‘The Making of Martin Sparrow’ by Peter Cochrane.

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2018, 445 p.

While writers of historical fiction need to wade into history if their work is not to be rendered ridiculous, it’s less common for historians to publish fiction (well – under their own name, anyway). This is not true for historian Peter Cochrane, who has ranged across Australian history with his academic writing, with published works on John Simpson Kirkpatrick (of Simpson and his donkey fame) in Simpson and the Donkey, the struggle for responsible government in Colonial Ambition (my review here), and most recently in The Fight for White Australia about World War I.  These are just the histories of his that I have read (or am reading at the moment): he’s also published a book to accompany the ‘Australians at War’ series and written about Tobruk, among other works.

Cochrane is a fine narrative writer, and this comes through both his histories and also his fiction, of which The Making of Martin Sparrow is his second foray. I was much impressed with an essay he wrote for the Griffith Review on the writing of narrative history (see my comments on the essay here) and I enjoyed seeing him deploying his craft in the fictional The Making of Martin Sparrow.

Martin Sparrow is an expired convict, who has been granted a small holding in early New South Wales. He is no great farmer and in debt, and as the book opens, he has been flooded out as has everyone else along the Hawkesbury River in 1806. Like many other convicts, he is lured by the idea of an internal hinterland to the west, far from the brutality of the penal colony, where he can live free.  He is not a brave man, but in the aftermath of the flood, he decides to take his chances. Events occur suddenly, and the course of events ricochet into different directions as Sparrow acts in ways that he would not have imagined: sometimes led on by others, other times acting on impulse.

Set on the Hawkesbury River, this book instantly invites comparisons with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  But this is no domestic drama: for those who’ve read The Secret River, this book is set more in the brutish world of Smasher Sullivan than in William Thornhill’s morally-conflicted travails. Life ‘back home’ in England is only obliquely mentioned, and action is set firmly within the penal colony with its own corruptions and violence, where everyone is scrabbling to find a toe-hold in a ‘new’ country that is very old, with the mindset and practices of ‘home’.

The book has a wide range of characters, and I found myself turning often to his ‘Dramatis Personae’ in the opening pages, helpfully arranged by location and role. The book is divided into five parts, with many (67) short chapters. The book has a filmic quality with a great deal of dialogue and cutting between scenes.  However, I’m not sure that I was convinced by the dialogue. A number of his characters speak with the stiff formality of an educated background and a literary culture and Cochrane has clearly chosen to give them this voice.  While I recognize that transported convicts did come from a range of educational backgrounds, I’m not sure that it would manifest itself in their speech in this way.

His characters, particularly Martin Sparrow, are well-drawn. He is not necessarily your ‘good man who was done wrong’, and at various times he displays duplicity, fear and violence. It is a very male environment, as New South Wales at this time certainly was, and women have a hard time of it. There is settler and indigenous violence, and the book is not overlaid by twenty-first century politics.

Being fiction, there are no footnotes but in an afterword, Cochrane does signpost his influences and support his introduction of several plot-lines that are not part of our commonly-held view of penal NSW, most particularly in relation to women.

He also mentions his own experience of the land west of the Hawkesbury – a rather risky admission given the grief that Kate Grenville was given her when she described licking her salty lips on a rough crossing on the Palm Beach to Ettalong Ferry and extrapolating this to the sea  travel for The Secret River. (See Inga Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay: The History Question). But here, his own experience of hiking in what are now the Wollemi and Gardens of Stone National Parks  informs his really beautiful descriptive writing of landscape,  which is so evocative that you can almost see it yourself. The sense of place runs throughout the book, from the cold dripping wet, to the mountains that fold one onto the other and the strewn wrack of a flood.

