Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty


2015, 289 P

I still haven’t really come to terms with the fact that the Booker Prize now includes American works. Yes, I know that we’re all globalized and agile these days, but I think that the Booker has lost its distinctiveness since it was opened up beyond Commonwealth countries. While I’m ambivalent about the Commonwealth as a political entity, I do think that there is some underpinning cultural thread that links countries – especially the ‘white’ part of their population-  where, in living memory,  large numbers have grown up with a portrait of the Queen on the wall. The Booker Prize, I feel, is still the Commonwealth’s prize.

So I spent the first half of this Booker-Prize winning  book being angry at its American swagger, showoffiness and shoutiness. It was almost exactly half-way through that I started laughing, and then found myself chuckling away at various points to the end. I don’t read a lot of satire, and it’s a rather wicked pleasure when I do.

The un-named narrator, living in a post-Obama time, is African American and lives in Dickens, a lower-middle-class suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles. His home-schooled upbringing had been unconventional and overseen by his sociologist father who seemed determined to visit on his son all the most ethically-controversial psycho-social laboratory experiments of the twentieth century. After his father’s death, the narrator drifts into his father’s circle of old, idle chatterboxes who he dubs “The Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals” and tries to hook up with an old flame. It is while he is wooing his bus-driving love-interest Marpessa that he jokingly starts off re-segregation on her bus (yes, re-segregation, not de-segregation) and, discouraged by the neglect of Dickens as a suburb, initiates a broader grass-roots program of resegregation throughout the suburb that actually works. School results improve, crime declines, civic pride burgeons – all because of a self-imposed segregation.

It’s all very slick and clever and  the book would probably easily reward a second reading. The blurb on the back describes it as “a powerful novel of vital import and an outrageous and outrageously entertaining indictment of our time”. Which is probably true. But I still think that it’s better recognized under the New York Times Book Review (as it was) than as winner of the Booker Prize.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner


2016, 240 p.

When I checked out how many Helen Garner books I’d reviewed on this blog there are five, which makes her (along with Kate Atkinson) the author I’ve read most often in the last eight years. I read others of hers, too, read before I started blogging. It’s no secret that I very much enjoy her writing and feel a sense of wary affinity with her, bolstered by being much the same age and a fellow-Melburnian.

This book differs from the others I’ve reviewed in that it is a collection of her essays, several of which I have read before in the Monthly. None of them are particularly long and they offer a slice of perspective and a way of looking, as the title suggests. She has a penetrating intensity that disguises itself as a general-looking-around. I find myself wishing that I could discipline myself to look more carefully and thoughtfully, instead of just letting things wash over me.

As with short stories, it’s hard to talk about essays, because each one stands on its own two feet and it feels almost unfair to single one out above the others. A collection of essays, just as with short stories, does not just fall together but is instead a curated arrangement and selection.  This is particularly apparent in this book, which is divided into six parts.

The first, ‘White Paint and Calico’ explores housing and the sense of home, which indirectly is the theme that her early books are rooted in, even though they directly focus on people.  Perhaps this is where the Melbourne-identification is closest for me.  Inner-city, student share-house Melbourne permeates Monkey Grip, the Last Days of Chez Nous is set in one house, and I’m sure that I know exactly where Dexter and Athena lived in The  Children’s Bach. As it happened, I read these essays in bed on a Sunday morning, having just read Robyn Annear’s excellent Melbourne-Prize-for-Literature winning essay ‘Places Without Poetry’ (available online here)  and they were a perfect complement to each other. I felt a rush of rootedness in the final paragraph of ‘Suburbia’ where she writes about Gerald Murnane’s acceptance speech for the Melbourne Prize for Literature.  Murnane, who ironically lived only two streets away from me here (in an obscure lower-middle-class suburb that is rarely in the news) , refused to go abroad with the prize money that was, under the terms of the prize, supposed to be spent on overseas travel. Instead, he said, he would visit all the houses in Melbourne that he had ever lived in.

