I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 May 2023

Emperors of Rome. Actually, I have already listened to a lot of these episode back in December 2021 but that’s a lifetime ago and repetition does me no harm at my age. Episode LXVII – Heir and a Spare looks at Hadrian’s succession plan, with his choice of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his adopted sons and heirs. Why two? Given that people around the emperor tended to die, perhaps he was being cautious; or maybe he intended them to rule as joint emperors- who knows. They were not actual brothers. Marcus Aurelius was vaguely related to Hadrian through the female line, and there was a Spanish connection. In fact Marcus’ grandfather, who brought him up, was a good friend of Hadrian. Marcus was close to Hadrian even before he was adopted, and he was the ancient version of a geeky student, and a bit ascetic (which Hadrian wasn’t too keen on). One way or another, he was marked out from the start. Lucius Verus was the son of Lucius Aelius Caesar, whom Hadrian had picked out to be his successor, but he inconveniently died. So Hadrian went for his son instead. He was ten years Marcus’ junior, so perhaps Hadrian thought that if Marcus died, Lucius would the next one in line. Hadrian thought that both boys were too young at this stage to be his direct heirs, so he appointed Antoninus Pius instead, on condition that he adopt the boys too, and appoint them his heirs. He no doubt thought than Antoninus would only last a few years until the boys were old enough, but then he hung on for 23 years, giving the boys a very long apprenticeship. A bit like Prince Charles. Actually, there’s another parallel with the British Royal Family too, because even though the boys were technically equal, as the older and more responsible, Marcus Aurelius was given more responsibility from the start and had more authority than his rather Playboy Brother. (Charles and Andrew? William and Harry?) Once they finally became co-emperors in CE 161, they immediately gave the soldiers a bonus equivalent to 3 years pay to keep them on-side. The arrangement worked better than might be expected, because neither wanted to pull rank on the other. Episode LXVIII – Never Underestimate the Parthians takes us right back into a war. When Marcus and Lucius inherited, the Roman Empire had been at peace for 40 years, but at the end of Antoninus’ rule, there was already trouble brewing with the Parthians. Almost immediately they flexed their muscles by invading Armenia to overthrow the client king that the Romans had installed there. The Governor of Cappadocia, Severianus got dud advice from a self-proclaimed prophet and was badly beaten by the Parthians. Lucius Verus was sent to take control of the situation, but he took the scenic route and didn’t get there for a year and then he hung around Syria with “low people” and sent Statius Priscus to the frontline instead. Priscus had an early victory and captured the Armenian capital and a new King was installed. Meanwhile, the Parthians turned their attention to Mesopotamia instead, where they were again defeated, and the Romans invaded Parthia, where Lucius was blamed for the sacking of Seleucia (although he wasn’t there) after its Greek-oriented inhabitants had welcomed the arrival of the Romans. No sooner were the Parthians taken care of than the Marcomanni started niggling up in Germania. Episode LXIX – Galen and the Antonine Plague features Dr Leanne McNamara (Classics, La Trobe University). While Lucius’ troops were sacking Parthia, it was said that they made the mistake of opening a casket in a temple to Apollo, releasing an illness that would follow the troops all the way back to Rome and beyond. There had been plagues and epidemics previously, but this was longer-lasting and with a wider reach than any other plaque before. It was transmitted by personal contact and airborne particles. There are different hypotheses for what it was – perhaps hemorrhagic smallpox? bubonic plague? measles?- but it had scabs, a rash and a cough. It is thought that about 10% of those who contracted it died. We know as much as we do about it because of the writings of Galen, a doctor who treated the emperors, who penned over 400 books in his life, of which about 20,000 pages remain.

Now and Then. During the lockdown, I listened religiously to Heather Cox Richardson, but I’ve got out of the way of it since she stopped her ‘history only’ videos/podcasts. But, having read glowing reports of Joe Biden at the White House Correspondents Dinner, I thought I’d listen to Not a Joke: Humour as Politics. Heather Cox Richardson actually attended it this year, along with 2600 other people. What a strange form of democracy: that people would mock politicians to their face. Even though Australians don’t take politics particularly seriously (or at least, we didn’t in the past), there’s nothing quite like it here, although the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery Midwinter Ball is perhaps close. The White House Correspondents Dinner started in 1921. In terms of comedians, Heather and her colleague Joanne Freeman discuss Seba Smith (1792-1868) and his iconic Jack Downing character, Alice Duer Miller’s (1874 – 1942) poetic suffragist satire (both of which published their satire in newspapers rather than perform it on stage) and African-American Dick Gregory’s (1932-2017) truth-telling on issues of race and class which fits in more to the political stand-up comedian we’re familiar with today.

Nightlife (ABC) and The Religious and Ethics Report (ABC) I’ve just finished reading Elle Hardy’s book Beyond Belief How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World and so I thought that I’d seek out a few interviews with her. The Nightlife episode The Rise and Rise of Pentacostalism was conducted by a presenter who obviously has little knowledge about religion generally. The Religious and Ethics Report episode Pentecostal Christianity and the Hillsong Empire, presented by Andrew West, had more teeth to it, which you might expect given the focus of the program. She was rather deferential here, acknowledging the effect of Pentecostal religion in helping people to get their lives together, and emphasizing that it is not a cult.

The Underworld Podcast also featured Elle Hardy, but she didn’t present such a glowing view here (again, reflecting the focus of this program, too). In the Episode A Brazilian Murder, Narco Evangelists and Holy Warfare: The Gangsters of the Global Pentecostal Movement, she starts off with the case of Flordelis dos Santos de Souza, politician, gospel singer and church leader, who was jailed along with several of her 55 (yes you read right) adopted children for being complicit in the murder of her husband Anderson do Carmo de Souza. She then goes on to talk about ‘Narco Evangelists’ in the favelas, and the relationship between Pentecostal religion and hard-line anti-drug policing exemplified by Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillipines.


The Long Read (The Guardian) Sudan’s Outsider: how a paramilitary leader fell out with the army and plunged the country into war looks at Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), the leader of the RSF which is currently in conflict with Sudan’s army, led by Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The presenter, Nesrine Malik, was in Sudan in February this year, where the country was jittery after the shooting of a protester by an army officer. She returned to England, but by mid-March both al-Burhan and Hemedti were taking the high moral ground over this shooting, and the RSF moved first to take over the airport. She asks: How did Hemedti capture Sudan politics seemingly overnight? He was an outsider, from the western Darfur region, where he enriched himself with goldmines seized during the Civil War in Dafur sufficiently to purchase 70,000 mercenaries who he has sent to other African countries (e.g. to Yemen to support Saudi-Arabia) ad to Libya. In 2013 the RSF was institutionalized by the military dictator president Omar al-Bashir as a tool to crush dissent by rebels and protesters, giving Hemedti, as commander of the Janjaweed, a basis of power. Initially he worked alongside the army and in 2021 was involved, alongside al-Burhan, in an unsuccessful coup against Bashir’s civilian replacement. Both generals had agreed to work together on a framework agreement where they would relinquish power to a civilian government. But neither trusts the other, and so conflict has broken out between the army and the RSF. The looting sounds horrendous. The article from which this podcast is drawn is here.

