Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘Trust’ to….

One sure sign that time is elapsing faster than I realize is the way that the Six Degrees meme on the first Sunday of the month comes round so quickly! I missed the January one, but here I am for February. It is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and the idea is that she chooses a starting book – in this case Trust by Hernan Diaz. I haven’t read it, of course (I almost never have read the books she chooses to start off the Six Degrees) but I gather that it’s about a wealthy 1920’s New York power couple.

How to proceed? I was tempted to go with titles of one word, linked to an emotion or state but instead opted to go for the (more predictable?) route of New York books. Of which there are many.

I’m really enjoying Amor Towles’ work and I just loved Rules of Civility (my review here), set in New York in 1937, and evocative of all those black-and-white films with the Empire State Building in the background and imbued with New York glamour.

For me Edith Wharton exemplifies Gilded Age New York. But which to choose? I could go with The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, but perhaps I’m settle on The Custom of the Country with the deliciously named Undine Spragg, who arrives in New York craving money and social celebrity, and moves through multiple marriages to get it.

We visit New York twice in Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (my review here), once in 1893 and again in 2093 with an interlude in Hawaii in between. It’s a big book, with recurring characters in different guises, and I loved it.

You’ll never find a copy, but when I read Donna Merwick’s Death of A Notary (my sort-of review here), I’d never read history written like this before. The first part is a conversational, present tense, rather speculative narrative that pieces together the small documentary fragments that refer to Janse, the Dutch-speaking notary in Albany, who commits suicide in the late 17th century, a number of years after the English have taken possession of New Amsterdam (which they renamed New York). The second part is an extended footnotes section, where every ‘invention’ in the first part is sourced and validated; every assumption is justified, and every source is credited- it’s watching the historian at work.

Another book that I read prior to blogging but which has stayed with me is Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness. It starts in 1919 with the tunneling under the Hudson River, then pendulums forward to 1991 with Treefrog, a psychotic derelict living in the tunnel. There’s a real symmetry in this book- the narrative moves forward and back until the two characters become one.

It’s odd to add a biography here – Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy by Anna Sebba (my review here). But both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg grew up on the Lower East Side (why is it ‘on’ and not ‘in’ the Lower East Side?) and in many ways, they had a very ‘New York’ upbringing. In my mind, they are inextricably linked with New York.

So, I might have stayed in New York, but I’ve travelled from the late 17th century to 2093, with socialites, notaries, tunnel diggers and spies.

Movie: Metropolitan Opera ‘The Hours’

At first, I didn’t think that I was going to like this Metropolitan Opera movie of ‘The Hours’, despite its stellar cast of Renee Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara. I’ve read the book; I saw the Nicole Kidman film; and now the opera. With all three narrative lines running at once on the stage- something that isn’t possible with a book- at first it sounded very screechy with rather banal lines.

But by the end, the theatre was completely silent, with audience members holding their breath. It was very, very good.

And how did I even know who Joyce DiDonato even is? Through this video, that I discovered during lockdown. I’ve followed her ever since.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 January 2023

During January I was at the beach, largely staying by myself, and so there was lots of time for listening to podcasts! Nothing better than walking along the beach as the sun rises with my earbuds in, or sitting on the sand, staring out at the water, listening to a podcast as night falls….

Emperors of Rome. Back to the chronology and the year 69CE, best known as the year of four emperors who vied to fill the vacancy after Nero’s death. Episode XXVIII Galba starts us off. He was very aristocratic, and pretty old, having been born in 3 BCE and had been there right through the Julio-Claudian era and a friend of Livia’s. He was a general, and noted for his toughness. Being head of the army gave him immediate authority, but he quickly undercut this authority by promising a wage rise to the troops which he straight away rescinded. He only lasted seven months and wasn’t popular from the start, imposing heavy taxes, crucifying Roman citizens (a real no-no) and making punishments fit the crime. He was ambushed by his rival Otho, who mistreated his body after death- the ultimate insult. So Otho takes over in Episode XXIX Otho. He only lasted 95 days. He was only 37 and had a strong connection with Nero: in fact, Nero got Otho to marry his (i.e. Nero’s) mistress and then sent Otho to Spain. Although Nero doesn’t have a good reputation now, there were still people who liked him so the Nero connection wasn’t necessarily a drawback. He had expected to be Galba’s successor but he wasn’t, so he decided to take the emperorship anyway. There were criticisms that he was too vain, and took care of himself rather too much. He was proclaimed Emperor by his troops, but unfortunately for him, Vitellius’ troops were doing exactly the same thing in Germany. He suicided after defeat by Vitellius. Episode XXX Vitellius was the next cab off the rank. He had a good resume: military experience, governor in German but he was a disaster. There was talk that he was one of the boy loves of Tiberius, but by now he was tall and fat. He didn’t actually declare himself Caesar, and on gaining victory over Otho, he replaced the Praetorian guard with his own troops. By this time Vespasian in Judea had been acclaimed by his troops too, and after Vespasian triumphed over him, he was dragged out by Vespasian’s troops, tortured to death and thrown into the Tiber.