Then he tilted back his head, closed his eyes, and recited a long list of all his former addresses in the suburbs of Melbourne: plainly named streets in obscure, lower-middle-class suburbs that no one ever goes to or hears about in the news.  And as he reeled them off, by heart, without hesitation, in chronological order, we all held our breath, with tears in our eyes, because we knew that he was reciting a splendid and mysterious poem.  It was a naming of parts of the mighty machine that had created the imaginative world of an artist. And when he finished, and opened his eyes, the place went up in a roar of joy. (p.25)

When my husband forwarded onto me, the (excellent)  poem ‘Naming of Parts‘ by Henry Reed, I realized anew that Garner ‘looks’ with the eye of a reader and writer.  This comes through clearly in the second part, ‘Notes from a Brief Friendship’ where she talks about her friendships and influences, of varying intensities, with other writers. One was Mrs Dunkley, a primary school teacher, with the sting in the tale of the essay coming in the closing paragraphs as the adult Helen looked back at the school-girl Helen, and her perceptions then of Mrs Dunkley.  I enjoyed this story most from this section, despite the fact that unknown Mrs Dunkley is surrounded by Australian literary luminati like Tim Winton, Jacob Rosenberg, Raymond Gaita and Elizabeth Jolley.

Part Three, ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ is largely about construction of self as a writer. It’s probably the baggiest section, with three slabs of paragraphed journal writing, interspersed with two other stories: one an anecdote about a dog and the other a reflection on daughterhood.

Part Four ‘On Darkness’ is a collection of writings related to crime, which has been her patch over recent years with ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ and ‘House of Grief’.  Part Five ‘The Journey of the Stamp Animals’ is a collection of judgments of a different kind, as she critiques books and films. I hadn’t thought of her as a cultural critic, but she’s a good one.

And finally, Part Six ‘In the Wings’ is another more disparate section. ‘My First Baby’, which I think was probably the most memorable essay of the collection, is a reflection on her uni-student job in the toy department of a department store and her mature-woman recognition of something she witnessed there. Several of these essays reflect on the physical act of growing older- something I’m only too aware of!

So, all in all, an absolutely delightful gift of Garner’s writing, all bundled up into one book. Thank you.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10


I’ve included this review on my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge

‘White Dog’ by Peter Temple


2003, 337 p.

I think I’m just going to have to admit that I don’t really like Peter Temple’s books very much.  I’m already ambivalent about the fictional crime genre and Temple’s books, with their abbreviated dialogue and huge range of incidental characters, just confuse me.  I looked back at my review of Truth, another of his novels, and I could just as easily cut-and-paste the comments that I made about that book into this review too.

Just to add to the confusion, the ABC has recently screened another Jack Irish series that uses some parts of White Dog, but not the whole book. So not only did I have Guy Pearce firmly embedded in my head (no hardship, I must say) but I found myself half remembering some aspects of the plot and misremembering others that appeared in the television show only.

Like the other Jack Irish novels, White Dog is steeped in local Melbourne colour, very familiar to north-of-the-Yarra inner suburban Melburnians (as I am). However, it’s a rather curmudgeonly approach, dismissive of hipsters and all-day breakfasts and harking back to a 1980-1990s cool, and even further back to the glory days of Fitzroy Football Club.  It’s all thoroughly recognizable to a Melburnian but I don’t know that it would add much for readers elsewhere.

So all in all, not a particularly successful read.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

My rating: 6.5

‘The Bush’ by Don Watson


2014, 378 p & notes

I’m almost embarrassed to think how many times I have borrowed this book from the library and had to return it still unread once my renewal limit was reached. I first borrowed it after it received Premiers’ Awards in both NSW and Queensland and it was announced as the Indie Book of the Year in 2015.  I borrowed it again months later, but then decided to read Don Watson’s earlier book Caledonia Australis instead (see my review here). And now, after multiple renewals and many months, I have finally finished it.

I was wrong to see Caledonia Australis and this most recent book, The Bush as companion pieces.  The earlier book (originally written in 1984) is a product of Don Watson the historian, but The Bush, with its subtitle ‘Travels in the heart of Australia’ is more similar to Watson’s American Journeys or his more recent Quarterly Essay The Enemy WithinIn both these books Watson travels to different locations and milieus, talking with people, looking out the window, sniffing the air.  This is very much the way that you need to read The Bush. It was only when I realized that, and stopped looking for a clearly defined argument, that I began to enjoy it.