‘Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World’ by Elle Hardy

2021, 262 p & notes

It seems rather hard to believe now, at fifty years’ remove, but as a 16 year old I was ‘born again’ and converted to evangelical Christianity. The early 1970s was a time of Jesus People, Larry Norman and Hal Lindsay’s book The Late Great Planet Earth. I’m not sure whether that would have counted as ‘Pentecostal Christianity’ as Australian journalist Elle Hardy describes it in this book because, although there was an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and although I was often in the presence of people who spoke in tongues (without ever doing so myself), it was also ‘It’s Time’ for the Labor Party after twenty-three years of conservative government in Australia. The Christianity I subscribed to had little to do with the prosperity gospel of much (not necessarily all) Pentecostal religion today – in fact, it leaned more towards anti-materialism and environmentalism- and I could see no conflict at all between progressive political ideas and Christianity, indeed I think that Christianity demanded it. I don’t think that the Pentecostal religion she describes here would have room for those views today.

Hardy’s book is divided into two parts: Part I The Good News: The Unstoppable Rise of Pentecostalism, and Part II Spiritual Warfare: The Battle to Build Heaven on Earth. She traces the modern manifestation of Pentecostalism back to 19th century America, disregarding, rather short-sightedly I believe, older British and European manifestations of Pentecostalism. Instead she identifies three founding figures: Charles Fox Parham, who preached in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma; William J. Seymour, an African-American evangelist who was encouraged by Parham to bringing this new form of Christianity to the Black Community through the Azusa Street Revivals of 1906 to roughly 1915; and Aimee and Robert Semple whose speaking in tongues as part of their baptism in the Holy Spirit encouraged them to go to China (they believed that they were speaking Chinese) where Robert died. His widow married Harold McPherson, thus becoming Aimee Semple McPherson. All three ended up being embroiled in scandals of various types- a harbinger perhaps of the scandals that have dogged and continue to dog many Pentecostal ‘celebrities’. The Pentecostalism she describes distinguishes itself from other forms of Christianity in its heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit, and its manifestation through speaking in tongues, miracles and healing. Rather ironically, some of the major ‘brands’ of Pentecostalism have distanced themselves somewhat from the speaking in tongues element (it is a bit unnerving).

She then embarks in Part I on a world-wide tour of Pentecostalism in its various guises across the globe, reflecting the sub-title of her book. She travels to Rock House Holiness church in Alabama, an ‘old-style religion’ type church that features snake-handling, but which also reflects the origin of much of the rock music that emerged in the 1950s where singers like Rosetta Tharp, B. B. King, Elvis Presley and the Righteous Brothers (of course!) made their start from their Pentecostal churches. The emphasis on music, most particularly through the Hillsong empire, continues today and often distinguishes Pentecostal worship, with its concerts, rock bands and lighting, from other forms of Christian worship.

Chapter 3 takes her to North Korea, where the Pyongyang Revival before the 1949 Communist Revolution saw 100,000 people converted, usually by American missionaries, to the extent that Pyongyang was dubbed ‘The Jerusalem of the East’. The North/South border between the Koreas is not just political: it is also the demarcation between Christianity and non-Christianity. Across the border, in South Korea, megachurches like the Yoido Full Gospel Church with its 200,000 regular attendees describe themselves as Presbyterian, but 85% of them are actually Pentecostal. It is quite common for defectors from the North to find themselves at these churches where, if they make their way to Seoul, they find themselves overwhelmed by the noise, competitiveness and discrimination they encounter there. They find that their conversion narrative becomes a form of ‘currency’ where churches provide scholarships, free health services and donations through their congregations, in return for these stories of redemption and conversion. A similar scenario is found in in the UK, where in Chapter 6 she finds large numbers of Travellers (gypsies) converting to Pentecostalism, where being a practising Christian makes an outsider more accepted in post-Brexit Britain. In fact, there are now 17,000 Pentecostal churches in the UK (one congregation for every 2 pubs!), with branches of international Pentecostal Churches e.g. Hillsong, the Universal Church from Brazil, and West African churches, not only ministering to their diaspora, but also engaging in a form of reverse mission, pushing back against ‘liberal’ Christianity and its acceptance in particular of gay marriage.

She visits the Universal Church in Brazil, where celebrity Pentecostalist Flordelis, politician and mother of 55 children (over 50 were adopted) , achieved media-wide coverage when she was jailed for conspiring to kill her younger husband. Indeed, Brazil is the most Pentecostal nation on earth, with the percentage of Pentecostalists rising from 3% of the population in 1980 to 30% in 2020. As she points out, the prosperity gospel preached by Pentecostalist churches is not a fallacy. Once people get their lives together through conversion, often leaving behind crime and addiction, and are encouraged to branch into small businesses which are patronized by the large number of fellow-congregationalists, people do become wealthier. Likewise in African nations. In Zimbabwe, half of the population belongs to an African Pentecostal Church, eclipsing 40% in South Africa, and one third in Kenya. African Pentecostalism often combines pre-Christianity and Pentecostal beliefs, reflecting the ability of Pentecostalism to shape-shift according to the culture. These churches often combine fasting, rituals, healing and miracles.

Part II then explores how this plays out in political trends. She starts off in Chapter 7 at Bethel Redding church in California, one of the largest and best known of the Pentecostal Churches in America. Despite being in a state dominated by liberals (in the American sense of the word), this is the heartland for the Christian Dominionist Project, better known as the Seven Mountains Mandate. This arose from about 1974 when Pentecostalists moved from the idea of The Tribulation which would presage the Second Coming, to the idea that Christians themselves would have to create the conditions of Heaven on Earth before Jesus could return by moving into the Seven spheres of education, religion, family, business, government, arts and entertainment and media. Within the U.S. the Seven Mountains Mandate has led to direct involvement in government administration, as for example in Brazos County, Texas, where the Jesus Said Love movement is contracted and paid to run ‘john’ schools as an alternative to fines or incarceration for men arrested for procuring the services of a prostitute through a ‘sting’. The related ‘Unbound’ movement, which purports to be anti-trafficking, is a way of stamping out prostitution completely (rather than legalizing it, which is another approach). It’s not surprising that this has morphed, for some people, into the QAnon child-trafficking conspiracy, and into links with the 6 January 2021 uprising.

In countries like Guatemala the rise of Pentecostalism, spurred by the arrival of US missionaries in the 1960s, has led to a rejection and even persecution of Mayan priests: a different situation from the Liberation Theology of Vatican II which encouraged a form of Mayan Catholicism. Indeed, Guatemalan Catholicism itself today can largely be described as Charismatic Revival, a reflection of Pentecostalism. Likewise in Nigeria, with its Muslim North and Christian South divide, Islamic mosques are finding themselves adopting Pentecostalist-type practices both as a way of distinguishing themselves from Islamic fundamentalism (e.g. Boko Haram) and as a way of stopping the drain of their adherents to Pentecostal Christianity. Similarly, the Jews for Jesus movement, a form of ‘Messianic Judaism”, adopts Pentecostalist- practices even though it is not recognized by the major Jewish denominations. She highlights the importance of Israel to the End Times narrative of Pentecostalism, with its ardent Zionism and support of Israel, Trump’s shift of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (and Australia’s craven pretense to do the same) and the popularity of package tours to Israel amongst Pentecostalists.

