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Somewhat missing in action….

There’s been very little going on in this blog recently because I’ve been busy working away polishing up my presentation for Heidelberg Historical Society tomorrow night (Tuesday 12th). On the 20th December it will be the 100th anniversary of the second Conscription Referendum, and I thought it might be interesting to look at it from the perspective of a rather middle-class suburb like Ivanhoe and Heidelberg.

And tomorrow night’s the night! It will be at the Ivanhoe Uniting Church Community Centre in Seddon Street Ivanhoe at 8.00 p.m.  if you should just happen to be driving past.

Mind you- I’ve known about this since about November 2016. So why then was I finishing it off at 1.00 a.m. this morning? You’d think I’d know better by now.

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‘History of Wolves’ by Emily Fridlund

fridlund

2017, 275 p.

This book was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize but I really can’t work out why. It does well enough as a first novel – and perhaps that is its appeal – but it doesn’t have the depth or skill that I would expect in a shortlist for an award of the calibre of the Man Booker. (That said, the Booker shortlist is not necessarily a fool-proof guide to quality!)   Its shortlisting only serves to highlight its shortcomings.

Fourteen year old Linda lives in the backwoods of northern Minnesota with her parents, the last stragglers of a hippy commune that had disintegrated over the years. We learn from the opening pages that a little boy, Paul, has died and the rest of the book explains how. We learn that Linda is ostracized by her school mates, a fact which perhaps prompted the rather irrelevant blurb on the front cover “How far would you go to belong?” (yes, yes…I know that the author is not responsible for the marketing….) She hangs around the more unpopular kids and teachers, and it was her history teacher Mr Grierson who encouraged her to submit a project on wolves to the History Odyssey tournament. Her statement “An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason” resonated for her beyond the topic of wolves. When a young Christian Scientist couple, Leo and Patra and their young son Paul shift into a cottage on the lake, Linda gravitates towards them and through babysitting Paul feels that she is part of the nuclear family that she lacks. When Paul dies- again no spoiler because we are told that he dies from the start – Linda tells herself, without quite believing it, that “It’s not what you do but what you think that matters”.

The descriptions of landscape are excellent, especially those of the snow that blankets the lake and isolates them even further.  But there are too many themes in the book (belonging, dominance, the distinction between act and intent) and the writer labours them.  It’s not a bad book by any means and, indeed, I enjoyed reading it, but the marketing world of the Man Booker Prize has shifted it beyond its grade, and done it a disservice.

My rating: 6.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein’ by Janette M. Bomford

Bomford

1993, 226 p & notes.

Vida Goldstein is remembered as a suffragist, social reformer and pacifist. The picture on the front Bomford’s biography encapsulates what we tend to think of as the quintessential first-wave feminist, in her Edwardian clothing and earnest demeanour. It’s a photograph of Vida Goldstein, taken by T. Humphrey and Co Photographers, holding a placard dated 28 June 1912 about the English suffragist campaign. At this time, Vida Goldstein would stand in the Melbourne streets – a shocking sight- posters pinned to her skirt, selling the newspaper ‘Votes for Women’ and her own  ‘Woman Voter’ publication.

Vida Goldstein selling Votes for Women newspaper.

Vida Goldstein selling “Votes for Women” newspaper. State Library of Victoria, Maurice Blackburn, Papers, MS 11749, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/360742

Vida Goldstein’s internationalism was just one aspect of her life that Janette Bomford highlights for us in this biography. At a time when women elsewhere in the Empire were still fighting for the right to vote, New Zealand and Australian women (who received the vote in 1893 and 1902 respectively) were feted in suffragist circles as an example of the new world to come (similar I suppose, to the way that Irish pro-marriage equality campaigners have advised during the current wrong-headed same-sex marriage ‘survey’).  She travelled to America as Australian delegate to the International Woman Suffrage Conference Fed 1902, aged 32 and was the delegate from the NSW chapter of National Council of Women to the Conference of International Council of Women, held immediately afterwards. She was elected Secretary to the International Woman Suffrage Committee,  serving alongside the 82 year old American feminist Susan B. Anthony who was President. While in America she undertook research into youth justice and criminology, two interests that she was to pursue throughout her life.

Nearly ten years later Vida Goldstein travelled to England in 1911 as a guest of the Pankhursts and the Womens Social and Political Union, spoke to 10,000 people in the Albert Hall and organized a contingent of ‘overseas’ women in the Great Suffrage Procession in June 1911. As Bomford points out, her contact with the most eminent suffrage workers in the United States and Britain brought her a sense of sisterhood and camaraderie that she never quite felt in Australia (p.219)

Goldstein’s commitment to women as voters and politicians in their own right dominated much of her public career. Born in 1869 in Portland Victoria, her mother had been involved in the Victorian Womens Suffrage Society in 1884, and young Vida cut her teeth as a committee member and organizer with the United Council for Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Federal Political Association.  It was this last group, later renamed the Women’s Political Association that proclaimed itself to be unaligned to any political party, a stance which probably cost Goldstein electoral support in her three attempts to stand for the Senate as a Victorian representative, and two attempts at the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong.  She was the first woman in the Empire to stand for political office, even though she was never successful.  During the election held between the two Conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917, she was accused (with good reason) of splitting the anti-conscription vote, even though she was herself an ardent pacifist.

