‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson

2021, 338 p

Epistolary novels have gone in and out of fashion, but they have probably had a resurgence with the advent of email which facilitates a to-and-fro unheard of since the decline of two-deliveries-per-day mail services. I do find myself wondering, though, how many of these email correspondences will survive into the future as mailboxes get culled, email programs are superseded and internet providers change. As with photographs, we have so much digital ‘stuff’ but little of it is treasured and put aside for the future. Nonetheless, I find a rather guilty pleasure in reading epistolary novels – as if I am eavesdropping on a conversation or snooping through someone’s mail – although, of course, these novels are deliberate creations among fictional characters, intended to be read.

The correspondence between Pamela and Chris happens by accident. At 11.10 on the night of her eldest son’s birthday Pamela sends an email to her ex-husband Christophe in Paris, full of guilt and regrets. Unsure of her husband’s email address, she sends it to ‘Chrisxwoods’ at both Hotmail and Gmail. The next day she receives an email from Chrisanthi Woods, from Schenectady, New York, telling her that she has the wrong email address and wishing her luck and hoping that things work out. The relationship starts off rather shyly and tentatively, but right from the start there is an information imbalance, with Pamela over-sharing: “Oh dear- I suppose I do pour out my heart to strangers”. Chris’ responses, however, are rather crisp and abrupt. Chris is older than Pamela, sixty-four years of age, working at SUNY in student enrolments. If characters in one book could invade other books, I had in mind Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge– a rather brusque, snippy woman largely oblivious to the effect that she has on other people.

Pamela, on the other hand, is 51 years old and works in a library. She has her three sons living with her, but the oldest, Raf (Raphael) is obviously angry and lashing out, while she tends to baby the youngest, Baps. She feels that she is lacking all authority with Raf and Claude (the middle son), who fight constantly. She complains about the children at length, until Chris snaps

For Christ’s sake, Pamela, why did you have children if you weren’t prepared to surrender? Everyone says people who don’t have children are selfish. I think it’s people having children for no good reason who are the selfish ones. I’m not sure we should keep emailing each other. My heart is banging so hard I feel like I’m having a heart attack. This isn’t good for me. Bye, Pamela


There is a three week cooling-off, but Pamela keeps going apologizing, complaining, over-sharing. Again, Chris baulks:

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?


Chris later apologizes, recognizing that she had been “mean” and that Pamela caught her on a bad day. They call each other Plato and Socrates but I’m not sure that a great deal of learning is taking place. The correspondence starts again, still one-sided but Chris begins talking about her elderly mother’s plans to return to Greece, her attempts to help a Syrian family and her spurned offer of assistance to a friend. Chris seems to be an awkward and at times clumsy helper, with definite views on how things should be done but at times she cuts through Pamela’s wordiness with no-nonsense advice. It takes a long time until Chris divulges more of her own life.

Two middle-aged women, on different sides of the globe, with very different life experiences. Never catching sight of each other, never in each other’s space. There’s not a lot to work with here, but Johnson manages to develop characters who have an identity beyond the written word. It’s a curiously engaging book, despite little actually happening.The end, when it comes, was unexpected. Catching sight of the book the morning after I had finished it, I felt regretful that they had both moved beyond me.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 January 2022

Well, another year of podcasts. And just think- a few months down the track, I will have finished listening to my Roman podcasts!

History of Rome Podcast In the last episode, we left Commodus dead in the bath. In Episode 98- Purchasing Power we meet Pertinax, who was presented as a fait accompli to the Senate and a ‘safe pair of hands’ to repair the damage that Commodus had wrought. He was the son of a freedman (which the Senate wasn’t too happy about) and he served in lots of battles and was experienced as a governor of important provinces. He was a strong disciplinarian, but he found that he had to ‘buy off’ the Praetorian Guard to get them to support him. But he only coughed up half of what he promised, and he was confronted by 300 angry Praetorians who stabbed him. He had a short ‘reign’- only 86 days. So what next? Well, find a new emperor who won’t try to wriggle out of his bribes. And so, there was an auction to work out who would come up with the goods! Didius Julianis ‘won’ the auction but he only lasted 66 days. Even though Didius Julianis had been raised in the house of Marcus Aurelius’ mother, and fought in Germany, he always lacked legitimacy and the troops wouldn’t support him. Episode 99 What Evil Have I Done? was his plaintive cry as he was killed in the palace after Severus took control in 193CE which was known as the Year of Five Emperors. There weren’t actually five emperors – only three because Severus triumphed- but there were five contenders to be Emperor- all army men. In Episode 100 Black and White and Severus All Over we meet the other two: Pescennius Niger (who people really expected to take over) and Clodius Albinus. Niger was older than Severus and Albinus, and he was upwardly mobile. He had been Governor of Syria and was pretty laid back about it all. Too laid back really, because Severus was closer to Rome and declared himself emperor while Niger’s troops were still marching. Clodius Albinis was chosen by Severus as a ‘Caesar’ to co-rule with him. Albinis had the support of the troops in Brittania and Gaul. When Severus appointed his elder son Caracalla as his successor with the title of Caesar, civil war broke out. After a hard-fought battle, Albinis was defeated and killed himself (or maybe was killed). And so in Episode 101 And All Was of Little Value Severus embarked on his 18 year reign. His major concern was keeping the support of the army (who had put him in his position) and he wasn’t really interested in governing, which he left to his prefect Plautianus. It had been prophesied that there was a woman in the East who would marry a King, so he sought her out and found Julia Doman in Syria and married her. He invaded Parthia and Britain, but in his absence Plautianus became more unscrupulous and powerful. Severus’ sons Caracalla and Geta hated each other, and they stitched up Plautianus and had him executed. In Episode 102 The Common Enemy of Mankind sees Severus invading Brittania and reinforcing Hadrian’s Wall as part of ‘pacifying’ the Caledonians. But when the Caledonians adopted guerilla warfare instead of ‘proper’ war, he embarked on a genocidal campaign. After his death, he appointed his sons as co-heirs but they hated each other. They divided the palace in half so that they didn’t have to see each other, and were contemplating doing the same thing to the Empire, but Caracalla got in first and had Geta killed in front of his mother, who had planned a meeting to ‘reconcile’ them. Then came a huge purge, and another invasion of Parthia on the false excuse of a ‘peace’ marriage. My God. I knew none of this. No wonder it’s the ‘decline and fall’ of the Empire.