I had thought at first that she had over-reached in her subtitle ‘How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World’, given the numerical growth of Islam and the increased prominence of Hinduism in India. But when she lists politicians like Duterte in the Phillipines, Orban in Hungary, and the push towards Pentecostalism in both Ukraine and Russia, and describes the adoption of Pentecostalist practices in Catholicism and some forms of Islam and Judaism that are competing in the same ‘market’, perhaps there is more truth in it. I’m not sure that she actually explained why there is this political link between Pentecostalism and populist conservatism: to me, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherent in Pentecostalism that dictates that the two be aligned.

This is a broad-ranging book, truly international in its scope, written in an engaging style with enough personal vignettes to keep the human interest in what could have otherwise been a rather turgid exploration of theology. But really, it’s not about theology at all: it’s about a phenomenon that acts as an antidote to marginalization in both First World and Global South countries, and about Pentecostalism’s link with right wing politics, power and money.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library, and read after hearing the author speaking on the New Books Network podcast.

Six degrees of separation: from Friendaholic to…

It’s first Saturday of the month, which means that it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. This is a meme hosted by Kate at her BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest website. Here’s how Kate describes it:

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book. Books can be linked in obvious ways – for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal ways…

Kate’s starting book this month is Friendaholic by Elizabeth Day which, true to form, I have not read. I’m taking the ‘similar theme’ route, revolving around the rather predictable theme of friends and friendship.

Of course, thinking about friendship immediately brings to mind My Brilliant Friend, the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet about the friendship between Elena and Lina, two young girls growing up in a poverty-stricken section of Naples in the 1950s. Lina marries young, becomes financially successful, while Elena undertakes an academic and writing career. Told from Elena’s point of view, Lina is always smarter and more street-smart and, along with Elena, you’re never really sure whether you trust her or not. Like all long term relationships, there are periods of closeness and distance, and their fortunes ebb and flow, both emotionally and financially. (See my review of the Quartet here).

Friendships are often rooted in (and perhaps contribute to) a shared world view, and when the commonality breaks down, so does the friendship. Historian and academic Anne Applebaum talks about this in Twilight of Democracy: the Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. In this book, which is a mixture of memoir and political argument, Applebaum talks about her falling out with her friends, most of whom would fit into that American Enterprise Institute, Thatcheritish, conservative-leaning (but not Trumpian) Republican world of intellectuals and diplomats. They have found themselves on different sides of a political divide that runs through the right in Poland, Hungary, Spain, France Italy, and with some differences, the British right and the American right. This political divide has ruptured their personal friendships as well. (See my review here).

Helen Garner’s thinly disguised memoir The Spare Room explores the demands and limits of friendship when she is asked to host a friend from Sydney who is seeking alternative therapy for advanced cancer. Nicola’s death is not really the core of this story: instead the drama of the book is Helen’s rage and inadequacy in the face the demands of friendship, and her frustration at her friend’s relentless faith in a “cure” that Helen feels is quackery. (Short review here).

Sigrid Nunez’s book The Friend is quite short, and it left me wondering whether I understood it properly. It is addressed to an unnamed, dead friend in the second person “you” throughout, and it is a series of short paragraphs, separated by time and asterisks. The unnamed narrator is a female writer, teaching creative writing at a university as many writers tend to do. Her friend, to whom the book is addressed, was her mentor, a fellow teacher and also a writer and he had committed suicide. (Short review here).

Friendship is particularly painful in adolescence, and most coming-of-age books explore it, or its absence, as part of growing up. In Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, the main character, August, was motherless when her father shifted her from SweetGrove Tennessee to live with her younger brother in Brooklyn. Forbidden by their father from going down into the streets to play with the other children, August watches three other girls, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi as they amble the neighbourhood streets. As she and her brother gradually achieve more independence, August comes to know the three girls and is embraced into their friendship group. Over time each of the girls has to find her own way from parental demands, expectations and inadequacies. (See my review here).

And then there is a absence of any friendship whatsoever. The eponymous main character in Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a lonely thirty-year old woman. Just not ‘self-contained’ or without friends, she is bone-achingly lonely. Eleanor is gradually brought into a circle of other kind people – not saints, but just ordinary people acting with everyday kindness. (Review here).

So, no great leaps of creativity or imagination in putting together my chain, but rather a linking of books which all throw their own perspective on the phenomenon of friendship.

‘Inés of my Soul’ by Isabel Allende.

Have you heard of Inés Suarez? I hadn’t, and from Isabel Allende’s Author’s Note at the end of the book, it seems few other people have either, because she was “nearly ignored by historians for more than four hundred years”. She was a Conquistadora born in 1507 in Spain, and along with her partner Pedro Valdivia, and then later with her husband Rodrigo de Quiroga, she established the city of Santiago that is today the capital of Chile.

After marrying Juan de Málaga, she was left in Spain for years as her husband travelled to the New World in search of riches. When he did not return, she received permission to go in search of him. She arrived in Peru in 1538, where she learned that he had been killed. As the widow of a Spanish soldier, she received a land grant and and encomienda rights to a number of Indians. Her land was adjacent to that of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia and they became lovers. When Valdivia decided to push into the territory now known as Chile, she accompanied him, ostensibly as his domestic servant, to avoid the strictures of the Church. After a harrowing trip down through the Andes and the Atacama Desert, they arrived at the valley of the Mapocho river, in December 1540, some11 months after leaving Cuzco and established Santiago. The indigenous Mapuche people resisted the invaders over several battles. The Mapuche destroyed Santiago on September 11, 1541 (what is it about that September 11 date?). Vastly outnumbered, the Spaniards retreated to the plaza, where Inés decided to decapitate seven Mapuche hostages who were being held for ransom, arguing that the Mapuche were calling out encouragement to their kinsmen. She threw the heads into the crowd, who fled. However, Santiago itself was in ruins, and the settlement almost starved until it was able to re-establish itself. Meanwhile, her lover Pedro de Valdivia was summoned back to Peru to face charges levelled against him by his enemies. He was found innocent of all charges, except that of living with Inés Suarez in the manner of man and wife. He was forced to break off with her, and bring his own Spanish wife (who had also been left in Spain while he was off adventuring) to Chile. He arranged for Inés to marry one of his generals, Rodrigo de Quiroga, whom he left in charge of Santiago while riding off to try to subdue the Mapuche. She was much younger than Rodrigo, but they fell in love. After the death of Valdivia, Rodrigo became Governor twice, in 1565 and 1575. She and Rodrigo died in Santiago in 1580, within months of each other.

Well, there’s certainly enough in that life to fill a book, and I’m a little surprised that others had not done so before Isabel Allende’s book (there are some earlier attempts, but not very well known). As a well-known Chilean writer, she is well placed to popularise Ines’ story, and she says in her afterword that she spent four years researching her. It’s a shame, then, that the final product is so flat.

Part of the problem is Allende’s choice of a memoir, supposedly written to her daughter, as the frame story. As a result, it is a book with little conversation (as Alice in Wonderland might have complained) and when there is conversation, it seems rather implausible that it would be remembered verbatim. As a historian, I acknowledge and salute Allende’s determination to stay within the boundaries of the history, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a riveting story. Allende imagines herself into Suarez’s emotional life with her lovers, but the most dramatic scene of her life story (if, indeed it is true- some historians question this) is where she executes the seven hostages, and this is merely reported, with little anguish or regret on her part, and without rich – if gory- description. The narrative voice of Suarez, recounting her memories, is rather stilted and academic, and it was difficult to suspend disbelief enough to go along with the conceit that it is Suarez talking. I can understand that, as a woman writing about another woman, Allende would want Inés Suarez to tell her own story, but I think that a better frame story might have been told from the point of view of an observer.

