I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-25 November 2022

Travels Through Time 1967 The Premonitions Bureau doesn’t go back in time quite so far this episode- only to 1967. The Premonitions Bureau was established at the London Evening Standard Newspaper by psychiatrist and academic John Barker who invited people to call in with their premonitions of disaster, and then matched the predictions against actual events. The experiment only lasted about 18 months. The three days in 1967 selected by Journalist Sam Night, author of The Premonitions Bureau were January 4, when the racing driver Donald Campbell correctly predicted his death in the Bluebird the previous night while playing cards; April 21 when John Barker received a prediction that he was in danger and November 5 when a train accident at Hither Green Railway Station confirmed the prediction of two of the experiment’s most accurate prognosticators, Alan Hencher and Kathleen Middleton. Unfortunately John Barker’s files were lost, and this is the object that Sam Night would most like to bring back to the current day.

Fifteen Minute History (which always goes for longer) Episode 135 Connected Histories of Cuba and the United States features Ada Ferrer, Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University and author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Cuba: An American History. She began writing her book for an American audience when Obama began opening up transit between Cuba and US. She points out that both Cuba and the US have been invested in each other’s wars and revolutions, with slaveholders having an interest in the outcome of the US Civil War, and the Spanish/US war where Cuba was seen as a possible territory (never a state). The US occupied Cuba between 1899-1902 but kept lifting the bar for the criteria of sufficient ‘self government’ for their troops to leave. The Platt Amendment ensured that the US could intervene at will in Cuban politics. As well as politics, her book has personal stories how these political machinations affected the lives of US and Cuban people.

History Hit recorded while Liz Truss was still holding on and hadn´t yet achieved the status of shortest-lived Prime Minister in British History, in Britain’s Worst Prime Minister Dan Snow asks three historians, Tim Bale, Christine Haddon and Robin Eagles, who they think are the worst. Anthony Eden, Edward Heath and the 3rd Earl of Bute contend for first place, but Pitt the Elder, Lord North and Wellington get a guernsey too.

Emperors of Rome Interlude Pax Romana is a short episode where Dr Rhiannon Evans admits that she is no fan of Augustus, who she thinks is a tyrant. “Pax” doesn’t so much mean ‘peace’ as a contract between victor and vanquished at the end of a war. During the 41 years of Augustus’ reign, he closed the Gates of Janus three times – a sign that Rome was at peace- something that had only happened twice in the previous 700 years of Romes’ history. He instigated the Goddess of Augustan Peace which was very sneaky way of getting around the prohibition of making oneself a God during your lifetime. Episode X The Augustan Succession describes Augustus’ search for a successor, which began almost immediately he came to power – not a bad idea when leaders died young. He had no legitimate son, so he married off his daughter Julia instead to possible successors, and then turned to his grandsons. But everyone seemed to die (how curious) so he turned to his stepsons instead, especially Tiberius, Livia’s son. For a long time, Augustus was hailed as a great peace-bringer but Ronald Syme wrote a very critical biography in the 1930s and since then attitudes towards Augustus have veered between the two. Currently historians (like Dr Evans herself) tend to lean towards Syme, although not to the same extreme extent. Episode XI Tiberius the Reluctant Emperor looks at Augustus’ anointed, Livia’s son Tiberius, who was better known as a good general. He had tough gigs in Hungary and Germany for 22 years until Augustus died, and he performed well. Was he reluctant? Well, he was middle-aged by the time he returned to Rome as emperor after years in self-imposed exile in Rhodes. He was hard to read and he didn’t cater to the people as Augustus had done. He was the first in the Julio-Claudian dynasty that became very tangled as different branches (and not so different) married each other. Germanicus was tipped as the next emperor but died in the East, then Drusus died too (killed by his wife, or is that just propaganda?). In 26BC Tiberius left Rome, which he never really liked, for Capri.

