Monthly Archives: July 2013

‘Kitty’s War’ by Janet Butler

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2013,  231 p & notes

KITTY’S WAR by Janet Butler

I had forgotten the power of a beautifully written introduction to a history.

Imagine, for a moment, that we are granted an eagle’s eye-view of the fields and villages, the roads and towns of northern France.  It is dusk on a mid-autumn evening.  This is the Western Front, one hundred and eighteen days after the beginning of Operations on the Somme…. (p. 1)

Sister Kit McNaughton was a nurse from Little River, near Geelong who heeded the call for nurses during the First World War.  As did many others, she wrote a diary and this book, by Janet Butler presents extracts from that diary.  But Butler here is not an editor, stepping to the side to allow the diary and the diarist’s voice to take centre stage (as, for example, Bev Roberts has done in Miss D. And Miss N.)  Instead, Janet Butler  interrogates the diaries: she triangulates them against other writing; she supplements them with secondary sources; she looks for patterns and changes over time and she listens to the silences.  Kitty’s own (rather prosaic) entries take up a small proportion of the book – perhaps ¼ of the text, if that.  The majority of the text is the historian at work, always respectful of Kit McNaughton and privileging her perspective, but grappling with the diary as text and the emotional and physical enormity of the unfolding experience that it documents as well.

A diary fills multiple and often changing purposes. The writer often has an audience in mind: sometimes explicit (as in Anne Frank’s ‘Kitty’) or sometimes unnamed but tacitly understood.  As Butler writes about Kit McNaughton’s diary:

There is clearly a ‘you’ addressed in its pages. ‘We often think of the people at home & wonder what you are all doing,’ she writes after describing a concert given by the troops, the first day out of Australian waters, ‘& if you could only see us all doing the grand you would know how we are enjoying our selves’. It is to this audience that Kit’s presentation of herself has to be acceptable. (p. 13)

Kit conceives her writing as a travel diary, but she also is conscious that she is chronicling history as well.

…Kit’s diary intersects briefly, under the umbrella of the travel diary, with another kind of diary: the public chronicle of an historic event, which is more often than not a male prerogative (p. 27)

Kit McNaughton is aware that she is writing for an Australian audience ‘at home’ who will read her diary with a particular consciousness: they will want to see her as the ‘good nurse’ imbued with the discipline, rigour, efficiency and obedience of her professional calling; they will be sensitive over descriptions of Australian suffering and death;  and they will share her sense of Australianness. She  draws from the rhetoric of the Anzac legend, already being honed in the despatches of the war correspondents and seized for recruiting purposes at home, as a way of presenting herself. In doing so, she contributes to our own understanding of the legend 100 years later.

Her use of the ANZAC legend to actively craft her persona shows agency.  The nurses are not simply passive recipients of the identities thrust upon them.  It reveals a desire for a level of freedom denied them at home.  For nurses travelling to war, the Anzac legend opens out the boundaries of acceptable behaviour…. They continued the work they did as civilians, but their journey into war challenged and enabled them to expand their sense of self.  (p. 18)

The book follows Kit chronologically as she starts off in Egypt, as so many WWI soldiers did; is sent to Lemnos,  falls ill and is sent to a convalescent hospital. On going back to Europe, she nurses wounded German soldiers on the Somme, returns to No 2 Australian General Hospital at Trois Abres just six kilometres from the front, goes across to No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Dartford, Kent and finally is sent to Sidcup maxilla-facial hospital nearby.  Each separate placement has its own chapter in the book, but multiple themes run across them all: her sense of being Australian; the resentment with which the nurses are sometimes greeted either because they are women or Australian or both; her companionship with the ‘boys’ she met up with in Cairo and her friendship with other sisters (in both senses of the word).  There is much that she cannot say, however.  To complain about the dismissiveness of the doctors would be insubordination (and a ‘good’ nurse is never insubordinate); to speak too much of the death and injury of Australian soldiers is too sensitive.  Nursing German soldiers however- the enemy- is different, and here she can write of the injuries and the smell and the loss in a way that she could not when nursing Australian soldiers:

I have eleven with their legs off and a cuple ditto arms & hips & heads galore & the awful smell from the wounds is the limit as this Gas Gangrene is the most awful thing imaginable, a leg goes in a day. I extracted a bullet from a German’s back today, and I enjoyed cutting into him…the bullet is my small treasure, as I hope it saved a life as it was a revolver one (p. 130)

In many ways Kitty understates her own role.  As we can see, she was entrusted with the scalpel, and she later worked in the operating theatre and administered anaesthetics- all skills that were denied nurses ‘at home’. She was mentioned in despatches; she won a Royal Red Cross.