The Essay (BBC). After listening to the Emperors of Rome episode on Ovid, I realized that I had never really read any of his work. The Essay has a brief segment of 15-minute radio plays taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, acted out with rather discordant Cockney (?) accents. In each of these stories, there is a metamorphosis from one human form to another non-human form. Episode 1 Ceyx and Alcyone is about King Ceyx who needs to travel to consult the oracle, and dies in a shipwreck. Alcyone doesn’t know that he is dead, and she continues to pray to Hera for him. Hera gets a bit embarrassed and so sends Morpheus to impersonate Ceyx and tell her in a dream. She is heartbroken, ran to the beach and comes across Ceyx’s lifeless body. The gods take pity of them, and turn them into birds. In Episode 2 Pygmalion, a gifted sculptor falls in love with the sculpture of a woman he has made, and the gods grant his wish that she become real. Episode 3 Opheus and Eurydice is more familiar to me, where Eurydice is bitten by a snake on her wedding day and Orpheus travels to the underworld to get her back on condition that he not turn around while she is following him out. Episode 4 Biblis and Cannus is rather transgressive where Biblis falls in love with her brother. She confesses her love in a letter to him, and he leaves for another city. She turns into a stream, and one day he drinks from that stream. Episode 5 Philemon and Baucis are a devoted old couple who are generous to the passing Gods, and are thus saved from the Gods’ wrath with the other people in the village who refused them hospitality. In the end, they turn into trees.

In Our Time (BBC). The episode Ovid takes a literary approach, featuring Maria Wyke (Professor of Latin at University College London), Gail Trimble (Brown Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Trinity College at the University of Oxford) and Dunstan Lowe (Senior Lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Kent). So all thoroughly British and erudite. Virgil and Horace were of an earlier generation and more anxious about the new regime than Ovid was, and his poetry was edgier as a result. The ‘Art of Love’ was a didactic poem, crossing genres, while the ‘Metamorphoses’ was an epic poem – the highest form of the genre- stitching together 250 stories into a whole. There have been criticisms of Ovid’s misogyny (his women do tend to come to a bad end, with a lot of rape) but it is probably more noticeable because he does actually include women in his stories.

Archive on Four (BBC) Ovid in Changing Times features Tom Holland (author of Rubicon etc.) in a wide-ranging episode that looks at the transgressive nature of Ovid’s writing. The emperorship of Augustus changed everything, but he pretended that there was continuity in his takeover of power. Ovid’s political message was that everything changes, no matter how much you might pretend that it doesn’t. He then goes on to talk about The Metamorphoses and the blurring of male and female roles, body modification, present-day narcissism and has a go at the demand for ‘trigger warnings’ for Ovid. Very interesting but digressive.

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC) And here I am at the end of the seventh series, recorded on December 14, 2022. How will the war against Ukraine end? can only be speculative. At this stage, it is a toss-up between Zelenskyy pulling off an unlikely and unexpected victory; Putin crushing Ukraine; a stalemate or Putin being toppled. Since then, we have had the Germans releasing the restrictions on the use of Leopard tanks – who knows how this will end.

The Forum (BBC) I’m reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World (although I’m not sure whether I will persevere with it). It has, however, introduced me to many woman rulers that I had never heard of. Queen Tamar of Georgia is one of them. Queen Tamar: The Myth of a Perfect Ruler. Bridget Kendall is joined by Dr. Ekaterine Gedevanishvili, Senior Researcher at the National Centre for the History of Georgian Art in Tbilisi; Alexander Mikaberidze, Professor of History at Louisiana State University; Dr. Sandro Nikolaishvili, researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, who works on retracing connections between the Byzantine and Georgian worlds; and Donald Rayfield, Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London. She ruled between 1184 to 1213, when the Georgian kingdom was at its height, stretching from the Caucasus through to Armenia. She was crowned twice, first while her father was alive as co-ruler, then in her own right. She was the granddaughter of David the Builder, and the times suited her as her potential enemies were distracted. She extended the kingdom, and her reign was known as the “golden age” with music, poetry and church-building. A poem written by Rostaveli ‘Knight in the Panther Skin’ was a form of homage to her, and it is still a very important work today.