Source: Wikimedia

Russia if You’re Listening (ABC) Episode 2: Zelensky’s Big Call: Run Away or Stay and Fight. Putin anticipated that the invasion of Ukraine would take three days, but he wasn’t counting on Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy was almost an accidental president. He had been a comedian on popular and populist shows like ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’ or ‘The Footy Show’ (did he really play the piano with his penis? Search YouTube) but the big break came with his three-season comedy ‘Servant of the People’ where he played a teacher who ended up becoming president. Life imitated art but he found by the start of 2022 that people preferred him as a comedian rather than a politician. So Putin would have seen him as a weak target but two factors disrupted Putin’s plan. First, the Russian plan was that 3000 paratroopers would take the airport, in readiness for the landing of18 planeloads of Russian soldiers. But the CIA had warned Zelenskyy (who took some convincing)of the impending invasion and the resulting Ukrainian attack meant that the paratroopers could not hold the airport. The second important factor was Zelenskyy’s determination to stay and fight. Zelenskyy speaks three languages: his first is Russian, then Ukrainian then English. In his videos, recorded on his mobile phone, he swaps between the three, depending on the message and the audience. He has framed himself as a symbol of the state: if he stays, the state stays.

Six Degrees of Separation: from the Snow Child to….

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book that Kate has chosen for the Six Degrees of Separation at her Books Are My Favourite and Best blog. This meme involves Kate choosing the starting book (in this case The Snow Child by Eowin Ivey) and then you associating book titles by whatever obscure link you want: by title, time read, theme….whatever.

I haven’t read The Snow Child but I have read Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. In it, a disillusioned and cynical writer returns to a hot spring resort in the off-season, where he meets a geisha. She falls in love with him but he never reciprocates: instead he observes her and her decline quite dispassionately. The setting is very evocative with huge snow drifts making the resort seem quite isolated and her frenetic workload,with several parties in one night, contrasts with his ennui and rootlessness.

Speaking of snow, there’s also Palden Gyatso’s Fire Under the Snow but the two books are very different. This is the book that aroused my commitment to Amnesty International, as it tells the story of a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned for 33 years by the Chinese authorities. As the son of a landowner, he was particularly targeted and moved from prison to prison, where he was tortured and subjected to many beatings by his cell-mates as a form of institutionalized humiliation. If anything, he became even more radical during his second period of imprisonment and when he was finally released, he became aware of the strength of resistance within Tibet generally. It is gently told, without rancour, and it made me realize the importance for political prisoners to know that people ‘outside’ are aware of their plight and that they will not die without trace.

Still more snow and another Japanese writer. Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow is the first in his Sea of Fertility tetraology. A controversial right wing figure, the author ended up committing suicide after an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1970. I don’t think I knew that when I started reading the book. Set in 1912, the main character Kiyoaki Matsugae’s family is part of the provincial elite which needs to tie itself in with the aristocracy, and as such his family encourages him to develop his gentility through the neighbours, the Ayakuras, who have adopted Western Ways. Kiyoaki is at first dismissive of the flirtations of Satoko, but when she becomes engaged to an Imperial Price, he becomes infatuated and embarks on an affair with her.

Leaving the snow behind, let’s launch into another season -in this case, autumn- with Gabriel Garciá Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. Actually, I didn’t really enjoy this book, and I found it very difficult to read, made even worse because my e-reader kept crashing as I bought it as part of an omnibus edition of GGM’s works. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die. In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again. You can read my bad-tempered review here.

There’s definitely a killing in Kate Holden’s The Winter Road and the victim certainly does die. This non-fiction book tells the story of the murder of Glen Turner, a ranger employed by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage by Ian Turnbull, a landholder at Croppa Creek who felt that his rights were being infringed by government regulations against landclearing. The author shuttles between reportage and reflection on a real-life crime which extends beyond a cold dirt road in Croppa Creek to a broader meditation on land, legacy and its meaning not just for Ian Turnbull and Glen Turner, but for both black and white Australians more generally. It’s excellent. Read my review here https://residentjudge.com/2022/04/09/the-winter-road-by-kate-holden/