This Union: Two Kingdoms (BBC) This is a fairly recent (Sept 2021) three-part series about the relationship between Scotland and England. Episode 1 Creation of the Union goes through the Act of Union in 1717 as a way of solving the succession crisis after Queen Anne. Apparently the English weren’t too keen about it either because Scotland was pretty much bankrupt after the Darien disaster, an attempt to establish a Scots colony in Panama. (I’d never heard of it). Episode 2 Cementing the Union sees Scotland sharing in the post-WWII welfare state with its state-owned enterprises in heavy industry. But we know what Maggie Thatcher did with those, don’t we. With the discovery of North Sea oil, Scotland felt even more miffed. Episode 3 Crossroads sees the creation of the Scottish Parliament facilitated by Labour governments in both England and Scotland. But the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party saw Labour eclipsed in Scotland, and the push towards a referendum. Even though the referendum (which was subject to a strong scare campaign about the economy) voted against independence, Brexit has changed things, and most young people, who do not have the nostalgia for big state-owned industry, are strongly in favour of independence. And as they say, demography is destiny. I really enjoyed this series.

Big Ideas (ABC) I’ve just finished reading Kate Holden’s The Winter Road (review to come!) and this July 2021 interview with the author How a dispute over land clearing turned deadly gives you a good idea of what the book is about. But read the book, because this interview doesn’t do justice to Holden’s beautiful prose and thoughtful meditations on themes wider than the true crime aspects of her story.

Emperors of Rome I’m continuing on with the series of episodes about the empresses. Episode CLVIII – Plotina deals with Trajan’s wife, who came from the provinces just like her husband did. She had to share the ‘Augusta’ title with Trajan’s sister Marciana, and then when Marciana died, Marciana’s daughter was made an Augusta instead. So she was never the sole Augusta, even though she and Trajan worked well as a unit. She was very fond of Hadrian and championed him after Trajan’s death. She was in the public eye for a long time. The episode features Professor T. Corey Brennan (Classics, Rutgers University). Episode CLIX – Sabina features Professor Brennan as well. Sabina was a grand-niece of Trajan, so when she married Hadrian, she lent legitimacy to his reign. She travelled with Hadrian, who as we know, loved to travel around, which made her very visible, and there are many coins featuring her image.There is some scandal concerning her, but we don’t know much about it. There are negative anecdotes about her being morose and irritable, and she took steps to make sure that she didn’t get pregnant. Brennan suggests that she was forced into suicide, because Hadrian had a view to his successor that he didn’t want her to change if he predeceased her. She was friends with the court poet Julia Balbilla.

Faustina. Source: Wikimedia

Episode CLX – Faustina was the mother of Commodus and as the daughter of the previous Emperor, Faustina provided her husband, Marcus Aurelius, with a solid link to the imperial throne. She was eight when her father Antoninus became emperor, and at first she was engaged to Lucius Verras, but then the betrothal was changed to Marcus Aurelius. She and Marcus Aurelius had at least 14 children, of whom five daughters and Commodus survived. The sources aren’t very complementary about her, but perhaps that’s because they blame her for Commodus, suggesting that he might have been the product of adultery.

And then….back to the Emperors. Episode LXXXII – Pertinax follows much the same material as the ‘History of Rome’ above. Dr Caillan Davenport (Roman History, Macquarie University) points out that it is known as the Year of Five Emperors but there were actually only three (the other two claimed themselves to be Emperors but were not recognized as such beyond their troops). In Episode LXXXIII – Didius Julianus I still just can’t believe that the Praetorian Guard held an auction between the aspirants to role of emperor- an auction! Didius Julianus was 60 years old and an experienced governor and soldier, but when he turned up at the Senate with soldiers, people knew who had bought and paid for him. There were protests, but Didius killed the protestors. He tried to fortify Rome and even brought in the elephants to help him. By this time he was encircled by Severus, Albinus and Niger. The Senate had him killed. Episode LXXXIV – The African Emperor brings us Severus, born in Libya and known as the African emperor. He offered Albinus, whose support base was in Gaul, Spain and Brittania the junior rank of consul because he didn’t want him invading Rome too, forcing him to fight on three fronts. Severus arranged for big celebrations in Rome when he was proclaimed emperor. Episode LXXXV – Black and White looks at Severus’ early actions as emperor. It took him a year to defeat Niger, and afterwards he divided Syria in two in order that no other governor from the east could draw on 3 legions to threaten the emperor. He needed a foreign war so he provoked one with the Parthian vassals, although not Parthia itself. Then he indulged in some FAKE NEWS by proclaiming that Marcus Aurelius had adopted him, and that Commodus was his brother and demanding that Commodus should be deified (short memories here). Severus proclaimed his son his co-consul, which of course put Albinus (who was already co-consul) on the outer, so Severus turned on him too. Albinus was either forced to commit suicide or was trampled by a horse but either way, Albinus was out of the way too, leaving Severus the only emperor standing. He had the Senate ratify his spurious ‘sonship’ with Marcus Aurelius, and demanded that Commodus be deified, arguing that the Senator were just as bad as Commodus had been. Purges followed and by now he had got rid of all his enemies, and he raised the army pay by 50% or 100% to reward his friends.

