Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Philosopher’s Doll’ by Amanda Lohrey

Lohrey_Philosopher

2004, 306 p

It’s a strange thing, re-reading a book. You’re not the same reader that you were the first time and the context in which you’re reading the book is often very different. I read Amanda Lohrey’s The Philosopher’s Doll soon after it was released back in 2004, straight after reading two big, fat books: The Sotweed Factor and Tristam Shandy. At the time I leapt on it because it was local, domestic and female in comparison to the two hefty tomes that preceded it. Now, twelve years later I’m reading it again, this time for my face-to-face bookgroup. I didn’t view it quite as kindly the second time round.

The book is set in Northcote  with social worker Kirsten trying to summon up the courage to tell her husband Lindsay about her pregnancy. Lindsay does not want children, (or at least, not yet) and Kirsten is aware that she has fallen pregnant in benignly deceptive circumstances. Her philosophy lecturer husband Lindsay, on the other hand, thinks that all she needs is a dog to settle her maternal urges and so he embarks on a secret plan to buy a pure-bred Chow, a breed whose aloofness appeals to him. The dog is not Lindsay’s only secret: he is also receiving letters from an infatuated doctoral student, Sonia,  that he just puts away for now, not telling anyone about them.

The book is presented in four parts, and this part of the storyline plays out in the first two parts over a matter of several weeks. It is told in the third-person present tense (a tense that I don’t enjoy much) and the two perspectives are interwoven. Then, abruptly, in the third section, the infatuated student Sonia is speaking in the first person, past tense, some ten or more years after the events first part of the book.  Things have changed, and we see them in their new form, but not how they arrived at that point. Coincidences may be more planned than they appear, some mistakes are replicated and new ways of being are learned and embraced.

This is a very Melbourne book, and as a resident of the northern suburbs, I could pinpoint almost to the street – James Street, Northcote do you reckon?- where Kirsten and Lindsay lived. In this regard, the book has Garnesque features, but it is burdened with a didactism that you don’t find in Garner’s work. Lindsay’s occupation as philosophy lecturer gives scope for digressions into the emotional capacities of humans v. animals, and the question of the rhetorics of the heart. The final section of the book launches into a discussion of stunt -no – precision flying that almost sinks the book, if the lengthy retelling of dreams hasn’t already done so.

Does the book need all this philosophy trowelled onto it? I tend to think not. I felt a little betrayed as a reader by the abrupt change half way through, and as if I were sitting through a boring, one-sided conversation in the philosophical parts.

Reading back on the review that I wrote on this book back in 2004 (before I started this blog), I didn’t mention any of these criticisms. Did I just read it as a Melbourne-based story, and did I skip the philosophy? Or did I enjoy the philosophy perhaps?  Have I changed since then? Or am I more conscious of Lohrey’s earnest spiritual intentions in writing now after reading A Short History of Richard Klein, which I found even more didactic than this book?

Sourced from: C.A.E. Bookgroup

Rating: 6.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

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‘The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia’ by Anna Clark

clark_thecatch

2017, NLA Publishing, 145 p.

In a beautifully presented book, the “story” (but really, the “history”) of Australian fishing is told by historian and fellow fishing enthusiast, Anna Clark. This shared love of fishing permeates the text of this  book, not just in the “we” language that Clark deploys, but also in the carefully crafted ‘fisher’s-eye’ paragraphs that commence each chapter. Here, for example, is the start to the chapter ‘Early Industry’ that takes us right into the boat with a single fisherman in his small boat:

The boat glides out of Albany and sails across the sheltered waters of Princess Royal Harbour. A breeze skims across the bay and fills the sails- just enough to push the little boat along into the incoming tide to set the nets.  There’s plenty to catch here, and the fisherman fills his woven baskets with herring, whiting and bream, with a few skipjack and pike thrown in for good measure.  But there’s not much point chasing the big hauls, since the fish go putrid after a day or two ashore- and anything left over has to be buried. (p 49)

Or here we are on a modern commercial fleet ship:

The engine’s running and its gentle throb can be felt through the humming deck. Filleting knives are neatly lined up by the cutting boards near the ship’s bow, someone’s hosing off the blood from this morning’s catch and there’s a constant and slightly unpleasant smell of fish.  In the centre of the deck is a little hatch with a lid. Inside, a steel ladder drops down to the icy hold below. It’s dark and filled to the brim with neatly stacked ten-kilogram boxes of fish fillets, snap frozen by the boat’s powerful compressor. They sit waiting to be unloaded and taken away by refrigerated truck to the city’s markets. (p.97)

As well as capturing the tone of the narrative, these two opening paragraphs encapsulate many of the themes of the book: the joy of fishing, the deceptive abundance of fish, the problem of wastage and storage and the effects of technological change.

