Monthly Archives: December 2017

‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard

bollard

2013, 224 p.

I know that historians often get railroaded into a title for their book by marketing-oriented publishers, and I can’t help thinking that the title of this 2013 book was chosen with one eye on the then-upcoming centenary of Gallipoli in April 2015. There is, in fact, very little about Gallipoli in it at all. The content is far better conveyed by the sub-title ‘The hidden history of Australia in World War I’.  Although even that isn’t particularly accurate either, because much of what is written in this book is not ‘hidden’ at all: Jauncey covered much of it in 1935 and Ernest Scott (available online) covered the rest the following year in his Volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

Nonetheless, given the hoopla which surrounded Gallipoli in 2015,  it was important that there be a corrective to the view that the whole of Australia wanted to rush off to fight on foreign fields and the equally erroneous idea that Gallipoli was the ‘birth of a nation’.  This book is an eminently readable counter-balance, aimed at a general audience, that examines the division and acrimony at home in Australia during the war.

There are eight chapters, titled with a quote and descriptor.

  1. ‘To the last man and the last shilling’: Patriotism triumphant
  2. ‘If you want the 44-hour week, take it!’: The strike wave begins
  3. ‘Wherever green is worn’: Irish discontent
  4. ‘I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath’: The first conscription referendum
  5. ‘Fifteen years for fifteen words’: The empire strikes back
  6. ‘Solidarity for ever’: The Great Strike of 1917
  7. ‘We’ll burn the town down!’: The second referendum
  8. ‘Plunge this city into darkness’: The peace turns ugly.

It seems to me that historians write about Australia during the war through a prism which, while recognizing other contemporaneous influences, hones in on one particular focus.  Judith Smart focuses on women; Jauncey focuses on pacifists; McKernan on mainstream churches, and here Bollard picks up on the unions in particular. Chapter 2 takes readers back to the ‘working man’s paradise’, the Harvester judgment and arbitration. He refers in many places to the Broken Hill – or as he terms it the ‘Barrier’ -miners, and his chapter on the Great Strike is probably the strongest in the book. I liked the final chapter, too, where he examines the role of returned soldiers in the strikes that exploded during the wars immediately following the war.

With the focus on unions and resistance, this is a very political book, with few individuals (other than politicians) stepping forward to centre stage.  It is a book of organizations more than people, drawn from newspaper reports and government files.  His reference list is fairly dated, and women don’t get that much of a look-in here, other than as part of a crowd, and there are no families.

But what he does really well is tell a good story. The narrative is chronological, it is very clearly written, and it’s a seductively easy read. It’s a good antidote to the hefty, celebratory WWI books with big single-word titles that have burdened the nation’s bookshelves over the past few years.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-book)

Read because: in preparation for my talk to Heidelberg Historical Society on the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917.

 

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‘Neither Power Nor Glory’ by Paul Strangio

strangio

2012, 392 p.

I was too young to vote at the 1972 Federal election that brought Gough Whitlam to power. Until Gough came along, it seemed to me that politicians were always grey men in hats, exemplified for me by Arthur Calwell, Whitlam’s longstanding predecessor, who seemed to come from a political gloom that seemed to have stretched for decades.  As the daughter of a small business owner, but with much more progressive tendencies than my parents, I would not have dreamed of voting Labor at either federal or state level until the 1970s.  I didn’t  like Calwell, and at state level I didn’t particularly like Clyde Holding (1967-77) either.

While reading this history of the Victorian political Labor Party, written by Paul Strangio, the vision of the grey men in hats came back to me in all their depressing drabness. The author unashamedly wears his Labor sympathies, but it’s not at all a triumphalist history.

Instead, it’s a rather sad one. Even during 1914-5, during the first months of World War I and a high point of Labor Party influence, Victoria was the only state not to have a Labor government. Even though Victoria is often now viewed as the most progressive state in Australia (along with ACT), the Labor party in Victoria has had a chequered and ruptured history.

Although this book starts in 1856, the date of Victoria’s independence from New South Wales, things only start to hot up in the 1890s when Labor members began being elected to the Victorian parliament, albeit in very small numbers.  For the early years of Victorian Labor’s history, there was not a great deal to distinguish the Labor party from the relatively progressive Deakinite Liberal party (a situation that I suspect might occur today should former Liberal premier Rupert Hamer miraculously rise from the grave).