Now, I must say that the UK is not the first place that I think of when I say the word “heatwave”, although as recent summers have shown us, they are becoming more common that we could ever have imagined. Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave is set against the 1976 heatwave that roasted London with sixteen consecutive days over 30 degrees. English houses are not built for heat, and water restrictions were imposed. On a hot July morning in 1976, recently retired Robert Riordan gets up from the breakfast table and announces that he’ll pop out to get the newspaper. He doesn’t come back. His wife of 40 years, Gretta waits a little while, then calls her children. All three children come home to help find their father, trailing their disappointments, anxieties, tensions and resentments behind them. Just as oppressive as the heat was the venom of their family arguments and the burden of secrets and pain that family brings. (My review here https://residentjudge.com/2014/11/28/instructions-for-a-heatwave-by-maggie-ofarrell/)

So my six degrees has crunched around in the snow before launching into a sequence of books related to the different seasons of the year. I’ve been to Japan, Tibet, the Caribbean, outback NSW and London. All without leaving my desk.

‘The Fortune Men’ by Nadifa Mohamed

2021, 384 pages

Other than How Green Was My Valley which I read about forty-five years ago, I don’t think that I’ve read any other books set in Wales. There’s no green valleys in this book, only the dockland streets of Tiger Bay in Cardiff, home to immigrants of different nationalities. Set in February 1952, as the King dies and Princess Elizabeth is named queen, Mahmood Mattan a seaman from British Somaliland is arrested for the murder of Jewish shopkeeper Violet Volacki in a run down neighbourhood. She is known to him, but he vehemently denies that he had anything to do with the murder. The police do not have a strong case. Even the murdered woman’s sister and niece do not identify him as the murderer, but he is betrayed by people around him who have been influenced, perhaps, by police coercion and the ‘encouragement’ of a reward offered by the family. Mattan is a slippery character- he lies, he steals, he cheats – and you are not sure until the end of the book whether he is telling the truth or not. Based on a true story, he finds little solace from British justice.

The book takes a little while to get going, moving from the perspective of one character after another. However once Violet is killed, the action speeds up even though time seems to stretch interminably, as well. The trial is reported in question and answer format, which I felt was perhaps a bit of a cop-out from the writer’s point of view. But after he is sentenced to death, the slow elapse of days underscores the cold-eyed indifference of capital punishment as he waits, a very small cog in a huge system that he does not fully understand and which treats him as easily dispensable.

The book teems with immigrants from many countries, and characters often break into their own language. Mattan is married to a British woman, who suffers with him the prejudice and powerlessness of people with few financial and cultural resources.

Mattan remains a rather oblique character throughout, although as his swagger and defensiveness drop away, it is possible to have more sympathy for him at the end of the book. The book ends with a newspaper article about the case and its denouement, and reading the case in its bald newspaper presentation makes you realize that Mohamed has managed to flesh out Mattan beyond the few facts that would be skimmed over by a reader at the time. There is at least some justice in the Epilogue. It certainly wasn’t there in the trial.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Library, but then I realized that I also had an e-book of it as well.

Latin American Film Festival: La Palabra de Pablo

This film from El Salvador was loosely based on Othello in that we have one character stoking jealousy and distrust in another, and it doesn’t end well. Pablo’s father has recently taken up with a young girl who is almost his age, and in retribution for an earlier betrayal, Pablo convinces his father that his new lover has been unfaithful with his step-brother. We only learn about this childhood betrayal in cut-away shots that gradually become longer, allowing the viewer to finally make sense of this betrayal and its effect on Pablo. The whole family goes away to an island for a holiday, which provides a lot of striking scenery and a sense of mounting dread, where Pablo’s plan comes to an inevitable ending.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 November

Rough Translations This time, they look at Australia. The Stoop: Reclaiming Black in Australia is a discussion of Indigenous Australians and their adoption of the term ‘Black’ or ‘Blak’ to describe themselves. Two rather incredulous comperes Leila Day and Hana Baba interview Rhianna Patrick, a Torres Strait woman who used to work for the ABC. They also interview Jackie Huggins and Daniel Browning about the use of the term ‘black’ historically; the effect of American Black politics, and the delicate issue of ‘black’ as referring to colour or culture.

