‘Bolivar: The Epic Life of the Man Who Liberated South America’ by Marie Arana

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2013, 603 p.

One of my favourite podcasts is Revolutionspodcast.com. The presenter, Mike Duncan, is working his way through various revolutions in the world and I’ve gone along for the ride: The English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and most recently for me, the Bolivaran Revolution in South America. (He’s since moved on to the 1848 Revolution but I haven’t caught up with that yet).

My interest in reading this book was piqued by the podcasts – what a fascinating, complex, tragic man Bolívar was – but it was also a way of compensating for some of the limitations of the podcast genre.  When you’re waiting for the weekly podcast, you can forget things from one week to the next, and I suspect that the weekly production scheme nudges the writer/presenter into looking at hour-long, self-contained episodes.  As a historian, I am very fond of the episode as an organizing device, used fruitfully and frequently by the so-called Melbourne School of Historians, but it does have its drawbacks too.  I found that, while I relished each episode as a historiographical ‘episode’,  I didn’t really have a big picture and lost all sense of time. Worse still, I had no sense of place either. Although Duncan does have maps on his website, I was listening to these podcasts as auditory input only. I’m not very familiar with South America as a continent, and I had no idea where the places he mentioned (in his rather poor Spanish accent that even I can detect)  were , or the distances involved.  Hence, when I saw this book on the library shelves, I snapped it up.

It’s written by a novelist and journalist, but I need have had no fear of that as a historian. There are copious footnotes (although they are not signalled in the text) and she has obviously immersed herself in the various historigraphical debates about Simon Bolívar. I have often been critical of Australian historians who parse debates under the anondyne label of “some historians” but I now realize how much my discomfort springs from being an insider and knowing who those historians are. In reading as a general reader about South American and Simón Bolívar, all these arguments fly completely over my head, just as the Australian references to “some historians” for a general reader would too.  It’s been a sobering little lesson.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so critical of the practice.

And if you’re not sure about who Simón Bolívar is, you could check here and here.

This is a long book at 468 pages of smallish text. It is told completely chronologically, following Bolívar’s life from his wealthy upbringing as in a Creole (white, South American born) family, his education in Europe, his multiple failed attempts to foment the overthrow of the Spanish colonial powers, his eventual success in multiple places all over South America over a period of just eleven years, and his inability to harness the ambitions or treachery of the officials and soldiers left in command while he hared around the country (they didn’t call him ‘Iron-Ass’ for nothing).

It has a map, and I found myself turning to it frequently.  As might be expected, most of the action took place in what is now Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Equador, Peru and Bolivia, as it was in these countries that Bolívar sought to create a pan-South-American federation, powerful enough to have influence on the world stage. He would fight the battles, appoint one of his generals and then move on to the next challenge. He was often appointed as President and dictator, preaching equality and liberty and declaiming all the time that he didn’t want to be a politician. He accepted the positions nonetheless.  His armies included soldiers from all over the continent, and members of the British Legion from across the British Empire. But he ended his life embittered and impotent as violence spread over the new states he had helped establish.

Nearly every reference to Simon Bolívar that I have read his ended up using Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ title for his book The General in his Labyrinth. But it certainly seems that his long drawn-out death was probably the worst way for a revolutionary hero to die: enfeebled and disillusioned, with people wondering when he would eventually die.

I’m really pleased that I read this book, because it helped to contextualize the podcasts that I’d spent so many enjoyable hours listening to. I just wish I’d read it before listening to the podcasts, instead of after!

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7.5

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Quarterly Essay 67: ‘Moral Panic 101’ by Benjamin Law

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It’s profoundly depressing that this Quarterly Essay, released last week, should immediately trigger reference to the Same Sex Marriage survey being run through the ABS between September and November this year.  This is because the initial ‘No’ case advertisement focussed not on the question of whether the definition of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples, but instead on the Safe Schools program in schools. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has further muddied the waters by encouraging anyone who is uncomfortable with Political Correctness to vote ‘No’.  It’s wandering quite some distance from the question of whether two same-sex people who love each other are allowed to marry.

Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101 was written before the High Court gave the go-ahead for the survey. His essay is not about same-sex marriage. It is about the Safe Schools Program, and the lengthy and detailed campaign conducted by Murdoch’s Australian newspaper against it. He traces the history and genesis of the Safe Schools program, created in response to the distress and suicide rates of GLBTQI students, and its uptake throughout Australia.  He then looks at the ‘poison’ of the campaign against it, spearheaded by the Australian Christian Lobby and facilitated and driven by the Australian which somehow, in the reams and reams of print devoted to the topic, never once spoke to a student.  Law begins his essay with the suicide of thirteen-year-old schoolboy  Tyrone Unsworth, who took his own life after sustained bullying over his sexuality.  He ends it at Minus18’s annual formal for GLBTQI students. Law’s focus is on children: just as the Safe Schools debate should be.

So why then the link between this book and  Same Sex marriage? It’s because the ‘No’ advocates opened their campaign with an advertisement, which features three women, including Cella White, who claimed that her son was told that he could wear a dress to school.  Law knows Cella White. As he points out in his essay, her claim was rebutted at the time of her airing it (January 2016), and as far as I am aware, no other parents or students have stepped up to verify her accusations. That hasn’t stopped Cella White being featured in this advertisement in September 2017.

The calls to de-register the doctor who also appeared in the ‘No’ ad alongside Cella White are wrong. But Cella White is wrong to make this incorrect claim, and this should be called out- loudly and repeatedly. Law does it in this book, and Sean Kelly did so in his article ‘Welcome to the No Case‘ in a recent Saturday Paper.  Chrys Stephenson has been doing some interesting investigating into the links between American evangelical religion and the Same Sex Marriage debate, too.

This Quarterly Essay is not about the SSM survey, but because of the advertising campaign prompted by the ‘No’ side, it has been drawn into the whole debate.  It is a good and, unfortunately, very timely read.

A video of Benjamin Law talking about his Quarterly Essay:

 

Movie: Una

I seem to be on a bit of a Rooney Mara thing at the moment, having seen ‘Una’ the week after ‘A Ghost Story’.  In Una, a young woman tracks down her neighbour who had sexually abused her as a thirteen year old. This film felt very much like the stage play from which it was drawn, and I didn’t ever lose the feeling that I was watching two characters acting.  The young Una was well-cast to match with Rooney Mara’s older version, but Ben Mendelsohn didn’t visually age sufficiently between the past/present segments. However, it was interesting that my sympathies waxed and waned for the characters, and it was not at all as clear-cut as it might appear.

My rating: 2.5

Miles Franklin Prize 2017

Josephine Wilson has won the Miles Franklin Prize with her book Extinctions.  Dare I say “I told you so!”? [Scroll down the comments for a contribution from the author herself]

Congratulations, Josephine. A well-deserved award.

‘The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War’ by Peter Stanley

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2017, 239 p. & notes

It’s a rather touching thought that even a historian as steeped in knowledge of World War I as military/social historian Peter Stanley could be inspired by a cache of Great War images.  After all, his thirty five year career spawned thirty publications, he worked at the Australian War Memorial for 27 years and has been involved in many of the debates about Australia’s military heritage.  But, as he explains in the introduction, he was introduced to a collection of images – many of which he had never seen before- in a talk given to the Canberra Great War Study Group by Nicola Mackay-Sim, the Pictures Curator at the National Library of Australia in 2012. The NLA featured many of those images in its Keepsakes exhibition in 2015, but this book, The Crying Years is not, as Stanley is at pains to point out, a catalogue of that exhibition.  Instead, this book that Stanley wrote in conjunction with the  NLA, draws on other images and artefacts held by the National Library of Australia and integrates them into an informed and nuanced chronological account of the Great War seen through the eyes of Australians as

civilians and soldiers, men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, pro- and anti- conscription, powerful and powerless, white and black, at home and overseas. (p.vi)

By widening the lens in this way, Stanley is arguing that the popular idea that the war can be equated with the AIF’s part is “egregiously mistaken” (p.vii). You’ve seen the shelves of such weighty paperback books that see the war solely in terms of men and battles overseas,( probably moved closer to the front of the store for Father’s Day), where the name of the male author is as big as the particular wartime battle that he’s choosing to focus on.  Instead, Stanley is one of several prominent historians, who under the Honest History umbrella, promote the precept of ‘not only, but also’.  The Honest History website proclaims that “Australia is more than ANZAC, and always has been”. Likewise, the Great War is more than men and battles, and it was here in Australia as well as overseas, and this approach underpins this book.