‘The Tour’ by Denise Scott

2012, 244 pages

Denise Scott is one of my favourite comedians – no, she’s my FAVOURITE comedian. I enjoyed All that Happened at Number 26 and when I was looking for a book to read quickly to round out my Goodreads Challenge for 2022, this seemed a good choice. There’s quite a bit of repetition here from All that Happened at Number 26 but that didn’t stop me laughing out loud in bed and on the train and bus on a 3 hour journey.

We were both born in the same year, and she grew up in Watsonia/Greensborough which is just up the road from my own house, so many of the schools and places she mentions are familiar to me. So, too, are the experiences of facing the death of parents and the bodily indignities of aging. It was interesting to read of the frequency of sexual assault, that of course underpins the whole “me too” movement, but was almost taken for granted by women of our age. I suspect that a younger woman today would conceptualize and write about it very differently.

It’s not high literature but she’s funny and human and I wish that I were sitting beside her, just listening to her and laughing.

Sourced from: purchased as a e-book

Rating: who knows.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 January 2023

Bust of Elagabalus Wikimedia By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53962341

Travels Through Time 218 The Mad Emperor with Harry Sidebottom. Well, there have been plenty of mad leaders over history, but Heliogabalus was right up there with them. In this episode, the producers trample on tradition as well by allowing Harry Sidebottom, historical fiction author whose most recent (non-fiction) book is The Mad Emperor to choose three separate years instead of just one. His first date is 1 May 218 CE when Heliogabalus’ grandmother sneaks him out of Emesa (modern day Homs) in Syria to start the revolt that will elevate him to the position of Emperor of Rome. He is only 14 years of age, and the empire is at the height of its power, but the wheels were starting to fall off when his predecessor Caracella was murdered by Macrinus. Heliogabalus was probably his cousin, but he portrayed himself as Caracella’s illegitimate son. The second date is Midsummer’s Day 220 when Heliogabalus holds a huge parade in Rome to demonstrate his new religion. The Romans enjoyed parades, but the PR with this one was all wrong. It was interpreted as a triumph over a defeated people as the procession headed off to the new temple that he had constructed to his god, Elagabalus. He seemed to delight in trashing convention: he married 5 times, including to a Vestal Virgin; he married men and delighted in taking the ‘lower’ position; he alienated everyone. The third scene is in March 222 when Heliogabalus is murdered on the orders of his grandmother after a controversial four-year reign. His grandmother promptly replaced him with another more tractable grandson, Alexander Severus. Sidebottom doesn’t completely see him as mad; instead he sees him as in the grip of a religious fervour.

The London Review of Books Is Alan Bennett still alive? He must be, because here he narrates his diary for 2022 On Failing to Impress the Queen. He’s been publishing his diary every year in the London Review of Books since 1983. He’ll be 89 this year, and he sounds every bit of it in this rather quotidian but elegiac reading that seems to feature a lot of funerals.

Kerning Cultures Exodus was originally published in Guernica magazine and is written and read by Zahra Hankir. After the disastrous explosion in Lebanon, the author returns to a city that she had left years before, as the economy crumbled around her. She tells the story of other people who tried to immigrate as well, part of the multiple waves of immigration from the 1890s onwards, after the Civil Wars and again with the war with Israel. The economic collapse in 2019 caused another wave, with the explosion just another symptom of economic and social collapse. How awful to watch your country just fall apart through incompetence and corruption, with no political solution in sight.

In Our Time (BBC). It’s only because I’m reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World that I became familiar with Hatshepsut, the second historically confirmed female Pharaoh (the first was Sobekneferu). The episode Hatshepsut features Elizabeth Frood
(Associate Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford- and a New Zealander), Kate Spence (Lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology at the University of Cambridge) and Campbell Price (Curator of Egypt and Sudan at The Manchester Museum). It was common enough for women to rule as regents, but as Principal Wife of a Pharaoh and regent for her step-son, she declared herself full King and ruled for at least 15 years in her own right. As time went on, she was depicted as a male complete with false beard and male dress. Her step-son finally took over, and after reigning for about 20 years embarked on a project of erasing her likeness and reputation as Pharaoh, perhaps as a way of clearing the succession rather than as revenge (20 years really is a dish served cold).