Published by the National Library of Australia, this lavishly illustrated book shares the high production values of its other volumes, and draws generously on the holdings of the library in photographs, maps and diagrams.

The book starts with indigenous fishing, which was described at length by Cook and Banks to illustrate the abundance of the eastern coast, and which was captured in many of the early drawings and paintings of New South Wales.  The amputation of the pinky finger on Eora fishergirls made it easier to use a line for fishing. It attracted the attention of these early commentators and was clearly shown in convict artist Thomas Watling’s drawing of Dirr-a-goa in the 1790s, while the term for the amputation, “Mal-gun”, was noted in William Dawes’ notebook of translations of Eora words.   However, as Clark notes:

While early colonial sketches and paintings give wonderful snapshots of Indigenous fishers, they do so from a distinctly European perspective.  Written accounts are similarly revealing – and we should be grateful for the faithful record of fishing practices and winning catches they’ve produced- but we can’t forget that these early settlers viewed Indigenous society through a distinctly colonial lens. (p. 17)

Indigenous perspectives on fishing come through the presence of scar trees where bark has been excised to build canoes, the remnant fish traps in rivers, shell middens and through indigenous carvings and paintings of fish.  This indigenous perspective is not relegated to the obligatory opening chapter, but instead continues through the book, with the continuation of fishing at riverside and coastal Aboriginal missions and Traditional Owners claims on traditional fisheries.  As she points out, fishing participation rates among in the Indigenous population sit as high as 92% in some communities, and it is an integral part of connection to country and cultural knowledge. (p. 132)

The abundance of fishing was reported by Captain Cook, and the First Fleet was well equipped to take advantage of it. However, Governor Phillip was less effusive, reporting that some days the fish were there- other days not. The photographs in the book – taken specifically to celebrate the size  of the catch – highlight abundance, but the text tells another story as fishing grounds are fished out and one species of fish collapses after another.

Another theme is the ongoing contest between competing interests. Colonial gentlemen craved the manly sport of fly-fishing and introduced European species into Australians waters with sometimes catastrophic results. (I knew about the European carp, but to be honest, I didn’t realize that the trout was an introduced fish- shows how little I know!) The government supported the establishment of commercial fisheries and the storage and infrastructure requirements to transport fish to lucrative markets, but in response to political pressure, it has more recently championed recreational fishing and set aside no-go zones to increase stock numbers. The emergence of Senators representing recreational fishing interests is likely to keep this political contest alive.

I did find myself wondering who this book is aimed at.  Its appearance just prior to Christmas is, I’m sure, well-planned. Its copious and beautiful illustrations mark it out as a coffee-table book, but the text ranges beyond the ‘whoa! look at that!’ response to a photograph of a big fish. Its author, Anna Clark, is well known in academic circles for her work on public history and history teaching and she brings to the book an awareness of sources and a keen sense of finding history in the everyday.  Most importantly, she brings her own love of fishing to the text, and I think that this is what fishers will respond most to in this book.

Sourced from: Review copy from Quikmark Media and N.L.A.

aww2017-badge

I’ve included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Story of Conscription’ by Leslie C. Jauncey

jauncey

1968 reprint with foreword by Patrick O’Farrell, 1935 original text, 365 p.

Even though I have an ambivalent relationship with the tsunami of commemorative activities related with WWI, there may be a little flurry of book reviews related to the 1916/7 Conscription debates over the next month or so. As part of my work with Heidelberg Historical Society, I write a feature in our newsletter that looks at the Heidelberg-Ivanhoe district a hundred years ago. In December 1917 the second ‘referendum’ about conscription was held, and I’m speaking to our December meeting about how this Australia-wide political event played out at the local level a hundred years ago. Hence, my interest in conscription over the last year or so though historic walks (see here and here), a conference and the books in which I’m immersing myself at the moment.