Book It In (The Guardian) I quite enjoy Tony Birch’s stories and I enjoyed this interview with Paul Daley. Tony Birch on writing true characters in fiction discusses his childhood in 1960s Fitzroy and the nature of the relationship between off-the-books businesses (SP bookies, pawn shops, bars etc) and the police. He talks about the rock-like strength of the women in his childhood, the masculine violence that surrounded him, and the way that if the characters are right in fiction, the politics comes through anyway. In relation to non-indigenous writers creating indigenous characters, he argues that if they do so, they need to take responsibility and defend what they are doing. Aboriginal people need to own their stories, and white writers need to own their own stories of colonialism. He speaks about Gary Foley, who has never been represented in the Schwartz empire, and his contribution to politics and community.

‘The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent’ by Gideon Haigh

2021, 384 p.

Very clever title, this one. There are two ‘brilliant boys’ in this book. One is only seven years old, and one afternoon in 1937 he disappears into a badly-fenced trench from which he is dragged, lifeless, some time later. The youngest child of a family of Polish emigrants, Maxie Chester was his mother’s ‘brilliant boy’. The other is ‘Doc’ Evatt: prize-winning student, lawyer, judge, attorney-general, leader of the Opposition for the Labor Party, and President of the United Nations General Assembly. In this book, Gideon Haigh brings the two together in an analysis of the court case Chester v the Council of the Municipality of Waverley (1939) where Evatt issued a poignantly written dissenting judgement that revealed his humanity and erudition. This book is the story of this case, interwoven into a biography of Evatt himself.

So what was so significant about this case? It was a High Court case which had been escalated as part of an appeal against the original findings, not so much about the facts of the drowning, but over whether the council’s duty of care extended to Maxie Chester’s mother Golda as well. As Haigh points out,

Dissents, a minority opinion at odds with the majority view of an appellate court, are a judicial tradition with roots 400 years deep. They are partly an artefact of legal individualism- the freelance life of the Bar instills habits of working alone… the Supreme Court has reserved an honoured place for its ‘Great Dissenters’ and their great dissents…

Dissents fall, broadly, into two categories: the kind written simply as an opinion that turns out not to be shared by colleagues, and the kind self-consciously composed to stand on its own…Evatt’s in Chester fits unapologetically into the later category

p.272, 273

Evatt’s dissent was six times the length of the average judgment of the 1930s. He writes clearly – almost journalistically- setting out the about the trench, the children playing in the streets, young Maxie, his mother. When you read his dissent against the judgments of the other judges, they seem particularly brusque and abstract. Evatt, on the other hand, imagined himself into the situation, and called upon the Lost Child trope that has run so deep in Australian culture. He quoted from literature, not Shakespeare or Ruskin but from Australian literature, in the form of Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life, bringing Golda Chester’s suffering “into the range of normal human Australian responses” (p.281). His prose

with its long sentences and sometimes complex constructions, never scintillates, but it is muscular, rigorous, pungent. Through the patina of judicial restraint, a fine fury can be felt…If the concepts are occasionally abstruse, Evatt’s reasoning is seldom obscure. He finds ways at each point to relate them to everyday understandings…It is the use of literature, of course, that affords the judgment such accessibility and reach. It is possible, in fact, to read Evatt’s judgement in Chester not just as dissenting a major view in this case, but dissenting a majority view of judicial writing and legal thinking casting only backwards and sideways. Law insisting that harm required lesions and lacerations ignored the march of science. Law incapable of acknowledging something so fundamental as maternal love was at odds with the humanity it purported to serve.


I’m not sure if, taken over the whole length of Evatt’s life, the Chester case was the most important one on which he ruled. Nor am I sure that it is a particularly significant case in Australian law. But in a way, that is not important. Haigh is a writer, more than he is a judicial biographer or historian, and he hangs his broader professional and political biography on the Chester case as part of shaping the narrative, as a creative act in re-reading and re-presenting a man’s life.

Like others of a progressive leaning, I was appalled by Donald Trump’s bare-faced stacking of the U.S. Supreme Court with conservative judges. But I have to admit that Evatt’s appointment to the Australian High Court was a prime example of stacking as well. Evatt was a politician, a High Court judge, a politician and then a judge again as Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court, ping-ponging between politics and the judiciary to an extent that I’m not aware of occurring today. Indeed, had it occurred before Evatt either? I’m not sure.

Haigh highlights Evatt’s precocity and brilliance, and his involvement in the progressive cultural life in Australia at the time. As a progressive lawyer, he admired H.B.Higgins and was part of the literary network that had the Vance and Nettie Palmer (Higgins’ niece) at its heart. His artistic interests led him to the Heide network and to become the champion of modernist art, pointedly in opposition to his political foe Robert Menzies. He was a historian, although his philosophy of history appears particularly bombastic and rigid to me, loftily pronouncing that lawyers had a unique faculty for pronouncing on history, being ‘skilled in the actual science of legal investigations’ (p. 176.). He wrote on William Bligh in Rum Rebellion and also of the Royal Prerogative, the subject of his PhD thesis that led to his nickname ‘Doc’ and which was expounded in his 1936 book The King and His Dominion Governors. Some forty years later an erstwhile legal colleague, by then knighted as Sir John Kerr, was to pore over it in 1977 when weighing up options to dismiss the Whitlam government. Evatt’s intellect was broad ranging and intense, isolating him from many of his more quotidian Labor Party colleagues but also empowering him to circulate at the highest judicial and political levels when he visited the United States. As Haigh notes, he was egotistical, self-interested and ambitious, as well as imbued with a life-long sense of social justice, not just as a principle but as something to be enacted, with him playing a part himself in the formation of liberal and human policies.