So all in all, a bit disappointing, especially from a writer with the profile and reputation of Allende.

My rating: 6.5 (There was an Amazon Prime series made of her story, based on the book. It is on YouTube (Ines Del Alma Mia) but the subtitles are only in auto-generated Spanish).

Sourced from: the little library in Macleod Park.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 May 2023

Emperors of Rome. After a bit of a hiatus, Dr Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith return to the Emperors, picking up with Episode LXV – Antoninus Pius. It just goes to show that there is no reward for having a prosperous, peaceful reign because Rhiannon and Matt could only scratch one episode for Antoninus Pius, even though he ruled for twenty three years and was known as fourth of the Five Good Emperors. We know little about him, because most of the sources peter out at this point. His family was from trans-Alpine Gaul, but he was actually born in Italy. His father and grandfather had both been consuls under Domitian, but did well under Trajan and Hadrian as well. His daughter ended up marrying Marcus Aurelius, who succeeded him. Despite being a bit cranky at the end, Hadrian had planned his succession well, and Antoninus moved smoothly into the role of emperor and promptly set about getting Hadrian deified, which he deserved but some of those on the receiving end of Hadrian’s crankiness didn’t see it like that. Antoninus, known as ‘Pius’ meaning “dutiful” (rather than “religious” as we might think today) was a diplomat rather than a warrior, and a good money manager. He rebuilt the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, both of which were looking a bit tatty. The Senate wanted to rename September and October after him and his wife Faustina, but he refused. He died in his mid-seventies in his sleep. Episode LXVI – Fronto. This episode presents Dr Caillan Davenport, who is going to take over from Dr Rhiannon Evans fairly soon. He tells us about Fronto, a senator and some-time consul and orator who became Marcus Aurelius´ tutor and later friend/advisor when Marcus was already 18 years old. He wrote over 200 letters to Marcus Aurelius, of which we have about half.

Travels Through Time. 1924 Knowing What We Know features Simon Winchester, and I think that our presenter was rather overwhelmed by the prospect of interviewing him about his new book Knowing What We Know, the transmission of knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic because she herself wrote a book about how ancient knowledge was transmitted. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Winchester is a journalist rather than a historian, because his books are marked by their broad scope and attraction to the ‘good story’. Anyway, after a long discussion, he identified 25 October 1924, when the Zinoviev Letter was published in the British press, setting Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party up for election disaster; the creation of IBM – International Business Machines and the passing of Asian Exclusion Act through Congress, enshrining anti-immigration policy and racism into law. Actually, I wonder if he read the instructions for this program because he seemed to wander all over the place.

History Extra. On the eve of the coronation, I enjoyed this episode featuring Tracy Borman on What Makes a Good Coronation? She starts off by pointing out that the coronation of King Charles III has its roots in Anglo-Saxon times with the crowning of King Edgar in 973. Her tips are:

  1. Have plenty of bling. Unfortunately most of the bits and bobs date only from Charles II because nearly all of them were melted down during the Civil War
  2. Make sure the ceremony is rooted in history, because the whole point is to emphasize that it’s business as usual.
  3. Make sure it’s televised (which of course could only apply to Charles and his mother’s coronations). Queen Elizabeth’s coronation had 90 different contingency plans for unforeseen events
  4. Be in tune with the times. Victoria had a very thrifty coronation to distance herself from the financial profligacy of William IV and George IV. George’s coronation had cost the equivalent of $14 million
  5. Watch the guest list. George IV had to lock his estranged wife Queen Caroline out of Westminster Cathedral when she turned up uninvited.
  6. Think carefully about a joint coronation. Henry VIII had had a very successful joint coronation with his first wife Catherine of Aragon, but his coronation with Anne Boleyn attracted a lot of criticism, no matter how much money was spent
  7. In fact, joint coronations were relative rare
  8. Beware wardrobe malfunctions. George II’s coronation took place on a very hot day and he was enraged when his cap kept slipping over his eyes. Better than Richard II, whose crown blew off in a gust of wind. It snowed on Henry V’s coronation, which was interpreted as an evil portent.
  9. Choosing the time. George VI stuck to the original date chosen for Edward’s coronation (before he abdicated). William the Conqueror went for Christmas Day in 1066 but it was a bit of a fiasco when the troops misinterpreted the cheers for a riot.
  10. Make sure you crown the right king. Edward VI was crowned in Ireland in 1487 but it was an imposter. Henry VII got his revenge by making the imposter a kitchen boy
  11. Don’t be too young. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned when she was 9 months old, and not unsurprisingly she cried when she was disrobed as part of the multiple wardrobe changes
  12. The most successful coronation was that of Elizabeth I. She prepared it very carefully, and took care to include references to her mother (the formerly unpopular Anne Boleyn).
  13. The most memorable was probably Queen Elizabeth II’s because television took the ceremony all over the world.

El Hilo (Spanish) Brasil: violencia en las escuelas, odio en las redes (Brazil: violence in schools, hatred across the social networks) was a program about the recent spate of killings in Brazilian schools. There has always been violence in Brazilian schools, but not at this level. ‘Our’ (honorary) Jacinda even gets a mention for not ever uttering the Christchurch killer’s name. BBC World picked up on the story (article in English)

The Guardian Long Read Historians generally aren’t awarded celebrity status but Timothy Snyder is an exception. Putin, Trump, Ukraine: how Timothy Snyder became the leading interpreter of our dark times looks at his rise to prominence, even though he is often derided as a Cassandra. He, on the other hand, says that good history means taking bad ideas seriously. Actually, I read and reviewed his 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom and certainly he was very prescient. He has a series of lectures on You Tube about Ukrainian history which I must watch some time.

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’ by Margaret Simons

2019, 318 p.

There are special challenges in writing about a current politician. While there are plenty of informants, there is also the spectre of defamation and the whole vexed issue of whether a biography is authorized or not. The political fortunes of the subject may change dramatically, and today’s policies and stances can be rendered obsolete by tomorrow’s developments. Margaret Simons’ biography of Penny Wong was written in 2019, while the Labor Party was still in opposition. Wong was reluctant to be involved in the biography and when she did finally agree to be interviewed, the sessions were conducted in neutral spaces (no empty fruit bowl for her!) with strict limits on what could and could not be discussed. I wonder if she would concede to be involved today, now that she is minister for Foreign Affairs: I suspect not.

Penny Wong is very much aware that she is the first Asian, gay, female Parliamentarian and it was largely because of these adjectives that she decided to run for the Senate with its statewide vote rather than the more geographically concentrated House of Representatives where a targeted negative campaign could cruel her chances. Because she is a Senator, and unlikely to change to the House of Reps, there has been little anointing of her as ‘the next female Prime Minister’.

