Monthly Archives: September 2017

Out and about

It’s Grand Final day today which, courtesy of a newly gazetted public holiday, is being turned into Grand Final weekend.  Yesterday we went into the Grand Final parade, to imbibe a little Grand Final excitement.  Although the holiday is new, the parade is not. It used to go through the city streets and I often used to nip down from my office on the corner of Swanston and Bourke to see the parade. It now goes from Treasury Buildings to the MCG and is more officially organized than it used to be. We were reassured that there would be plenty of security, but I must say that there was very little in evidence at Yarra Park where we were.

After the parade finished we walked through the Fitzroy Gardens towards the city. The trees are still bare, but the clivias are flowering and there were some beautiful blossom trees outside the Conservatory. I love Melbourne.

Good old Captain Cook’s cottage. Built in 1755 it’s technically the oldest European building in Australia, but that’s only because it was brought over brick-by-brick from England in 1934. It’s also highly doubtful that Captain Cook ever lived there because by the time his parents built it, he had embarked on his maritime career. I suppose that “dropping in to see the folks” counts. Still, with Ola Cohn’s fairy tree and the reproduction village nearby,  its a little bit of ye olde England in the middle of Fitzroy Gardens.

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Speaking of out and about, I was interested in a public health warning in the Age on Thursday about two people who have been diagnosed with measles. It listed the public places that they had visited between 20th and 25th September when they were most contagious.  It makes interesting, if somewhat voyeuristic reading.

The places visited by the patients while they were infectious in the past week include:

  • North Richmond, Southern Cross, Murrumbeena and South Yarra train stations on September 20. Wholesale Pharmacy in Balaclava and Virgin Active Gym on Collins Street, on the same day;
  • North Richmond and Southern Cross stations on September 21 and 22;
  • Wholesale Pharmacy Balaclava and Virgin Active Gym on September 22;
  • Church Street, Victoria Street, Punt Road, Swan Street and The Posty Bar in Richmond on September 23;
  • The MCG in section Q13 during the preliminary final between Richmond and GWS;
  • The Carnegie area on September 24 and 25.

Trains, pharmacies, gyms, shops, bar and the MCG….an interesting list.  No workplace, cinema, church. What would my list of places over a week look like? Ever the historian, I wondered how the list would vary 100 years ago, or back in Judge Willis’ time.

Anyway, that was yesterday and today’s Grand Final Day. My son’s a Richmond supporter and he’s never seen them win a final. In Richmond’s last grand final in 1982, Rolf Harris provided the entertainment and there was a streaker: two things you certainly won’t see today.  Still, as a St Kilda supporter, my sympathy for Richmond’s “finals drought” is circumscribed, given that I remember their dominance back in the ’70s. But, for my son and because I still shudder at the Adelaide song after they demolished St Kilda back in the 1997 Grand Final- Go Tiges!!!

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‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

MeWRiteMyself

2017, 331 p.

It’s not often that I close up a history book with a “Well done!”, but I did with Leonie Stevens’ beautifully written Me Write Myself. Right from its quietly restrained front cover, through to its ending which rounds off and yet expands and invites further conversation, this is a exquisitely crafted book.  It works on so many levels: as narrative, as critique and as history.

Stevens mounts her argument right from the subtitle on the cover:  ‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna’.  “Wybalenna?” you may ask. It’s more commonly known as Flinders Island, most often characterized as the doomed settlement off the coast of Tasmania, where the remnants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes were shunted to be forgotten in silence by colonists and colonial officials alike, in the 1830s and 1840s.  And “free inhabitants?” Wasn’t this a form of concentration camp, on the way to what was seen to be an inevitable extinction? In Stevens’ hands, we see that  these are not victims but “free aboriginal inhabitants” and not silent, even though historians may silenced them, often while bemoaning their fate.

Flinders Island, for a place so small, has attracted the attention of historians, right from James Bonwick in 1870 through to Henry Reynolds.  The publication in 1987 of N.J.B. Plomley’s gigantic Weep in Silence,  with its 1034 pages, might have been thought to have exhausted all there is to say on Wybalenna. Not so.