You’re Dead to Me (BBC) also had an episode devoted to Hatshepsut featuring again Campbell Price from the Manchester Museum and comedian Kemah Bob- my God, what a grating voice! I don’t know how a serious historian could bear to go onto this program, but needs must, I suppose.

Emperors of Rome. Having dispatched Nero, the Emperors of Rome podcast has a little interlude here where they catch up on some biographical information about people mentioned in passing – namely Cicero, Livia, Seneca and Ovid. Episode XXV Livia looks at Augustus’ wife Livia, so memorably played by Sian Phillips in I Claudius. Livia was of impeccable patrician background, so she experienced the fall of the Republic. She and her first husband backed the wrong side in the Civil War, but she was granted amnesty. In 39BCE Octavian divorced his wife and married Livia while she was pregnant with a child from the first marriage, her husband having been ‘persuaded’ to divorce her. It seems that it was both a love match and a strategic power play on both their parts. They didn’t have any children together, which could have been grounds for divorce, but instead he adopted her children. She was very publicly visible, but there were rumours that she was responsible for a number of murders- a matter that Dr Rhiannon Evans doesn’t buy into. Certainly, her son Tiberius had mother issues. Episode XXVI Seneca the Younger is another stand-alone episode. Seneca the Younger is best known (notorious?) as the the tutor and advisor of Nero, but he was a respected stoic philosopher, a writer of tragedies, and one of the richest men in the Roman empire. He was born c. 4 BCE into a Spanish Equestrian family and his father Seneca the Elder (naturally) was a rhetorician. He didn’t get on with a number of Emperors: Caligula hated him but spared him his life because he was expected to die soon: Seneca had the last laugh here because he outlived Caligula and lived to relative old age. He also clashed with Messelina, Claudius’ wife and he was sent into exile at Corsica on rather spurious ‘adultery’ charges. He was recalled to Rome as Nero’s tutor- a rather bad advertisement for his teaching and philosophy. He was very popular as a writer during the Renaissance, and it is thought that his tragedies influenced Shakespeare’s writing. He decided to retire, but was forced to commit suicide after the Pisonian Conspiracy against Nero, even though he was probably innocent. He did so by bleeding out, but it was a difficult way to die and he advised his wife (who was also required to commit suicide) not to do it- in the end she didn’t have to suicide anyway. He was out of favour as a writer, but there has been a recent rehabilitation of his reputation. Episode XXVII Ovid started me off on a little podcast spree on Ovid. Ovid was born in 43 BCE (i.e. a year before Julius Caesar was assassinated) into a wealthy, but politically negligible, family. His wealth meant that he didn’t need patronage. He began writing while he was young, and achieved almost immediate popularity. His book ‘The Art of Love’ was seen as a subtle attack on Augustus’ marriage legislation, although there was a long time between publication and being forced into exile in Romania on the Black Sea on account of his writing. But exiled he was- and he died in exile, separated from his family. He is best known today for his work The Metamorphoses.

David Marr on The Art of Biography

I’m with him. David Marr delivered a version of this essay as the Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia on 15 September 2016.

‘August in Kabul’ by Andrew Quilty

2022, 276 p.

Photojournalist Andrew Quilty had been thinking about writing a book about Afghanistan since late 2020. The Doha agreement had been signed in February 2020, thousands of Taliban prisoners had been released, and the Americans were pressuring Kabul to take more responsibility for ‘active defence’ so that the US troops could withdraw as planned. In this book that he imagined writing, he intended following the theme that he’d been following for several years in his reporting: that the US refusal to deal with the Taliban had ignited the insurgency, as it had in Iraq. He would follow the lives of rural Afghans, who had experienced a very different war from that experienced from Kabul, and bring their experiences to attention.

But then August happened, and that book was put aside and this one written instead. Biden had specified a withdrawal date of 31 August, but as the Taliban took Kabul, the date was brought forward. By mid August foreign embassies were closing, expatriates were being brought home, and crowds of people desperate to escape the return of the Taliban surrounded the airport, standing in a canal of sewage, clinging to the undercarriage of airplanes. We all saw it, but the sheer press of humanity turned these people into a ‘mob’. Andrew Quilty gives them back their individuality.