But soon the silences are not just evasions and glossing-overs but the actual lack of words.  Particularly once she reaches Dartford, her entries become summaries,  widely spaced and sparser, reflecting her own “disengagement  from the war of which she no longer feels so much a part” (p. 197).  Kit is no longer on her journey, and she is no longer writing a travel diary.  There is no adventure, no sightseeing (which she had earlier managed to do), and Butler suggests that she is probably suffering what we would call post-traumatic stress.  Certainly, her photographs show that the war has taken its toll on her. Her hair has gone grey; she has lost two stone; she is in poor health.

As Butler says:

Statistics alone cannot provide a guide to the impact of war on personal lives.  Our journey with Kit has shown biography to be a way of reaching to the level of the personal and private.  Stepping beside Kit, an individual, into the aftermath of her war- reading her life, as we once read her diary- offers the possibility of insight into the effects on women, on the relationships between women and men, and therefore on Australian society, that more objective measures cannot. (p. 216).

The book is written in the present tense throughout.  I must admit that I’m rather ambivalent about the use of the present tense in fiction because it makes me feel edgy and anxious.  (Says she who has written this whole review in the present tense!)   It’s an interesting and striking choice in non-fiction, and one that I haven’t seen used often in history. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. It makes me feel edgy here too, just as it does when it is used in fiction, but it certainly has its strengths as well.   It brings the intellectual and emotional interrogation of the diary right onto centre stage, and Butler’s frequent use of “we” draws you, as reader,  into engagement with the diary as well.

“Kitty’s War’  is a reverent and sensitive tribute to Kit McNaughton.  It’s much more than a platform for making her diary available to a wider audience.  It shows the historian at work, shuttling between the small detail and wider overarching questions of gender, war, personal identity, Australian identity and the ANZAC legend.

You can read Lisa Hill’s review of this book at ANZLitLovers and Yvonne Perkins has reviewed it at Stumbling Through the Past.  You can also read Janet’s own guest post about writing the book on a nursing blog.

I have posted this review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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‘The Past Matters’ at Montsalvat

Up to Montsalvat on Saturday 27th July for the 10th Past Matters Festival. This festival, convened by the Eltham Bookshop and the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group with funding by the Nillumbik Council,  has  now been joined by Montsalvat, with Australian Book Review and the Australian Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Melbourne as well. Continue reading

‘Miss D and Miss N’ by Bev Roberts

If I were a well-travelled person, at this point I would wave airily and announce that I always try to read a book set in a place that I am visiting.  Alas, I am not;  I can claim that I read Henry James’ The Bostonians while in Boston, and Dickens while in London…but that’s about it, I’m afraid.

So, a couple of weeks ago when we went down to Geelong (a whole 100 kms away!), I decided that of course I must read a Geelong book!!  But where to find a Geelong book? you ask.  The answer is: Miss D. and Miss N.  In fact, there’s a chance that if you’re on the Bellarine Peninsula that you’ll drive right through the areas named for them: Drysdale and Newcomb.

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2009, 326 p.

The two women share an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.   Drysdale was twenty years older than her friend Caroline Newcomb.  Anne arrived in Port Phillip in 1840, aged forty-seven, with the experience of farming in Scotland under her belt, capital at hand, and determined to take up sheep farming in the booming pastoral industry of early Port Phillip.    Caroline Newcomb had arrived in Hobart in August 1833 and found a position as a governess with the family of John Batman, one of the members of the Van Diemen’s Land- based  Port Phillip Association that looked across Bass Strait to establish pastoral runs in what they perceived (incorrectly) as land for the taking.   When she arrived in Port Phillip on April 19 1836, she was one of only thirty-five women in the settlement, out of a white population of 177.  In March 1837 she shifted to Geelong, presumably as governess to  Dr. Alexander Thomson.  The two women met at Dr Thomson’s house where they formed a strong friendship, despite the twenty year age difference between them.   This friendship became a partnership that lasted twelve years when Anne asked Caroline to join her as a pastoralist on Boronggoop, a squatting run on the Barwon River at Geelong.  In August 1849 they achieved their wish “to have a piece of land &c a stone cottage” when they moved to Coriyule, a beautiful stone house that they had built (and which, it seems, still exists).