A year ago I attended the launch of recently-published The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, which I reported here.  I finally started reading it this week (books sit around on my desk for a long time!) In the introduction it was noted that there was little discussion of the conscription conflict as a distinctively Australian experience, and that “there has been no book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, development and sources in 1935″(p.6).  Well, I thought, I don’t know anything of what Jauncey said, so I shut The Conscription Conflict and chased down Jauncey’s book The Story of Conscription in Australia instead. After all, if a book is offering “new interpretations”, perhaps I should know what the old interpretations were first.

Jauncey? Where have I read that name before? Then I remembered that it was a section on the Honest History website, where various authors took on the mantle of blogging as Jauncey.  As well as writing The Story of Conscription, Jauncey also wrote about the Commonwealth Bank, visited Russia, lived in America and was of interest to the FBI as a possible (but unproved) Communist.  What is interesting about this 1935 book is that it was republished with a foreword by Patrick O’Farrell (historian of the Irish and the Catholic Church in Australia) in 1968, during the Vietnam war when conscription was again to become so controversial. This foreword, now itself nearly 50 years old, criticizes the book for its one-sidedness (a very valid criticism) but also for its downplaying of factors in 1916/7 that were seen in 1968 to be far more significant than Jauncey suggested: most particularly, the role of the Catholic Church, farmers concerned about their labour supply and the socialist and industrial movements.

I’m not sure that Jauncey dismissed these factors as much as O’Farrell accused him of doing in 1968, but it is certainly true that Jauncey’s approach privileged the religion-based groups who opposed compulsion, both in relation to conscription and to the Compulsory Military Training scheme which preceded it.  As O’Farrell points out, Jauncey draws heavily on a book published in 1919 by J. F. Hills and John P. Fletcher, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers),  called Conscription Under Camouflage. In this post-war book, Hills and Fletcher had compiled newspaper clippings, pamphlets and official materials relating to compulsory military training, which they and the Australian Freedom League (formed 1912) opposed, even before the commencement of WWI.

It is this approach based on document-collection that Jauncey takes up in The Story of Conscription in Australia. As Jauncey writes near the end of the book:

Those people in Australia who have during the past twenty-five years collected valuable data on militarism and suppression should pool their priceless information so that it might be available at a minute’s notice. To-day [i.e in 1935] this material lies scattered all over Australia, being in cellars, lofts, sheds, and other places. Every year some of it is lost. If this data is not soon gathered and catalogued, it will be lost for ever. (p.348)

It’s perhaps no surprise that, as O’Farrell points out, Jauncey’s book could easily be called ‘Selected Documents of the Anti-Conscription Movement’ (p. ix). Many of these pamphlets and letters are reproduced in full, and there is an emphasis on the manifestos and motions passed during meetings of anti-conscription and pacifist groups. There is, as O’Farrell points out, no ‘behind the scenes’ material, and “one is left with a host of questions about motivations and feelings and atmosphere”.(p. xi)

Nonetheless, even if this book is, as O’Farrell says, “a chronology of what happened rather than a detailed analysis of why”(p.xi), then it has to be said that it does the ‘what happened’ well. It is organized chronologically, taking its starting point from the introduction of Compulsory Military Training and the Defence Acts of 1903-1912. Pacifist groups opposed the compulsory nature of this training from the start, but their critique was muted in the early days of World War I, when there was almost unanimous support for the war. During the early days of publicity for the first conscription ‘referendum’ (a technically incorrect term, but in general usage), the ‘yes’ side was ascendant, but Hughes’ decision to issue a ‘call to the colours’ for all men of fighting age just prior to the actual vote shifted the sentiment, leading to a narrow over-all ‘no’ result.  Because of the closeness of the result, and  the pro-conscription Hughes’ election victory soon after the referendum, it was not surprising that a second referendum was foisted on the people in December 1917. In explaining the increased ‘no’ vote in this second referendum, Jauncey emphasizes the influence of the pacifist groups and their publicity of the plight of conscientious objectors in Britain and New Zealand under their conscription schemes. His treatment of the second referendum is relatively brief, comprising the final third of the book.