Actually, it would make a damned good film, with an ending left ambiguous enough to be enticing. It is a nuanced portrayal of a penal settlement and human nature.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

 

I hear with my little ear 8-14 October 2018

In Our Time. The Almoravid Empire. I wish I’d listened to this before I went to Spain. I tended to see the Muslim influence as a single entity, and didn’t take enough notice of the turmoil between different dynasties that ruled over Al-Andalus. In this case, the Almoravids stopped the Spanish reconquest in 1086. They were a Berber people, noted for their men having their heads covered, and more religious than the Umayyad Emirate. They were in Spain until 1147 when they were defeated by another Berber group, the Almohads. Their main centre of influence was in Northern Africa.

Conversations ABC The Science of the Dreamtime. Richard Fidler interviews Patrick Nunn, Professor of Geography at University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, who argues that indigenous people often incorporate eye-witness accounts of natural phenomena from generations past into their story-telling. Such events include meteors, volcanoes and, amongst Australian indigenous peoples, the rise in the sea level at the end of the last Ice Age that reshaped Australia’s perimeter.

News in Slow Spanish Latino #278 (includes a segment on chocolate and vanilla, two of the indigenous products of South America) #279

The History Listen A program about William Ah Ket, the first Chinese-Australian barrister in Australia.

‘We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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2017, 366P.

Well, according to the blurb on the back of the book that describes it as an “essential follow-up to Between the World and Me”, I’ve read these books in the wrong order because I read this book, We Were Eight Years in Power first. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t even quite clear who Ta-Nehisi Coates is, except that I know that he has been speaking at various Writers’ Festivals around the country in the last few weeks.

This book is a compilation of long-form essays, one for each of the eight years of Barak Obama’s presidency.  Each essay is prefaced with a 2018-dated reflection on the article and the circumstances in which it was written.  There is a dialogue going on at two levels: Coates explaining and challenging himself as author at an earlier time, and the laying out of an argument from author to reader in the essay itself.  These prefaces trace through Coates’ own career trajectory. As the years passed, Coates shifted from an unemployed freelance writer to a public intellectual, who is invited to Obama’s White House to engage with his president in debate. Some of his observations made about Obama in 2008 he continued to hold in 2017, while others moderated or changed over time.

The book starts with an introduction ‘Regarding Good Negro Government’ which explains the title “We Were Eight Years in Power”. It was first uttered by South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller in 1895, regretting the loss of the progress made during Reconstruction,  immediately following the Civil War. In this book Coates repeats the lament, noting that

In short, Obama, his family and his administration were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth. And that was always the problem. (p.xiii)

Right from the start of this book, Coates is critical of “respectability politics” which rails against the black community for its lack of personal responsibility.  The opening chapter of the book discusses how Bill Cosby promulgated this form of black conservatism (Bill Cosby had not at this stage fallen from grace.) Throughout the following chapters of the book Coates calls Obama out for a similar philosophy. However, over the eight years of the Obama presidency, Obama also stepped into his own identity as a black president, most particularly in his comment after the death of  Trayvon Martin, to the effect that if he had had a son, he would look like Martin.  This observation, and his comment that police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested Henry Louis Gates sparked up white opposition to the Obama presidency.  In his epilogue, Coates argues that this white outrage about the Obama presidency – an outrage based not on income, or class but racism – led directly to the inauguration of Trump – the “first white president”.

I don’t know whether Coates “grew into” himself as a writer, or whether there is a qualitative difference between the earlier essays in this book and the ones that came later.  Perhaps the opening chapters were more current (at the time), or required a familiarity with Black History which I don’t have.  For me, as a reader, the intensity of his writing really cranked up with his essay from the Fifth Year, ‘Fear of a Black President.’ This chapter was followed by his Atlantic cover story ‘The Case For Reparations’, which was awarded the George Polk Awards. Here, he demonstrates the structural basis of racism in passionate, logical, informed writing. He extends the argument into his Seventh Year article ‘The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration’.  The final chapters reflect the sorrow that twenty-first century ‘eight years’ have led to Trump and such a vulgar reassertion of white supremacy. For this is just how Coates calls it – structural racism to bolster white supremacy – without any liberal loopholes.