There’s a lot of law in this book, and Haigh does wander at times into tangentially-related cases as part of painting a picture of how the law grappled with issues of negligence, trauma and technological change. As part of a High Court bench and as puisne judge, Evatt was just one member of different triads of judges hearing appeal cases. As in many judicial bureaucracies, there were jealousies and rivalries in a competitive milieu of sharp intellects and long-game ambitions.

There’s a lot of politics too: the chronological fortunes of the Labor Party at national and state level, the clash of political personas, the historical significance of cases in which he participated (as in the defence of Egon Kisch) the interpersonal snarling politics of judges amongst themselves and the opening up of international politics post WWII with the creation of the United Nations.

Haigh walks around his subject, viewing him from multiple perspectives: student, husband, father, legal practitioner, politician, international diplomat, historian and public intellectual. As a work of biography, it is masterful in cracking the humanity in the Chester case – both the poignancy of Maxie’s death and the humanity of Evatt’s response to it – and using that case as the fulcrum on which Haigh balances other perspectives of a public life. Haigh has not written this as a history, even though history is woven throughout it, and I found myself ruing the absence of an index – something that I think undersells Haigh’s work and the diligence of the reader.

I’ve read my share of judicial biography, and this book stands apart in the roundedness of its approach. It acknowledges Evatt’s flawed genius and locates the man and his work within the political and judicial currents running at the time. It’s very good.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

The Ancients (History Hit) Well, it’s heading up to Christmas, so how about a podcast about King Herod? This episode features Holy Land archaeologist Dr Jodi Magness who, as you might expect, takes a rather archaeological approach. However, there’s not much in written sources to go on anyway- just that mention in Matthew alone (not the other gospels) and Josephus, who was born thirty years after Herod died. Herod was half-Jewish through his father (not his mother) and his family had been forcibly converted. There is no evidence that the Massacre of the Innocents ever occurred and it is not recorded elsewhere, although Herod was ruthless with his brothers-in-law and sons and executed them for fear that they would challenge him. He was a great builder in the Roman tradition. He built Caesarea (where they found a whole lot of artefacts recently) and built his own mausoleum at Herodium. It was uncovered in 2007 Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who had been working on the site for forty years, although there is now doubt whether Herod himself is buried there. (Actually, I read elsewhere that this excavation is contested by the Palestinian National Authority). Herod tried by bolster his Jewish legitimacy by rebuilding the Temple, and by placing Herodium close to Bethlehem, in the hope that he could share some of King David’s glory.

Democracy Sausage In this final episode for 2021, The second (and possibly last) Annual Democracy Sausage Awards Mark Kenny is joined by historians Frank Bongiorno and Chris Wallace, and fellow ANU researcher Marija Taflaga. The episode is not a very good demonstration of democracy at work, because Mark Kenny seems to have kept the agenda a secret, and everyone is too easily swayed by everyone else so that they reach a rather predictable consensus. They discuss the biggest backflip (Morrison on EVs), the most effective political leader (Matt Canavan), the maddest thing in Trump’s America (6th January attack on the Capitol) and the most hopeful development (the rise of Independents).

History of Rome Episode 97 The Fall of Hercules. What’s Hercules doing here? you may wonder. Well, it was just one of the delusions of grandeur that Commodus indulged in, and he ordered statues of himself to be made decked out in a lion’s skin, carrying a club. There were two assassination attempts against Commodus and finally the second one was successful, carried out in his bath by his wrestling partner Narcissus after his lover’s attempt to poison him failed. Mike Duncan goes into more detail about Commodus’ predilection for gladiatorial contest – something really low-class and particularly bloodthirsty when he was involved, not against fellow gladiators (whose surrender he accepted) but against exotic animals and disabled people. And so just as Nero wrecked the Julio-Claudian dynasty; Domitian wrecked the Flavian dynasty; and now Commodus drove the Antonine dynasty straight into the wall.

Emperors of Rome Episode LXXVII Such was the End of Commodus reinforces the almost inevitability of Commodus’ assassination what with the ongoing perverse bloodbath in the colloseum and endless purges of the senate. No wonder they got him in the end, and that was the end of the Antonines.

This is the last of Dr Rhiannon Evans’ podcasts on the Emperors chronologically, because the series is moving chronologically out of her area of expertise. So she’s handing the Emperor part over to Dr Caillan Davenport from Macquarie University, while she goes back with some social history.

So, faced with a little hiatus, I backtracked to listen to Episode CLIII – Livia (with Sian Phillips) because I’m just about finished watching I, Claudius. This is a reply of episode XXV (from 2016), followed by an all new interview with Sian Phillips who played Livia in The BBC’s ‘I Claudius’ in 1976. Dr Evans is quite fond of Livia, despite the calumnies that the author of I, Claudius mounts against her. It was interesting to hear Sian Phillips speak of I, Claudius as “a play”. The episodes were filmed consecutively, each taking about 3 weeks.

Then all of a sudden I found myself in a series about the Empresses of Rome. I thought that I´d follow it through until I catch up with whoever comes after Commodus. I backtracked a bit to Episode CLII The Roman Empress where Dr Rhiannon Evans spoke generally about the role of the Empress in the Roman Empire. Basically, if her husband had a failed reign, then she would be blamed. Women were more attached to their father’s family than their husbands, and so they would be pushing their own family’s interests. Their most important qualities were chastity, fidelity, fecundity and being dutiful. Divorce was very easy.