This, then,  is Anne’s diary, commenced from on board ship in Scotland in September  1839 going through to 1852 and 1853 when she fell ill and the writing of the diary was taken over by Caroline. Continue reading

‘Larrikins’ wins Ernest Scott Prize

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Congratulations to Melissa Bellanta, whose book Larrikins:A History ( you can see my review of the book here) won the Ernest Scott Prize, announced at the Wollongong Conference last week.  The prize is awarded to the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the History of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonization published in the previous year. The shortlist for this year’s prize was:

  • Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past (Tony Ballantyne, Bridget Williams Books)
  • Larrikins: A History (Melissa Bellanta, UQP)
  • University Unlimited: The Monash Story (Graeme Davison & Kate Murphy, A&U)
  • The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe (Fiona Paisley, Aboriginal Studies Press)
  • Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803 (Lyndall Ryan, A&U).

The citation for Larrikins  from the judges for the prize, Professor Mark Finnane (Griffith University) and Professor Philippa Mein-Smith (University of Canterbury) reads:


A landmark first book by a young scholar, Larrikins stands out for its liveliness, centrality to issues in Australian culture and politics, and breadth of approach, including attention to patterns of speech and youth behaviour,  style and dress. Melissa Bellanta unpacks the origins of Aussie larrikinism as a cultural phenomenon (and performance) that originated on city streets.  Noting that Ned Kelly perceived the larrikin as a city version of himself in 1879, she asks why the larrikin became such a mythic type in Australian identity formation. Contextualised by a social history that locates the shaping of a colonial urban youth culture in the wake of the gold rushes, Larrikins teases out how Australians turned a term of abuse imported as dialect from the United Kingdom into a national mythology once merged with the image of the digger during the First World War. This youth culture – attracted by the pull of the ‘push’ rather than the bush – was ‘flash’, exhibitionist and violent. Part of the book’s appeal is the way in which Bellanta engages with the language and conduct of her youthful larrikin subjects, young ‘brazen’ women as well as men. The quality of research, engagement with the spoken word, connections with the theatre and visual culture place this engaging work in a singular category. Its inter-disciplinary achievement is considerable, respecting the best scholarly conventions of archival history while deploying analytic and interpretative tools from literary and cultural studies that illuminate this phenomenon of Australian history.  Based on rigorous primary research, this work addresses a core aspect of Australianness and Australian sensibility in a refreshing, thoroughly readable but equally scholarly way.
 

The door is open…

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I read with sadness that Mrs Hoogenraad died last week.  I haven’t seen her in many, many years  and have wondered occasionally whether she was still alive.  ‘Mrs Hoogie’, as we called her, will be known to probably hundreds of middle-aged Heidelberg kids who spent Saturday nights at ‘Hoogies’ during the 1970s.

At the time of the ‘Jesus Revolution’ and Larry Norman and The Late Great Planet Earth, Mr and Mrs Hoogie ran a house church at their very small home in Heidelberg.  They were in their 60s and their children were adults- I wonder now how their children felt about this endless stream of adolescents going to their door, burdening their parents with tearful accounts of relationship breakups and crises of faith?  I suspect, too, that the neighbours were not terribly impressed either as the cars lined up along Oakhurst Avenue, and young people spilled out into the garden. Still, thinking back, we were very, very well behaved young people, considering.

Saturday nights between 8.00 and 11.00 were Hoogies nights,  crammed into their lounge room with the rugs rolled up and carted into another room, dark and exotic carved wooden furniture, batik prints, shaded lamps,  glowing copper and a cuckoo clock.  There were  people playing guitars, hymns, prayers and a talk by someone or other – sometimes Mr Hoogie himself (I don’t think I ever remember Mrs Hoogie giving one).  It was a fundamentalist, personal,  evangelical Christianity that I have since rejected, gradually at first and now more definitively, despite a lingering cultural Anglicanism and a more active leaning towards Unitarianism.  Nonetheless, I look back to such times with a bemused indulgence but a deep respect for the faith and grace that Mrs Hoogie always showed. Continue reading

‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ by Kate Atkinson

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2010, 350p.