99% Invisible Finishing off their 500th episode three-part series on Vernacular architecture, this episode Vernacular- Volume 3 deals with the houseboats on San Francisco Bay- some very luxurious, others piled together with driftwood. They then go on to look at stone houses in Bermuda, constructed with stone roofs no less, to stop the houses being destroyed by the ‘suck-in’ effect of a hurricane. The roofs are painted white to reflect the sun and they channel and filter rainwater. They then travel to Oakland California where the Queen Anne Victorian took advantage of the slightly larger block size, and added everything possible to the decoration. Finally, the episode goes to Santa Fe, where the historic district has strict building regulation insisting on ‘earth coloured’ adobe construction – but what does ‘earth coloured’ mean? The regulations specify brown, tan or ‘local earth tones’.

Lives Less Ordinary (BBC) My Father’s Hidden Crime tells the story of an Argentinian woman, Analía Kalinec, who is an adult when she learns that her father has been arrested for crimes committed during the Pinochet regime more than 30 years ago. The rest of the family stood behind him, but when she did her own research, she decided that he was, indeed, a torturer and responsible for many kidnappings. This caused a breach with her sisters, and her father is now trying to disinherit her after she wrote a book “I Will Carry His/Your? Name” (I’m translating here, so I’m not sure).

History Extra A whistle-stop tour around the world in AD 1500 takes us, as the title promises, around the Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Sassanid and European empires and dynasties, and nomadic kingdoms. Jerry Brotton is a Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, which is a bit difficult because he distances himself in this podcast from the European-centric term “Renaissance”. He notes that England under the Tudors is largely peripheral to the action, and that Islam was spreading like wild-fire. Europe was small and fractured, but starting to look outwards, especially after the Black Death, but it remained a bit-player. The Americas had just been “discovered”, and the Spanish tried to conceptualize them as ‘Islam’, the only reference source for the ‘other’ that they knew. The Portuguese were travelling along the west coast of Africa, where they encountered Benin. This was really wide-ranging, and enjoyable – I loved the breadth of his analysis.

Emperors of Rome Interlude: What is an Emperor? points out that, strictly speaking, what we call ’emperors’ were actually ‘princeps’ and that Julius Caesar wasn’t actually an Emperor in terms of all power being located in one man. If he had lived longer, Julius Caesar might have entrenched himself as an Emperor but we all know what happened to him, and he spent most of his time fighting a civil war. When Augustus ascended, it wasn’t clear if he was part of a dynasty or not. Under emperors, the military became more important and they began choosing their own emperors, which meant that the Emperor was always beholden to the army. The Emperor came to have the role of the Chief Priest (the Pontifex Maximus)- a name adopted by current Popes. Episode VIII The Augustan Revolution sees Octavian taking on the name Augustus in 27BCE. He did toy with the idea of adopting the name ‘Romulus’ but the name had connotations of fracticide, so he went for Augustus or ‘revered one’ instead. He was lucky to have triumphed over Mark Antony, who was the better soldier, and probably made a mistake in fleeing with Cleopatra because he probably would have won had he stayed to fight Octavian. Octavian used anti-Eastern/ anti-Egyptian prejudice to win the propaganda war too. So who was Octavian/Augustus? He was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, which meant that he was the adopted son of a God (because Caesar was deified after his death), but he was aware of Caesar’s mistakes and was determined not to repeat them. He gave the republic back to itself, but he retained veto power and had huge authority over his tame Senate. He burnt the oracles that were unfavourable towards him, exercised censorship and assassinated those who threatened him. Episode IX Augustan Rome looks at Rome under Augustus. He consolidated the empire, mainly through Tiberius’ success. He spent a lot of money on Rome itself, and exercised good brand management.He publicized a return to “old fashioned values” by proscribing adultery, giving baby bonuses and insisting on men wearing togas).