His closing pages, written in 1935, are interesting, knowing as we do what happened just four years later.  He celebrates the Peace Ballot, held in England in 1934-5 where supporters went door-to-door, polling 11.6 million people, 38% of the adult population, and half the number who voted in a general election five months later.

The results of the peace vote in England in June 1935 was a ray of hope in a European sky overcast with the threatening clouds of war and oppression. Over ten million people asked for continued affiliation with the League of Nations… By six to one voters in the peace ballot favoured the abolition of the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit…Over 92 per cent of the ballots favoured economic and non-military measures against an aggressive nation, while the vote for military action against an aggressor was under three to one. (p. 351)

He noted the increasing expenditure on armaments, and the moves towards increasing the periods of compulsory military training in Switzerland and France, and English moves towards compulsory air-raid drills.  He predicted:

In general the peace movement today like all reform groups is waiting for something to happen that can be used to its advantage.  It is likely that actions of the militarists during the next few years will bring together large sections of the peace movement, resulting in an active organisation that will go further than ever before in the direction of removing the causes of war. (p. 355)

I wish he’d been right.

He ends his book with an affirmation in the faith of the ‘ordinary man’.

The anti-conscription movement in Australia showed that very little faith should be placed in the over-whelming majority of leaders as bulwarks against militarism. Archbishop Mannix of the Roman Catholic Church was the only authority in the Commonwealth who vigorously opposed conscription. Six out of seven of the Australian governments, together with almost all political, economic, and religious leaders, demanded compulsion. Yet against all this power and against the suppression and censorship of the time the will of the people prevailed against conscription. A determined people won. The “No” votes were those of the ordinary man and woman and of the ordinary soldier in the trenches.  The peace movement must concentrate on the ordinary citizen. After all, it is he who has to put up with most of the hardship of wars. A well-developed and organized public opinion against war and conscription can prevail. (p.353)

But it was not just Jauncey’s book that was overtaken by other events. In O’Farrell’s foreword, written in 1968, he notes that “…in 1943 or 1964, the conscription question did not become again a matter of such deeply divisive national passion” (p.xiv).  Although perhaps true for the introduction of conscription in 1964, the Moratorium marches of 1970 and 1971 eventually gave the lie to that statement, and perhaps vindicated for just a while, Jauncey’s more optimistic view of the power of mass political protests. Not for long though, when millions of protesters world wide were impotent to stop the Iraq war in 2003.  In the face of increasing expenditure on weaponry, and the sabre-rattling of ‘Little Rocket Man’ and ‘the Dotard’, I suspect and fear that we’re just as impotent today.

‘Death Sentence’ by Don Watson

deathsentence_watson

2003, 191 p.

I must confess that my heart sank when I saw that my CAE reading group book for this month was Don Watson’s Death Sentence. I had read it when it came out in 2003 and now  I struggled to re-read it for our meeting.  It seemed repetitive and unstructured, with just one argument repeated over again. So I was interested to dip back into my reading journal from 2003, prior to starting this blog, to see what I thought of it then. Here’s what I said in 2003:

An interesting reading experience, given that at the time I was reading RMIT’s Teaching and Learning Strategy as part of an assignment. This is part-diatribe, part-essay about the intrusion of managerialist language into places where it doesn’t belong. It certainly makes reading the ads in Saturday’s Age, policy documents and government advertising at all levels an exercise in cutting out ‘clag’. Knowledge Management as a discipline comes in for a particular serve. In many ways this is an extension of Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ but longer, and at times less disciplined. Good critique of the use of public and political language, but just a bit self indulgent. 8/10

I’m surprised now that I rated it so highly, but perhaps it was a new perspective back in 2003. After all, in the midst of a Howard Government, we hadn’t at that stage been deluged with Rudd’s verbal sludge, which made Watson’s critique almost self-evident.

The book itself has several unnamed chapters, marked only by a blank page separating them from the previous chapter. It’s hard to work out quite how one chapter differs from the next, or if there is a theme to distinguish one chapter from the other, especially as the book goes on.  The pages have a wide margin, in which are quotes from other texts: some pithy and elegant; others the type of verbal glue that he declaims against.  I can’t help feeling that the book is too long: that it would have been better served in a Quarterly Essay format of a lesser length.