I only found the map, too, once I sat down to write this review, and I feel rather annoyed at myself for overlooking it earlier.  The map shows the breadth of his travels, extending almost 3/4 around the circumference of Australia and leaching inland.

He calls his book The Bush but as he points out, that short word is too small to contain all that ‘the bush’ evokes:

the bush is any one of many different kinds of forest, scrub, woodland, savannah, rangeland, grassland and desert, made up of countless species in countless combinations of shape, colour, light and atmosphere so ephemeral and various that, unable to cope with them, our collective imagination has rendered all as bush, and often reduced it to a river red gum combined with a flock of sheep.

Collapsing into a single word or image tropic rainforest and mulga, and all the ecosystems in between, is a natural enough convenience, but the bush describes much more than vegetation and its native creatures… It has equal measures of what was there before Europeans came and what is there now.  It is what we have done to the natural environment and what it has done to us.  The world outside us and the world within.  Wilderness, home and garden.  Temple, nursery and slaughterhouse. (p.69- 70)

The book starts with the personal: his grandfather striding across the paddock to his cowshed, and his grandmother sweeping the back veranda. Watson is a country boy (and already there’s the slippage in terminology between country/bush) from Gippsland, and in the final chapter he tells us that some forty-odd years later he has returned to the bush, albeit the very different bush of the Macedon Ranges. In between the chapters range across the Mallee and Wimmera, the Murray-Darling Basin, the Mitchell Grass Down and the West Australian wheatbelt.  The chapters are arranged, however, at a human emotional level as well as a geographical one: “The Bush Means Work” or “Striving to Stay in Existence” “Farming the Flood Plain” or “The Bush Will Not Lie Down”.

Each chapter starts with an italicized paragraph of subheadings to signpost the content to come, similar to those found in an old-fashioned novel (I’m sure that there’s a word for this, but I don’t know what it is).  These prefacing epigraphs (is that the word I’m looking for?) reflect the meandering, ruminative nature of the chapters, which branch off and diverge into unexpected places.  There are many lists, particularly of trees, grasses, birds and fish. There are also many commentators along the way: the present-day people he has met on his journey, explorers and visitors to Australia who diarized their impressions, settlers who documented their memoirs, historians who have responded to these primary sources, and fictional characters crafted by mainly Australian writers drawing from and replenishing the well of the Australian imagination about the bush.

For, as he says:

The Australian bush is both real and imaginary. Real, in that it grows in various unmistakable bush-like ways, and dies, rots, burns and grows into the bush again; real, in harbouring life.  Imaginary, in that among the life it harbours is the life of the Australian mind. It is, by many accounts, the source of the nation’s idea of itself…. The bush is a social construct as well as an ecological one: as much as the things that grow and live there, we define it by the people who inhabit it. (p66)

Embedded within the landscape are people, both Indigenous and European. There is no one ‘Indigenous’ chapter here, tacked onto the front or the back of the body of the book.  Instead, the Indigenous and European presences are interwoven throughout the chapters, sometimes existing side-by-side, at time working at cross-purposes, sometimes in a state of active hostility.

Much of the book reflects struggle with physical elements like soil, water, fire but its final words (before an oddly placed appendix) are those of in the realm of the emotions:

It can do no harm to settle on the public mind a deeper and more honest knowledge of the land than anything that myth and platitude allow, or to encourage love to overrun indifference… We need a relationship with the land that does not demand submission from either party, that is built more on knowledge than the hunger to possess, and finds the effort to understand and preserve as gratifying as the effort to exploit and command.  In the end it is possible to love and admire the bush… Except we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again.  (p.373)

I enjoyed this book so much more once I started to look at it as a series of essays, rather than an argument in itself. They are beautifully written, and would lend themselves well to being read aloud, and being read over and over. You don’t need to read it in one go, and you don’t need to read it only once.  It’s the sort of book that belongs on your own bookshelf  and it will, on mine- especially now that it has been released in paperback.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library  (again and again)

My rating: 8.5



‘What Do We Want?’ by Clive Hamilton


2016,  190 p & notes.