Then jumping ahead about 190 episodes and a few years later, up to the recent Episode CC1 Actium features Barry Strauss (Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, author of The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium). The battle at Actium was between Mark Antony and Octavian. Cleopatra -politician, Queen, good strategic thinker and Mark Antony’s banker) was present because she was Queen and because she didn’t trust Mark Antony to actually fight (she feared that Octavian would talk him into not fighting). Mark Antony had a fleet of 500 state-of-the-art warships as against Octavian’s 400 ships. But Mark Antony needed to protect his supply line and his men were not as experienced in naval battles. Actium, near Corfu, was a good base and a good crossing point from Greece to Italy. However, Mark Antony and Cleopatra were losing ships and men, and they were both sick with malaria, and planning to head back to Greece and burn their ships. The battle took place on 2 September 31BCE, and right from the start Mark Antony and Cleopatra kept their sails and masts up so that they could make a quick getaway. The battle started in the morning and Cleopatra and her sixty ships began to leave, leaving Mark Antony’s troops behind as he fled too. Professor Strauss points out that Atrium was a campaign of which this battle was only a part. If Mark Antony and Cleopatra had won, the Roman Empire would have been more Eastern and more Greek.

Russia If You’re Listening. One of my favourite journalists, Matt Bevan is back with a seventh series of his “…If You’re Listening” program. He returns to where he started with “Russia If You’re Listening” part II, dealing with the invasion of Ukraine. In Episode 1 How war weakened strongman Putin, Bevan asks why Putin decided to invade Ukraine now. It wasn’t to earn another stint as president because he had already achieved the status of ‘lifetime President’, but perhaps it was a way of deflecting talk of succession. Bevan describes the four-hour radio programs that Putin gives where he takes live questions (albeit pre-vetted) for four hours. He said that he would write an essay on Russian history, which he did, setting out his justification for the ‘special operation’. Zelenskyy was not a very effective leader, and most Ukrainian leaders ended up being dictators after a couple of years – and Zelenskyy was certainly losing support. The US warned Zelenskyy that Putin was planning an attack but Zelenskyy kept it quiet, so the US went public with their information. Zelenskyy is Jewish, so the ‘Nazi’ excuse is bullshit. More accurately, it reflects the Soviet WWII meaning of Nazism as ‘the enemy’.

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe

2021, 144 p.

“A waste of bloody money! And it’s not even Australian” [Australian= Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin et.al.] !!” The purchase of Blue Poles by the National Gallery of Australia for $1.3 million dollars in 1973 was met with derision and controversy right from the start. Although the Whitlam government merely approved the purchase (rather than purchasing it in their own right), it came to be seen by conservatives as emblematic of the Whitlam government’s profligacy and pretension. It’s almost impossible for someone of my age to look at it without remembering the controversy. When I finally got to see it, decades after its purchase, I was surprised by how large it was, and that the blue poles were not really integrated into the painting but rather laid across it. Nonetheless, no trip to the National Gallery would be complete without popping in to see Blue Poles- and I will certainly go back to see it again having read this book. And profligacy- snort!- the painting has appreciated in value many times over.

This small novella ‘Night Blue’ interrogates the idea that a painting can be seen as something separate from its creator. Presented in three parts, Parts I and III are told by Blue Poles the painting itself as narrator- something that requires the reader to suspend disbelief and cynicism. It is, as Yes Minister would say, a “courageous” narrative decision. Part II is told by Alyssa, an academic art historian, who many years earlier had done some conservation work on Blue Poles. In the wake of failure of IVF -something she was ambivalent about in the first place- she decided to undertake a PhD looking at the way that women had been sidelined in Abstract Expressionism, as exemplified by Pollock’s relationship with Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. This sidelining of female artists, of course, is an old story (see, for example Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch), exacerbated further by Pollock’s violence and self-centredness. Does ‘cancel culture’ extend to paintings? Does Picasso’s notorious personal life make his work unacceptable? Does Pollock’s? I must admit that I found this second part of the book rather unsatisfactory, although it did work as vehicle by which the author could work in the factual information about the painting.