Which leads of course to Messelina, who according to Tacitus, Pliny and Juvenal (and hence Robert Graves in I, Claudius) was neither chaste, loyal nor dutiful. In Episode CLIV – Messalina Dr Evans notes that all the sources are hostile, and she doesn’t really believe that Messelina did everything she was accused of. However, even if the facts are exaggerated, it is obviously code for highly inappropriate behaviour. Sex workers were the lowest of the low, and for Messelina to want to be a sex worker would be incomprehensible (and if you have seen I, Claudius, the number of men is 25). And Robert Graves, as Dr Evans points out, wanted to rehabilitate the reputation of Claudius, and what better way than to traduce Messelina.

Agrippina gets two episodes, featuring Dr Emma Southon (Historian and author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore).Episode CLV – Agrippina, Wife of Claudius points out that Agrippina was linked to four emperors: she was Augustus’ grand-daughter, Germanicus’ daughter, Claudius’ wife and Nero’s mother. Dr Southon has a fairly negative view of Claudius, arguing that Agrippina was a strong leader in her own right, fierce in her protection of her family, and it was she who made Claudius look good. This all fell apart in Episode CLVI – Agrippina, Mother of Nero when Nero ascended to power after the death of Claudius, in which Dr Southon accepts Agrippina played an active part. Her first mistake was to bring back the philosopher and advisor Seneca, who rewarded her patronage by advising Nero to sideline her. Nero knew that Agrippina was popular, so he couldn’t just kill her off. So it had to look like an accident: her roof fell in, the boat she was travelling in collapsed and when all else failed he accused her of treason and she ended up stabbed. Interestingly, Agrippina actually wrote her own autobiography (so Claudius wasn’t the only family historian) but only two segments remain. Overall, Dr Southon sees Agrippina as an agent of stability, and argues that Claudius wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did without her.

Domitia was princess of the Julio-Claudians, and ended up married to the tyrant Domitian. Episode CLVII – Domitia features Dr Trudie Fraser (Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne). It’s a hard act to follow Messelina and Agrippina, and Domitia mainly kept her head down, after having experienced many purges and deaths. Dr Fraser rejects the hypothesis that Domitia was involved in Domitian’s assassination, arguing that it would have been too dangerous for her. The written sources are largely silent about her, and we are reliant on coins and portraits. Nonetheless, these show us the way that the Emperor wanted the Empress to be portrayed, which is an interesting perspective.

Twenty Thousand Hertz. The Gift is an old 2017 episode from Twenty Thousand Hertz that was featured by this week’s ‘History This Week’. Now- pay attention because you’ll need this one day in a trivia quiz- “The horse eats no cucumber salad”. These were reportedly the first words transmitted through electronic reproduction by Johann Philipp Reis in 1861 some thirteen years before Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. On Christmas Eve 1906 morse code operators were warned to get ready to take a message, and over the airwaves came the sound of ‘O Holy Night’ through Reginald Fessenden’s work on radio broadcasting. But the emphasis of this program is on Amar Bose – yes, he of the Bose speakers- whose father emigrated to America from India, and who worked at MIT on a range of sound technologies. He was frustrated by the business practice of buying up (but not using) patents and the short-termism of many companies. So he developed his own company and gifted it to MIT so that it can maintain its emphasis on research and development. This podcast is supported by Bose, and despite the presenter’s claims to the contrary, it does come over as one long advertisement for Bose but it’s still a good story.

Travels Through Time In this episode, Journey into Deep London: Tom Chivers 62AD author Tom Chivers, who wrote London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City takes a psycho-geological approach to London (which has been studied many,many times before). He chooses 62 AD as ‘his’ year, but it’s all a bit arbitrary because his book is far more about geology, and its effect on development, rather than human actions in recorded history. His three episodes were: a walk along the river Walbrook; a walk through the marshy wetlands of the “Westminster Delta” and the burial and later discovery of Harper Road Woman, a Romano-Brit whose skeleton was dug up in Southwark. I live on the other side of the world, so I was not familiar with many of the places he talks about, but a Londoner would really enjoy this, I think.

Sweet Bobby. The Guardian chose this as their top podcast for 2021. Sweet Bobby is a six-part true crime podcast about Kirat, a successful marketer and DJ who embarks on a relationship with Bobby, the brother of a former boyfriend of a cousin. Within the London Sikh community, everyone knows everyone and she has a tumultuous relationship with Bobby, only to find that she is the victim of a ‘catfishing’ scam. This was very drawn out- I could have read it much faster- but it was good for listening while on a very l-o-n-g trip to the Mornington Peninsula by public transport.

‘My Year of Living Vulnerably’ by Rick Morton

2021, 297 p.

I don’t really know what I expected from this book, a follow-up from Morton’s very successful One Hundred Years of Dirt, which I reviewed here. After all, not many of us have a very interesting ‘what-happened-next’ story that can be told while it is unfolding around us. He couldn’t just rewrite the last book, and, as he admits:

I’ve written about my family before, in my debut book One Hundred Years of Dirt, but spent so much energy focused on everyone else’s trauma that I never noticed my own.


In this book, he picks up on his trauma, formally diagnosed in early 2019, but manifested through a five year mental breakdown, in spite of multiple attempts and strategies to save his sanity. In those five years, he came to understand that his meltdowns were triggered when his close, straight, male friends established a relationship with a woman. Then his complex PTSD would emerge, a trauma that he traced to being left on a remote pastoral property as a child, while his father embarked on an affair with the governess. That little boy, watching, shut down and became an absence, and under stress the adult Rick Morton would shut down too.