I quite often attend demonstrations. Climate change, the war in Iraq, anti-Kennett, Hiroshima commemoration, refugees – I’m there.

It’s often struck me as I gaze around at the people, many of whom are my baby-boomer age and at the police who generally just look bored, that demonstrating in Melbourne CBD in the 2000s is a fairly cost-free enterprise for me. I’m reassured that I won’t be arrested (a middle-aged woman isn’t much of a threat) and I’m certain that I won’t be killed. I am very much aware that there are other places in the world where this isn’t the case, and I suspect that although I’m happy to let the whole world see my principles and causes here in safe Melbourne, I’d suppress or maybe even jettison them in a more dangerous environment.  But as Clive Hamilton shows us in this book, protest in Australia has not always been as cost-free as it is now.

As he explains in his introduction, Clive Hamilton himself has been a “foot soldier in several of the protest movements here described” and, for him, the writing of this book has been “not only a fascinating authorial task but also a wistful return to an early phase of my life” (p.viii). I think that this would be true of many of the baby-boomer, left-leaning, university-educated audience at whom that this book is probably aimed.  Possessed of the sense of democratic entitlement to protest, and living within a time of social change:

For many of the young people caught up in those heady times, the protests defined us. We felt we were making the world a better place, and we were. Although a few moved into politics and non-government organisations, most went on to careers, families and mortgages. But so deep was the imprint of those times that we always live a little in their shadow. (p. viii)

While that’s true, one of the things that surprised (and pleased) me was how many of the names mentioned in this book in passing are familiar to us, some thirty or forty years later in a range of  political, legal and policy bodies and in the entertainment industry. Hamilton says that the major aim of this book is to “honour those who have had the courage and commitment to stand at the front of the barricades” and as he points out, the presence of one or two main characters is fundamental to the theatre of protest.  His observations about the Tent Embassy hold true for protests in general:

Like all of the most effective protests, the Tent Embassy was a piece of theatre- the scene was set over an extended period, various characters were developed, tension mounted, a climax was reached and a denouement followed (p 118)

The choice of protest movements that he focuses on were influenced, he admits, by space limitations and the availability of usable images.  Pictures do play an important part in this book, described in Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers LitBlog as “a sort of coffee table book for baby boomers”. As a result, he generally takes up the stories of protests from about the 1960s onwards – something that was most discordant to me in his opening chapter “End the War” which commenced with the Vietnam war with little acknowledgment of the anti-war activism that had accompanied the First and Second World Wars.  His emphasis on protests from the mid-20th century onwards also means that he has been able to supplement his analysis with oral history.

His opening chapter ‘End the War’ focuses on the anti-conscription protests on the 1960s and early 1970s, most particularly (I’m proud to say) in Melbourne, where protests tend to be larger than elsewhere in Australia, including the anti-Iraq War protests with which the chapter ends.  The second chapter ‘Women’s Emancipation’ gives a longer-term description of feminism in Australia using the ‘first/second/third wave’ analysis and ending with the large march in Brunswick following the murder of Jill Meagher.  Hamilton has made better use of older images here, with a good coverage of images of Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst, for example, in the early years of the twentieth century. I was struck by the salience of the ‘chain’ imagery in some of his images, most particularly Rosalie Bogner and Merle Thornton (yes, Sigrid’s mum) chaining themselves to the bar at the Regatta Hotel, and Zelda D’Aprano shackling herself to the Commonwealth Building in Spring Street Melbourne over equal pay.

In my opening paragraph to this review, I commented that I felt safe in attending the protests I do, but this was certainly not the case in the third chapter ‘Gay Liberation’ where police violence was ugly and highly personalized.  There are murders here, and bashings that even prompted an apology from the NSW Parliament and Police for the violence at the first Mardi Gras in 1978.  In Chapter 4 ‘Indigenous Rights’ Hamilton reaches back into the first decades of white invasion to juxtapose the responses of Pemulwuy, who violently resisted invasion, and Bennelong who accommodated and adapted in the attempt to gain acceptance. This dichotomy between confrontation and conciliation, Hamilton argues,  is part of a every social movement but is particularly evident in Aboriginal politics, throughout Australia’s history. For a race that was supposed to die out or become invisible, the very act of making oneself visible was in itself a protest, as shown in the picture of Jimmy Clements sitting on the bare grass at the front of a newly-opened Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, a site re-occupied with the Tent Embassy of 1972. The Freedom Ride of 1965, taken up largely by young white activists, made indigenous people and the racism in outback NSW towns visible to city-dwellers, and was the training ground for activists who were to take up eminent roles in later life, particularly in the law (e.g. NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman, and A.C.T. Supreme Court judge Richard Refshuage).