It is common enough for a non-fiction writer to use an inanimate object as the lens through which to shape their narratives, but it is less common for a fictional writer to do so. Was she successful? Not completely. At times, I found myself holding my breath as I almost gave in to it, but then my more logical part of my brain would kick in and my credence would ebb away.

The book is beautifully written, and almost against my will I learned a great deal about Blue Poles and its creation. It is bold and imaginative, but it just didn’t quite work for me.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book. Read for Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers thought very highly of it and you can read her review here. Kimbo at Reading Matters, like me, had reservations but still saw it as “an extraordinary feat of imagination”. You can read her review here.

Latin American Film Festival: Viaje a Tombuctú

I could have done with a bit of historical background on this movie, set in Perú during the 1980s and 90s. Ana and Lucho are childhood sweethearts, and they continue as lovers in adulthood. She wants to be a film-maker, and they share a love of music, swapped via cassette tapes. However, their lives are blighted by the Shining Path movement (which I really don’t know much about) and the reprisals against it where armed militias terrorize the people. More and more young people leave Perú to travel to America and Europe or even Timbuktu – a dream that both Ana and Lucho had held since childhood- but it does not work out that way. The child actors seemed incompatible with the adult actors, and so I never really believed that they were the same characters, and at times the film seemed to be merely a vehicle for some retro music and staging of the 80’s and ’90s.

It was OK.

Latin American Film Festival: Leona

Ariela is a young Jewish woman living in Mexico City, working as a muralist. She is one of the last of her friendship group to be married, and her family is keen for her to marry a Jewish man from within the close-knit Jewish community. But when she falls in love with Ivan, who is not Jewish, she comes under intense pressure from her family and the community to break off with him. The lecturer introducing the movie explained that although there had always been Jews in Mexico, there was an influx of Jews from Syria in 1918 with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and that they formed a tightly-held, exclusive and prosperous community in Mexico City. This was a lovely film, and the main actress was luminous. In many ways, it could have been set in any Jewish community throughout the world, but it was interesting to see this community in Mexico.

I enjoyed it.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 November 2022

Emperors of Rome. I wish I had known that this live session was on- it was in Melbourne on 4th October at ACMI. It’s a bit of a re-hash of their much earlier episode years ago when the podcast first started. Cleopatra and Antony (Live in Melbourne) starts off in 41 BCE as Cleopatra joins Mark Antony in Tarsus (Turkey) after a delay to emphasize that she was not at his beck and call. Dr Rhiannon Smith emphasizes the political advantages of their relationship, playing down the romantic element. She points out that Cleopatra was obviously in control of her fertility, as she was not constantly pregnant as many female rulers were, in order to ensure a line of succession.

My Marvellous Melbourne. I haven’t listened to this for a while, and unfortunately there hasn’t been a new episode since March 2021. Episode 8: Sixpenny Restaurants, the Buxtons and Isaac Selby has plenty of variety. It starts off with the murder of Sisto Malaspina, the owner of Pellegrini’s Restaurant in Bourke Street in 2018, then goes on to talk about the Sixpenny restaurants that were established in Melbourne from about 1874 to WWI. They were a fixed price menu, often of three courses, with quite a bit of choice between courses. At first they attracted ‘foreigners’ but from the 1880s onward they began catering for working men, and even working women with the ladies’ restaurant upstairs. Then Peter Yule talks about his book The Buxtons: 150 Years of Developing Melbourne. I hadn’t realized that the Buxtons had spawned so many different businesses over their six-generation history- Becton, MAB as well as the Buxton Real Estate company. They contracted and expanded according to the financial cycle, and managed to shift their huge loss on 333 Collins Street onto the South Australian government. MAB developed Docklands. Yule drew on the company archives, now at Melbourne University, but also historian Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s memoir as a Buxton granddaughter. Finally Isaac Selby was a lecturer in Melbourne and Melbourne historian with a colourful episode where he tried to shoot the judge in an American courtroom after his wife sued for divorce after becoming a Unitarian! The RHSV had an exhibition on Isaac Selby in 2019, when this podcast was recorded. There are sound clips of Geoffrey Blainey talking about his contact with Isaac Selby, who died in 1956.