Her commitment to pacifism split the Women’s Political Association in the early years of the war, when there was strong support generally for Australia’s involvement. It led her to split with the Pankhursts in England, despite her involvement in the suffrage campaign there  less than five years earlier. It brought her into the spotlight of public attention as she campaigned with the Women’s Peace Army, of which she was a founding and highly visible member (I’m sure that her selection of the same initials as the Women’s Political Association was no accident- and it made taking notes on this book a nightmare!) She was mainstream middle-class, stylishly dressed  and a very capable public speaker, and she spearheaded the ‘No’ case during the Conscription referendum campaigns.

In many ways, the different aspects of her political life often clashed up against each other: the support for militant suffragism and yet strong pacifism; her determination not to align herself with a political party, even though it hurt the left of politics to which she more naturally leaned. As Bomford explains, she was a strong but inflexible character. Her parents had given her a good education, first at home with a very capable governess, and then at PLC. However, in a foretaste of what was to come, the family split over the issue of women’s suffrage when her parents publicly took diametrically opposed views. Through her parents, she became involved in the Charity Organisation Society of which they were founding members, which took a ‘case study’ and causal approach to poverty, and championed dignity in work rather than handouts to ‘deserving’ cases as practised by the Ladies Benevolent Society.  It was to her family that she looked for emotional sustenance, living with her sisters and brother-in-law in South Yarra for the last thirty years of her life.  Despite her name (which she always pronounced with ‘eye’ in both her first and surnames) she was not Jewish. Her religious and spiritual life was nurtured through Rev Charles Strong’s ministry first at Scots Presbyterian and then the Australia Church, and increasingly through Christian Science, to which she devoted her passion post WWI.

As Bomford explains, with Vida Goldstein there is no cache of personal papers for the biographer to mine. Fortunately, her correspondents often did keep her letters, most particularly her friend Stella Miles Franklin.  As a result, Bomford has had to rely on newspaper reports, Vida’s own writing in her various newspapers and speeches, and the reports of the government censors and security organizations. The constraints of material have constrained Bomford to write mainly of Goldstein as a public figure.  Nonetheless, I think that Bomford does a good job in giving an internal logic and unity to Goldstein’s politics, even though her inflexibility so often worked against the causes she believed in, and cost her many allies.

This is an academic text, with quite a few initials for organizations, which is just as much part of the territory in discussing political activism today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century.  It takes a strictly chronological approach, and most of the character analysis takes place in the ‘Afterword’ that closes the book.  It is probably not widely available today, given the ferocious culling of texts in libraries and short shelf-life of books in bookshops, but Vida herself has taken on even more prominence with the recent interest in the conscription debates of WWI and the toxic politics around Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership.  ABC’s Hindsight program had an excellent episode about her in 2009 which is available as podcast and transcript here . Claire Wright also discusses Vida on a Podcast from La Trobe University’s Biography series available at https://player.fm/series/biography/vida-goldstein  (the text is similar to Wright’s entry on Goldstein at the Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia).  She also wrote a very good essay ‘Birth of a Nation?’ in Griffith Review 51 available here.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Australian Lives: An Intimate History’ by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson

thompson_puri

2017, 425 p.

It’s hard to know how to review this book and, indeed, it was hard to know quite how to read it, too. It is the print-based outcome of the Australian Generations Oral History Project, a collaboration between historians at Monash and La Trobe Universities, the National Library of Australia and ABC Radio National. It has been well-mined by the various partners, with the ABC producing five episodes on their much-missed Hindsight program and a rich page produced on Monash University’s Arts Online portal.  Much of the base material can be accessed through the National Library of Australia site, where by accessing the ‘Related Records’ field of the catalogue entry, you can listen to the original oral histories and read the entire transcripts, subject to the access conditions stipulated by each interviewee.

So why then would you bother to read the book, if it’s all online? Well, apart from the portability of a book, the 300 life histories produced as part of the project have been curated here into a more manageable 50, all of which have permissions allowing access to the sound file and transcript now (rather than at some future date) on the NLA site. They are arranged in chapters of two types. The first type are life course chapters (Ancestry, Childhood, Youth, Midlife and Laterlife) and the other chapters are thematic (Faith, Migrants, Activism and Telling My Story). Within each chapter, there are further subdivisions that group oral histories by topic.