It always happens the same way. The moment I find out my friend is seeing someone it is as if the world goes blurry. I can feel myself leave my own body. There is ringing in my ears and a sensation that has no equal in daily life but what I can only describe as 100,000 ants marching up from my feet along the length of my nervous system, nesting in my chest. It is the most agonizing type of fear where death itself feels imminent….Trauma is not a memory. It is a Broadway production of the first hurt, a leg-kicking, show-stopping conflagration of the mind and body that needs no remembering. It is the thing. Each and every time.


However, in the midst of his flailing during 2015, the year when he lost his grip, his closest (female) friend hugged him and apologized for never telling him that she loved him. He started telling other people that he loved them too and it was “as if the colour had begun to run back into my world from the top of the frame, pooling at the bottom around the moss-covered rocks on one of my infrequent bush walks. “(p.11)

It was not, of course, a cure but a “renaissance of tiny joy” (p.12) but it did give him permission to do the work required to get better. This book is a series of essays on this work, each chapter named with a single concept: Touch, The Self, Forgiveness, Animals, Beauty, Masculinity, Loneliness, Kindness, Dysfunction, Doubt, Next, Beginnings. As with One Hundred Years of Dirt, there are times when he writes ‘journalistically’ with the dispassion of the intellect, and in the next paragraph divulges an intimate event or observation. His choice of topics could be schmaltzy and twee, or patronizing, but there is enough self-deprecation to bring his lofty pronouncements back to earth and to stop the book sliding into a self-help manual.

I will admit that this book isn’t what I expected it to be. It’s far more gentle and human than that. Having said that, though, I don’t know that there’s much more to be mined from this genre, and I doubt if he would want to anyway. It’s not a final destination; it’s just steps along the way. Not ‘cured’ – how pretentious and premature that would be- but ‘better’.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Zooming history: ‘Records and Recollections: the pneumonic influenza pandemic in Australia 1918-1919

How naive we were, thinking that once 2020 came to an end, the year of COVID would be over. We only have to look back to the ‘Spanish’ flu to see that epidemics can spiral around the world again and again. This ANU Annual Lecture is presented by Anthea Hyslop who lectured in History at ANU from 1989 until her retirement in 2009. She observes that there is quite a bit of written material about the ‘Spanish’ flu- Richard Collier wrote a global history in 1974 based on a questionnaire which included the Australian experience, and there was an oral history project on the Flu epidemic in 1980. From these questionnaires and interviews we learn that at first people conflated bubonic plague and pneumonic influenza. I’d always wondered about the ‘vaccination’ that was spoken of at the time. There was a ‘vaccine’ but it didn’t really affect the influenza, but it did help to avoid secondary infection. It came in A and B doses, with the second dose stronger than the first, and CSL produced 3 million doses. There was also the inhalorium or “a course of whiffs” which was supposed to prevent transmission. Once people contracted the influenza, they treated it with APC (terrible stuff- I was given it when I had tonsillitis as a child), proprietary medicines or onions. Schools and public resorts were closed, but factory work continued, so there was no lockdown. And what happened in the end? Well, it just petered out after about a year. We’re still waiting.

Six degrees of separation: from Rules of Civility to…..

First Saturday of first month in a New Year: it must be Six Degrees of Separation day. To see how this works, head over to https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.com/6-degrees-of-separation-meme/ Essentially it’s a free association game where you link a given title, in this case Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility with other books that you have read.

As usual, I have not read the starting book but I have just finished Towles’ wonderful A Gentleman in Moscow. But as I haven’t blogged it yet, I’ll take a different tack, looking at the ideas of rules and civility in their different forms.

A book with a similar injunction on behaviour is How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell. Actually, it’s not Bakewell telling you how to live, but Michel de Montaigne, the prototype blogger, who doodled around philosophical questions in his ‘Essays’ in the sixteenth century.

This book, How to Live, is a biography in the quirky and digressive spirit of Montaigne too.  It, like Montaigne, takes the question “how to live?” and distills twenty answers that Montaigne might have given, as prisms onto Montaigne the man and his work. (See my review here)

Writers are quite fond of telling us how to live and what to do, and the wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim was no exception. Elizabeth von Arnim’s work was my discovery of 2021 and I really enjoyed Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim. The author, who was going through a rather rough patch in her life, decided to seek out von Arnim’s advice about happiness because so many of the characters in her books revelled in it.

So, the book is a search for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles for Happiness, which she nicely presents as a single page certificate at the end of the book. She finds nine: freedom, privacy, detachment, nature and gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and creativity. Each of these is discussed in turn throughout the book, appearing as a subheading in a book without chapters. This is not just a one-way distillation of wisdom from on high. Carey brings her own life to the search, particularly with the concept of ‘privacy’ which recent events prior to embarking on the book had brought to the front of her own consciousness. (My review here)

The injunction to Come On Shore and We Will Kill You and Eat You All: An Unlikely Love Story is a fairly clear directive on how to live, or at least how to not die. You might not guess it from the title, but it is a combination of memoir and a discussion of border-crossings in colonialism and personal life when an American academic marries Seven, a Maori man, and has three children with him.

She is an American academic, based in Melbourne to write her doctoral thesis, and when she meets and marries Seven, she finds herself enmeshed in Maori family and community obligations that she both observes and critiques as a border-crosser. She is quite open about the fact that there are values and responses that she does not share, or even completely understand, and she feels conflicted about the historical trajectory that has seen her New England family amass wealth and status over another disenfranchised people, the American native. She can see the parallels in her own story, and that of the history of Seven’s family and culture. (My review here)

Not quite so graphic is the concept of ‘good’ behaviour as a marker of ‘civilization’ as spelled out in Penny Russell’s Savage or Civilized: Manners in Colonial Australia. She’s not talking about ‘politeness’ as described in the etiquette manuals that flooded the British Empire, but how manners played out in the everyday lives of individuals, in the way that we acknowledge and respect the humanity of others (or not).