By Roland Unger – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48168958

History Hit. It’s the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. Did you know that Tutankhamun- or, at least, his death mask – is one of the reasons why I’m a historian? There was a colour picture of his death mask, with all that glorious gold and blue, in my Form I history textbook and I just fell in love with history classes just to look at the picture. History Hit have a four part series on Carter’s discovery of the tomb. Episode 1 Tutankhamun: The Valley of the Kings starts off by describing the valley, which was carved out of the desert by infrequent flooding, leading to deep ravines. Tutankhamun’s tomb was actually in the valley floor, which became covered with small rocks. He was one of the “new” kings around 3000 BCE, as distinct from the “old” Kings of 4500BCE who constructed the Sphinx and the pyramids. There were over sixty tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which was never “lost” as such because it was a tourist attraction even in Roman times. There was an increased interest in all things Egyptian after Napoleon’s invasion. There were other explorers before Carter- including Giovanni Belzoni, the 6ft 7 inch strongman who was responsible for sending the head of Ramsesses II back to the British Museum, and John Gardner Wilkinson, the so-called ‘Father of British Egyptology’ who numbered all the existing tombs at the time. And of course, Howard Carter, who arrived in Egypt at the age of 17.

Episode 2 Tutankhamun: The Discovery of a Lifetime focuses on Howard Carter, starting off in the house that he built in Egypt, in order to be close to the diggings. He became the Inspector of Antiquities, but was dismissed when he sided with his Egyptian workers in a dispute. In 1907 he met Lord Canarvon (of Highclere, the site for Downton Abbey), who went on to sponsor him for many years. Canarvon received the concession to work the Valley of the Kings in 1914, but after finding nothing for eight years, he finally threatened to pull the plug on Carter’s work. But Carter encouraged him to allow one year more. One day a water boy was moving some rocks to set up a water stand, when he noticed a square rock, different from the rest.

Episode 3 The Life of a Boy Pharaoh turns to Tutankhamun himself. On 4 November 1922 Carter wrote to Canarvon, telling him to come over. Tutankhamun died at 19. His reign followed that of his father Akhenaten, who had converted Egyptian polytheism into monotheism worshipping the God Amun. Tutankhamun reversed this, as well as his father’s centralization of power. He died of malaria and a broken leg.

Episode 4 Inside the Tomb is recorded inside the tomb, which was a poor choice because the acoustics are bad. It looks at the politics surrounding the announcement of the discovery, with it being framed as a ‘British’ discovery despite the 1922 Egyptian independence movements at the time. The presence of a photographer meant that people could actually see this intact tomb (although the photographs were staged afterwards). Egyptian regulations meant that an intact tomb had to stay in Egypt, which is why it is still there today) although poor old Tutankhamun himself was pulled apart to register the various artefacts, which numbered over 5,500. It took 10 years to register and clear the tomb. Tutankhamun captured the public imagination instantly, with his androgynous, if highly stylized, features on the death mask and in the wake of WWI, his image captured young, dead boys across time. Canarvon died soon after, as the result of an insect bite, feeding rumours of a ‘curse’. Carter ended up rather embittered by his lack of academic acclaim, and the British focus of the publicity despite the presence and contribution of his Egyptian co-workers.

‘Red Cross Rose’ by Sandra Venn-Brown

2021, 297 p.

When we think of Australian women during World War I, we tend to think of them as either nurses (and less often, doctors), or as sock-knitters. But there was a small group of Australian women, generally from middle to upper-class origins who did make their way overseas as volunteers with the Red Cross, or in the case of Rose Venn-Brown, as an administrator with the YMCA. The Armytage sisters from Como, for example, also made their way over there; so too did Vera Deakin. This book, written by Rose Venn-Brown’s grand-niece tells the story of one of these ‘Aussie girls’ in France between 1916 and 1920. Although the Red Cross also drew on her services, her main interest was the YMCA, and after the war ended she was attached to the Australian Graves Detachment based at Villers-Brettoneux in France.