Some fourteen years on, I suspect that Watson’s howl of anger is more about the application of managerial thinking as a construct, rather than the language itself (although the two are, admittedly, inseparable). It’s something that I abhor too, and I’ll have more to say about it anon.  However, I think that programs like the ABC’s brilliant parody of the National Building Authority Utopia have done much to skewer it, far more than this book with its arch tone could ever do.

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice

My rating (now): 6.5

‘Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara’ by Aleida March

remembering_chev

2012, 146p. (e-book) (translated by Pilar Aguilera)

I was spurred to read this book more by my recent trip to Cuba than anything else, but it is particularly apposite given that it is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Che Gueverra in Bolivia on 10 October 1967.

Moreover, there has been a little bubble of fictional books recently, told from the perspective of the unheralded wife of a famous man:  Mrs Cook, and Emma Darwin “the inspirational wife of a genius”.  This book, however, is told in Che’s wife’s own words. It is the translated work of a woman who is not a natural writer, and it is a rather stilted and at times hagiographic work. But beyond this, the restrictions and even mundaneness of life with a man lauded as a revolutionary hero (and criticized for his inflexibility and his ruthlessness in exacting ‘revolutionary justice’ too) comes through in this book, despite its limitations.

Aleida March was quite a bit younger than Ernesto Che Guevara, and when she first met the man already dominant in revolutionary circles, she did not think of him romantically at all.  He was already married, and she was working as a teacher as well as circulating on the edges of the leadership of the revolution.  She had brought contraband goods to the revolutionaries, taped to her body, and she needed his assistance to remove the tape that had adhered to her skin. After this rather intimate start, they were married only for eight years, and had four children in that time.

As might be expected in such a book, there are a lot of names, as various people are name-checked and credited. She assumes, as might be expected in a book written in Spanish and published in Cuba, a familiarity with the events and people of the Cuban revolution that readers on the other side of the world might not necessarily have.  There are short, but useful, footnotes giving some of the details that March has skated over, but I wish there had been a map as well.

Despite all his revolutionary ardour, Che seems to have held fairly traditional views of gender roles, and his wife seems to have been just as much relegated to the stage-curtains of obscurity as other wives of famous men.  He was quite blatant in his preference for sons over daughters, and it was quite clear that the mission of spreading revolution in Africa and other South American nationals was paramount over any other family or personal ties.

Which is not to say that it was easy. I was really touched near the end of the book when she relates how Che disguised himself as an old man to return clandestinely to Cuba, before leaving for Bolivia where he met his death.  He wanted to see his children, but they could not let the children know who he was, because they were too young to be able to be trusted completely not to tell others. So he put on padding, and dubbed himself ‘Uncle Ramon’ and visited the family for one day under the guise of being an old family friend. When his daughter fell and hurt herself, he tended her injury (he had been a doctor). She came up to her mother afterwards and whispered to her “I think that man loves me”. How sad that he couldn’t tell her who he was: how poignant that she sensed it anyway.

The circumstances around Guevara’s death are given little space. She was left in her thirties, with four young children. She did remarry, but gives few details. In fact, she is rather absent in this book, which is more about her husband than herself.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

‘Jetties and Piers: a background history of maritime infrastructure in Victoria’ by Jill Barnard

jetties-and-piers

2008, 65 p. & notes

I came upon this publication by chance a few months back, while I was looking up ‘quarantine’ for my  posting about Port Phillip during March 1842.  The report had been divided up into separate PDF files, and my interest piqued, I set about finding the rest of the publication.

Update: The author has since made the whole publication available on their website. Thank you! You can find it at http://livinghistories.net.au/our-work/commissioned-histories/

The author, Jill Barnard, is one of the team from the Living Histories group of professional historians. As part of her conclusion, she  cites the  founding member of the Australian Association for Maritime History  historian Frank Broeze , who pointed out that Australia’s maritime identity is as important as “sheep and land, railways and goldmines, bushrangers and bankers” in shaping Australia’s identity. It’s certainly an argument that has been reinforced for me in reading about Melbourne’s earliest days through the three Melbourne newspapers. The shipping news took up nearly 3/4 of one of the four pages in each issue; people were constantly falling off boats and jetties; and overseas news finally arrived long after the event, on account of the vast sea distances being covered.