Not everybody cared about manners, but this book concentrates on those who did. It explores what she calls four ‘contexts’: the pastoral frontier; convict society; the domestic world and the new public space that opened up in the the latter part of the nineteenth century. The book is not necessarily chronological, as these ‘contexts’ were continuous throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century time period, but there is nonetheless a chronological trajectory in the narrative. (My review here)

We can see the concept of ‘rules for civility’ being played out in the life of Anna Murray Powell, the wife of the Chief Justice of the Kings Bench in Upper Canada (i.e. Toronto) in the early 19th century in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1744-1849. Despite her insistence on ‘propriety’ the good judge and his wife had a series of dud children including her young daughter who became caught up in a highly-scandalous infatuation with an eminent lawyer.

Mrs William Dummer Powell,
Toronto Public Library

The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior. It is a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter. The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation. It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences. (My review here).

But it’s not only 19th century figures who tell us how to live. Jumping right into our current day is Yuval Noah Harari in his 21 Lessons for the 21st century. Actually the 21 lessons are just chapter headings in a book of five parts: (1)The Technological Challenge; (2) The Political Challenge; (3) Despair and Hope; (4) Truth; (5) Resilience.

This book felt like a series of essays, a bit like a chocolate ripple cake concertinaed together with an introduction and bridging paragraph launching you off into the next essay. I thought that the first two parts of the book were much stronger than the other sections. Even though I am open to deepening my spirituality, his promotion of meditation just felt ‘off’ in this book.

One very sobering thought, though. My grandchild, due in late 2019/2020 has every chance of living into the 22nd century. I really fear for him/her. I don’t think that we’ll learn the 21 lessons here well enough to offer a world better than what we have now. (My review here)

And now that we have passed the first 21 years of the 21st century – Happy New Year full of reading delights!

I hear with my little ear: 16-23 December 2021

Delacroix Massacre at Chios

History Extra Podcast This year was the bicentenary of the 1821 Greek War of Independence, or as Historian Mark Mazower prefers to call it,The Greek Revolution. In the episode Triumph against the odds: the 1821 Greek Revolution, he counts it as a ‘revolution’ alongside the American, French and Napoleonic revolutions which occurred not that much before. He sees the path to revolution more as a chain of events rather than adopting Marxist or nationalistic explanations. It was a bad time to have a revolution, because the European powers had come to a consensus that there would be no more revolutions after Napoleon. It was public opinion, often based on the enthusiasm for Classical Greece among Romantics and intellectuals, that led to the European powers finally becoming involved. It started in Romania, not Greece, against an Ottoman empire that was having trouble, having extended itself too far into Europe. In many ways, the changes that it prompted in the Ottoman Empire were as important as the territory gained by the Greek state. The 150th anniversary was claimed by the military junta in power in 1971, which took a bit of a shine off it. This 200th anniversary was affected by COVID, and has taken the form more of art exhibitions and conference rather than a display of strength.

The Real Story (BBC) Just to add to my unease about the emergence of right-wing populist politics world-wide here’s What’s going wrong with the Balkans? featuring Alida Vračić Co-founder and head of the Bosnia-based thinktank Populari; Ivan Vejvoda – Head of the Europe’s Future programme at the Vienna-based academic institution The Institute for Human Sciences (IWM); and Charles Kupchan Formerly Director for European Affairs on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, Senior Director for European Affairs during the Obama administration – now a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University. The rise of Serb nationalism, with its downplaying of massacres on the grounds that ‘other sides did it too’ and the linking of support from other right-wing populists, is chilling.

Stuff the British Stole (BBC) In 1977 five-year old Graziella Ortiz-Patino was kidnapped in Geneva. Her Mafia-linked abductors demanded a $2 million dollar ransom, which her wealthy art-collector father paid. To do so, he had to sell objects from his collection, including the Montunui epa, five intricately carved wooden panels that had briefly appeared, then disappeared, in the early 1970s. This episode The Abductions explores this dual abduction of the epa and a little girl – although this time there is a happy ending.