She has never wanted the Asian/Gay label to define her, but that has happened anyway. I was surprised to learn that her mother’s family, the Chapmans, were an old Adelaide family with a much longer pedigree than many of those who told her to go back to where she came from. She was born in 1968 in Borneo, of Hakka heritage, a group originally from central and southern China, who had emigrated to Borneo to take up land offered to Chinese labourers by the British North Borneo Company. Her father Francis Wong came to Australia in 1961 under the Colombo Plan to study architecture, and he and his wife returned to Sabah, where he became a leading architect and minor public figure. She and her brother Toby were born in Borneo and brought up in a ‘cultural, religious and ethnic melange’. Her much-revered grandmother Lai was Buddhist, her father Catholic and her mother nominal Methodist, and the family celebrated Christmas, Chinese New Year and Muslim religious festivals. In 1976, Penny’s parents split up, and the siblings moved to Australia with their mother, although they returned often to Kota Kinabalu for school holidays. She was unprepared for the racism that she encountered in Adelaide: a neighbour yelled at her to ‘Go back to where you came from, you slant-eyed little slut!) and anti-Asian slogans were spray-painted on their driveway. She was verbally and sometimes physically bullied at primary school. It was at primary school that she resolved not to show her hurt, and this restraint has followed her into her adult, political life, as has -unfortunately- the racist bullying. Racism seems to have formed an invisible straitjacket around her, and continues to constrain her.

This was less true of her sexuality. I was surprised to learn that she had been in a relationship with later premier Jay Weatherill before embarking on a relationship with Dascia Bennett, a woman eight years Penny’s senior with two children, who Wong considered as her step-children. She was later to meet and have two children with Sophie Allouache. As she says:

It is always about the person first. You fall in love with the person…I hope I have some empathy for those whose coming-out experience was really formative, but that wasn’t my experience. I was who I was in most ways before I decided I was in love with a woman. I was formed much more by an awareness of race than sexuality.


Once she was elected to the Senate, she and her political advisor John Olenich were debating ‘how to deal with the sexuality issue’. She protested that she had never been in the closet, and therefore she did not need to come ‘out’ but they agreed to a profile about the two new female Senators written by an acquaintance from university days, Samantha Maiden, which had a single reference to her sexuality: “In Labor circles, it is also well known Senator Wong is gay, a fact she would prefer to leave as a private manner. It was not an issue during her preselection to Labor’s highest ranks.” (The Advertiser, 10 August 2002)

After attending Scotch College where she proved herself to be an outstanding student, she attended the University of Adelaide, and this is where she became involved in student politics as a representative of the Students’ Association and the Adelaide University Union board. She was not necessarily fated to be attracted to the Labor Party. She could have just as easily become involved with the Liberal Party as the Labor Party, until John Howard moved to the right with his racist dog-whistling to attract Pauline Hanson-type voters. It was while she was protesting outside a Labor convention that was debating a graduate tax – and the vote was tied- that she realized the importance of ‘being in the room’, and this has become one of the touchstones of her political stance. At many times- and most particularly during the multiple futile attempts to change Labor party policy on same sex marriage- she remained in the room, even though she was then forced to publicly adhere to a policy that she did not agree with. But for her, the important thing was that the debate was still had, inside the room. But should she have openly opposed Labor policy? In reporting her interview over this topic, Margaret Simon observes that Wong was “defensive and combative”. Wong tells her:

I had a decision to make at that time that I could either resign in a blaze of glory or I could stay and fight. And I did make that decision in 2004- that I would make sure that we changed the party platform one day, and that ultimately we would change the country.

p. 149

It was to take twenty-three bills introduced into parliament, usually by minor parties, until marriage equality was finally achieved in 2017. With her hands covering her face and brushing away tears, the country had finally been changed.

Quite apart from the areas of race and sexuality, which are of personal importance to Penny Wong, I had forgotten that she had been responsible for the Water and Climate Change portfolios – two intractable policy areas, both of which were caught up in the toxic politics of entrenched interests and grandstanding. She was not particularly successful here – indeed, has any politician been successful? – although her pursuit of buybacks in the Murray-Darling scheme have turned out to be more successful than the infrastructure improvement approach which followed her tenure, with little evident improvement. As Climate Change minister, she got caught up in the international politics of the COP meetings and Kevin Rudd’s declaration and then retreat from ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’. Her political judgement was astute but largely behind-the-scenes: she was the only colleague to raise the question of the electoral implications of Rudd’s back-pedalling.

Written in 2019 (an updated second edition is due out this year), Margaret Simon was witness to Labor’s defeat in an election that many thought was an assured Labor victory. It meant that Wong remained a shadow minister, but her work in preparing to be Foreign Minister was prodigious, and was evident (after the book had been published) in Wong’s quick spring to action as soon as Labor won office in 2022. Despite Paul Keating’s withering putdown of her for Penny Wong for “running around with a lei around [her neck] handing out money” in the Pacific, I think that she is very capable and her quiet, polite demeanour has enhanced Australia’s reputation, as well as her own.

I know that Adelaide is a small town, but I hadn’t realized how closely intertwined (dare I say ‘incestuous’?) Adelaide politics were, and probably still are both within the Labor Party and in the political arena generally. In the interplay between student politics, the legal/political profession and across formal political parties, allegiances and enmities were formed and continued over time, including when the participants moved onto the national stage. Wong established a firm friendship with Mark Butler, and a combative relationship with Don Farrell, both of whom are Adelaide representatives and current ALP ministers.

Simon makes no secret of the fact that Wong is a political animal. She has played political games and made political judgements, and not all of them do her credit. She has displayed loyalty, particularly to Kevin Rudd long after others had moved away, and to Anthony Albanese, whose time has come. She has made enemies too.

Simons has chosen as her subtitle ‘Passion and Principle’. Apart from the obvious alliteration, I wonder why she chosen “passion” in describing Penny Wong. Her demeanour is deliberately passion-less – her breaking down in tears after the same-sex marriage plebiscite notwithstanding- and Simons points out the ‘Wongisms’ that she uses to keep control of her language e.g. her low, quiet delivery; her expressive eyebrows to suggest skepticism; her vocal tics like ‘the best of our generation’ and ‘let me just say this’. It came as a surprise to read some of her lectures and addresses (e.g. the John Button Memorial Lecture) where she spelled out her beliefs and priorities and I found myself thinking “You are really good” in a way that doesn’t come through in other forums. While not indulging in ‘what-if’ thinking, Wong entertains counter-factuals as part of working out her position, and she eschews the idea of binary thinking, always looking for an alternative.

Her passion seems to have been constrained by the second ‘p’ of the subtitle: principle. In deciding to ‘stay in the room’ she steadfastly abided by cabinet solidarity outside it (something that I am criticizing pro-Voice Liberal front-benchers for doing), even when it went against her own interests. This came through most clearly to me at the 2011 South Australian Labor convention where the question of a conscience vote for same-sex marriage would come up for debate. She warned Julia Gillard (who opposed a conscience vote) that she would publicly support a change to the party platform. As the most senior South Australian member, she held Julia Gillard’s proxy, and knowing on principle that she couldn’t use it, she gave it to Don Farrell, thus giving her opponents an extra vote and opening up a space for Farrell to give an incendiary ‘no’ speech. (p.231) Given how important the question of same sex marriage was for her, that’s principle.