These are excellent exemplars of the long form essay, running in some cases to over fifty pages in length. They show the shuttling of an argument from the personal to the political and back again, and the balancing of data and anecdote. Perhaps it’s the academic in me, but I did wish that there were footnotes at times, but these are magazine essays, aimed at a more general readership.  Coates makes no secret of his admiration for James Baldwin (who, to my shame, I have not read), and from the acclaim Coates’ work has garnered, it would seem that he is a worthy successor.

And yes, I am going to read Between the World and Me

My rating:  8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Swanston: Merchant Statesman’ by Eleanor Robin

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Swanston Street is the main thoroughfare of Melbourne, extending from Melbourne University in the north down to the Yarra, whereupon it becomes St Kilda Rd. It’s a rather unloved road, for many years blighted with dodgy discount basements and even dodgier long narrow cafes with desiccated dim-sims. The street is now blocked with huge sheds and scaffolding hiding the tunnelling works for the new metro line that will run under the city.

Swantston Street was one of the original streets on the Hoddle Grid, but the only one of the north-south streets to be named after anyone associated with the ‘over-straiter’ settlement of Melbourne from Tasmania.* It was NSW Governor Bourke himself who suggested naming the street after Charles Swanston, banker, entrepreneur, member of Legislative Council, and ‘merchant statesman’, but Swanston seems never to have actually crossed Bass Strait to see Melbourne for himself.

As Eleanor Robin explains rather late in the text in this biography of Charles Swanston (Ch.15) , Swanston has not been treated kindly by Tasmanian historians. In 1948 W.H. Hudspeth regaled an after-dinner audience with an entertaining sketch of Swanston’s rise and fall that became the accepted view for the next seventy years.  Other historians, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick relied on the evidence of contemporary detractors and the discomfort of colonial settlers over Swanston’s ignominious end to depict him in a negative light. This book, which conceptualizes Charles Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, places him within a wider imperial mindset, and assesses his intellectual and social capital against the financial business mores of the time.  Drawing on the archives of the Derwent Bank papers, which were only fully catalogued in 2017,  Robin concludes that Charles Swanston was

a vital cog in the rapidly turning wheel of change. He was a man of the world who played out his life boldly in exotic and far-flung regions of the 19th century British Empire (p.198)

Charles Swanston was born in England in 1789 and at the age of 16 was commissioned in the East India Company army. The wide-reaching networks of soldiers involved in Wellington’s armies have been described by historians, most particularly Zoe Laidlaw and Christine Wright . Importantly, Robin alerts us to a different, parallel set of networks that connected India and Australia, first through military men in the East India Company, and then through them to the trade market between the two countries. This connection with India played out in the lives of two of Swanston’s sons too, when they also joined the Indian army before eventually retiring to England.  There was a strong presence of Scots in the East India Company as well, and if the Indian networks were the warp, then the Scots influence -which also ran through Swanston’s family- was the weft running through his financial and mercantile activities.

Swanston first visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1829 for a temporary visit on leave from the East India Company.  He was quickly embraced by the Hobart ‘genteel’ society, several of whom shared Indian ties with him. He quickly found favour with Governor Arthur who declared that he wished that the colony were stacked with “a hundred settlers such as Captain Swanston from India” (p.24) Even before permanently settling in Van Diemen’s Land, which he was to do in 1831, he purchased several estates, including New Town Park at New Town, and under the patronage of Governor Arthur, purchased shares in the newly established Derwent Bank, which he was to eventually control.

Colonial port cities during the nineteenth century were marked by their cliquishness, gossip, social claustrophobia and instability of ‘respectability’, and this was certainly true of Hobart during Swanston’s time.  As an appointed, non-public-service member of the Legislative Council in a colony with no popular representation, he was embroiled in the partisan politics of governor-against-Council, especially after his patron Governor Arthur departed the colony and Sir John Franklin was appointed in his place. Apart from political maneuverings  Swanston was involved in the gentlemanly pursuits of many other elite public men in a small colony: the orphan school, infrastructure schemes in water, coal and smelting, insurance companies, church warden, board member for the Mechanics Institute and vice-President and Treasurer for the Royal Society. Like many gentlemen of his time and milieu he had a particular interest in horticulture and viticulture.

