Monthly Archives: August 2009

What we know and what we don’t

Just in case you’d forgotten, here’s good old Donald Rumsfeld with his known unknowns.

Or Slate has expressed it more poetically:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Oh, the horror, the horror as gobbledegook (albeit true, but gobbledegook nonetheless) best left in the M.B.A. seminar room escapes out into the real world!

As for me, I’ll go with Mark Twain (or IS it Mark Twain? I don’t know for sure….)

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

A good little aphorism for life in general, and especially for historians, I reckon.

‘Sex and Suffering’ by Janet McCalman

mccalman

1998, 368p

I’d already worked out what I was going to say in reviewing this book.

I am not keen on institutional histories.  I dislike their celebratory nature and the way that their authors obviously feel compelled to doff their hats and gush over the institutional big-wigs and stalwarts.  You can often sense the shadowy presence of the steering committee in the back-ground and that a publicist and risk-management expert are hovering in the wings.

However, I was drawn to read this history of the Royal Women’s Hospital after hearing a Radio National Hindsight program on it, available for download hereJanet McCalman, from the University of Melbourne ( I see that she, at least still works there, given the University’s decimation of its Arts faculty) wrote Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 – a history of the working-class suburb of Richmond,  and Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920-1990, which followed the No 69 tram through the middle-class suburbs of Melbourne.  She’s obviously drawn to writing larger social histories by focussing her lens on a small patch of inquiry.

And so Sex and Suffering: Women’s Health and a Women’s Hospital carries on an approach that she obviously feels comfortable with.  As the title might suggest, this is not just a history of an institution: instead it deals with sex and the experience of being woman, health and institutions.

The experience of childbirth is intimately woven into the hidden parts of private lives and soon overlaid by the other experiences and achievements of a growing person.   It is common to us all, and for a short period of time is overwhelming in its effect on the mother at her exposed, most basic core and on the people closest to her.   So it was fascinating to consider the act childbirth- that most intimate and personal of events- as part of a social phenomenon that can be handled at the structural level in so many ways.

The book itself follows a chronological approach, with seven sections covering roughly 20-30 year periods.  The emphasis varies in the sections, from the clinical (particularly in the sections discussing sepsis and antisepsis) to the social and structural (where the judgments of upper-middleclass doctors and the Board of Management were trained onto the predomiantly working-class and migrant clientele).   Throughout most of the book, she draws on the case notes of individual women- helpfully supplemented with a glossary of medical terms in the margin- to make real her discussion of anaesthesia and surgery and its effect on horrendous labour situations, the horror of clostridium welchii which could kill a woman in hours, and the changes in attitudes towards labouring women and their partners.  Ye Gods- some women had enormous babies- particularly in the post-Gold Rush period when women who had suffered malformations of the pelvis through malnutrition themselves as children, especially in Ireland,  gave birth to large babies when their own diets had become carbohydrate-heavy in a new country.  There’s something stark in reading the case notes reproduced at the end of the book that chart the death over a number of days of a woman, knowing that there are mothers and fathers, husbands and other children who have been left bereft.

I know that when I was in labour with my children, I was very conscious that I was part of a chain of labouring women in my family and thought -even then!- about how absolutely dreadful it would be to die in childbirth. Hormonally, physically and from an evolutionary sense, every sinew of your being in focussed on giving birth to that child then and there, even if it is your twelfth or illegitimate.  I felt as if I was surrounded by generations of women who had given birth before, and that I was stripped down to my essential female-ness.  In reading this book I was made conscious of the effects of bad births- those fistulas you now only know of in Third World countries,  the lifelong invalidism that followed some births, and the amount of pain that lingered on year after year.  It made the knowledge of my maternal grandmother’s seven births and several miscarriages, and my paternal grandfather’s first wife’s death in childbirth, more meaningful.

There are wonderful photographs and diagrams in this book.  The photographs of Melbourne in the early chapters from both the La Trobe Picture collection and the Royal Women’s Hospital Archives are clear and showed perspectives of my city that I hadn’t seen before.  The internal photographs of the hospital, again from the hospital archives,  while deliberately posed, speak volumes about hospital discipline and nurses’ roles.

