Monthly Archives: January 2009

‘The Senator’s Wife’ by Sue Miller

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2008, 306p.

I’m a big fan of Sue Miller, ever since I read The Good Mother years ago.   Her books are domestic in detail, and yet capture ordinary people in painful dilemmas that set their lives off into new trajectories.  The Senator’s Wife is such a book.

The book revolves around two women living in adjoining houses in New England: Meri a young, married faculty-wife and new mother, and her older neighbour Delia, the estranged but still emotionally attached wife of a well-known liberal Senator.  Meri surreptitiously learns of Delia’s relationship with her philandering political husband while negotiating her own tentative marriage and new career, cut short when she unexpectedly falls pregnant.  When the Senator suffers a stroke and is brought home to Delia’s house,  his decline and helplessness mirrors Meri’s post-natal depression and feelings of inadequacy with her own new baby.  As with Sue Miller’s other books there is an inexorable crisis, foreshadowed in an ever-tightening string of contingencies, so that as a reader you almost want to look away before the crash.

More than her other books, this one seemed a particularly physical book:  breathy, sticky and uncomfortably intimate.

I think of Sue Miller and Anne Tyler as similar types of writers.  I enjoy them both, but in both this and Anne Tyler’s most recent book Digging to America, I found myself shifting restlessly at the Mills and Boon aspects that threatened to submerge the narrative at any minute.  But, particularly with Sue Miller, just as I’m about to admit disappointment, she breaks through with cutting observations that capture the pain and complexity of just living.  For instance, Delia is being pressured by her adult daughter Nancy over the arrangements for the senator’s care after he has suffered the stroke.

Desperate or not, after Nancy left, Delia has lain awake for a long time in her bed, feeling a kind of terror envelop her.  What frightened her was that she wasn’t sure she could resist her daughter’s power.  She thought this might be the moment, actually, the moment she’d heard about from a friend or two- recollected sadly, ruefully- when the grown children swept in and irresistibly took over your life.  When you could no longer say no, because it was clear that all the things you thought of as belonging to you were in the process of becoming theirs- their possessions, and of course, their heavy burdens too: your life, your spouse’s life, your illness, his illness, your death.  The moment when you owed them something, when you had to give way, out of a kind of fairness to them and then also because you just didn’t have the strength left anymore to fight. (p. 191)

Her observations here are those of experience: of being daughter and partner herself.  It’s almost as if she has been eavesdropping on your own family dynamics with its fears and joys.  Here she is on an older woman’s feelings for her adult son as she watches him meeting his father Tom for the first time, after he has suffered the stroke:

She watched Evan, his beautiful face lifting in response to Tom, smiling, talking.  How much he had changed over the years!…And yet the love she felt for him was unchanged, was based on who he’d been and who he still was to her.  This is how it is with your children, she thought.  You hold all the versions of them there ever were simultaneously in your heart. (p.276)

It’s these small insights into our shared vulnerabilities and pleasures that draws me back to Sue Miller again and again.  I shut each book of hers with admiration at her ability to set up, almost without your awareness of it, scenarios that suspend her characters exquisitely over a dilemma that is much bigger than the domestic setting she has drawn so carefully.

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Danger!Danger Will Robinson

robot

I see that the robot from Lost in Space has died.  Well, sort of.

‘ROBOT’ ACTOR DIES.  Los Angeles. Bob May, who won a cult following as The Robot in the 1960s hit television show Lost in Space, has died of congestive heart failure in California.  May, 69, was a veteran actor and stuntman when he was tapped by Lost in Space creator Irwin Allen to play the Robinson family’s loyal metal sidekick in the hit series that debuted in 1965.  Although May did not provide the robot’s distinctive voice (done by announcer Dick Tufeld), he developed a devoted following of fans who sought him out at memorabilia shows.

Oh, so he didn’t do the voice.  Just that highly artistic arm waving and spinning round and round when under stress.  So who would you say actually played the Robot- the voice or the driver?  Where lies the essence of Robot?

Heat wave!

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You may be aware that Melbourne is undergoing a heatwave at the moment- in fact, a record breaking heat-wave with three consecutive days of temperatures over 43 degrees (that’s 113 degrees, folks).   We’re having electricity brown-outs, bushfires and the public transport system has collapsed completely.  And boy, are we complaining!