Stevens starts her book in a crowded, metaphorical baggage-room where we ‘check-in’ our assumptions, narratives and language.  First there’s the question of names, often Europeanized and of slippery orthography. Then there’s scientific racism, underpinning the rationale of colonialism and assuaging guilt, and seeping through much of the historiography of Wybalenna, right up to recent writing, which sees it as a narrative of tragic and helpless death. Then there’s the question of credibility of sources and this is where Stevens steps right up. She takes historian Ann Laura Stoler’s term “the hierarchy of credibility” and turns it upside down to give priority to the VDL texts over European texts.  This is where Stevens’ approach is new.  She depicts the texts relating to Wybalenna as a pyramid.  The deluge of government reports, memoirs, newspaper reports and journals from which other historians have drawn their work form the large base of the triangle. Up from them are the texts recorded by Europeans where VDL First Nations people ‘speak’ as their words are transcribed and collected. Right at the apex are the texts written by VDL First Nations people themselves: texts that have been largely sidelined by historians and dismissed as ventriloquistic curiosities, parroting the views of white chaplains and superintendents, and of little worth in themselves. By placing them at the top of the hierarchy of credibility, “the VDL word takes on an urgency and new level of insight, revealing a more nuanced, personal, human story.”(p. xxx)  Finally, the metaphorical baggage-room is full of historians, especially white historians, who have either “made such fervent use of the extinction myth” or “fetishised frontier violence under the guise of critiquing it.” (p.xxxi). Stevens is only too aware that she is “a white 21st century mainland writer studying VDL history” and she is “mindful of her position on the metaphorical dance card” (p. xxxii)

This history, on which we now embark, is one constructed, wherever possible, from VDL sources. The mantra will be We do not need yet another European history of VDL people. It is the simplest way of keeping the baggage in check. ( p.xliii)

The organization of the book is basically chronological, but the VDL texts lend a thematic approach. The first two chapters set the scene, with the short Chapter 1 placing VDL within the 45,000+ years of pre-contact history, and briefly sketching the Black War of 1830 and its aftermath. Chapter 2 deals with the establishment of Wybalenna and its place within the wider humanitarian response across the empire. From this point on, the chapters become longer, focussing around the texts generated by the free inhabitants of Wybalenna.

Chapter 3 ‘The Promise of Wybalenna’ draws on hand-written newspaper The Flinders Island Chronicle, written between September 1836 and December 1837 by two teenaged boys, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune, who had received a brief education at the Orphan School outside Hobart, before returning to Wybalenna.  The forty-two editions and drafts of the Chronicle have only been partially published, and generally dismissed by historians as an obvious and clumsy attempt at Christian indoctrination and control. But, as Stevens shows

In fact, the Chronicle is much more than a mouthpiece for the Commandant. Those editions dominated by religious indoctrination actually contain a great deal of information, if effort is invested in peeling back the layers of meaning. (p. xxxvii)

We learn from these two boys, falling over each other to publish their own separate edition of the ‘weekly’ paper (which often appeared more often than weekly) that the Commandant was never really in ‘control’ of the settlement, most particularly the women. Wybalenna was part of archipelago of islands visited by sealers and whalers, and news and rumour swirled around amongst officials, convicts, traders and the free aboriginal inhabitants. We see the ‘Protector’ and Superintendent, George Augustus Robinson carefully painting house numbers on the doors of the cottages, in anticipation of a visit from Governor Franklin which turns out to be a fleeting affair. We see games being played, deaths being mourned, changes in relationships.