A second thread that runs through the book is a commentary on class and gender in Melbourne. The more feminist, women-centred  Queen Victoria hospital stands as a counter-point to the more traditional, male-dominated Royal Women’s Hospital, and the class perspectives of the charity-oriented upper-middle class female board members run through the attitudes towards sexually-transmitted disease, abortion and adoption that the hospital had to deal with.

Well, this is what I was going to say until I got to the last part of the book.  The last section, unfortunately, descended into that boosterism and oily fulsomeness of the standard institutional history.  Probably for privacy reasons, the case histories dropped out of the narrative.  Although they were replaced by oral history reminiscenes of experiences in the Women’s, they lacked the immediacy and contingency of those earlier case notes.   Judgments about individuals who are alive and likely to read this book need to be tempered, and as a still-operating (though re-located) hospital , there is the equivalent, I guess, of the doctor’s  “do no harm” in writing about the institutional culture.  The management-speak of the final pages reflects the funding and political milieu in which institutions now exist, but I also suspect that it has been carefully vetted by the current hospital administration as well.

So, if you read this book- and I exhort you so to do- you might want to stop after Section VI in 1970.  To that point, it’s fascinating.

‘The Clothes on their Backs’ by Linda Grant

grant

2008, 293 p.

As a general rule, I dislike books that focus on descriptions of food, appearance- and now I have to add to this list- clothes.  I might enjoy Simon and Maggie on The Cook and the Chef, and I generally read Maggie Alderson’s columns in The Age, but I dislike my narratives being shaped by  obsessions about things that lend themselves to florid, overwrought writing on the one hand or triviality on the other.

Which leads me to The Clothes on their Backs.   The author has recently released a non-fiction book about clothes, and I think that perhaps it is an interest best explored through a non-fiction rather than fictional lens  (as, for example, in Queen of Fashion).  Certainly in this book, you could detect that she wanted to explore the theme of clothing and its meaning further, but somehow it didn’t seem strong enough in its own right.

The story itself is set in the 1970s, based on a young widow, driven back to live with her emigrant Hungarian parents after her husband dies on their honeymoon.  Her parents had come to England immediately prior to World War II, thus avoiding Hitler and the Cold War, and had burrowed into the safety of a small, enclosed flat where they brought up their only daughter with the silences and evasions borne of trauma.  As a young child she caught a glimpse of a previously-unknown uncle who turned up on the doorstep, only to be turned away by her parents and not spoken of again.  Later she discovers that he had been reviled and jailed as a slum landlord.   Deeply depressed after her husband’s death, she returns to the parental home, where she happens to meet her uncle after his release from prison, and concealing her identity from him (or so she thinks), agrees to write his life story.

So, you might say, what does this have to do with clothes?  Not much, and this is probably the weakness of the book.  You sense that she wants to (puns ahead) weave the thread of clothing and what it denotes throughout her story, but it doesn’t work.  I don’t know if this is because the story of her stultifying, enclosed upbringing as the child of refugee parents and the opposite persona of her uncle is so strong; or whether ‘clothing’ as a construct is not strong enough to carry it.

There are parts of this book that I really liked.  The 1970s hasn’t really been mined as a timeframe in 21st century fiction (perhaps it was too embarrassing), although perhaps I’m just not thinking hard enough of examples.   I liked her use of time, where she slipped back and forwards between her uncle’s backstory, the 1970s, and then current day.

But there were parts that were handled rather clumsily- her husband’s death had elements of farce as well as pathos, and her 25th birthday party, while it did have a surreal, dream-like edge, fell flat.

I wonder if I would have been so harsh on this book had it not been short-listed for the Booker Prize last year: probably not.  Nor would I have read it either, I suspect.  I have expectations that books short-listed for the Booker are the pick of the crop, and that more deeply-flawed books would have been dropped between the long and the short list.  None of this in the author’s control- the selection in the first place; the quality of the surrounding books; the criteria by which the prize is awarded; the expectations that a reading public has of a ‘Booker shortlist’ book.  I feel as if this book is a child that  has been dragged out into a strong spotlight ,  scrunching up her eyes and shielding them from the light of publicity and expectation.  It’s not the child’s fault: it’s the pushy parent on the sidelines, willing her to be something more than she is.