Chapter 5 ‘Justice for All’ is rather a grab-bag of protest events “too significant or too fascinating to leave out” (p. 129). It includes the use of humour and satire, as in the BUGA-UP campaign against cigarette billboards, or Pauline Pantsdown’s parody of Pauline Hanson. It describes the Political Economy dispute (good RN podcast here)  at Sydney University in 1975 where current politicians Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Anthony Albanese were involved as undergraduates, and the low key and generous actions of Rural Australians for Refugees. The chapter closes with the bizarre scene of Gina Rinehart protesting the mining tax  with the bemused question “How could the act of protesting, the last resort of the powerless, be subverted by the richest and most powerful people in the land?” (p.154)

The final chapter of the book is ‘Save the Environment’ which starts with the 1969 protests over the Little Desert, which he sees as a transition from nature conservation to modern environmentalism. He focuses on protests over forestry, supplementing the text with the beautiful images of the Franklin River, and closes with protests over coal seam gas. Here we shift from a social movement involving personal freedoms to an economic critique, and here coercion and punishment takes on a monetary rather than physical form:

It turned out that the market could effortlessly accommodate demands for liberation, as long as they were demands for personal freedoms rather than threats to the economic structure itself. (p 190)

In this regard, the federal government’s attempts to remove access to the High Court over environmental matters, the creation of a new offence for aggravated unlawful entry on ‘inclosed’ land and the increase in fines for trespass from $500 to $5500 suggest that when the economic structure is threatened, the reaction is financial and legal rather than merely physical.

This book is very much of the Left, and I found myself wondering if and how the Right protests.  Although the Cronulla riots do get some coverage, there is no mention of the anti-abortion Helpers of God’s Precious Infants who have protested outside clinics for decades. Even on the Left, it seemed that there were some curious omissions.  I was surprised, for example, that anti-nuclear campaigns did not get more coverage: I feel as if I’ve seen that person on stilts with a gas mask for years.

The protests in this book involved people, and flipping through the abundant photographs, there is a focus on physical flesh-and-bones bodies.  This is not ‘clicktivism’ but on the street activism: “Rather than waiting for society to be ready for change, the lesson of radical activism is to make society ready for change” (p.116) With the electoral results with Brexit and now the American election, it seems that society can change in unpredictable ways and that ‘protest’ is now being played out through the system, and not just against it- but who knows how that is going to play out. Interesting times indeed.

Sourced from: N.L.A publishing (review copy)






‘Swallowed by the Sea: The story of Australia’s shipwrecks’ by Graeme Henderson


2016, 203 plus notes

Every edition of each of the three newspapers published in Port Phillip during the early years of the 1840s had a prominently displayed ‘Shipping’ feature. It would list the ships that had arrived  and departed from UK and Australian ports  and their important passengers, then there would be a long list of the progress of various ships along the main shipping routes heading to or from Australia.  I’ve only been on a ship on the open seas once, but I can remember thinking as I looked at the empty waves around us, that it was as if we were the only ship on the ocean. Of course we weren’t: there were ships criss-crossing out of our sight and  modern communications ensured that we were easily trackable and findable.  Ship journeys in earlier times were nowhere near as trackable or findable, as Graeme Henderson’s book shows,  with several of the wrecks he describes still undiscovered.  But, as some of his chapters suggest, even in what seemed to be an ’empty’ sea, mariners’ knowledge of the sea lanes and ports meant that they knew where to go for help, even though it may be thousands of kilometres away.