Kate Atkinson is a favourite author of The Ladies in my bookgroup.  We’ve read several of her Jackson Brodie books, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my all-time favourite books.  But I must admit that I think I’m just starting to tire a little of the Jackson Brodie series.

I looked back at the reviews I’d written of her books on this blog- One Good Turn  and When Will There Be Good News (and I’d read Case Histories and Behind the Scenes before I’d started blogging here) and I think that I could make exactly the same observations about this book as I did with her earlier ones:  that you need to suppress your fear of being unable to keep up with such a huge array of characters because it all comes clear at the end; that red herrings and coincidences abound;  that she is really having fun with the genre etc. etc.

Atkinson does reference events that occurred in her other books, but not so much that you’d feel excluded if this was the first Jackson Brodie you’d read.  It’s like a little wink to the initiated, but unfortunately The Ladies and I found ourselves racking our brains to remember the specifics of the earlier books. I noticed in my other reviews that I didn’t say much about plot- no doubt from a fear of giving things away in a plot-driven book- but I found that my reviews were of absolutely no use in triggering memories of the book I’d read.

So, in anticipating that a) Kate Atkinson will probably write another Jackson Brodie after all even though she said she mightn’t  and that b) I’ll probably read it—- here’s a plot and character summary for future reference.

  • Jackson Brodie- our main character from the series; ex-cop turned private investigator; still smarting from being ripped off by his second wife Tessa; coming to terms with the idea that he has fathered young Nathan with Julia the actress
  • Tracy Waterhouse- in her fifties; a large woman; recently retired from the police force
  • Tilly – an aging soap-opera actress, frightened by her rapidly-gathering dementia which is opening up regrets from her past
  • Kelly Cross- a prostitute who sells her daughter Courtney to Tracy
  • Courtney- four years old, says little but gives the thumbs-up to life

In this book, as in Atkinson’s others, there are doubles, parallels and counterpoints.  Tracy witnesses the abusive treatment of a child in a shopping centre and somehow ends up with the child Courtney: Jackson witnesses a dog being mistreated and somehow ends up with the dog. There are two murdered prostitutes; two private investigators; two children looking for their roots; lost memories and lost children, and the hunters become the hunted. There are two narratives here- one is a flashback to 1975 policing which evokes the television series Life on Mars beautifully, while the other is set six months ago.  The flashback narrative is intentionally confusing but it gradually settles into something more definite, while the current day plotline becomes far more tentative and unresolved.

The missing child is a theme in Atkinson’s writing that goes right back to Behind the Scenes and there is certainly an elegiac,yearning quality that seeps through the otherwise conventional (if subverted) crime fiction elements of the story.

But I must confess to feeling that I’d read the book before and had almost been taken back to where I started with her first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  I think that perhaps she should give Jackson a bit of a breather.  Although having said that, I must confess being tempted just a little by her new book.  I must just wait a while, though.

First Footprints

Did you catch First Footprints on television on Sunday night?  If not, hie thee hence to i-view and catch it there.

I think that many of us of a certain age can recall sitting  cross-legged on the floor of the school hall, watching black and white film reels of traditional Aboriginal people in the desert (possibly the Desert People film, produced in 1966?) It may well have been shown by the Religious Education teachers who were often retired missionaries, and in my mind the film is linked with the “mission boxes”, little cardboard money boxes that were distributed during Lent “for the missions” among Aboriginal people.  Ah-so many questions now, but not at the time.  Watching in the half-light of a school hall in the 1960s, smirking and tittering over the bare breasts, what was reinforced was the utter strangeness and primitiveness of a lifestyle so thoroughly ‘other’ than ours.

When I think about it, I haven’t seen such films for several decades.  I’d like to think that it was because we have become increasingly aware of sensitivities over images of people who have died, but I can’t imagine that this was the case in the 1970s and 1980s.

Seeing the footage again on Sunday night, though, I was overwhelmed by awe at the sheer age of the aboriginal peoples as survivors and vicariously proud of their deep connection with the land. No primitiveness now: instead resourcefulness, adaptability, grit, spirituality.

I found myself holding my breath at the footage of Narwala Gabarnmang.

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I remembered reading about this discovery but I hadn’t realized the depth of colour and the intricacy and density of the artwork.  The rock shelter looked like a cathedral, with a similar sense of the spiritual mixed with the very human striving for beauty and expression.  I found myself sitting very still, utterly transfixed. I didn’t expect this to have such an effect on me.