So it was rather fitting that last night I should be sitting reading through the Port Phillip Herald for 24 January 1843, when I found this little snippet in the court report:

McLaren v Chisholm.- His Honor, on this case being called, enquired if it would be long, for he was so overcome with the heat, dust and wind, as to doubt whether he could bestow upon it that strict consideration which its importance required.

This is one of the very few newspaper references that I have seen to extreme heat, which surprises me somewhat.  There was a mention that the courthouse in early Port Phillip  (seen at the top of the page) was stiflingly hot in summer and freezing in winter, but rather more was made of the brazier resembling a chestnut stall that Judge Willis used to warm himself by than any attempts to alleviate the extreme heat.  Much attention is directed towards flood and mud, which seems to be a constant topic of conversation.  But heat, which surely must have been unfamiliar to many emigrants,  does not seem to be particularly noteworthy.

The early newspapers do not have a regular weather report, and  meteorological records only began to be kept in 1855.  The tides and phases of the moon are given in the newspaper and would have been more useful information in a port-based town with no street lighting beyond that outside hotels.

Diaries, on the other hand, seem to be an ongoing chronology of the weather.  Georgiana McCrae, for example, gives us a running commentary of the temperature which she could obviously measure by thermometer:

November 1st 1841. A fine clear day.  Completed my small needlework.

2nd. Hot wind- then thunder with rain.  At noon thermometer 85 degrees, and all night at 72 degrees.  The closeness of the house and the heat of its wooden walls quite stifling.

However, perhaps this interest in the temperature had a novelty factor for her in 1841 as a newly-arrived immigrant that had worn off by 1843.     She doesn’t mention the weather at all on 20th January 1843, the day that Judge Willis complained of, but she did note “A hot wind” on the 17th, and noted that the 21st was an “oppressively warm day” with “a hot wind” again on the 25th.

Were people more stoic then? They must have been.  Judge Willis was sitting there in his wig and gown; no doubt his bar was similarly attired; women were covered and corsetted. Yet the weather- or more properly, hot weather does not seem to be newsworthy.  Try telling that to our newspapers- particularly our more tabloid Herald-Sun that somehow managed to make a whole front page out of this picture with 43 degrees superimposed over it!

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Yep, that’s news.

‘David Collins’ by John Currey

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If my postings here have been a bit erratic lately, it’s because I’ve been going back and forth between home and my little caravan on the Mornington Peninsula.  It’s daggy and unsophisticated but as the sun sets over the bay, it’s a beautiful spot- here’s my view from outside the van, just up the track a bit.

Being in such close proximity to the 1803 settlement at Sorrento has prompted me to read John Currey’s biography of David Collins– the leader of the aborted settlement of a consignment of convicts direct to Port Phillip.  By sending the fleet straight to Port Phillip from England, the Colonial Office intended to both quickly create a British presence and to alleviate the moral corruption of the constant inflow of convict blood into Sydney.  The settlement only stayed in Port Phillip for eight months until it shifted to Risdon Cove (Hobart) in two separate journeys separated by months.

The author, John Currey, describes himself in his preface as “an independent scholar without access to the services and resources normally associated with an academic environment”.  He has written and edited  a number of works of early Australian settlement.  The epigraph that commences his preface is an admonition from Andre Maurois’ Aspects of Biography (1929):

Every biographer should write on the first page of his manuscript: ‘Thou shalt not judge”.

He draws heavily on Collins’ letters to family and patrons, family papers and official correspondence, supplemented by newspaper comments and other peoples’ observations and comments on their relations with Collins.  Currey is scrupulous in his search and documentation, and almost succeeds in following Maurois’ advice.  But even he, at the end of the book raises questions that verge on the edge of judgement:

“Essentially conventional in so many ways, Collins was at the same time a complex and enigmatic man.  His written legacy, despite some tantalising revelations, offers few answers to the questions his life provokes.  How could a man so attentive to minute detail in his public duties be so negligent of his own financial affairs?  By what circuitous route did the man who aspired to ascend the pulpit come to find himself reviled as a lecherer and an adulterer?  Why did a mind so receptive and alive with curiosity become so dulled and inactive?  How could a man so blessed with so many natural charms fail to find enduring love and companionship? Did Collins himself, for all his introspection have any insight into his actions?  The exhumation of  [Collins coffin in ]1925 removed some of the mysteries surrounding Collins’s death.  It offered no explanation of the profound mysteries of his life.” (p. 308)

I find it frustrating when an author raises the very questions you want answered, but draws back from actually risking an answer to them.  Currey’s conception of his role as historian constrains him from venturing his own response, informed by his research, to these questions.  He should not be so cautious.  He has read the documentation: he has spent years with this man; he is qualified to venture a judgement.