The Foundational Orgy

convict

Some time ago, I rather flippantly (and crassly?) suggested that the 6th February- the night of drunken revellry on the Sydney Cove beaches- might be a more appropriate celebration of Australia Day than 26th January. You know the story- Robert Hughes has the couples rutting between the rocks; Tim Flannery started his The Birth of Sydney with it; Tom Keneally fictionalized it; and the tele-doco The Floating Brothel based on Sian Rees’ book of the same name re-enacts it.  Now I find that perhaps this “foundational orgy” never occurred.

Grace Karskens in her beautifully written and presented book The Colony: a history of early Sydney pins the origin of the “foundational orgy” on Manning Clark’s Short History of Australia, but Manning Clark himself backtracked on the story when he re-read the original sources.  Too late- the story (and let’s face it- it IS a striking one) was off and running.

There is no real evidence that the orgy ever occured. Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smith wrote that “the men convicts got to them soon after they landed” and that it was “beyond my abilties to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night.”  Perhaps because that’s because he wasn’t there- he was on the Lady Penrhyn moored out in the harbour.  The sailors on his own ship were issued with rum rations, but the convicts were not.

Ralph Clark described the women’s tents of  “Seens of Whordom” but he called all convict women “whores”.  He describes the punishments meted out to male convicts and sailors alike who tried to have sex with the women, but not on or around 6th February.  He mentions the thunderstorm, but nothing else.  Neither does anyone else- in fact, Watkin Tench mentioned that “nothing of a very atrocious manner appeared” during February.

So, Karskens asks, does it matter?  Are we going to let the facts get in the way of a good story?  It does matter, she claims, because told as a story of  “loose  whores and randy drunken men”  it validates, and even celebrates certain types of male behaviour.  Even more than this,  Hughes et al claim this “scene” as the foundation of Australia’s sexual history- a sensationalist view that obscures the real legend- the fruitfulness and growth of relationships between men and women in those early years.

I am duly chastened.

References:

Grace Karskens The colony: a history of Early Sydney pp.313-315

“Reading Mr Robinson” by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.)

“Reading Mr Robinson: Companion Essays to Friendly Mission”, Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.)

reading_robinson_cover

2008, 188p. + notes.

N. J. B. Plomley’s Friendly Mission was published in 1966, with a reprint in 1971.  It’s a big book, close on 1000 pages and it has been out of print for over thirty years.  It has been recently re-released, and this companion book of essays has been published to accompany the new edition.

Friendly Mission is a transcription of the journals of the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, with a lengthy introduction by Plomley.  Plomley’s work made the Van Diemen’s Land journals of George Augustus Robinson available and accessible- because  Robinson’s handwriting was truly wretched- for the first time to a wider audience.  This book of essays celebrates Plomley’s work and they testify to the importance of Friendly Mission as a contested and influential text that over 40 years ago encapsulated many of the debates still pertinent today about Aboriginal and Australian settler history.

There are three themes that run through the essays.  The first is consideration of Friendly Mission in is own right, as a text.   It is obviously a book that has deeply impressed the people who have read it, or chosen not to do so.  Lyndall Ryan speaks in her essay of  purchasing the book in its blue covers from the top shelf in a bookshop and reading it transfixed on public transport on the way home, and the encouragement she received from Manning Clark and Rhys Jones to explore it further.  A counterpoint to this enthusiasm is the response of three Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal ) contributors who write short reflections on their response to the book.  Some choose not to read it at all: others feel negated and angered by the perceived inevitability of ‘extinction’ and the self-aggrandisement and nonchalance of Robinson in the face of such tragedy.

N.J. B. or Norman James Brian Plomley- although known as Brian-  was a scientist and curator who wrote widely on a variety of natural history, medical, dentistry and museum studies issues.  His long introduction to Robinson’s diaries reflects the historiography of his times: he did not even consider the use of oral histories with living Tasmanian Aborigines- if, indeed he even considered them that at all- and his views on hybridity and purity of bloodline reflect attitudes towards aboriginality and identity that are not accepted today.  Rebe Taylor’s essay points out that there are oral history sources available, through the Westlake Papers collected by the geologist  Ernest Westlake (1855-1922) which among other things included interviews with the descendents of  the Bass Strait sealers and their Aboriginal women from 1908-10.   Plomley himself edited a collection of these interviews in 1991.