This publication, sponsored by the Heritage Council of Victoria focuses as its title denotes, on maritime infrastructure and thus reflects a ‘heritage’ approach, based mainly on structures and their usages. The report is divided into two parts: Part 1 deals chronologically with 1800-1850, then Part 2 adopts a thematic approach, adopting the Australian Framework of Historical Themes (2000, 2001). No longer being involved in curriculum development and coming from a historical rather than heritage perspective, I was completely ignorant of such frameworks. The Framework is explained in detail here, and the Victorian Framework (2010) which was developed to respond to it is here (ah- Federation at work!)  I suspect that the impetus for ‘frameworks’ reflects the late 20th-early 21st century desire for checkboxes,  wall charts and verb-driven, economy-focussed competencies and I must confess that the whole process passed me by completely. Will I live long enough to see this whole approach to conceptualizing history itself historicized? I wonder.

I suspect that the two-part structure of this report reflects the constraints that such a framework placed on the author. As she points out, during the earliest years of Victoria’s white settlement there was a scramble by both private investors and governments to provide sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with the ever-increasing needs, and such infrastructure served a variety of purposes for immigrants, merchants, fishermen, postal services and customs officers. Her Part 1, reflecting the years 1800-1850 progresses chronologically. In Part 2 she adopts a thematic approach, with the chapters directly linked into one of the categories or subcategories of the Australian framework:

1. Improving Victoria’s Ports and Harbours (Theme 3 Developing local, regional and national economies)

2. Migrating to Victoria (Peopling Australia)

3. Moving People ( Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)

4. Moving Goods and Cargo (ditto)

5. Defending Our Shores (Theme 7.1 Governing Australia as a Province of the British Empire and Theme 7.7 Defending Australia)

6. Commercial Fishing (Theme 3.4  Utilizing Natural Resources)

7. Making Ports and the Coast Safe (Theme 3.16.1 Dealing with Hazards and Disasters)

8. Boat and Ship Repair and Building (Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)

9. Accommodating Seamen (Theme 3.22 Providing Lodgings)

10. At the Beach: Using the Sea for Recreation (Theme 8 Developing Australia’s Cultural Life)

As Barnard points out in her introduction, this thematic approach does not necessarily serve her well. Different sites have changed their functions over time and do not fit into the neat themes of ‘recreation’ or ‘moving people’ that she has selected. Moreover, the thematic approach gave rise to a degree of repetition. As she admits, “it is difficult for the reader to simply follow particular sites or themes through from the beginnings of European settlement to the present day”. She’s right.

Notwithstanding  the author’s own misgivings , I found this an interesting read. Although Victoria has a long coastline, there are few deep-water harbours. The Heads made the whole entry to Port Phillip treacherous, and both Melbourne and Geelong ports were ringed with sandbars. The settlement of Melbourne  on the Yarra River up on the Falls (which I’ve often mentioned in this blog ) meant that there was no direct connection to the ocean, although a canal was mooted for some time. She doesn’t just deal with Melbourne and Geelong: she also discusses  Portland, Port Fairy, Port Albert, Warrnambool and Lakes Entrance, as well as fishing and boat-building ports along the Bay.   Coastal shipping remained dominant for a long time because overland transport was so slow to develop, and the development of railways often bolstered port activity.  Nonetheless, the infrastructure for getting goods on and off ships remained primitive for some time. She cites the example of timber-loading at Mt Martha (on the Mornington Peninsula) where logs would be tossed off the cliff-face, where they fell to the beach to be loaded onto small boats and from there, onto larger ships. No wonder the container, which reduced double- and triple- handling, made such a difference to maritime transportation.

Most immigrants and passengers arrived at Melbourne, although during the 1840s and 50’s  there were attempts to channel immigrants directly to the pastoral stations that were crying out for their labour by landing them at Geelong and to a lesser extent Portland. Vessels for specifically inter-state travel continued until 1961 when they were replaced by international liners who had several ports on their itinerary. Her analysis extends up to the mid-twentieth century as she traces the demise of Station Pier and other passenger wharfs, especially after the opening of Tullamarine Airport in 1970.