In fact, I’d add a couple of other questions.  Why was he so unsuccessful in negotiating the patronage networks that all colonial civil servants had to manage?  How exceptional or commonplace was his relationship with the various convict women he had relationships with over his time in New South Wales?  What was the public response to these relationships?

collins

Inga Clendinnen in her Dancing with Strangers is less squeamish about speculating and judging David Collins as one of her informants.   After reading his published journal about his time with the First Fleet she characterizes its author as ” the Master of Plod” (ouch!).  She describes him as a man “susceptible” to liaisons with convict women.  She notes that Collins is

…a perfect representative of the moral and material economy of European culture.  It was these assumptions he brought to his analysis of the convict condition, and which he initially brought to the encounter with the very different culture and economy of the nomad people of Australia…. But as the slow years pass we watch David Collins ripen into an absorbed observer of native conduct, and a man capable of recognizing, indeed of honouring, a quite different way of being.” (p. 55, 56)

In reading this book, I found myself thinking of James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land which, like Clendinnen’s book, carves out a small what-if lacuna of time where the dispossession which certainly, inevitably and inexorably occurred was not yet deepened with violence and bloodshed. I found myself wondering if Collins’ insecurity and unsteadiness in his own authority did not hold the seeds of the 1803 failure in Port Phillip, thus averting an alternative history of Port Phillip as another convict outpost of New South Wales.  Boyce’s book about Van Diemen’s Land describes a benign environment: Collins saw it as hostile.  Boyce sees plenty and food sufficiency: Collins sees starvation and abandonment.

Although Currey doesn’t say so, the  David Collins I drew from his biography was a flawed man, who failed to achieve the hopes he had for himself.  He was impotent in using patronage to his ends; his career sputtered then died out; in an environment where many others prospered financially he ended up almost penniless;  he displayed poor judgement in relation to importing cattle from Bengal at huge expense; he failed to settle an area which just over thirty years later sprang into activity; despite his cheerful exhortations and assessments to some of his correspondents, his world view was essentially pessimistic.

My Australian Citizenship Test

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You couldn’t call me un-Orstrayian.

Anniversary Day/ Australia Day/ Invasion Day/Survival Day

flagraising

So, January 26th- Australia Day.  In the 1840s and indeed for a hundred years after that, 26th January was known as Anniversary Day or Foundation Day.  Different groups in different states made it their own in different ways. In Victoria in the late 1880s and 90s the Australian Natives Association -a group whose membership was restricted to Australian-born men of European descent- championed the choice of 26 January as the national day.  Adelaide always distanced itself from the convict origins of the day and did not celebrate it at all for many years.  In New South Wales, where it was always  (and perhaps still is?) more  prominently celebrated,  the first recorded celebrations were held in 1808, and the first official celebrations marking thirty years of settlement were held in 1818.   The First Anniversary regatta was held on Sydney Harbour in 1836, and the fiftieth anniversary of Phillip’s landing was marked by a public holiday for the first time in 1838.

So, how was Anniversary Day celebrated in Port Phillip between 1841-1843 while Judge Willis was here?   Well, not at all it seems.  There was no mention of it in the Port Phillip Herald, beyond a reference in February 1842 to the Sydney celebrations reported in the Sydney newspapers, but no further details were provided.

We associate Australia Day with 26th January but an earlier ‘Australia Day’ was celebrated on 30 July 1915 as part of a soldier parade to honour soldiers who had served and to stimulate further enlistment.  It was not until 1946 that all states and territories adopted ‘Australia Day’ as the name for the 26th January celebrations, and it was only actually celebrated on the actual day itself, rather than as a long weekend, in 1994.

There is a degree of discomfort over the choice of 26th January as our national day.  Aboriginal groups have increasingly designated it as Invasion Day, or more recently Survival Day and I think that there’s a growing squeamishness over the knowledge that the aboriginal world fractured from that day onward.