Much of the shuffling in the first 40 years of the 20th century involved the balancing of power between Labor, the Nationalist/Liberal Party, and the Country Party.  The first Labor government lasted all of 13 days in 1913 while the Liberal party patched up a split in its ranks.  In 1924 a Labor government took power with Country Party support, and this time it lasted from June until November, at which point the Country Party again reconciled with the Nationalists, and together they defeated Labor in the Legislative Assembly. Nonetheless, in that small window of government, the Labor party extended assistance to unemployed workers, called Royal Commissions into the police strike of 1923 and the prices of bread and flour, and was involved in the soldier settlement scheme.

There was a brief minority Hogan Labor government in 1927-8 and another minority victory in 1929 when, quite frankly, no-one really wanted to be in government anyway as the Depression loomed. The United Australia Party won the 1932 election, and then there was another little mini-Government headed by John Cain Snr in 1943 that lasted four days- again, until the ructions between the conservative parties sorted themselves out yet again. Cain had a second stint as premier in 1945, but could get little legislation through either house, where he held a minority position. It was not until 1952 that Cain could form his third government. Although he was again hampered by the Legislative Council, he managed to get through progressive legislation in a range of areas. But by then, the Labor party split over the influence of the Communist Party again condemned the ALP to decades in opposition – until 1982 in fact, when John Cain Jnr. won government.

In between these tussles for parliamentary control, and quite apart from being a bystander to conservative party powerplays,  there were two other internal struggles that kept the Labor party roiling.  The first was the influence of  businessman and underworld figure John Wren, referenced in the title of this book Neither Power Nor Glory, which of course alludes to Frank Hardy’s barely fictionalized story of political machinations with the Labor Party, Power Without Glory.  Then there was the split itself over the question of Communist influence in the unions, and Santamaria’s Movement and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, which by combining with the Liberals, kept Labor in opposition for so long.

This book is full of names and acronyms, and the text is fairly dense. Nonetheless, even though I only intended reading it up until the 1916/17 referendums, it captured my interest sufficiently that I happily read until the end.  As you might expect, it is a very political book, and unless you had an interest in politics, I think you’d find it heavy going.   It’s also a book that absolutely cries out for a list of acronyms at the front.   I found myself using the index a lot, particularly the entries for each year, which acted as a form of timeline.

It’s a fascinating and rather depressing story of the perils of minority government and the tragedy of internal splits.  Paul Strangio spoke about the book at the Royal Historical Society back in 2013, and you can get access his lecture through RHSV’s podcast page (and find some other good podcasts while you’re there!)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I was initially interested in the WWI section, but then kept on reading.

Rating: 8 (but it won’t be to everyone’s taste)

 

‘Tales from a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir’ by Fran Lebowitz BUT BEWARE!

tales-from-a-broad-an-unreliable-memoir

2004, 346 p.

Well, that’s five hours wasted, never to come my way again.

I read an interview conducted with Fran Lebowitz in the Age. Apparently she’s coming out to Australia, and I liked the sound of her sardonic humour. “A modern day Dorothy Parker” they said.  So I looked up the library catalogue and they had one book by Fran Lebowitz. I borrowed it.

What a mistake – on all levels.  A mistake to borrow it.  A mistake to persevere with such a vapid, self-absorbed book. A mistake not to ditch it and move onto something more enjoyable or uplifting or educational or worthy.  And worst of all: it wasn’t even THE Fran Lebowitz!

The plot (huh!): A New York literary agent and her husband shift to Singapore for his job, which was initially for a three-month stint, but extended into a three-year undertaking. Fran and Frank are absorbed into the expatriate community there, where they grapple with maids and sit around pools and bars drinking and gossiping.  Colonialism is alive and well….

It’s too silly to write any more. I feel robbed, on all levels.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

Read because: I made a mistake

My rating: 2/10

‘Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

Independent Church Melbourne Vic.

Independent Church, Melbourne (now St Michaels). The Burke and Wills statue to the right of the church is in the middle of the intersection, its original location.. It’s a well-travelled statue. SLV image

Churches tend to sprout exhortations of “Peace!” especially at Christmas time, and it’s quite a jolt to read of the bellicose and jingoistic approach taken by the major Christian (and especially Protestant) churches during the First World War.  Michael McKernan’s book Australian Churches at War published in 1980, is based on his PhD thesis and is probably not easy to find today. However, there’s a (relatively) more recent transcript of an interview with McKernan on the now-defunct ABCRN program ‘The Religion Report’ that you might be interested in here.