Margaret Simon is not an invisible presence in this biography. Coming from the press ranks herself, she affords an influence to the media that perhaps a political scientist or historian would not.She has had to actively pursue Penny Wong, and the long list of nearly forty named informants at the end of the book and an extensive bibliography and index reflect her diligence in writing this book. At times it reads like a tussle between two feisty interlocutors: she often challenges Wong’s assertions, and Wong pushes back. Penny Wong has been firm about the ‘no-go’ areas (e.g. her brother, her children). This is no hagiography: instead, as with other good interviewers (I’m thinking her of Janet Malcolm) Simon is reflecting on her own practice as a biographer and refining her own ideas about politics and politicians. In the final pages, Simon says:

…as the book had proceeded I had come to think of it as being about politics itself: how hard it is, the price that is paid in the struggle to make change, and both the necessity and inevitability of compromise, even when- as with climate change- such compromise may do us in. I was thinking that perhaps, as with a tragic play, the audience might leave with a greater understanding of the human affairs it depicted. Perhaps they might also grasp the humanity behind the headlines- and what it meant for a person of talent, passion and principle to devote herself to delivering the service of political representation.

p 317

And in this, I think that Simons achieved this admirably.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: own copy

Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle selection for April.

‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ by Robert Galbraith

2013 (2014) 560 p.

I’m not much of a fan of detective fiction and murder mysteries, and I don’t read much of it. I do watch it on television, but either I roll my eyes at the predictability of simple murder mysteries like ‘Midsomer Murders’ or ‘Death in Paradise’, or I ending up saying “But what happened?” at more complex and convoluted murder mysteries that demand an inordinate number of hours to reach completion. So, I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to read this book, but it was selected by my CAE bookgroup and I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated I would.

As nearly the whole world knows by now, Robert Galbraith is a pen-name for J.K.Rowling who, as an experiment, wrote a book under a pseudonym to gauge the effect of her name in generating sales. Well, she found out: the first edition ran to only 1500 copies, and it was #4,709th on the Amazon best-seller list until the news that Robert Galbraith was in fact J.K. Rowling broke on 14 July 2013. [As an aside, the question over the effect of her name has had a twist. I volunteer at Brotherhood Books and after noticing several visibly unread donations of Robert Galbraith books over a number of weeks, I wonder if they were given as gifts to former Harry Potter aficionados who either (a) decided without opening it that they didn’t like crime fiction or (b) consciously refused to read it on account of J.K.Rowling’s views on transgender rights. Interesting.] I’m too old to have been caught up in the Harry Potter phenomenon: the only one that I read was in Spanish, which is probably not a good basis for judging its quality.

But whether it’s Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling, I was completely caught up in her story-telling within a few pages. She follows all the reassuring conventions of old-fashioned detective fiction – a murder, a flawed main character with a side-kick, a range of possible murderers, lots of sitting in pubs – but she also developed her private detective with the suitably-implausible name of Cormoran Strike with a physical (as distinct from emotional or psychological) disability and an eager female secretary who brings a frisson of romantic tension. Strike lost the lower part of his leg while serving in Afghanistan in an investigation capacity, his business is failing, and he has resorted to sleeping on a camp bed after his girlfriend evicted him from her flat. Meanwhile, his temporary secretary Robin has recently been engaged to Matthew, an accountant, who disapproves of Strike and wants her to find a more respectable secretarial position- something that is less and less appealing to Robin as she is drawn into the investigation.

Perhaps reflecting Rowling’s own ambivalence about fame in the wake of her Harry Potter success, the death that opens this book is an apparent suicide of supermodel Lula Landry from her Mayfair apartment. His investigation is funded by Landy’s brother John Bristow who suspects a police cover-up. In investigating Lula´s death, Strike becomes immersed in the world of high-end fashion, celebrity and paparazzi. He has a family connection with this world, as his father was a Mick-Jagger-esque rock star, but he brings only trouble to Strike’s life. As part of his investigation in a scene reminiscent of Princess Diana, Strike finds himself in a chauffeur-driven car, blinded by the flash of camera bulbs, as he seeks out interviews in nightclubs, photographic studios and luxury apartments. Apart from the conspicuous consumption and empty vanity of this lifestyle, grubby motivations of ego and revenge play out in explaining Lula’s death.

There is a wide range of characters, of varying wealth and class, who swim into and out of the frame as red herrings. Rowling denotes these variations through dialogue, which at time verges on cliche, but these conversational inflections help to distinguish the characters from each other and to reinforce their social distance from each other. It was a long book, and at one stage when a character re-emerged with a new significance, I found myself having to leaf back through the book to remind myself who she was.

This book consciously stays within the crime fiction genre, with some rather surprisingly dated gender stereotypes, which I hope she subverts in later books in the series. The ending has a whiff of the Agatha Christies about it with its “You’re probably wondering why I called you to the drawing room” type ending, but I was grateful that the murderer was clearly identified, the motivations explained and all loose ends tied up. At least I wasn’t left saying “But what happened?”

My rating: 8.5/10- and yes, I will seek out more Robert Galbraith books and see if I can find the television series somewhere.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-30 April 2023

The Documentary (BBC World Service) Caught in Sudan’s Conflict. It all seems so pointless and unnecessary: an armed struggle by two factions within the same army. As if Sudan hasn’t been through enough already: violence, protest, dictatorship, political instability and upheaval. Sudan borders seven other countries apparently, and ripples are likely to spread to these neighbouring countries. In this episode three women from Khartoum – Dallia, Sara and Enass – share their personal situations and concerns, followed by interviews with a very young doctor. Incessant bombing and sniper fire, electrical failure, lack of food and water, unstable internet- and overwhelmingly fatigue from the stress and 24 hr bombing- what a nightmare.

Emperors of Rome Podcast Episode LXIV – Q and A III. This Q&A session dealt with:

  • What did the Romans know about China and India? (Answer: They knew a bit through trade. They knew that Alexander the Great got to north-west India, but not the subcontinent, and they knew vaguely about the Chinese through the fabled land of Scythia. The Chinese reported that a Roman envoy had visited them)
  • At what point does someone who is conquered become a slave? (Answer: if the commander of a battle wanted to, he could take everyone into slavery- or he could kill them, or he could leave them alone. Up to him)
  • Where did the colours come from for Roman garments? (Answer: the red came from plants. It was expensive, and so only rich people would wear it – pictures depicting the Roman Empire during the Renaissance were not accurate. Purple, which came from fish, was even more expensive.)
  • What did Romans celebrate? (Answer: Saturnalia, triumphs, the emperor’s birthday (when he would give presents to the people) and their own birthdays)
  • What did Romans eat? (Answer: pretty rank and disgusting things. They covered everything with garum, a fermented fish sauce. They liked disguising one food as another. For the poor people, they mainly ate grains. In fact, nearly everyone in the Ancient World was malnourished).
  • Do we know where Julius Caesar was stabbed? (Answer: no, it’s an internet thing)
  • Who is our favourite Emperor? (Dr. Rhiannon likes Hadrian. So do I)
  • How did the ancient texts get to us today? (Answer: most of them are copies of copies because paper decays unless it’s in the desert, or buried under lava)
  • How do we prepare and do our research for the podcast? (Answer: it’s not scripted but Matt does have some talking points)
  • How did the emperors see themselves compared with other emperors (Answer: they had to walk a narrow line between being a ‘king’ – because the Romans were allergic to kings- and a god – but only once they were dead. The image of an emperor, and their own concept of themselves, changed over time).