So what alternatives are there?  There is the date of Federation, but on 1 January it would be overshadowed by New Years Day (and besides, it’s already a public holiday).   There’s the 9th May for the opening of Parliament in Melbourne in 1901, then the provisional Parliament House in 1927 and finally the new Parliament House in 1988.  But -oh yawn- there’s not much colour and movement there.  There’s the 27 May 1967 referendum that is the popular (but technically incorrect) date given for aboriginal citizenship.  The government tried to whip up enthusiasm for a Battle for Australia Day, but it’s an historically dubious concept based on public panic over a period of months, rather than one particular day. There have been suggestions that there could be a day to celebrate the end of White Australia, but that occurred in a piecemeal fashion over a long period of time.  Likewise the introduction of multiculturalism did not occur on one specific day.

My suggestion?  Well, perhaps we could look at early February to commemorate the drunken free-for-all in a thunderstorm,  once the convicts were unloaded at Sydney Cove about a week after arrival in 1788.  The date has got a lot going for it.  It’s at the height of summer; daylight saving is still in operation; it might get the kids another weeks holiday before the school year starts; it defers the knuckling down for the rest of the year for a couple of days more. It seems particularly apposite- alcohol, sex, beaches- but perhaps the multiple sexual couplings were not so much fun for the women so outnumbered in a complete break-down of order. On second thought perhaps commemorating mass rape on Orgy Day is not the way to go. I suspect that Sorry Day to mark Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations might take on a life of its own, although once we return to coalition government it will no doubt become even more politicized than it already is.

I propose that instead of looking backward, why not plan an Australia Day in the future?  I think we should start planning very carefully for Republic Day, and choose the day to suit the holiday.  The criteria:

1. must be in summer

2. must be a moveable day to ensure that we have a long weekend every time

3. must be irreverent

4. preferably break up the working year somewhat (although Criteria 1 militates against it a bit)

5. must promote at least a little consensus and enthusiasm amongst us all.

Update

In his chapter called ‘The Arrival of the First Fleet and the ‘Foundation of Australia’, in Turning Points in Australian History, David Andrew Roberts picks up on a suggestion by C.H. Currey that perhaps 7th of February should be THE DAY.  Currey, and Roberts later,  argue that it was on 7th February, the day after the orgy, that the judge advocate David Collins opened his leather cases containing the Commissions of the officers of the First Fleet and read them before the entire contingent, with the soldiers in full regalia, and the convicts no doubt feeling rather worse for wear.  The reading aloud of these documents finally proclaimed the extent of Britain’s territorial claim, activated the legal jurisdiction of the colony and revealed the broad scope of the Governor’s powers.  The ceremony ended with ‘God Save the King’, a discharge of muskets, and a dinner for the officers.  Hmmmm….works on several levels, but it is a little reminiscent of being harangued by the Headmaster.

Another update:

Look here.

The Aboriginal Executions on 20 January 1842

Joseph Toscano, well known anarchist and correspondent to The Age yesterday convened a commemoration ceremony of the 167th anniversary of the execution of two “indigenous resistance fighters”  who were  found guilty of murder by Judge Willis, the Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

It is striking that there were six executions in Port Phillip during 1842, and then none for several years.   This does not necessarily denote, though, that Judge Willis was a particularly vicious ” hanging judge”.  Until his arrival in Port Phillip in March 1841, all Supreme Court trials were conducted in Sydney. After Judge Willis’ removal in mid 1843, his replacement Justice Jeffcott refused to order the death sentence in his own right until the legality of Willis’s dismissal had been confirmed.  However, during 1842 there were six executions in total- two Aborigines in January 1842, three bushrangers in June 1842 and another Aborigine (Roger) in September 1842.  For that year, it must have seemed that the execution parade through the streets of Melbourne to the gallows outside the new gaol was becoming a regular feature.

It’s significant that both aborigines and bushrangers were the real hot-button issues for white settlers.  Judge Willis did pass another death sentence for murder on Thomas Leahy for murder of his wife, but the the sentence was commuted to transportation.  However, there was no mercy for aborigines or bushrangers found guilty of murder: their crimes challenged power and authority more generally.

The passage of 167 years certainly changes the language that we use to conceptualize this event.  Toscano speaks today of their execution as “a great Melbourne story of love, resistance, passion and violence”.   Judge Willis wrote to La Trobe describing the case as “one of great atrocity”.  Toscano today identifies them as Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner; at the time their names were recorded by the Aboriginal Protector as “Tuninerparevay: Jack, Napoleon” and “Small Boy: Robert, Timmy, Jimmy”  (Mullaly, p. 255)

“Bob” and “Jack”, as they were popularly known at the time,  were part of a group of Aborigines brought across from Van Diemen’s Land by the Aboriginal Protector G. A. Robinson when he was appointed to his post in Port Phillip, with the intent of using them as intermediaries when conciliating the local tribes. This seems a rather ill-informed intention on Robinson’s part,  given the language and territory differences.  After a time they were no longer staying with Robinson. When two white whalers were murdered, this group of five aborigines, two men and three women (including Truganini) were reported to have been seen in the location of the murder scene , and said to have committed other depredations in the area.