The 1911 census which was the closest one to the outbreak of WWI showed that 98% of white Australians claimed to be Christians at the time. Only .24% of the population claimed to have ‘no religion’.  One of the immediate responses of the declaration of Australian’s ready involvement in WWI was a call to prayer, and to the churches the people flocked. What they heard there in those early weeks of war was to become the stance of the major Protestant churches throughout the war: the view that the war was God’s way of calling people to the churches for a moral awakening.

It is the argument of this study…that churchmen had synthesised war and Christianity so that support for the war effort became an act of high Christian virtue … churchmen accepted the war as part of God’s providence for the world; through sacrifice, suffering and devotion to duty men would be renewed, lifted to a higher, more thoroughly Christian plane. Their concern was not, primarily, for the welfare of the Empire; rather they hoped that war would transform Australian society. (Ch. 8)

It was this hope for moral transformation through sacrifice that brought the major churches to the forefront in encouraging enlistment, and later conscription.

The Catholic Church, at the start of the war, also encouraged enlistments amongst their parishioners in what they saw, along with the Protestant churches, as a ‘just war’, and as a way of proving their loyalty as part of Australian society.  During the first conscription referendum in October 1916, the Catholic Church hierarchy advised that it was a political matter, and one in which the church would not be involved.  Mannix, still under the authority of Archbishop Carr, spoke out only twice.  One was a three minute speech where after congratulating Prime Minister Hughes for allowing the referendum, he said that Australia had suffered enough. The other occasion was at a fete in Preston on 22 October, where he defended his right to speak, at a secular place, at a secular function and in his personal capacity. This, he said, contrasted with the Protestant laity who spoke from the pulpit, week after week.

However, Catholic opinion hardened against the war by the time of the second conscription referendum on 20 December 1917. This is generally attributed to the influence of the newly ordained Archbishop Mannix, and as a response to the Irish rebellion, but McKernan suggests an additional theological motivation. Once  the Allies had shifted from a position of checking Germany’s aggression to one of  jockeying for economic advantage by destroying Germany’s economy and industry, Mannix no longer considered it a ‘just war’. Moreover, Mannix was enormously popular amongst working-class Catholics, and the laity pushed the church into a stronger anti-war and anti-conscription position.

Chaplains were appointed in accordance with the religious affiliations reported in the 1911 Census. They only had to serve for one year, which gave them a different perspective to that of the troops they served. Some chaplains accompanied soldiers on the ‘voyage only’, others were embedded with ‘their men’, especially in Egypt.  Catholic chaplains maintained their focus on providing the sacrament by ensuring that there was a chaplain available at each point of an injured soldier’s progress through ambulance station and hospital.  Among Protestant chaplains, sectarian lines often became blurred, and instead of  insisting on ‘moral regeneration’ as was the stance ‘at home’, many chaplains came to realize a man, outwardly irreligious, could do good things. Such chaplains were welcomed by their troops and the army hierarchy: those who wanted to maintain the sectarian divisions that were rife back in Australia were given short shrift.

There were exceptions to this generally pro-war stance amongst Protestant churches, but not many.  One of them was Rev Leyton Richards, of the Collins Street Independent Church shown above, who argued for the role of conscience.  Congregationalists, a small number of Methodists, one or two Baptists, Rev Charles Strong from the Australian Church and Rev. F. Sinclaire from the Free Religious Fellowship were among those who spoke out.  The Unitarian congregation, from whom Sinclaire had split, was pro-war (a stance I did not expect).  McKernan notes that pacifists with an appeal to conscience won the tolerance and respect of their fellow-ministers, but not those whose opposition sprang from the political realm, outside the church.  They tended to be ostracized and demoted.

Even when peace was declared, the major Protestant churches had not moved on from the ‘moral regeneration’ stance that they had adopted during the first weeks of the war. The sectarian rigidities that had emerged during the war were to grow even firmer and last for the next fifty-odd years.