The book is arranged in six chapters, one for each year of the war.  He includes 1919, and extends beyond that year to touch on the soldier settlement schemes and ANZAC commemoration in succeeding years.  This approach is similar to Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation, and indeed this book forms an excellent illustrated companion to Beaumont’s book.  Not only does a year-by-year structure emphasize the length of the war, but it also captures the emotional swells of the wartime experience as the news from the front filtered ‘home’ and the media and organs of power acted in concert to promulgate ‘unity’ in patriotism.  The tenor of the text closely follows the lines of Stanley’s section of The War at Home, in an even more accessible  format.

The text weaves between images of photographs, maps, letters, cartoons, newspaper articles, posters, artwork and ephemera, with bracketed numbers directing the reader to the image on that or the succeeding page.  In coffee-table books like this one (although the designation ‘coffee-table’ seems terribly inappropriate) the text and images often can become separated, but in The Crying Years the connection is maintained well.

There are breakout boxes that focus on some 28 Australian individuals who lived at the time, and whose affairs were affected by the Great War to varying degrees.  Walter and Marian Griffin’s vision of Canberra, for example, was challenged by the Government’s focus on the war and German internees; Sir John Hubert Murray was administrator in Papua; Justice Henry Bournes Higgins (of the Harvester case) was grief-stricken when his son was killed in Sinai in 1916 at the age of 29; the ‘bohemian’ writer Zora Cross wrote the poem ‘Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy’ after the death of her injured brother from the meningitis epidemic that swept the AIF, from which the ‘the crying years’ of the title for the book is taken.  Some of the people he has chosen seem rather tangential to the war, but this underlines his point that the war did not touch ‘every family’ directly (p. 182). Others selected for breakout treatment, like  ALP politician and anti-conscriptionist James Catts, demonstrate the complexities of political thought and allegiances of the time.

The quality, clarity and diversity of the images is impressive.  These are not your usual WWI warfront photos: instead, they are uncensored photographs taken by the soldiers themselves.  There are jarring photographs of the different manifestations of patriotism at home, like the Aboriginal children from the Point Pearce mission dressed up as ‘a Band of Loyal Workers’ as Japanese, nurses, policemen and sailors, brandishing a large Union Jack.  It is quite clear that not all men of fighting age enlisted, as the photograph of shearers playing two-up outside a shearing shed shows.  I have read about ‘button days’ as children and young women sold patriotic buttons as fundraisers, but I have never before seen such a variety of them.

This is a beautifully curated book, where the text is every bit as important as the images.  Even if you’ve decided to steer clear of all the World War I commemoration tsunami, you could read and look at just this one book alone and gain a nuanced, rounded and informed perspective on the war, not just on the front but in the suburbs and small towns of Australia as well.

Source: Review copy courtesy of NLA through Quikmark Media.

Movie: A Ghost Story

This film seems to have been advertised for months and months at Cinema Nova (my favourite cinema).  It’s such a daggy looking ghost, in its white sheet with cut-out eyes, and the audience (myself included) didn’t know whether to laugh out loud at times during the film.  As with time-travel films, some movies don’t bear thinking too hard about (“Hey! What about….?), and it’s true of this film too. But overall, it is a quiet, sad reflection on memory and place.  The thing that really struck me about the film was the sound track.  You can hear every crackle and brush of fabric, with haunting, slightly dissonant music.  I enjoyed it

My rating: 4.5 stars.

Exhibition: States of Being- The Elemental Importance of Water

There’s a nice little art exhibition currently on show at the HATCH Contemporary Arts Space in Ivanhoe until 9 September. It’s called ‘States of Being- The Elemental Importance of Water’ and it features the work of nine artists, including the curator, that explore the concept of water in its various forms- river, sea, ice, cloud etc.

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There’s a series of paintings on glass that capture the ‘glimpse-like’ nature of the Yarra River as you walk along its banks in Heidelberg and Ivanhoe.  You rarely get a sense of the whole river here, because the trees and bends of the river break up your view of the water.  There are a couple of installations that play with water in its liquid form, and a series of tapestries that capture the sight of water seeping through the inland desert as seen from the sky. I was very taken with a video that overlapped still photographs of Iceland, watching clouds form and dissolve around a mountain-ringed lake.  Quite mesmerizing.

The HATCH gallery is at 14 Ivanhoe Pde Ivanhoe, and the free exhibition is open Tuesday-Saturday 10.00 til 5.00 until 9 September. There’s a flyer about the remaining activities associated with the exhibition at https://www.banyule.vic.gov.au/Arts-and-Events/Hatch-Contemporary-Arts-Space