When WWI broke out in August 1914, Rose was working as Assistant Registrar at the Royal Hospital for Women at Paddington. Coming from an affluent family, there was no economic necessity for her to work, but the family of thirteen (!) siblings seemed to gravitate towards white-collar professions after their father died quite early. She would have been expected to resign on marriage, but the war intervened, and marriage never beckoned. She felt that her administrative skills might have been of use “over there”, but she was generally discouraged by the military authorities, who would only send trained nurses. Eventually she circumvented them by travelling to New Zealand and embarking from there as a civilian. Through contacts, she found herself commissioned with the task of organising the medical records of the Australian War Office in Horseferry Road, London. She was asked by the wife of the NSW Agent-General in London to help organize the War Comforts Fund Association for Australian soldiers (which so many women were involved with back home in Australia), and was offered canteen work for the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA). As far as she was concerned, she didn’t travel all that way to do canteen work, but she pulled some strings to be appointed to look after the finances of the canteens, which had been in a poor state until then. By 11 April 1916, her permits were cleared to cross to France to work for the YMCA, something that men employed by the YMCA were not impressed by. The men called a protest meeting, and it was agreed that Rose would spend a certain amount of time working in the camps – which was, of course, exactly what she wanted in the first place.

Rose later published her letters back home, and her diaries from her time at the front. The author has drawn heavily on both of these sources, and Rose certainly wrote well. As a descendant rather than a historian, Sandra Venn-Brown does not interrogate these sources or their production in the same way that Janet Butler has done in Kitty’s War (my review here).

If Rose Venn-Brown were working today, we would call her an Events Organizer, as much of her work revolved around organizing lectures and concerts for the men in the YMCA ‘huts’ located behind the front. It was acknowledged that the men needed leisure activities as they cycled between periods on the frontline and then back at base, and she liaised with performers and lectures to schedule and stage these events and organized dances and concerts among the men themselves. By this stage, three of her brothers had enlisted and she enjoyed being able to catch up with them when she could. Much of her identity revolved being an “Aussie girl” and the comfort that the Australian troops drew from hearing a familiar accent from a “girl” who could just as easily come from their home towns. Travelling from one part of the Western Front to the other was not easy, and in a letter home Rose gave a graphic description of visiting Gamaches, 62 kilometres north of Amiens, in early 1919 when hostilities had ceased. The journey was about 190 kilometres but took a full day, with the car bursting into flames several times and requiring multiple repairs along the way.

She finally returned home, but lost money in organizing a tour for her friend Flora Sandes, an entertainer from Serbia, whom she met as part of her work for the YMCA in Europe. Rose seemed to have been afflicted by the restlessness that many soldiers felt on returning home, and after three years she left for Shanghai, then travelled back to England and France, where she revisited the old battlefields with a friend Daisy Daking, a leading folk dancer who was sent out from England to entertain the troops and teach folk dancing (a rather surreal image, I must admit, all those soldiers folk-dancing). In the 1930s she returned to be with her family, moving from one family member’s home to another. She never married and never had a family of her own. She died in Chatswood, aged 69, seen by some in her family as “a bit full of herself” and “strange”.

This book presented the “Aussie Girl” in a WWI context that was uncommon at the time, and now too, when the focus is more on soldiers and nurses. The book is interlaced with the author’s own commentary and recollections from various tours overseas, which gives it a more homely feel. The author has been badly let down in the proof-reading, because there are multiple errors that mar the text- a rather surprising oversight in a book published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. Nonetheless, as the blurb on the back says, it does give new insight into battlefield life during the Great War, and it has presented Rose’s own lively recollections and anecdotes to a wider audience.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library in preparation for a presentation I gave to Heidelberg Historical Society about George Lort Phillips, a local man who ended up commanding the Australian Graves Services unit until 1921.