Movie: Battle of the Sexes

Well, it’s certainly not a subtle movie, but nothing about the whole Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs circus was. Still, I found myself shaking my head: not at Riggs’ chauvinistic and confected antics, but more at the underlying, unspoken sexism that surrounded all aspects of life the 1970s. There’s not a lot of nuance in this movie and it was all a bit too feel-good for my liking, but interesting none the less.

My disdain for Margaret Court’s recent public forays was heightened by watching this movie. I shall say no more.

And seeing this real-life clip from the match, I’m impressed with the fidelity of the film’s reproduction. (Although the audience seems rather lacklustre here, I think)

My score: 3/5

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

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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.

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

‘The Story of Conscription’ by Leslie C. Jauncey

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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

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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

‘El Quijote’ by Miguel de Cervantes

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1602, this version 2014, 96 p. Adapted by J. A. Bravo

Now, I concede that reading this classic in a version suitable for 7 year olds might not do it justice, but I’m glad that I didn’t struggle through the 1000 page version in English either.  Fortunately this 96 page version finished at the end of Part I.

Don Quixote, or rather Don Alonso Quixano, has been addled by reading too many books about chivalry and decides to become a knight errant himself.  He persuades his neighbour Sancho Panchez to accompany him, and the two spend an inordinate amount of time on fruitless follies borne out of Don Quixote’s hallucinations, or fighting and falling on the ground.

I know that it’s famous for its antiquity and its foray into metafiction but, oh dear, in my baby Spanish it was just too silly for words.  It was a bit like reading Alice in Wonderland, where all the cleverness was stripped away in the process of making it easy to read. However, for language learning, the chapters were a good length, and it was fairly easy to follow.

I do concede that the book has survived four hundred years and that it has probably lost nine hundred pages in this version, so perhaps I should just reserve my judgment about the original!

 

Movie: Wind River

Set on a Native American Reservation in Wyoming in winter, this is a harsh country. A hunter finds the body of a young girl splayed out in the snow, miles from anywhere. She dies from natural causes, but she has been raped.  The young female FBI agent sent from Florida, who quickly realises that she is completely out of her depth, enlists his help in tracking down those responsible for her death. This film reminded me of Fargo, both in the landscape and the amount of violence, but it also explored themes of loss and dispossession.

My rating: 4 stars.

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

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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