The book is written chronologically in three parts, with each chapter set at a different location, with some locations appearing in all three parts. Part I is set in early August, as the rumours of the return of the Taliban become stronger; Part II is set in mid-August as the government falls apart; and Part III is set in late August as the Taliban take Kabul and those who can, try to flee. In Part I in particular, he captures some of what he intended in his earlier planned book, interviewing soldiers protecting the Antenna Post in Maidan Wardak Province, but also the villagers who, because of their own conservative beliefs and lifestyles, saw no threat from the returning Taliban. In the later sections he focuses his attention on Kabul, not only because the provinces are now Taliban-dominated and thus less accessible to him, but also because it is city-dwellers and those who had assisted the US and other foreign troops who have more to fear and more to lose as a result of the return of the Taliban after two decades.

The journalistic leanings of the author are clearly visible. Each chapter is written almost as an object of long-form journalism, with interviews and stories of colleagues and antagonists interwoven with each other. It reflects my own cultural blinkers, I know, but I did become a little confused between characters whose names seemed very similar to me, and I would have appreciated a list of characters with an identifying paragraph at the start of the book. However, the index was very useful, and most of the acronyms were spelled out in the index as well. I was bemused, though, by his insertion of a chapter of historical background which appeared in Chapter 8, two-thirds of the way through the book. I would have thought that it would have been more useful earlier.

And I don’t know if it is because I am a woman, or whether the recent closure of universities and NGO jobs to women in Afghanistan has heightened our awareness, but I responded most to the stories of women, in particular Nadia, whose oppression within the family became more suffocating as the Taliban approached. It was as if her brother was emboldened within the family home by the appearance in the streets of the Taliban perched on their jeeps, bristling with guns. The power of her older brother within the family is frightening, as he cajoles his father into stricter discipline of his daughter, and her mother averts her eyes. Then there is Hamed, a presidential staffer, who watches as all the framework of government melts away as men decide to look to their own safety first by taking advantage of opportunities of escape that were not available to those crowds surrounding the international airport. Quilty takes us to those people at the airport, some of whom manage to get inside and escape to a new, if uncertain, future and others who after days of heat, dehydration, crowding and sloshing through that foul canal of sewage decide that it is futile and return home.

There are many dangerous places in the world, but surely the most perilous time must be as one regime gives way to another. If you have made a commitment to either side, all traces need to be expunged without hesitation or sentimentality, and it becomes clear where the limits to loyalty lie. And now, as the Taliban reneges on its promises about women and as the world struggles with how to deal with this inexorably hardline government, I wonder what happened -and will happen – to the people that Andrew Quilty has brought forward into Western consciousness.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. Read because I read a review of it somewhere.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 December 2022

Emperors of Rome. Episode XXII What an Artist Dies in Nero finishes off the Julio-Claudian empire. Dr Rhiannon Evans points out that Nero’s reign was essentially performative. Everything was theatre: he acted as if he were low-born; he acted as if he were a criminal. He constructed his Golden House, with a huge golden statue of himself inside – the Colossus of Nero (and hence the Colosseum which was erected on its site later on). The Pisoean conspiracy was revealed at this point, and from here on the generals started moving against him – a change in the nature of Roman politics. He fled Rome and ended up getting his private secretary to kill him. Although his reputation today is terrible, he was not universally reviled at the time, and for some time rumours abounded that he was still alive. But he wasn’t, and the Julio-Claudian empire came to an end. Episode XIII Romans vs. the Christians is a stand-alone episode. Reflecting the views at the time, Dr Evans refers to Christianity as a cult, pointing out that the Romans didn’t really have problems with the beliefs of cults, but they did have problems with the behaviors that sprang from those beliefs. The Christians had meetings (as distinct from the public performances of the Romans) and they refused to comply with the deification of the emperors, which led to fear of treason. So when the Christians faced punishment, it was on political grounds rather than on account of their beliefs. Tacitus has a throw-away line about Nero punishing the Christians after the fires, but there is no evidence that they ever appeared at the Colosseum. The Romans wanted to integrate the Christians, rather than punish them. Episode XXIV- Cicero is another stand-alone episode. He was born to the equestrian ranks (i.e. second rank, rich, noble) and trained in oratory. He became Consul in his own right in 63AD as the first man in his family to join the Senate. After executing the protagonists in the Cataline conspiracy without trial, he then had to convince the Senate that he acted appropriately. He was exiled for a year, but then returned. He had a love/hate relationship with Caesar, and was even offered a role with the Triumvirate (which would have made it a Quadvirate) but he refused and withdrew into writing philosophy. He was a vocal opponent to Mark Antony, who proscribed him and had him killed by a soldier. He is sometimes described as one of the Stoics, but he was more a questioner and nowadays he is more known as a statesman.

