis of the character and a list of the pages of the book where you can find their interviews. However, I read the book straight through, in the order in which it is published. At first I wondered how I was going to keep all these people straight, but fortunately each extract has a small italicized prompt, providing brief contextualizing information.

Each chapter starts with an overview, written by the authors, which provides a twentieth-century historical context and points towards the salient contributions in the interviews.  I enjoyed these as a way of giving shape to the volume.  Alistair Thomson is well-known as one of Australia’s pre-eminent oral historians, and Anisa Puri is President of Oral History NSW and a PhD candidate.  In the acknowledgements you can see the wide range of historians who have participated in the project.

If you’re the sort of person who likes listening to people tell their stories, then this book may well appeal. It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and put down quite easily. There is no overarching argument, beyond the diversity and uniqueness of each person’s story and the  interactions between individuals and society.  This comes through the extracts that they have selected:

…we selected extracts that illuminate change and continuity and how individuals lived with and against the economic forces, cultural expectations and legal constraints of their times.  We also chose extracts that highlight how different types of Australians – male or female, city or country, poor or prosperous – have managed their lives and faced distinctive challenges and opportunities.  And, of course, we picked stories that evoke the humour, drama and pathos of human life. (p.xii)

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library



I have recorded this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.



‘La Mujer sin Lagrimas’ by Mayra A. Diaz


88 pages, alternating Spanish and English

Well, I’d been frustrated by Easy Spanish retellings of longer, classic stories that moved too quickly in a stripped-down fashion (for example, the Easy Spanish versions of  Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote) but this book went to the other extreme with an excruciatingly slow story in much detail.

Sixty-five year old Ana, who has three adult sons and grandchildren, has been going from doctor to doctor, trying to find relief for her dry eyes that cannot shed tears.  Her son Paco finally takes her to see Dr Rodriguez, who quickly realizes that Ana’s inability to cry is more psychological than physiological. Eventually Ana divulges a secret that she has kept from her husband and family.

Actually, the level of this was just right. The chapters were long enough – about twenty lines in length – and they were followed immediately by the English translation. On the Kindle app on my tablet I was able to make the text large enough that the Spanish took up the whole page so there was no surreptitious cheating. The English version made you realize how choppy the tenses were (I hadn’t noticed in Spanish) or perhaps it’s a clunky translation.

And it was, at least, an adult story that actually captured my interest somewhat. It’s a rather low bar on these Easy Spanish books, I must admit. Anyway, this was quite good, considering.