In her title, Robin identifies Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, one of those class of men with the British education and contacts to take up the commercial opportunities that opened up in the colonies.

Those around him recognised his global outlook. He had the eye of an army strategist and, as financier and legislator until his last tumultuous days, he operated in the national interest, as well as for his own good. (p.101)

His control of the Derwent bank gave him contacts with merchants and entrepreneurs, and he leveraged his Indian and Scots networks in the importation of manufactured goods from both India, the Far East and ‘home’. Most particularly he acted as agent for  Edinburgh-based George Mercer, encouraging Mercer to invest in Van Diemen’s Land and to  purchase land and properties for his children who emigrated to Australia, and most importantly, like Swanston,  in becoming involved in Melbourne as a new investment opportunity.

As Robin demonstrates, Swanston provided much of the financial and intellectual muscle behind the Port Phillip Association’s attempt to ‘purchase’ huge swathes of land through a ‘treaty’ with the Kulin nation.  He was “the chief strategist and spearheaded the Association’s campaign for legal title to the ‘new country'” (p. 114) It was probably Swanston, along with Gellibrand or Wedge, or all three, back in Van Diemen’s Land who took Batman’s diary and wrote it up into a more polished report. It was Swanston who acted as a conduit between Governor Arthur and the members of the Association, as a lobbyist with the New South Wales government, and who briefed George Mercer to lobby the British government. The treaty was always legally dubious, but there was a concerted and well-co-ordinated lobbying campaign at local, colonial, and metropole level to have it, and the claims of the Port Phillip Association, recognized.

Even though the treaty was disallowed,  along with other members of the syndicate Swanston lost no time in sending his own flocks over the strait, and arranging for Mercer to deploy his finance in the same way.  He organized the shipping, taking shares in ‘The Adelaide’ to convey the sheep, and organizing all up twenty sailing vessels. The Colonial Government, in rejecting the ‘treaty’ allowed remissions up to the value of £7000 (a sizeable amount!) for any expenditure that had been forfeited. Swanston took up any of the shares in the now-discredited Port Phillip Association and established the Derwent Company, a new entity.

Robin is non-committal about the intent of the treaty for the men in the Port Phillip Association, beyond commenting on the entrepreneurial spirit from which it emerged and pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. It struck me that we tend to think of frontier conflict in terms of spears and guns and the physicality of violence, and not so much the mindset of the capitalists who were financing the expansion. Swanston himself stayed in Tasmania, arguing that his business and legislative commitments precluded crossing the Strait. I have read much about the frontier conflict later in Port Phillip, but I was particularly struck by the violence and resistance to this first wave of men and sheep, including amongst Swanston’s own overseers (p.134) In this recounting of those very early years, focusing closely on the experience of those first syndicate members, there was no period of benign wariness.  The deaths and outrages on Swanston’s own properties made it harder to argue that the ‘treaty’ was an alternative approach that could avoid bloodshed.

As Robin shows, Swanston was a man of his time, and those times were both exhilarating and challenging for entrepreneurs and merchants.  Profits and investments expanded dramatically in the 1830s,  and they contracted the same way in the 1840s.  It is likely that his own actions as a banker contributed to the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land economy, when he changed the Derwent Bank from a bank of issue to a mortgage bank. He, and bankers in NSW alike, assumed that because land was finite, an investment in land was “safe as houses”- an assumption that was rendered untrue with the opening up of Port Phillip.  Those networks and connections that had bolstered his reputation in Hobart were now a burden as friends and acquaintances who had once approached him for advice now approached him for relief. As Robin says, “With hindsight, the collapse of the Derwent Bank, taking Swanston with it, was inevitable.” (p. 184)