Latin American History Podcast The Conquest of Peru Part 7. Now that they had killed off Atahualpa after sitting looking at each other for 9 months, they had lost their main bargaining chip. The Spanish troops were playing cat and mouse with Quizquiz, who had been one of Atahualpa’s generals. Pizzarro had arrived during a civil war between Atahualpa and his brother Huáscar, and now that Atahualpa was dead, he had to decide which side he would throw his support behind as a way of saving his own skin. In the end he went for the south, wanting to base himself in the city of Cusco.

Source: Wikimedia.

In Our TimeReligion. NOT that I am reconciled to the idea of one of my children taking his family to Bloody Cambodia…. but. Angkor Wat was built for Suryavarman II in the 12th Century in modern-day Cambodia. The Sanskrit culture at that time stretched from Afghanistan through to Bali, in a form of colonialism without the military bit. At the time, Angkor Wat was the largest urban location in the world, with 700,000 to 900,000 people. The temple itself is four times the size of Vatican City and almost the same size as Old London at the time. It is a sculpture in its own right, constructed without mortar. It was built as a Hindu temple to Vishu, but in the 16th century the royal family became Buddhist. Unlike European cathedrals, it was built in an amazing 32 years, and the carvings were made in situ, so there was no scope for mistakes. When the French colonized, they put out the belief that the temple had been ‘lost’, but in fact, it had never been abandoned. Melvyn Bragg, who has been hosting this program for decades, sounds very old and quavery.

Hoy Hablamos. This podcast in Spanish, presented by a Spaniard (as distinct from a Latin American) goes pretty damned fast. I bought a year’s subscription, which gives you access to a transcript and some vocabulary exercises, and with the transcript I can just follow it. Fortunately, the episodes only last about 10 minutes which is my limit at such intensity, so I listen first time by myself, a second time with the transcript, then a third time without the transcript once I know what it’s about. Anyway, during February this year he did a four part series a bout the Guerra Civil Espanola (i.e. the Spanish Civil War), with one episode a week, and it’s really good. It had never occurred to me (forgive me if this is self-evident to everyone else in the world) but Franco the right-wing dictator was actually the rebel leader. I’ve listened to three episodes: Episode 1515 Antecedents and Causes; followed a week later by the Episode 1519 Parties (Bandas), then Episode 1524 Developments. The last episode is Episode 1528 Consequences. But be warned: it’s all in Spanish, and it’s fast.

Take Me to Your Leader (ABC). I’ve finally finished listening to this series, with the final Episode 8: Narendra Modi. I must confess to being rather wary of Narendra Modi and the BJP party, and I don’t particularly feel reassured after this program. It features Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Journalist and Author of ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times‘.Dr. Bharat Barai and Dr Panna Barai, longtime friends of Modi;  Professor Ian Hall, Griffith University. Author of ‘Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy’.Lance Price, Author of ‘The Modi Effect‘. Modi faced international criticism over the Gujurat Riots in 2002, and several of the guests (except his friends) felt that he could be characterized as anti-Muslim, even though the Indian Supreme Court acquitted him of complicity. As with many of the leaders that Hamish Macdonald has examined in this series, there is consensus that he’s not going anywhere in a hurry.

Rear Vision (ABC) Heading up to the Voice Referendum, this is a two-parter. The first episode looks at the 1967 Referendum- a vote to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People as part of the Australian population. As the presenters point out, there had been Aboriginal activism from the 1930s onwards, but by the 1950s, pressure was building for constitutional change. Holt agreed in 1967. There were two parts to the Aboriginal question. The first was that they be counted in the census which they did not previously, presumably because censuses were used to allocate electoral boundaries and there was little prospect, when the constitution was framed, that Aboriginal people would vote. In fact, Aboriginal people did have the vote by now, but many of them did not realize it. The second was that the race powers of the Constitution, which had been written to support the White Australia Policy by legislating against Indian, Chinese and Islander worker populations, be extended to Aboriginal people so that special legislation could be implemented for them. [It’s interesting to hear ‘No’ voters saying that the Voice will be divisive because it gives ‘special’ treatment, and yet the 1967 Referendum, which had bipartisan support at the time, did exactly this quite consciously]. There was another referendum held on the same day with a question about the composition and size of Parliament, and this was far more politically contentious, and when it did not get up, newspaper headlines said that the referendum had failed. The 91% yes vote for the Aboriginal questions was more or less taken for granted. In reality, little changed immediately following the Referendum, but the clause about race-specific legislation laid the groundwork for later legislation, not all of which was positive for Indigenous people.

Part II Giving a Voice to Indigenous Australians- why has it always failed? goes through the history of different consultative committees, highlighting why the Yes proponents want it enshrined in the constitution, and not just by legislation. After 1967 an advisory committee was established with three white men. Whitlam established the elected National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, but when Fraser got in, he abolished it and established the National Aboriginal Conference. This was probably more an exercise in political fence-marking, because both bodies were elected, with about 35-40 delegates, and Fraser made only modest changes. Both were largely ignored. Hawke abolished the National Aboriginal Conference in 1985, probably because it was critical of the Hawke government’s backdown on land rights, and established ATSIC instead in 1987 after two years consultation. It was formed of 63 regional councils (later reduced to 35), and it had a board of 17 members and a chair. It had two roles: 1. to advise the government (not just the Minister) and 2. to oversee expenditure of money. When Howard got in, ATSIC, its regional councils and aboriginal organizations were heavily audited, and the accusations and ongoing criminal proceedings against the ATSIC Chair Geoff Clarke gave Howard licence to abolish ATSIC, supported by Mark Latham. Nothing replaced it. I really enjoyed both these episodes. I thought that I was relatively well-informed, but I really learned a lot.

‘Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here’ by Heather Rose

2022, 236 p.


I enjoy reading memoirs, but they are a strange beast. First, there are the events that the memoirist decides to include or exclude. Second, there’s the voice that the writer adopts, and here Heather Rose adopts a present-tense, unadorned voice with short sentences. And then there is the structure that the writer chooses to shape their memoir. Heather Rose’s memoir is subtitled ‘A Memoir of Loss and Discovery’ and she uses the loss/discovery dichotomy as the fulcrum on which her memoir balances. Despite the title, you have the sense that for sure something bad is going to happen here.

It starts idyllically enough. Born in the 1965, Heather Rose grows up in a new subdivision, close to the River Derwent and under the watchful shadow of Mount Wellington. Her earliest memory, as a two-and-a-half year old, is of her mother climbing a ladder to hose down the roof during the Hobart Black Tuesday fires on 7 February 1967. Their house was spared, and she continued to grow up in Hobart, ensconced in a family with loving and present grandparents. Her maternal grandfather, Grandad Burgess, built a tiny shack on the Tasman Peninsula, 120 kilometres from home, five minutes from the beach and on the shores of a tidal bay. They spent all Christmas holidays, Easter, long weekends and school holidays at the shack where they ran wild, going fishing with their Grandad, and rather intimidated by their intelligent but imposing Nan Burgess. They had even more contact with their paternal grandparents, who lived across the road from the primary school they attended. As the family lived more than a kilometre from the school, the children would go across to Nan and Pa Rose’s house for a home-cooked lunch every day, and return there after school until their mother picked them up. When Heather Rose was eleven, her grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, and she learned that

Grief is when nothing can be done and there’s no going back to fix it, and there’s no going forward without knowing that it can never be fixed.