The Emperors of Rome Well, Marcus Aurelius has shuffled off this mortal coil, so I’ll listen to my two ‘Rome’ podcasts in tandem. Episode LXXII – On Behalf of the State deals with the uprising by Cassius, a formerly loyal governor in Syria. Was Marcus’ wife Faustina in on it? Probably not, thinks Dr Rhiannon Evans, who sees it more as a matter of fake news. Certainly not, thought Marcus Aurelius himself, who wouldn’t hear a word against her. But Cassius was killed by his own troops, riding out to meet with Marcus Aurelius who wanted to talk with him. And soon Marcus Aurelius really was dead. Which brings us to Commodus. Episode LXXIII – From a Kingdom of Gold sees the 19 year old Commodus become emperor, as Marcus Aurelius had wanted. After all, he’d been pushing him up the ladder of success all along, making him a consul at just 15. Why? Dr Evan’s suggests that Dio, a major source, is making a bigger argument about blood not necessarily being the best qualification for leadership (Dio champions the 5 good emperors, none of whom were direct heirs). Nonetheless, it would be a really big thing to pass over your own son in the line of succession. Marcus Aurelius was said to have died not from his disease (which was probably the plague) but at his doctors’ hands. In judging his significance, Dr Evans notes that he satisfied the Senators, didn’t alienate anyone and that he did as well as he could. (I think he’s a bit better than this lukewarm praise. You’ve got to love a leader who THINKS, don’t you?) Episode LXXIV – Iron and Rust deals with his 12 year reign. Edward Gibbons in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire starts off the decline with Commodus, arguing that immorality and the loss of power are linked. Dr Evans sees it as bad leadership and what has been left to him. Commodus mixed up the public and the private e.g. he put his freedman lover Saoterus into his rather prematurely granted triumph. The first assassination attempt on his life came after just two years, where the assassin stuffed up by theatrically declaring “Here’s the dagger the Senate sends you” before stabbing him and getting himself arrested. Episode LXXV – Flying Too Close to the Sun looks at the fate of Commodus’ right hand men who ran the empire while he was off indulging his desires. Saoterus withdrew ended up getting killed after the assassination attempt. Perennis, a Praetorian Prefect took over, and was not incompetent but when British troops decided to choose their own emperor, Perennis ended up being put to death on the accusation, led by Cleander that he was plotting against Commodus. Cleander was a freed man, which the Senators hated, and after getting rid of Perennis, he took power, selling positions to the highest bidder (another no-no as far as Edward Gibbons is concerned. Commodus was becoming increasingly paranoid, and there was daily, if not hourly, turnaround of the people he trusted. He was also a populist, and when the people protested against food shortages, they set up children to begin chanting against Cleander, then the adults took up the cry – and so Commodus got rid of him too. Episode LXXVI – It’s Good to be the King looks at the sources, which are unanimously against Commodus. That might be expected, but we have coins and statues to back up their claims of his meglomania. He wanted everything named after him- the months, even Rome itself! But he slummed it too, which was unforgivable, by becoming a gladiator, something that Dr Evans likens to Queen Elizabeth going on Big Brother. He killed lots of animals- hippos, elephants-, modelled himself on Hercules, and was downright intimidating.

The History of Rome Podcast Episode 96 The Most Aptly Named Emperor introduces the 19 year old Commodus, the first direct heir emperor in a long time- he was ‘born to the purple’. He was likened by his enemies as Nero and Caligula combined, but the general population liked him, because he gave them games. He was quick to withdraw troops from the Danube, thus securing the support of the soldiers. However, Commodus’ reign marked the end of the line for the Senate. When his sister Lucille unsuccessfully conspired against him in 182, the cycle of purge and proscription against wealth senators recommenced. However, Commodus chose well in his right hand man Perennis, who was pretty competent.

Boyer Lectures (ABC) Episode 4 Imaginary Forces starts off by considering the importance of reading and listening in the past, compared with today where visual is king. Shakespeare’s audiences generally came long prepared to listen rather than watch. His characters often announce where they are, and Shakespeare puts in their words vivid descriptions of what the audience is to imagine. He also conveys the emotional timbre of the play through light and dark (his comedies take place during the day where his tragedies take place at night) and through climate (Romeo and Juliet is set in hot Verona, Macbeth in on a blasted heath, the final scene of Lear is in a storm). I think that I liked this episode best out of the four, but can I confess to being just a bit disappointed in the whole series?

My best reads for 2021

It’s always a bit arbitrary choosing my best reads for a year, but these are the books to which I awarded five stars on Goodreads. Many of them were published recently, which surprises me somewhat, as I usually borrow my books from the library and can’t always get new releases. There’s quite a pleasing spread between fiction, memoir and history, with more women writers than men.

The Yellow House (2019) by Sarah M. Broome (Memoir)

The Shadow King (2019) by Maaza Mengiste (Fiction)

The Lying Life of Adults (2020) by Elena Ferrante (Fiction)

Amnesia Road (2021) by Luke Stegemann (History)

Return to Uluru (2021) by Mark McKenna (History)

Fury (2021) by Kathryn Heyman (Memoir)

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen (2021) by Linda Colley (History)

The Women of Little Lon (2021) by Barbara Minchinton (History)

The Eye of the Sheep (2015) by Sophie Laguna (Fiction)

The Sweetness of Water (2021) by Nathan Harris (Fiction)

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

I always forget to do this “I’ve finished!” post once I’ve met my self-selected target for books written by Australian women writers. But this year I have an excuse: I didn’t reach my target of twenty-five books, and I didn’t really read more fiction either, even though I vowed to do so.

Here’s what I did read in alphabetical order by surname:


Our Shadows (2020) by Gail Bell

Say No to Death (1951) by Dymphna Cusack

Questions of Travel (2012) by Michelle de Kretser

The Eye of the Sheep (2015) by Sofie Laguna

The Animals of That Country (2020) by Laura Jean Mackay

The Ruin (2019) by Dervla McTiernan


Black, White and Exempt (2021) by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones (eds)

Caroline’s Dilemma (2019) by Bettina Bradbury

Nine Parts of Desire (1995) by Geraldine Brooks

Oh Happy Day: Those Times and These Times (2020) by Carmen Callil

Only Happiness Here (2020) by Gabrielle Carey

The First Stone (1995, 2020) by Helen Garner

Fury (2021) by Kathryn Heyman

The Palace Letters (2020) by Jenny Hocking

The Most I Could Be (2021) by Dale Kent

Malinche’s Conquest (1999) by Anna Lanyon

The New World of Martin Cortes (2003) by Anna Lanyon

The Chase (1986) by Ida Mann

The Women of Little Lon (2021) by Barbara Minchinton

The Countess from Kirribilli (2021) by Joyce Morgan

A Trip to the Dominions (2021) by Lynette Russell (ed.)

Defiant Voices: How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority (2021) by Babette Smith

Ten Thousand Aftershocks (2021) by Michelle Tom