Kirsten McKenzie has pointed out in Scandal in the Colonies, the question of personal integrity in business was vital to economic success (p.79). As economic historian Syd Butlin wrote, while not doubting Swanston’s good faith, “[Swanston] had simply ceased to distinguish the policy and affairs of the bank from his own interests and business”(p.184). Robin admits that his business operations occasionally shaded into ‘sharp practice’, but that this was not unusual. His business model was based on growth,  which could not be sustained in a changed economic environment. (p.196)  Disgraced and depressed after the failure of both the Derwent Company and the Derwent Bank, Swanston left Van Diemen’s Land to join his son on the Californian goldfields. Their paths crossed, and Swanston died at sea, aged sixty. He was not to know it, but the ‘new’ colony which had dominated his lobbying and financial acumen was about to undergo its own transformation through gold.

Robin closes her book noting the lack of acknowledgment of Swanston in the town with a main street named in his honour. She’s right, and her book goes a long way towards filling this vacuum. In a narrative sense, she has walked around Charles Swanston, profiling him from different perspectives: military man, legislator, merchant statesman, Port Phillip Association member, financier and family man.

In recent years there has been increasing discomfort about the role and behaviour of the ‘over-straiters’, most particularly John Batman, as seen by the renaming of the ‘Batman’ electorate to ‘Cooper’ to honour William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta activist and community leader. There is now a question over whether the statues to Fawkner and Batman that previously stood in the now-demolished National Mutual forecourt will see the light of day again.

Additionally, the opprobrium directed towards ethically questionable economic ventures now  tends to extend to the financiers as well, as seen by the pressure on financial organizations not to invest in the Adani coal mine. In Charles Swanston we see colonization in its white-collar guise, and an abstract concept like ‘settler capitalism’ exemplified in an individual. After Robin’s book, Swanston will not be so invisible. Time and politics will tell whether that’s a good thing or not.

Sourced from: review copy Australian Scholarly Publishing

Eleanor Robin will be speaking about her book at the RHSV on Tuesday 16 October.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2081.

 

 

*[An aside: Spencer St was named after 3rdEarl Spencer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Melbourne 1830-1834; King St after Philip Gidley King, 3rd governor of NSW; William after King William 4th who reigned between 1830 and 1837- the years of Melbourne’s white settlement; Queen after Queen Adelaide, William’s wife; Elizabeth after the wife of Governor Richard Bourke (contested); Swanston, Russell after Lord John Russell, then Home Secretary, Stephen after Sir James Stephen Permanent Under-secretary for the Colonies (later renamed Exhibition Street) and Spring for Thomas Spring-Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1835-1839]

I hear with my little ear: 1- 7 October 2018

Russia if you’re listening (ABC) Another Trumpdate- this time “Why Brett Kavanaugh matters to the Russia Investigation”

Mr Deakin – Judith Brett. Here historian Judith Brett discusses her book ‘The Enigmatic Mr Deakin’ with Kerryn Goldsworthy at the Adelaide Festival. Available on Soundcloud here for streaming but not download. It goes for nearly an hour, so it’s an expansive interview. What a fantastic resource the Adelaide Writers Week Soundcloud account is:-they’re all there!

News in Slow Spanish Latino Episode #277. I really enjoyed the segment about Spanish words for which there are no direct translations.  Like anteayer – the day before yesterday. Or friolentos– people who always feel cold. Or desvelarse when you’ve become over-tired and then you’re wide awake.  Or sobremesa which means the talking around the table after the meal has finished.  They didn’t mention this one, but I like it: consuegra– the mother-in-law of my child.

Revolutions Podcast 9.06 The Presidential Succession of 1910 Portfirio Diaz said that he welcomed a contested election but he was just joking.  9.07 Morelos looks at the province of what was to become Morelos as a microcosm of Mexican history so far, and introduces Emiliano Zapata (and his mustache)

History Week 2018: Melbourne Footballers and the Great Depression

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Remember the three old blokes who sat on the bar stools in the Prince of Prussia in the Jack Irish books and television series? They’d sit there, mentally replaying and commentating football matches concluded decades ago, yarning about footballers long gone with names like “Chicken Smallhorn” and “Captain Blood”.  I must confess that I felt a little bit as if I were sitting on the middle stool in this presentation by Timothy Lambert at Ivanhoe Library today.  But there were plenty in the audience who were  obviously just as familiar with statistics and personalities from Melbourne footy history.