Chapter 4 draws on the school room examinations and written and spoken sermons generated as part of the Christianizing mission. In them, Stevens finds insights into language diversity, the persistence of ritual and the balancing of original and introduced spiritual beliefs. (p. xxxix).  She has to work harder here, as the texts are so heavily overlaid with the interpretations of Christianity that are being used as a form of control: keep your house clean, the insubordination of the women, the promise of God’s good country.  It is during this chapter that Stevens integrates the journey across Bass Strait to Melbourne in 1841 undertaken by George Augustus Robinson and the ‘family’ he took with him,  including the two former newspaper writers, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune. Two of the group are noted for being the first men hanged in Melbourne – Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.  I’ve read much about them in my own work on Port Phillip, but they always seemed (and were) men out of place, a disembodied group brought into the colony and then sent away again. Through the picture that Stevens has built up of Wybalenna, we see this ‘family’ and their importance, and why Robinson chose them, in particular, to take across to Port Phillip. They become distinct people, not just the ‘VDL Blacks’.

One of the things that I like most about Steven’s approach is that Wybalenna changes, in response to the people living there and those appointed there. It’s not a passive, inert place. Events unfold, relationships form and breakdown, alliances shift. In Chapter 5, the revolving door administration since Superintendent Robinson’s departure throws up Doctor Henry Jeanneret as new Superintendent, a ‘problematic individual’ who is dismissed, challenges his dismissal back in England, then is reappointed to Wybalenna again.

It is the dissatisfaction with Jeanneret’s reappointment, and desire to shift to a different model of living, that leads the Wyballena inhabitants – most particularly through Walter George Arthur- to write again in Chapter 6. This time they adopt the petitioning and epistolary form of colonial bureaucratese, as they write to the Governor on the Tasmanian mainland, making their complaints against Jeanneret, and asking the Queen’s intervention.  The authorship and authenticity of the letters was challenged by Jeanneret at the time, leading to the appointment of a one-man commission of inquiry which itself generated its own paper trail. The way that later historians, most particularly Plomley in Weep in Silence, have dealt with these letters, reflects the ‘taking sides’ amongst the white characters that historians are wont to do.

This assessment, naturally, gives no credit whatsoever to VDL activism or agency, besides Walter Arthur. Weep in Silence is essentially a European history, about Europeans running a European settlement, with a few inconsequential VDL faces thrown in (p. 321)

Through her careful reading, Stevens embodies these “inconsequential VDL faces” into living, active, resisting people. Naming is important, and the footnotes at the bottom of the page give a small biography for each one so that Wybalenna is literally ‘peopled’. How blessed she has been as an author, too, with a publisher that respects footnotes on the page (and not squirrelled away at the back of the book), letting the historian acknowledge sources and accuracy right then and there.

This is an absolutely beautifully written book. Stevens engages and challenges other historians, but more with urgency and invitation to share, rather than oneupmanship.  The chapters are long (possibly a little too long?), but the narrative flows, capturing shift and change.  It moves, as Wybalenna moves. This is academic history written with head and heart, and with eyes and ears open.  I hope and expect to see it shortlisted for history and non-fiction prizes over the next year. Read it.

Source: Purchased from Readings

My rating: 10.

aww2017-badge I have linked this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

Exhibition: Brave New World at the NGV

There’s an excellent exhibition on at the moment at the NGV at Federation Square called ‘Brave New World‘. It’s on until 15th October. It includes art, commercial art, documentary, architecture, fashion, industrial design, film and dance to give an overview of the 1930s in Australia.

I was amazed that the dress on the left was from the 1930s!

The exhibition space is divided into two halves, with one half celebrating the advances and newness of the 1930s; the other half documenting the poverty and greyness of that same time.

Perhaps more than any other exhibition I’ve seen of this type, women have a very strong representation in this exhibition as wearers, inspiration and most importantly, creators themselves.

I did buy the catalogue (which looks excellent) and was thinking of waiting to post this after I’ve read the catalogue but the exhibition may well close by then! So, Melburnians, hurry along and catch it before it closes.

Movie: Maudie

Oh, this was such a sad film.  Based on a true story, it’s not crying-type sad, but just regretful about the pain we inflict on others, and that human drive for dignity.  It’s beautifully filmed and both Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins are just brilliant. The audience just sat there, silent when it finished, drinking it all in.

I think a five for me.

And here’s a video of the real Maud Lewis.

‘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

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

QE67MoralPanic101

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