History Extra History Extra has started a series on Conspiracies (with a capital C) and it starts off with notable historian Richard J. Evans debunking the conspiracy theory that Hitler escaped to South America after WWII. Certainly, lots of other high Nazis did, but Evans is convinced by the testimony of his adherents who witnessed his body after his suicide with Eva Braun. He points out that Stalin was responsible for quite a few conspiracy theories, and probably started this one too. He reminds us that after WWII people had Napoleon in mind (who DID come back) and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was dispatched to discover what happened in Hitler’s bunker. Evans has written The Hitler Conspiracies

Revolutions Podcast. I’ve been listening to this podcast for years and years, first listening to different Revolutions, then going back to the beginning to listen to History of Rome. It’s still on my Stitcher feed, and when I saw Final Episode- Adieu Mes Amis I just had to tune in. Yes, it’s over but wait there’s more. He’s going to co-host a conversational podcast about history books. I wonder if there’s a market for this one?

Swan Lake Ballet. Free image from Pixabay

Russia If You´re Listening (ABC) Episode 5: Has Putin finally pushed the Russian people too far? They say that intermittent punishment/reward is the most effective form of behaviour management. Putin seems to use it when faced with public dissent. Inconsistency and unpredictability is the key – and so Pussy Riot were imprisoned back in 2012, but the journalist who stepped behind the newsreader earlier this year holding a sign saying that the news was all lies was not. Despite the economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s popularity kept going up and up- until he conscripted ordinary Russian men. At this point, Putin’s attitude towards dissent hardened. Opposition newspapers and television programs were taken off air, choosing to view a scene of ballerinas dancing Swan Lake, a common message during Soviet times that that something’s happening. As Matt Bevin points out, historically the Imperial Family and the Soviet Union both seemed immovable, until suddenly support collapsed. With Putin’s declaration that more troops will be called up, will the same thing happen with Putin?

Lives Less Ordinary (BBC) The secrets of a slave ship in an Alabama swamp. The Clotilda was said to be the last slave ship that set off from Africa in 1860 with a consignment of enslaved people, even though the trade of slavery had officially been abolished in 1807. However, slaving continued illegally, and this last journey was largely the result of a bet. Once the 110 men women and children disembarked, the ship was burnt to remove all evidence, and the people marched through the swamp. However, the owner couldn’t help bragging about it even though he never kept the story straight about where the ship was scuttled, and the formerly enslaved people had their own stories about the burning of the ship. After emancipation, they established Africatown. Journalist Ben Raines decided to search for the wreck of the ship- and thought that he had found it – until it was ascertained that he had not. He kept looking, and….. (you’ll have to listen to it yourself).

‘Dreamers and Schemers: A political history of Australia’ by Frank Bongiorno

2022, 396 p. plus notes

My overwhelming feeling on finishing this book is sheer admiration for the breadth of endeavour to write a political history of Australia right from pre-colonial through to COVID times. Few historians would take on such a task: even fewer could carry it off without flagging. But Frank Bongiorno does, with his customary clarity and a mischievous twinkle in the eye when he encounters absurdity and pretension.

I like Frank Bongiorno, and he is a historian who takes his role as a public commentator seriously. He is current president of the Australian Historical Association, and on the Federal Executive of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. He is a contributor to newspapers and journals (both academic and general) and he’s likely to pop up on politics programs on the ABC television and radio. I found myself wondering whether his own political leanings would influence his analysis once he reached the years which he would remember (he was born in 1969) but I couldn’t really detect any change in his stance. The title, while catchy, is a little misleading: it evokes a ‘Hundred Ratbags’ sort of book based on crackpots and shysters. The book takes a much more general approach than this, with more emphasis on the big sweeps and arcs of history rather than the foibles of transitory individuals. The ‘Dreamers and Schemers’ are not just found on the floors of parliamentary chambers – they are out in the pubs, meeting halls, churches and unions as well, but the main focus is on formal political structures.