She is to learn even more about grief the following year. A boating tragedy sees her family rent apart after her brother Byron and Grandad Burgess drown when their fishing dinghy overturns in Lime Bay, half an hour from their beach shack. It is in the wake of this tragedy that she has her first visitations – or whatever you want to call them- from the spiritual realm. The morning before the tragedy, she dreamed that her brother was drowning, and she blamed herself for years for not rousing her parents, convincing them to do something – that it could not be fixed. On seeing her brother leave for the fishing trip, she saw a white light around him as if he were glowing; after his death she saw Byron in their house, sitting in the chair by the bookshelf, standing in the open door. But the family is broken: no-one mentions Byron’s name; her remaining brother becomes moody and volatile; her sister becomes quieter. And

A bitterness sets in between my parents. There are silences at the dinner table, arguments, fights and long cold spells in which Mum and Dad do not speak to one another. I want everyone to be happy. If only, I can make everyone happy, maybe it will be okay. Years later, when my own marriage unravels, I experience the same sense of defeat. I have failed to keep everyone happy.

p. 28

The shack is sold, her parents separate, her mother remarries and her father ‘retreats into a monkish solitude’.

She leaves Tasmania in 1984 to travel around Asia; the backpacker’s rite of passage. She catches typhoid in Java, heads into Thailand, visits opium dens in Malaysia, then becomes addicted to heroin in Thailand. It is the midst of a heroin stupor that she goes looking for death, finding it as an old door mounted in the wall of a cave, that she only has to push open. Then she hears a small voice that says “No. Not this way. Not here. Go back. Go back. Not now.” It is this experience that propels her towards a monastery in Bangkok, opening up the second pillar of her memoir: discovery.

Then follows a long section on her spiritual journey, which takes her from monasteries to Native American sweat lodges and the grueling Sun Dance ritual. Here I felt as if I should be enjoying this memoir more than I was. I am a spiritual person, and attracted to that yearning and questioning that hums under my day-to-day life. But I found myself recoiling in bemusement from the physical extremity and bizarreness of the rituals she describes (appropriates?) as part of her spiritual source. Perhaps there’s a reason why words fail in the face of spiritual experience. How to distinguish the earnestness of this spiritual search for the sublime and transcendent from an unhealthy obsession with the self and the sidelining of other people and issues?

This emphasis on the ineffable dissipates in the chapter near the end of the book titled ‘Elephant’. She has mentioned in passing her diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling hereditary chronic arthritis that brings flare-ups and periods of remission. She uses her hard-won skills in meditation and supplements, but also drugs, supplements and medical cannabis. After many pages describing her own spiritual journey, she becomes frustrated by the remedies, diets, rituals and meditations prescribed in books by Eckhart Tolle, Louise Erdich, the Dali Lama and a long list of other authors. She spells out a long list of forty-nine therapies she has undertaken over the last forty years, from physiotherapy to a whole shopping list of New Age rituals, and any number of food regimes: no starch, low starch, paleo, candida elimination, vegetarian, vegan, no fruit, no sugar no fats, no red meat, raw food, the fast diet. (p 214) As she gradually has fewer flare-ups, perhaps associated with age and menopause, she takes nothing for granted. This chapter, although it seems inconsistent with all the spiritual exegesis that takes up the central part of the book, almost gives the sceptical reader an escape-route: she has undergone all this mortification of the flesh but she needs to heed it, in the end.

She returns to the theme of loss in the closing chapter. Some forty or more years after Byron and Grandad Barnett’s drowning, she tracks down a copy of the coroner’s report on their deaths. Her parents had never seen, or requested, it. She resists the word ‘closure’, but she notes that reading the report eases something in both her parents, to know that there had been multiple attempts to save them. It is when she returns to swim in the bay where they died that she realizes that, for Grandad and Byron, it was what happened. But nothing bad ever happens; that every life is perfect in its own way. She closes with some learnings about memories and their place in our life that reflect, although couched in a bit of ‘woo-woo’ery, both age and experience:

There are memories to acknowledge if we are to learn to live with ourselves, events we revisit over and over, wondering who we are, and why we made those choices. There are always parts too painful to either forget or surrender, and parts that remain unknown until something or someone comes along who offers an invitation. Trauma is a form of haunting. In the darkness of life, there is an invitation for expansion…I’ve come to accept that what I perceive as myself is actually something malleable, prone to change, to shed and reconstruct, and to blossom at unlikely moments and for unlikely reasons. That seems to be the nature of being human. We become what we are story by story, piece by piece.

p, 233, 234.

My rating: A bit too hardcore spiritual and flaky for me. 7.5/10

Read because: I had read ‘Bruny’ and was interested to see what she would do with memoir.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Hydra’ to…

First Saturday, so that means Six Degrees of Separation Day. This is a meme hosted by Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest, where she chooses a starting title, and you link six other books that are related in whatever way you choose. You can read the instructions for the meme here. It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have never read the starting book, and I haven’t this month either. It is Hydra by Adriane Howell, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2023.

So….. Hydra. There’s Hydra the island, and hydra the freshwater organism, but there’s also Hydra of the Greek myth, the monster with nine heads. I’ll go with the latter, which made me think of David Malouf’s Ransom, where Malouf takes a couple of lines from the Iliad, where King Priam travels to recover the body of his son Hector, which is being dragged behind a chariot by the crazed Achilles.

Thinking of Greece, I jump to Gillian Bouras’ A Stranger Here. Back in the 1980s Gillian Bouras used to write columns in the Age about her life in a Greek village, where she emigrated with her husband. A Stranger Here is a novel, but I suspect that it has strong autobiographical elements, where an older woman has experienced divorce and the chains of love for her son that keep her in Europe.

With an older woman as narrator, both chastened and emboldened by experience, it reminded me of Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers (I bet that you thought I would go for Johnson’s biography of Charmian Clift instead).It is written as one hundred chapters, each very short consisting rarely of more than four pages, and sometimes as little as a paragraph. The hundred lovers here (such a daunting number!) are the spark between sensuousness and embodiment (in the sense of being in the body) and the whole range of a woman’s experiences.

A book with a similar title is Steven Lang’s 88 Lines about 44 Women, but the title does not refer to a countdown of lovers, but instead references a song by The Nails which I’d never heard of. There’s not 44 women it, either, just three and the main character is a washed-up rock singer, now living in a cold and isolated farmhouse in the Scottish Highlands.

Rock singers don’t come much bigger than Jimmy Barnes, although he grew up in Glasgow rather than the Scottish Highlands, before emigrating with his poor, violent family to Elizabeth in South Australia. I read Working Class Boy but I don’t seem to have blogged it, although I did see the documentary. They are both excellent.

Another boy from Scotland with a difficult childhood is in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, although his life took on a very different trajectory than that of rock star. It’s set in Thatcher’s United Kingdom – later than Jimmy Barnes’ book- and much of it is about his relationship with his alcoholic mother and his own conflicts about his sexuality.

So, I seem to have rattled around between Greece and Scotland, between blinding sunlight and cold, dank Scotland. Next month we start with Friendaholic. Guess what: I haven’t read that either.