Graeme Henderson is a maritime archaeologist and was director of the West Australian Maritime Museum for 13 years. He discovered his first shipwreck at the age of sixteen, sparking a life-long passion.  In this book he examines shipwrecks spanning 1622 right through to 2010 on both the west and east coasts of the Australian mainland.  Chapters 1-11 deal with shipwrecks during the mid 19th century when, of course, Australia was completely dependent on shipping for communication and travel.  Two of the  final three chapters deal with shipping losses in World War II (loss of the Sydney and the bombing of Darwin in 1942) and the final chapter brings us right up to the loss of the asylum boat, SIEV 221 which brought visible footage of a modern, but yet somehow timeless, shipwreck right  into our lounge rooms.

The chapters are arranged chronologically. As he says in the introduction, there were thousands of shipwrecks that he could have chosen from, and in selecting the fifteen ships he has covered the north, south, east and west coasts and included both ships where the wreck has been located, and others where the wreck has not yet been found.  I wish that he had explained somewhere the criteria by which he chose these particular wrecks.  The historical significance of some is clear: the Tyral is the first known wreck;  and the Batavia, the Sirius and the Sydney  are well known. Other ships, unfamiliar to me until now, had connections with other famous ships and explorers. For example, the Pandora had a role in the Bounty, and the Porpoise and the Cato were connected with Matthew Flinders, while the Mermaid had earlier taken Phillip Parker King on his circumnavigations of Australia.  Nonetheless, there are famous wrecks that are not here (the Loch Ard, the Clonmel spring immediately to mind) and I wonder why they’re not.

Each chapter opens with a beautifully coloured double page image, usually  of an underwater shot, but sometimes featuring aerial photographs showing cliffs or an island outline.  In his narrative he gives some background on the ship itself, the route, and the reason for the journey, the circumstances of the wreckage, and then progress (or lack thereof) in locating the wreck.   Each chapter has a small inset box that summarizes the type of vessel, the captain’s name, a description of the ship, its cargo, number of passengers and survivors and the date and location of the wreckage.  Chapters are generously supplied with maps of the time, but I did find myself craving at times a clear, current-day map because, beautiful, detailed and ornate though the older maps might be, they are not instantly recognizable to modern eyes.  The chapters are similar in length and style to a long feature that you might find in a travel magazine, but in this case they are lavishly illustrated with historic images from museums and galleries and supported by a reference list at the back.

There are stories of here of incompetence, as with Captain John Brookes of the Tyral, the earliest known shipwreck in Australian waters, or Captain Nolbrow of the Mermaid in 1829. There was laxness in ensuring that the ships were seaworthy, as in the case of the Cheviot which was wrecked close to the Heads in Port Phillip in 1887, bequeathing its name to the nearby beach from which Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared in 1967. There is cowardice, as with Captain Palmer of the Bridgewater who sailed off, leaving the men of the Cato and the Porpoise to their fate (including Matthew Flinders), in a double sinking where three ships were sailing together.  Chapter 8 ‘Ladies on the shore’ differs from the other chapters in that it focuses on three individual women who were marked out by their connections with wrecks.  Eliza Fraser (the Stirling Castle in 1836) and Barbara Crawford (the America 1845) both lived for some time with aboriginal communities, while 16 year old Grace Bussell whose bravery in rescuing survivors from the surf, along with Indigenous stockman Sam Isaacs, echoed the British heroine who shared her first name, Grace Darling.

Historians often work alongside other professionals- archivists, archaeologists- who  work in history but with different interests and priorities. This was clearest to me in Henderson’s observation, which he raised but did not explore, that

It is in the consideration of the human traits on display during and after a ship’s wrecking- incompetence, skill, weakness and fortitude- that the most evocative stories emerge. (p. vi)

He described actions, but did not analyse, beyond labelling for example, Eliza Fraser as a ‘liar’ or certain captains as ‘incompetent’. As a historian, I found myself drawn to the chapters that most clearly focussed on the human, most particularly the loss of the emigrant barque Cataraqui in 1845 at King Island in Bass Strait with survival of only 9 from 431 passengers and crew, and the Dunbar in 1857 which sailed into the Gap at South Head (Sydney) with only one survivor.  The Dunbar and the SEIV 221 (2010) were both visual spectacles, occurring on inhabited coastlines and witnessed by horrified onlookers on the shore.