It was fascinating to read about the early defence arrangements for the gold-rich Port Phillip Bay, in what are now inner suburbs like South Melbourne and St Kilda. Although sometimes the fortifications took so long to construct that military technology rendered them largely redundant, by 1890 Victoria was assessed as being “the best defended commercial city of the empire” (p.42)  Fort Nepean has the dubious distinction of being the site for the first British shots fired in both the First and Second World Wars.

I’d heard of Sir John Coode and the straightening of the Yarra, but I hadn’t realized how much of a ‘go-to’ man he was for infrastructure works on all Victorian ports.  The cost for infrastructure like beacons and lighthouses was borne by the colonies because they benefitted directly from the port activity, but after Federation the Commonwealth government took responsibility for ocean or ‘highway’ lights. I’ve seen sheds cantilevered over the water on the side of jetties and didn’t realize that they were rescue boats, and now I have a new appreciation for the rocket and mortar sheds where a ‘breeches buoy’ , similar to a pair of trousers, allowed a person to sit in them to be winched to shore.

My favourite part was the final chapter ‘At the Beach’ which reflected popular cultural use of the beach, as distinct from the largely economic focus of the other chapters.  Promenading at the beach was more important than swimming at it during the middle of the 19th century. At first sea bathing was forbidden between 6.00 a.m. and 8.00 p.m. because men swam nude, although this restriction was relaxed in 1917.  I’ve long been amused at the presence of life saving clubs at the mill-pond like bay beaches (e.g. 1912 Black Rock, Elwood and Hampton) and ‘baths’ separated out from the sea but these no doubt reflect the change from ‘taking the waters’ for health reasons to recreational swimming. The seawall that runs along Sandringham, Brighton etc. was constructed between 1935 and 1939 using stone recycled from city buildings including the old Melbourne gaol.  Other fences were made of ‘basketwalling’ made of ti-tree (which I can just remember). Boat sheds and private jetties reflect the purchase of beach-houses by well-to-to Melburnians.

All in all, an informative and well-told read for those of us interested in Victorian history.  It does assume a familiarity with the ports and places under examination, so it’s a fairly localized publication. It’s an interesting exercise to see the narrative limitations when a thematic framework is imposed onto a narrative, especially when dealing with an extended 150 year timeline.  I also found it a challenging idea to restrict the focus to activities that leave a physical presence in the form of infrastructure.  This object-based,  heritage-focussed approach is not one with which I’m particularly familiar (or, I admit, completely comfortable), but is is one that probably reflects the economic and public uses to which history is put today.

aww2017-badgeI have posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

 

‘Havana: A Subtropical Delirium ‘ by Mark Kurlansky

havana_kurlansky

2017, 229 p. & notes

I’ve read this book twice within six weeks. First I read it before leaving for my trip to Cuba, vowing that I’d write up my review in South America with all the free time at night I anticipated.  Well, most of the free time was spent blogging on my little phone, so the review wasn’t written. Then I borrowed it again a couple of days ago, to refresh my memory before writing this review and I was immediately drawn into a second reading, recognizing things and places that I’d seen and kicking myself for the things I’d missed.

Mark Kurlansky is an American writer who has spent over thirty years visiting Cuba, and so he writes from an American, rather than Cuban perspective. He is a prolific author, with many of his non-fiction works centring on an object like Cod, Salt or Oysters, as well as the histories of the Basques, European Jewry or the effect of baseball on San Pedro de Macoris.  In this book, he writes the history of Havana with affection, but you’re always aware that it’s an outsider’s perspective.  It’s a very literary history, with many allusions to Hemingway, Marti and other more contemporary Cuban authors. The author is aware that these works might not be familiar to his readers, and so he translates his quotations and gives sufficient context to make them meaningful. The book meanders its way through a cornucopia of themes in a basically chronological fashion, although the revolution itself is not described in much detail.  It is illustrated with 19th century woodcuts from magazines, and Kurlansky lets his words rather than images do the describing.

I was a little disappointed in the ending, which trailed off into a discussion of baseball, but having now seen the crowded baseball bleachers at a local small-town match, I have a better understanding of the Cuban love for the game.

That criticism aside, I really enjoyed this book, both before visiting Cuba and even more afterwards. In fact, I think that I inadvertently stumbled on the very best way to read it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (although if you’re visiting Cuba, why not buy the e-book for $12.50 AUD and take it with you)

Rating: 8.5/10