McKernan concludes his study thus:

It has been the argument of this book that clergymen never broke themselves clear of the events, never gave themselves the opportunity to see events in perspective so that they were ever reacting rather than acting. Their initial response to the war determined their position until peace was declared… In 1917 and 1918 Australian clergymen took no part in the growing worldwide discussion about a negotiated peace; instead they merely repeated their belief that peace would not come until the nation had reformed. And so they concentrated on reform, personal and national. They were always spectators of the course of the war, fussing with the side issues but refusing to come to terms with the main drama. (p 172-3)

It’s impossible to know, of course, how Christian churches would respond to a world war today, especially one where the ‘enemy’ was not Christian.  As Judith Smart has noted in relation to the pro-conscription women’s movement, it’s not particularly fashionable to look at the conservative, establishment view of WWI. Probably as a reflection of my own politics, while reading this book I found myself bristling at the patronizing moral stance of the major Protestant churches, and cheering those courageous enough to really grapple intellectually and spiritually with the question of war and peace. McKernan does us a service, however sobering, in highlighting just how rare this was.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017: Roundup

Well, it’s close enough to the end of the year to do my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 Round-up. Looking through my reviews, I’m surprised how little Australian fiction I read this year. I’m acting as the Rounder-Upper-er for the History, Memoir and Biography genre on the AWWC site and I read much more in that genre. Perhaps a sense of obligation, or perhaps it just reflects my interests.  Here are my reviews for 2017:

FICTION

Barbara Baynton  Bush Studies

Jennifer Livett  Wild Island

Amanda Lohrey The Philosopher’s Doll

Emily Maguire  An Isolated Incident

Kirsten Tranter  The Legacy

Josephine Wilson Extinctions

NONFICTION

Kate Auty and Lynette Russell  Hunt Them, Hang Them

Jeannine Baker  Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam

Jill Barnard  Jetties and Piers: A background history of maritime infrastructure in Australia

Georgia Blaine  Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales

Janette Bomford  That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein

Bernadette Brennan  A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work

Noeline Brown  Living in the 1960s

Anna Clark  The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia

Verna Coleman   Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette

Kerrie Dawson  A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson

Jennifer Gall  Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet

Kate Grenville  The Case Against Fragrance

Ann McGrath  Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia

Anisa Puri  Australian Lives: An Intimate History

Olivera Simic  Surviving Peace: a Political Memoir

Leonie Stevens  Me Write Myself

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette’ by Verna Coleman

wayward_suffragette

1996, 176 p.

As I might have mentioned once or twice, I’ve been involved in a street opera project called Serenading Adela. This event commemorates the centenary of the march of about 300 women to Pentridge Prison on 7 January 1918 to sing songs to anti-war activist Adela Pankhurst, who was imprisoned there on charges arising from a speech given on the steps of Parliament House the previous year.  The Pankhursts were a well-known family involved in the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain, but Adela’s political history went beyond that in Australia.  She had been sent to Australia by her mother Emmaline in 1914 on a one-way ticket with twenty pounds, some woolen clothing and an introduction to Vida Goldstein, whom the Pankhursts had befriended back in 1911.

In Australia Adela Pankhurst was well-known  as a speaker against war and conscription, a member of the Victorian Socialist Party and a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia. From that she moved to the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire, and from there to the far-right Australia First movement.  She was interned following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. for her pro-Japanese sympathies in World War II.  While this shift from the extreme left to the extreme right is not uncommon, it does seem bewildering.  Lives are rarely lived randomly, and biographers look for a unifying thread, some continuity in world-view that makes sense to their subject, no matter how inchoate it may look from the outside.  So how does Verna Coleman characterize Adela Pankhurst?

A clue can be found in the subtitle: “the wayward suffragette”. The first third of this book deals with Adela’s life in England, as part of an intellectual, politicized family dominated by her mother Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel.  According to Coleman, Adela became increasingly uncomfortable with the militancy, violence and extreme feminism of the suffragette campaign, even though she herself was involved as speaker and activist. After a physical and emotional breakdown, and ensnared within the jealousies of her sisters, Adela left the suffragette battlefield and acquiesced to her mother’s demand that she not speak in public in Britain again, and agreed to go to Australia instead- just about as far away as she could get.

Adela arrived in Melbourne in March 1914 and was immediately welcomed by Australian suffragists.  She spoke out as a pacifist right from the start of the war, and sympathized with Germany as the underdog dominated by Britain and France (p.63)- a rather dangerous stance at the time. She was welcomed into the pacifist socialist group that was drawn to editor of the Socialist, Robert Ross; a group which included Bernard O’Dowd, Jack Cain, John Curtin and unionist Tom Walsh.  Pankhurst was to marry Tom Walsh, and together they moved politically across the spectrum from communist to anti-communist. It is rather galling to see that Adela’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is shared with her husband Tom Walsh, with his lifestory told first. One would have thought that she deserved a stand-alone analysis.