But many of the wrecks and the later searches for them did not take place in the public gaze, and I found myself startled and then vicariously proud when Henderson himself entered the picture as marine archaeologist, most particularly in the chapter on the Batavia where, as a 16 year old in 1963 he found the 1656 wreck of the Vegulde Draeck  and the chapter on the Fortuyn, which he is still seeking, using a combination of primary document research, scientific data about the speed of ocean currents and linguistic induction.

The book is written in clear, but rather no-nonsense prose.  The chapters are not long, and it lends itself well to dipping into as each chapter is self-contained.  I was almost always caught unaware by the abrupt ending of chapters, and even more so by the end of the book where I wish he had drawn it all together more. But perhaps this is the historian speaking, rather than the marine archaeologist.

Published jointly by NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia) and Western Australian Museum, the layout and illustrations of this book are striking. The pictures in the book are glorious, spanning old maps, paintings, etchings and newspaper images.  The text is interspersed with full colour plates of dives and seafloors, overwritten with observations from other marine archaeologists written in a font suggesting a hand-written message.  It’s a very human way of Henderson acknowledging the teamwork and shared endeavour in underwater exploration in what has clearly been a career marked by achievement and more importantly, passion.

Sourced from: Review copy

‘Australia’s Second Chance’ by George Megalogenis


‘Australia’s Second Chance: What our history tells us about our future’

2016, 292

When I did HSC Australian History back in 1973, one of the books we had to purchase was A.G.L. Shaw’s The Economic Development of Australia. With its mud-coloured front cover, it was not an enticing book and it remained resolutely unopened the whole year.  Despite my admiration for A.G.L. Shaw’s work on Port Phillip, I’ve never been tempted to dig it out again.

Generally, economic history does not have a lot of prominence within Australian historiography, especially in recent years.  This struck me particularly when I was looking at Upper Canadian history, where economic explanations of development seem to abound. I wondered if, perhaps the difference lay in the fact that Upper Canada was settled overtly as a capitalist, entrepreneurial venture, compared with Australia’s more ambivalent beginnings as a penal colony in NSW, Tasmania and Moreton Bay, or as a Wakefieldian experiment in South Australia combining economic and social/moral aims.

However, in Australia’s Second Chance George Megalogenis has written a history of Australia  from an economic perspective that starts with the First Fleet and goes right through to 2015. Megalogenis writes more as a journalist more than historian and political commentator and in this survey-history he relies mainly on secondary sources.

The thesis of the book is that with the Gold Rush, Australia had a windfall that opened us up to the  rest of the world and made us, during the 1870s, the most prosperous country in the world. However, by the end of the 1880s we were too rich for our own good, and insecure that we could lose it all and thus grasped at the White Australia policy as a way of keeping people and goods out in order to preserve our standard of living.  This insular, frightened stance locked Australia into low growth and a sluggish economy until post-war migration, in its various guises, reinjected diversity back into Australian society and again stoked the furnaces of economic growth. In the closing chapters of the book, written while Abbott was Prime Minister, he warns that income inequality and fear of competition could lead us to squander our ‘second chance’- the minerals boom and Hawke/Keating open economy- and condemn us again to mediocrity.

The book is written in three parts. Part I ‘The Rise’ covers from the First Fleet to post-Eureka. He starts with Governor Phillip, ‘the accidental egalitarian’ who was forced through food shortages, a dearth of free settlers, and British disinterest into making land available for convicts to prevent them returning to England. The government emigration schemes of the early 1840s, especially into Port Phillip, were a world-first in that they responded to  the local economy’s call for particular skills and made the link between migration and prosperity. When the gold rush came, “no people were better prepared for transformation by gold than the Victorians of the mid 19th century” (p. 67).  The goldfields were in close proximity to Melbourne and Geelong, and La Trobe increased the wages of public servants (to stop them leaving for the diggings) and embarked on a program of public works to ensure that a parallel economy developed for those who stayed behind in Melbourne.  These gold-rush migrants had had experience of the 1848 uprisings in Europe, and there was a consensus that political and social reforms should be ceded gradually.  Megalogenis makes the point that Australia’s late development as a capitalist economy  was an advantage, occurring after slavery had been abolished and in the wake of increasing shipping and communication developments, contributing to a national self-image amongst Australians as being people of the world.