A second strand of these essays deals with the diarist George Augustus Robinson himself, the Great Conciliator with the Van Diemen’s Land tribes, and then Chief Protector in the Port Phillip Protectorate during the 1840s.   Alan Lester’s essay ‘George Augustus Robinson and Imperial Networks’ highlights Robinson’s religious and humanitarian motivation, and places him within the context of evangelical approaches being implemented by British and American missionaries across the Cape Colony, the West Indies, and American and Canadian frontiers.  Elizabeth Elbourne’s contribution ‘Between Van Diemen’s Land the the Cape Colony’ compares these two colonies, particularly in relation to the coercion of women and children, and links these to the small, but influential anti-Slavery lobby in the Colonial Office and the Aborigines Protection Society which itself was distancing itself from Robinson’s approach by the early 1840s.

Henry Reynolds in ‘George Augustus Robinson in Van Diemen’s Land: Race, Status and Religion’ embraces Robinson as a conscientious missionary, outraged by the injustices he witnessed.  The name-giving ceremonies, Reynolds claims, were an attempt to replace the derogatory names conferred by hostile settlers with more others with more dignity.  Robinson’s Christian belief in the brotherhood and equality of all men contrasted with the polygenetic views that were coming into currency whereby different branches of humanity were distinguished and ranked – with the British ascendant of course.  This is not to say that Robinson was unaffected by the early Victorian emphasis on status and respectability: his career was an perpetual struggle to maintain and boost his own standing both in the colonies and with the Colonial Office, and the seating arrangements in the church services he organized reflected an acute consciousness of gradations of status.

Cassandra Pybus’ essay ‘A Self Made Man’ is less complimentary, portraying Robinson as a vain-glorious, manipulative man who carefully massaged his own image.  She introduces as a counter-point Gilbert Robertson, the capital-strapped chief constable at Richmond in Tasmania, who claimed to have been the originator of the concept of a “Protector” and who put himself forward as an applicant.  As she says, it is an unedifying spectacle to see

these two colonial misfits scapping over the paltry financial benefit and dubious social advantage to be got in taking credit for the almost complete destruction of a whole people (p. 109)

The final theme involves the use of the Robinson diaries through Plomley’s publication by other historians over time.  Ian McFarlane in ‘N J B Plomley’s Contribution to North-West Tasmanian Regional History’  places Robinson’s account of the Cape Grim massacre against Curr’s rather self-serving account found in the Van Diemen’s Land Company papers, and finds that Robinson’s estimate of 40 deaths (rather than Curr’s admission to 3) is likely to be correct.   Patrick Brantlinger’s paper ‘King Billy’s Bones: Colonial Knowledge Production in Nineteenth-Century Tasmania’  compares Robinson’s account with James Bonwick’s history The Last of the Tasmanians written in 1870 and  overlaid by later-Victorian ideas of racial superiority, craniotomy and scientific measurement.  John Connor in ‘Recording the Human Face of War: Robinson and Frontier Conflict’ uses Robinson’s observations on warrior behaviour and weaponry to conceptualise Aboriginal resistance as ‘war’.   Rebe Taylor’s paper ‘Reliable Mr Robinson and the Controversial Dr Jones’ examines the archaeologist Rhys Jones’ development of the regression theory that Aborigines lost the ability to fish and light fires- a suggestion repeated more recently by Jared Diamond and Keith Windschuttle- a shadowy, rejected commentator whose influence (and notoriety) pervades the book.

I’m wary of celebratory and clear-cut history with simple “goodies” and “baddies”.  I’m glad that the Robinson diaries are ambiguous and contradictory, and that he himself is a flawed man who, even at the time, did not fit comfortably into his society. And I’m pleased too, that the discussion continues about what we as historians and Australians do with such a tragic, conflicted story.  Plomley’s Friendly Mission and the diaries it makes available are an ur-text that is mined again and again by authors- Richard Flanagan in Wanting, Robert Drewe in The Savage Crow, Mudrooroo in Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, Matthew Kneale in English Passengers; Nicholas Shakespeare In Tasmania; Cassandra Pybus in Community  of Thieves, among others.  It’s like a scab that we need to keep picking; an itch that we need to scratch; a wound that has not yet healed.