We often talk today of ‘political junkies’, who delve into the minutiae of political events that many others flip past when they encounter them in the newspapers, and who see everything through a political lens. By writing a political history, Bongiorno focuses his attention on the science of politics as it played out chronologically over Australia’s white history, which means that there is necessarily an emphasis on the dead white men who dominated big-P politics, while many other forces are omitted. Women, for instance, are barely seen in the first third of the book because, politically, they were insignificant. Bongiorno starts the book with First Nations politics: something that is barely acknowledged in Australian history, and when it is, it is more anthropological than political. Indigenous politics are woven throughout the rest of the text, but reflecting the events of the time, they disappear for whole decades only to reappear 40 or 50 years later. Economic fluctuations and wars appear in the narrative, but only to the extent that they affected the politics of the day. Likewise, international events feature in the early chapters, when Australia’s nascent politics were a reflection of political currents that affected the empire generally, and they reappear in the closing chapters when a world-wide pandemic disease and cynicism over politics generally bring politics to uncharted territory.

One of the real strengths of this book is that it considers both federal and state politics alongside each other, taking care to address each of the states, and not just the most populous ones. Personalities tended to loom larger at state level, with a predominance of ‘schemers’ over ‘dreamers’. The distinctiveness of the different states is highlighted: the conservatism (by design) of the Legislative Council in Victoria; the radicalism of Queensland at the turn of the 20th century which contrasted so much with the Bjelke-Petersen era some 70 years later; the way that South Australia often seemed to be travelling its own path. This emphasis on the states means that the full range of politics is explored -not just the big moves of a Federal government, but the compromises and obligations of State governments as well.

I was interested to see how Bongiorno structured the chronology of the book. He proceeds chronologically, but decisive events like Federation, war, the Depression or the Dismissal are subsumed under broader categories, rather than meriting a chapter in their own right. The chapters are:

  • Autocracy, Community and Democracy: from Earliest Times to 1855 (i.e. the granting of a degree of not identical self-government to the separate colonies as part of a broader sweep towards reform across the settler empire)
  • Making Democracy Work: 1857-90 (which takes us far from the 1850s view of self-government to a concept of government as an entity which can transform society, alongside increasing demands – particularly through the unions- for direct representation of class
  • A New Australia 1891-1914 (emphasizing the importance of the ‘Deakinite Settlement’, and the rise of the Labor Party and fusion of conservative forces)
  • Loyalty and Interest: 1914-1939 (a big time span, collapsing WWI into the post war era until the start of another war. Labor dominance during the early years of the war, the rise of sectarianism, rise of the Country Party, first Menzies government)
  • War and Peace: 1939-49 (war and post-war considered together. Co-operation between Menzies and Curtin in welfare provision. The Labor Party would not have dreamt that they would be in Opposition for so long)
  • The Good Times 1949-1966 (Menzies’ second prime ministership; influence of Santamaria and Victorian Labor split)
  • Revolt, Reason and Reaction: 1966-1982 (series of Liberal prime ministers after Menzies, Victoria a brake on an ALP victory earlier than 1972, Kerr/Whitlam/Fraser conceptualized as a contest of manhood; Fraser more like a Country Party politician. A changed world- free trade, unions but reaction through Bjelke-Peterson in Qld, Charles Court in WA; rise of Australian Democrats)
  • Australia Remade? 1983-99 (Winding back of the protective state, much of it by the ALP; influence of globalisation and free market economics; Howard and Hanson)
  • ‘The Glimmer of Twilight’: 2000-19 (2001 the end of progressivism- emergence of the darker side of globalization. 2005 Howard wins Senate majority and introduction of WorkChoices, Australian Wheat Board, David Hicks, the Intervention; Kevin Rudd and the Summit, Kyoto, the Apology. Gillard’s first minority government since WWII but passing of 561 pieces of legislation; lower primary vote and rise of independents and Greens; Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison – studied ordinaryiness)
  • Conclusion – In the Age of COVID

I’m not going to go through the details: you’ll need to read the book for them. It’s a fact-heavy book, driven by chronological events. But there are themes that arise out of this mosaic of personalities and events.

The first is the continuity of the view of an interventionist government. He devotes much attention to the Deakinite Settlement of the 1890s, which held over many decades (perhaps there are even traces of it today) and brought Australia to the forefront of progressive legislation in the early decades of the 20th century. The economic interventions of the post-WWII governments in the 1940s – and here Bongiorno echoes Stuart Macintyre, to whom the book is dedicated- continued under Menzies and were only ruptured in the 1980s. Even during the COVID pandemic, with which the book closes, there remained

a broad acceptance, no doubt stronger among some than others, that government should play the predominant role in defining where the boundaries between individual rights and the common good lie….Outside extreme libertarianism, a minority taste in Australia, there tends to be only mild political disagreement. Otherwise, most people get on with their lives, expecting the state to set reasonable parameters for individual behaviour while allowing people a wide scope to pursue their private interests as individuals and families.

p.392

Related to the early adoption of progressive electoral legislation, voting schemes continued to evolve over the early 20th century. The method of voting (preferential, above-the-line, secret) etc. continued to be experimented with as the system was finessed. Democracy was not delivered cut and dried: instead, it evolved over time.