However, as Part II ‘The Fall’ points out, this self-confidence was on shaky ground, and by the turn of the century, fearful that the good luck would run out, Australian policy became more insular and protective, revealing ‘the chauvinism of the affluent’ . There had been harbingers of this tendency in the earlier century, first with the rejection of  Earl Gray’s Famine Orphan Girls (which he describes as springing more from anxiety about sex, rather than anxiety about race). In the wake of the Eureka uprising, Australia became the first in the world to use democracy as a deliberate tool of exclusion, first with the Chinese gold-seekers, then with Pacific Islanders.  By the late 1880s, flushed with Centennial celebrations and the influx of overseas finance that fuelled Melbourne’s housing boom, the decision was made to wind back migration in order to reduce the Irish influence and in response to union pressure about Chinese undercutting wages. When the property bubble burst,the “entire swaggering edifice of the world’s richest settlement” collapsed too:

Australians reverted to to something closer to their sullen former convict selves, separated from the world, and overly reliant on an inattentive mother country. Australia could only define itself to the world by what it wanted to exclude.  The White Australia policy, drafted at the top of the boom, became the wrong answer to almost every problem the colonies confronted once growth ended, and then the wrong message to sent the world when they finally formed a federation in 1901. (p. 149)

The White Australia policy became Australia’s first defining feature, and Australia’s political class was “born thinking small” (p. 159). Although WWI generally (and perversely) boosted the economies of other countries, it did not do so in Australia. The 1920s were a flat, muted decade, especially compared to the rest of the world.  It was only after WWII that Australia reclaimed “its true, open migrant self” but even here we see a trajectory of rejection that started with the Irish Orphan Girls and followed with the Chinese diggers, the Irish during WWI, Italians in the 1920s and then post-war Jewish refugees.

In Part III ‘The Return’ he traces this return to migration as a source of growth during the second half of the twentieth century.  Although the election of Menzies marked a shift to the right, he claims that there was more continuity between Chifley and Menzies than is often assumed.  Menzies, for example, accepted Labor’s model for national post-war development and overturned Calwell’s War-time Refugees Removal Act.  In fact, there’s little evidence of Whitlam’s multicultural-friendly ALP here, and as Megalogenis points out, many present-day Liberals are more like Calwell’s ALP. Although Whitlam hammered the last nails into the coffin of White Australia, it was Menzies and Holt who shouldered the coffin to that point.  Not that it was a popular policy either, which makes it all the braver, with a 1951 survey revealing approval of Greek migration only at 43%, Yugoslavian at 34% and Italians at only 27%. Post-war migration followed the pattern that we see with Middle Easter migration today with the men arriving first, then after a decade women coming in to close the gender imbalance.  The practice of both parents working arose first amongst migrant families, and it was the second generation that really reaped the benefits of their parents’ sacrifice.

Taking a broad sweep across twentieth-century history, Megalogenis identifies two periods that combined policy innovation, political stability and a shared sense of purpose across the parties of both labour and capital.  The first was the Curtin-Chifley-Menzies era, spanning 1941-1966, and the second was the Hawke-Keating-Howard arc between 1983 and 2007.  They were similar in length, and each was preceded by global humilitation. Both commenced with the ‘Halley’s Comet of Federal politics’- a Labor government, and both ended with the complacency of a conservative government that won too many elections. Both led to a period of prime ministerial volatility similar to that of early Federation politics.

I also suspect that Megalogenis’ upbeat cheerleading for migration would have been dampened somewhat by Pauline Hanson’s success in the recent double dissolution election and the recent opinion poll that showed that her ideas on migration are held by half the electorate. Megalogenis would  almost certainly point out that post-war migration wasn’t electorally popular at time either, and that true leadership lay in taking the country in an ultimately positive direction that its citizens might have, with lesser leadership, baulked at. But I think that even he, with his generally positive mindset would be sobered by recent developments.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10