Many of the chapters of the book- but not all- start with a fictionalized, italicized word-picture of Adela. It’s an interesting touch, and I was disappointed that it was not sustained throughout the text. Coleman draws on Adela’s own autobiographical writing, letters in the Pankhurst-Walsh and David Mitchell archives, and newspaper articles.

Coleman’s book traces Pankhurst-Walsh’s  philosophical and political shifts, but although she recounts the trajectory, she does not very well explain it.  Analysis comes in a short chapter near the end of the book titled ‘Renegade, ratbag…or romantic enthusiast?’ In these few pages, she suggests that perhaps Adela tried to recapture the romantic fervour of her youth, constantly needing excitement as she shifted from one cause to another.  “Like many a reformer”, Coleman states “Adela was driven by egotism as well as by altruism”.  However, the adjective “wayward” in the title seems infantalizing and I don’t think that it does Pankhurst justice as a political actor in her own right.

In an article in Australian Historical Studies (25, 100 p.422-436) from 2008 called ‘The Enthusiasms of Adela Pankhurst Walsh’ Joy Damousi does a better job, I think, of detecting a coherent thread throughout Pankhurst-Walsh’s political journey. It was concern for children growing up in slum conditions, Damousi suggests, a concern that could be just as easily  (indeed, more) accommodated  in the politics of the right as of the left.  Once I read Damousi’s article, I saw that Coleman has in fact referenced this abiding passion of Pankhurst’s throughout. But by characterizing her as the ‘wayward suffragette’, Coleman highlights her deficits as a ‘wayward’ Pankhurst daughter rather than as a thinker of agency with a continuity of passion that took her from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other.

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This will be my final review for 2017 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  I’ll be back in 2018 to start the challenge all over again.

‘This Must Be the Place’ by Maggie O’Farrell

O'farrell_thismustbetheplace

2016, 483 p.

I’ve long had a rather ambivalent relationship with Maggie O’Farrell’s books.  I looked back in my reading journal to the first O’Farrell I read, After You’d Gone (2000).  I scored  a 10/10 (so I obviously liked it a great deal), but I also wrote:

I couldn’t work out if the author was sloppy and undisciplined or very very good…The book teetered on the edge of Mills and Boon but the strength of the writing anchored it.

Coming now to my fourth Maggie O’Farrell, I still feel much the same way, but I’m not as generous this time round.  I’ve since read My Lover’s Lover (2002) and Instructions for a Heatwave (2013) and I think that I’m starting to tire of O’Farrell’s repeated themes of disappearances and the fragility of relationships and her stylistic technique of multiple narrators and tenses.

They are all here in this book. The plot circles around the marriage of the two main characters: Daniel, an American linguist and Claudette, a famous film star who stages her own disappearance at the height of her fame.  After Daniel encounters Claudette and her stuttering son Ari on the side of the road with a broken-down car, they fall in love and he leaves his American wife and eczema-crazed son and doomed daughter to marry her. Both are flawed characters, being willfully absent at times and veering between oblivious and judgmental. They are surrounded by a wider constellation of other characters – mothers, siblings, children, a woman on a bus in South America -and complicated backstories. The book is set over 70 years, but most of the action takes place between 2010 and 2016 in Ireland, London and America. As well as a mixture of present and past tense narrative, it has a breakout section in the form of catalogue, and a chapter in the form of an interview.

The book seemed to take an inordinate time to get going, and this kaleidoscope of characters is too big to keep in mind. They swoop in and out of the narrative, and I found myself flicking back to see if I could find where they last appeared, cursing the absence of a contents page.  I used to think that jumping around in time and place required masterful plotting. It probably does, but I’ve come to value more highly writing that can take responsibility for time shifts through the narrative, instead of just plonking the reader into the middle of it and expecting them to make the connections. I don’t mind having to work hard as a reader, but I need to feel that it’s not because the author is being lazy.

I simply didn’t care enough for any of the characters to sustain me over such a lengthy book. It has received good reviews from readers who enjoyed its narrative skittishness, but with this particular writer, I’m finding it a bit stale.

My rating: 6.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (The Ladies Who Say Ooooh)