Uncivil ugliness

Saturday’s Age had a feature about the rising anxiety over the State Government’s proposal to move the city’s urban limits out further, and the opposing anxiety over high-density living and local amenity.  It pointed out a number of inner-city sites that had been left vacant for many years where high-density development could add to the city’s housing stock without moving further into semi-rural areas.

One of the aerial shots accompanying the article showed a large expanse of land near North Melbourne station that has lain vacant since Solomon Lew purchased it 17 years ago.  What struck me was the huge FCUK sign draped across the deserted factory building on the site.  Unfortunately the Age online article doesn’t show the photograph, but you can see the building I am talking about  here. You might also want to consider the vacuous, clinical approach that the advertisers have taken in this “project”.

I also don’t want to post the picture here because I find it crass and offensive.  I’m well aware of the smarty-pants, smirking, superior marketing decision behind the choice of the FCUK brand.  But why shouldn‘t people find it offensive?  Why should an obscenity suggested on a  billboard impose itself so insistently and aggressively onto the public consciousness?  The brand proprietors can take the high moral ground and protest that the word in itself is not obscene, but these four letters have not been chosen randomly: they know full well that the cognitive pathways of a population literate in English will automatically read the word differently.

This is swaggering, arrogant visual pollution, and I resent having it forced upon me.

‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian’ by Marina Lewycka

lewycka

2006, 324 p.

One of the things that surprised and startled me when we travelled to Britain two years ago was the vehemence of dissatisfaction over Eastern European immigration to Britain.  I’m not denying that Australians too have a strong streak of intolerance to immigration, but I don’t think that it’s voiced quite so loudly.  For a variety of historical and geopolitical reasons,  Australian prejudice is closely related to colour, marked most obviously by the White Australia policy that was one of the early legislative acts of the new Australian commonwealth.  The initial post-war migration schemes extended the traditional British migration to Baltic refugees, and although there was feeling against “The Balts”, it was soon directed more towards darker, “peasant”  Southern European refugees, then Vietnamese, then Middle Eastern and African immigrants.  So, certainly I’m not coming from any moral high ground here.  But nonetheless,  I found the English strength of feeling against migrants who were “white” and  visually indistinguishable quite unsettling.

And so, I felt a bit disconcerted opening up this book and finding much of this anti-East European feeling in black and white (groan- very bad pun)  on the page.  But I soon saw that Nadia (Nadezhda) , the narrator, shared some of my liberal anxiety about such vehement rejection of Valentina, the young Ukranian woman angling for marriage with her much-old Ukranian widower father.  But Valentina really was appalling- manipulative, greedy, single-minded and cruel towards Nadia’s  father who soon reveals his sexual and financial inadequacies once the marriage has been performed.

In opposing the marriage, and then helping to rescue her father from it, Nadia enlists the support of her sister Vera who is ten years older and of a more Conservative bent.  Nadia finds herself, despite her liberal politics and sociology degree- transformed into Mrs-Flog-em-and-Send-em-Home, and even though she is not close to her sister (Mrs Divorce Expert) the two sisters work in tandem to work the divorce and immigration system to extricate their father from his self-inflicted predicament.  Through this enforced contact they broach the gulf that has always existed between the older Vera, the War Baby, born in the Ukraine and a survivor of the politics and purges of wartime Eastern Europe, and the younger Nadia, the Peace Baby who has been shielded from the knowledge of her family’s experience.   Nadia has idealized this unspoken history, and comes to realize that her family too were economic refugees; that her father’s wartime activities were not honorable; that her parents’ marriage was based on resignation and determination and that sheer survival involves compromises and evasions.

The blurbs on my copy led me to expect a funny book – “Extremely funny” blurbs The Times; “Mad and hilarious” announces the Daily Telegraph, and the book was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction, I see.  I didn’t really laugh at this book out loud- in fact I felt a twinge of guilt about the mockery of the dreadful Valentina and the undercurrent of racism.   I kept expecting that there would be a dramatic turning point in the novel- that the sisters would learn something about Valentina that would cause them to abandon their resistance to her; that some dreadful truth about her father would emerge that would cause me to lose sympathy for him.  But the book just tootled along in its own way, and the ending was really quite uplifting with a victory for resiliance and independence.