This complicates the picture somewhat.  Coming from Van Diemen’s  Land, it was not a simple matter of protecting traditionally-owned territory from invading settlers.  On the other hand, their transplantation from Van Diemen’s Land across the sea was an absolute dispossession, and resistance moved from the particular to the generalized- not a particular settler on a particular river, but white men in general.

The Port Phillip Herald of 21 January 1842 reported that there was no doubt about the justness of the sentence, and that their execution was the imperative duty of the authorities to vindicate the impartiality of British law.   It is interesting to note the objections raised by Redmond Barry in their defence.  At first he argued that half the jury should consist of people able to speak the language of the defendants which, not unsurprisingly, Justice Willis overruled.   In  his address to the jury, Barry referred to the ‘peculiar situation’ of ‘circumstantial evidence of dubious character’.    Likewise, it is interesting to note the issues that did not arise.  The amenability of these particular Aborigines to European law was not questioned.  It was ascertained from Robinson that the men had knowledge of the existence of a Superior Being and knew right from wrong, and that they could speak English.  These grounds were later used by Judge Willis in other cases to acquit Aboriginals in his court who were not deemed to understand English or have an understanding of a Supreme Being.

In his address to the jury, Judge Willis is reported to have commented on the criminal activities of the armed men prior to the attack on the unarmed whalers, and he distinguished between the role of the men as murderers and the women as accomplices.  He emphasized the necessity to prevent the ‘recurrence of similar acts of aggression’.  After a recess of half an hour, the jury returned with a conviction for the men with a recommendation of mercy ‘on account of general good character and the peculiar circumstances under which they are placed’ (Mullaly p 257). The more than I think about it, this recommendation of mercy arising from a community truly anxious about ‘depredations’ and its consequent dismissal by the authorities is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the trial.

This recommendation, however, was not strongly supported by Justice Willis, and the sentence was confirmed by Governor Gipps. Their executions were the first in Port Phillip.  Public executions at the time were understood by the white participants and specatators  (as distinct from the Aboriginal prisoners)  to represent authority, religion and humanity (Castle 2007).    It was a highly ritualized degradation ceremony, with specific clothing and practices and designated roles for the clergy, the judge, the governor and the prisoners to play.  The newspaper descriptions of the time reflected the traditional  narratives of repentance, scaffold confessions and fear,  well-known from similar practices in England.

However, this was mixed with a degree of sympathy and uneasiness among some- but certainly not all- spectators.   This was a ‘first’ for everyone, and it was generally agreed that the execution itself was botched and unpleasant.  Although this first execution attracted large crowds, by the time another Aborigine, Roger, was executed in September 1842 there was newspaper disapproval of the character of the spectators who attended- particularly women- and calls for the scaffold to be removed as quickly as possible and executions to be carried out within the gaol walls rather than in public view.  However, this  squeamishness needs to be balanced against the fear of  Aboriginal depredations  voiced by small settlers and more influential squatters and landowners in the outlying frontier areas.   In such an environment, and given the legal restrictions on Aboriginal testimony, it is perhaps not surprising that there were so very, very few executions of white settlers when it was Aborigines who were murdered.

Update: An interesting article by Marie Fels with David Clark and Rene White called ‘Mistaken Identity, Not Aboriginal Heroes’ in Quadrant October 2014 looks closely at the coal-mine manager William Watson. The only words uttered by Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener in their own defence pertained to William Watson-  “We thought it was Watson”. This article looks carefully and critically at William Watson and carefully reconstructs the movements of the Van Diemens Land aborigines immediately before the murder.  Well worth reading.

References:

Paul R. Mullaly  Crime in the Port Phillip District 1835-51,

Ian Macfarlane  The Public Executions at Melbourne 1842

Tim Castle ‘ Constructing Death: Newspaper reports of executions in colonial NSW 1826-1837’ Journal of Colonial History, vol 9, 2007 p. 51-68.