Lambert took his time frame from 1929 to 1939, at a time when Richmond, Collingwood and South Melbourne dominated the VFL competition, while Hawthorn and North Melbourne almost folded. At a time of high unemployment, VFL Firsts players received £2 per match, although the seconds  didn’t receive any payment at all. As a result, there was huge competition within a team to be selected to play.  Under the Coulter Law, passed in 1930, no player could receive more than three pounds per match, but the wealthier clubs found ways to get around this e.g. John Wren’s famous ‘five pound’ handshake for the Collingwood boys after a match, or enticing players with the prospect of secure employment as South Melbourne president Archie Croft was able to do through his chain of grocery stores. He also lured so many interstate players that South Melbourne would be dubbed “The Foreign Legion”, with so many from Western Australia that it was suggested that they should be known as “The Swans”. The name stuck.

Lambert also emphasized that the VFL and the VFA were still direct competitors at this time, with both League and Association games played on a Saturday afternoon, and with the VFA untrammeled in how much they could offer a player.  Although this might suggest that the VFA would have been stronger, it was common for a player to play in the league for several years until they were picked up by a country club as a player/coach where he could earn £10 a game.

Football was tremendously popular during the Depression. Entry was 6d. It has been estimated that during the Depression years, 1:10 Melburnians attended a football match on any given Saturday.  In spite of 2018’s turnouts of more than 300,000 to a round, the ratio to population today would not be anything like that.

So all in all, a real session for footy tragics!

A day trip to …Ormond

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To be honest, I wasn’t really quite sure where Ormond is. Having now visited it to see Box Cottage, which was open for History Week, I can now tell you that it’s on the Frankston train line.  Ormond station has been rebuilt as part of the Level Crossing Removal Project and looks quite a lot like Rosanna station except that it is below street level and Rosanna is high above it. I guess that there will be a legacy of these concrete and stainless steel stations, with their orange and limegreen geometric ‘decorations’.

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North Road Ormond is rather unprepossessing.

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We had lunch at Mountains of Bears, and it was excellent. It’s located down a little 1950s arcade with tables outside in the arcade, as well as in the cafe. We had an excellent paella- better than I had in Spain and much closer to home. They took a great deal of care with their coffee art.

We had ventured down to Ormond to visit Box Cottage Museum, which houses the City of Moorabin Historical Society.  The cottage has been reconstructed after falling into disrepair on the adjoining block. Another house had been built in front of it, and so it stayed at the back, used as a shed in what had by 1970 become a timber yard.  The timber yard owner, Mr Lewis suggested that the cottage be dismantled and relocated. It was reconstructed in the adjacent park as part of Victoria’s bicentenary, with timbers donated by Mr Lewis.

The original owners were William and Elizabeth Box, who arrived in Melbourne in 1855. At first they leased market garden allotments before they purchased two ten acre lots on what had been the Dendy Special Survey in 1868 and 1869. The cottage was built sometime in the 1850s.  They were successful market gardeners and raised 13 children in the cottage before building the larger house at the front.  From 1917-1970 it was occupied by the Reitman family who leased and then purchased the houses and land. August Reitman was a monumental mason, potter and sculptor, and was employed to carve war memorials in Victoria after WWI. His business shifted to Highett and the cottage was used as a workshop.

There is also an outside barn area with agricultural and household artefacts, including an original wagon that took vegetables from the market gardens to Melbourne. Because of the sandy road, a sort of tram line was built into the roads to assist the wheels on heavily laden drays.

Box Cottage was open today for History Week, but it generally opens on the last Sunday of the month between February and November between 2.00 and 4.00 p.m.