Some issues remained constant (or intransigent) over decades. The question of land and vested interests dominated colonial politics. Free trade versus protectionism was a major dividing line between states and parties, and still underpins politics today. Sectarianism and racism (against First Nations, Chinese, immigrants) bubbled under the surface throughout Australia’s political history.

That said, another theme was the sense of roundabouts and swings. One or the other of the major parties would make a clean sweep at both federal and state level, only for the jigsaw to be quickly broken apart as the opposing parties would have electoral success and the cycle would begin again. Where there was a long period of one-party dominance, it was largely through the weakness of the opposition. The significance of sectarianism, and especially the influence of Bob Santamaria and the ‘groupers’ in Victoria is highlighted as a brake on Labor success at both federal and Victorian level over an extended time.

Despite the title ‘Dreamers and Schemers’, the relationship between individuals and the big movements of political history is a nuanced tension between practicality, complacency and continuity on the one hand, and vision and courage on the other. In this, we see Bongiorno the progressivist historian coming out. He notes:

Australian political history has had its dreamers and visionaries alongside the pragmatists and schemers…Big change of the kind that occurred in Australia in the 1850s, 1890s, 1940s and 1980s would have been impossible without the idealists and thinkers: that is, without political leaders, activists, intellectuals and movements who refused to be merely ‘practical’. Change depended on people willing to resist complacent utilitarian appeals to majority interests and consensus opinions, on refusing to accept injunctions merely to tinker rather than transform. In the end, it depended on a vision, however modest, of the good life.

p. 392

This book is written for the general reader, but the relentlessness of change and a succession of actors means that it does require concentrated reading. It provides a wide sweep of history, enabling ‘political junkies’ to step aside from their own cauldron of day-to-day politics to reflect on continuity and courage, both of which have existed across Australia’s political history. Although I have read ‘generalist’ Australian histories that take a broad-lens approach from settlement onwards, I haven’t read another book quite like this one that is so disciplined in its focus on politics as the framework of analysis. It’s an important book, and well worth reading.

My rating: 9

Sourced from: review copy Black Inc books

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott

2022, 226 p.

Had I given up on this book half-way through, which I was tempted to do, I would have agreed with the author’s rather rueful reflection on how the plot of this story would appear to his two older brothers, should they return from WW2

As far as his brothers would ever know – when Toby came back, if Bill came back – their warless little brother had spent a pleasant few months killing rabbits, buying a boat, repairing and then selling it before he went back to school. To them, that would be the extent of his work. That would be the story.

p. 202

That’s what I felt for much of this story. Fifteen year old Ned West lives with his widowed father and older sister on an orchard in Tasmania during World War II. Ned’s two brothers Bill and Toby have gone to fight, and no news has been heard of Bill for some time. Set over the summer school holidays, Ned embarks on his own bloodbath in trapping and shooting rabbits, selling their pelts in town, ostensibly as part of the war effect, but in reality to perhaps, one day, buy a little boat of his own. He inadvertently traps a quoll, which he hides and feed, even though it is savage and more burden than joy. Shamed by his sister into taking his limping horse to the vet, he shows the quoll to the vet who treats both the quoll and his horse without charge on condition that Ned shoots the rabbits that were overrunning her property. As a result, he accumulates more and more money until he is able to buy a shabby little boat which, after he strips the paint off, turns out to be a beautiful Huon Pine boat. But between the shooting and the sanding-back, nothing much seemed to be happening in this book. There were flashbacks and leap-forwards which made little sense, and I was just tiring of this tedious, if beautifully described, summer.

It was only in the last third that the book came together for me. Those obscure flashback/forwards all of a sudden made sense, and lifted the book into a broader story of loss, regret and love. By the end, my frustration had dissipated into admiration for how beautifully the book was written, and the control that Arnott has of a deceptively complex narrative. I don’t know if the shift was in me, or in the writing, but I’m glad that I persevered.

My rating: 8 – would have been higher had the book not taken so long to get going.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.