There is a chronological spread of interviewees, spanning from one born in  1923 through to participants born in 1989. There are indigenous respondents, Australian-born respondents and participants from many other places: Bosnia, Batavia, Cairo, Malta and Sudan.

The interviews are arranged chronologically within each chapter, but it’s not always the same subject.  It is possible to follow through the same character by looking them up in the Narrator Index, where there is a very brief synopsis of the character and a list of the pages of the book where you can find their interviews. However, I read the book straight through, in the order in which it is published. At first I wondered how I was going to keep all these people straight, but fortunately each extract has a small italicized prompt, providing brief contextualizing information.

Each chapter starts with an overview, written by the authors, which provides a twentieth-century historical context and points towards the salient contributions in the interviews.  I enjoyed these as a way of giving shape to the volume.  Alistair Thomson is well-known as one of Australia’s pre-eminent oral historians, and Anisa Puri is President of Oral History NSW and a PhD candidate.  In the acknowledgements you can see the wide range of historians who have participated in the project.

If you’re the sort of person who likes listening to people tell their stories, then this book may well appeal. It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and put down quite easily. There is no overarching argument, beyond the diversity and uniqueness of each person’s story and the  interactions between individuals and society.  This comes through the extracts that they have selected:

…we selected extracts that illuminate change and continuity and how individuals lived with and against the economic forces, cultural expectations and legal constraints of their times.  We also chose extracts that highlight how different types of Australians – male or female, city or country, poor or prosperous – have managed their lives and faced distinctive challenges and opportunities.  And, of course, we picked stories that evoke the humour, drama and pathos of human life. (p.xii)

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

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I have recorded this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

 

 

‘Living the 1960s’ by Noeline Brown

living-the-1960s

2017, 177 p. NLA Publishing

In choosing Noeline Brown to write this book, the NLA was obviously going for popular culture and a dry sense of humour- and they got it. I can remember Noeline Brown in the Mavis Bramston show : indeed, she was Mavis Bramston in the pilot and first five shows. When she went off to England (as most 1960s show business and music people did) she was  replaced by Maggie Dence who became better known as the face (and hat) of Mavis Bramston.

I must confess that this slap-stick style of humour doesn’t really appeal to me, and Noeline Brown’s career, most of which was on commercial television, mostly passed me by.  I remember her in Gough Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ advertisement and I was aware of her in the support that she gave to Graeme Kennedy as his health failed. She has been an Ambassador for the Aging, and recently received a lifetime achievement award from Actors Equity.

There are eight chapters in the book: politics, the arts, music, fashion, family life, our town, women and sport. The text is conversational in tone, and interweaves  Brown’s own personal anecdotes between snippets of information.  It’s largely a young-person-at-the-time’s guide to the social life of the 1960s, and as might be expected from a stage and television personality, very much based in the realm of music and the popular arts.  It’s a very light touch, with no theoretical framework or bibliography at all. It’s an easy and undemanding read and the sort of book that can be picked up for a chapter or two, then put down.

The book is generously illustrated with images from the National Library’s collection, and includes political ephemera, photographs by Rennie Ellis and Wolfgang Seivers, and magazine advertisements and photographs ( drawn most particularly The Australian Women’s Weekly). The layout is beautiful, as is the case with most NLA books. There are small breakout boxes of timelines and facts, and page-length featured topics, but the photographs do most of the work. It focuses mainly on Sydney and Melbourne, is probably more focused towards women, and rural life is barely touched at all.

The book, with Brown’s narrative as voice-over, felt very much like a back-to-the-sixties television documentary, full of nostalgia and wry amusement.

Source: NLA publishing review copy through Quikmark Media

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge site.

[P.S.  A little plug for something close to my heart:  If you’re interested in local history of the ’60s in Melbourne, and if it’s still November 2017, why not visit Heidelberg Historical Society’s ‘Remembering ’67’ exhibition? It’s open on Sundays 2p.m. – 5.p.m on 12th, 19th, 26th November at the Heidelberg Historical Society Museum, Jika St Heidelberg, entry $5.00]

 

 

 

‘El Sabueso de los Baskerville’ por Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sabuesobaskervilles

Ah! This is the Sherlock Holmes I like. None of that Benedict Cumberbatch smart-arsery and supercilliousness.  Really, I think that the new Sherlock Holmes episodes are too post-modern for their own good.  Is that the fin of a shark I see circling?

jumpsharkgraph

This Sherlock Holmes only arrives at the end to announce his words of wisdom and solve the mystery in words simple enough for me to follow (even in basic-level Spanish)

You know, I don’t think that I’ve ever read the Hound of the Baskervilles before. Country houses on the moor; mysterious servants and neighbours and an eerie howl that pierces the fog in dark nights. What more could you want?

‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

MeWRiteMyself

2017, 331 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Purchased from Readings

My rating: 10.

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