Online colloquium: Imperial Emotions and the De-Colonial Move

I mentioned the other day that I was missing conferences. Well, even before the current spate of lockdowns, I enrolled for this two-day colloquium that was originally planned as a joint face-to-face/online event. With the recent lockdown in Adelaide it pivoted to being completely online, just as the Yarra Valley Writers Festival did last weekend.

The colloquium was conducted under the auspices of the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. If I were writing my thesis today, I would probably be attracted to this ‘turn’, and I wish that it had been more prominent fifteen years ago. Although several of the speakers were familiar to me, I have none of the theoretical background for the approach, and probably would have felt a bit out of place, were I there physically. So, in spite of the dearth of muffins and absence of name-tags, online probably suited me better this time.

The colloquium started with Prof. Jane Lydon speaking on Imperial Emotions: the homeless of empire? In this paper, she explored ‘compassionate emotion’ through two contemporaneous books, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Bleak House (1852-3) by Charles Dickens. We might call it ’empathy’ today, but the term was not used at the time. Both novels sought to evoke pity – in Stowe’s case for slaves, and in Dicken’s case for Jo the crossing sweeper. But Dickens’ book also critiques ‘telescopic philanthropy’, as exemplified by Mrs. Jelleby, who is oblivious to the needs of those around her because she is so invested in distant benevolence. Lydon pointed out that even though readers expressed horror at the thought of Eliza and her child being separated in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there was little critique of the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.

Dr. Jordy Silverstein followed with a fantastic paper: Discourses of ‘Care’: Public Servants, Child Refugees and the Production of National Feelings where she conducted oral interviews with two senior public servants who worked from the 1970s to the 1990s at the highest levels of the public service. We often associate ministers and political parties with particular policies, but we are largely unaware of the secretaries and advisors whose positions are not dependent on the election cycle (well, they weren’t in the past) and who, if they have a lengthy career, work with politicians of both persuasions. She interviewed John Menadue about multiculturalism and Wayne Gibbons about immigration, refugee policy, the Intervention. It was a rather chilling, distubing paper.

Prof. Margaret Allen spoke on Sympathy, disgust and disdain, women writers’ representation of Indigenous peoples and the colonial project in some South Australian novels. She examined the novel Kooroona, published in England in 1871 under the pseudonym ‘Iota’. The author was in fact Mrs. Mary A Meredith, who lived in South Australia between 1858 and 1868. Allen describes it as a ‘sojourner’ novel, which has strong autobiographical elements, narrated by a woman with strong Anglican principles who sees herself as a more cultured visitor to the colony, as distinct from the more aspirational, acquisitive, locally focused Dissenter settlers. Through her character Mrs Vernon, Meredith critiqued indigenous dispossession by these grasping, immoral settlers, but she then turned her attention, much as Charles Dickens did in Bleak House to metropolitan benevolence instead.

I loved Dr Claire McLisky’s paper ‘Colonial emotions’ and Indigenous peoples in mid twentieth-century Australian history writing: Apathy, anger and calls to action in the histories of Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw’. She examined closely M. Barnard Eldershaw’s 1939 book My Australia, written as a collaboration between two women writers and historians Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both were historians and both trained under George Arnold Wood at the University of Sydney. However, neither worked in academia, and their My Australia is very different from the other histories being written at the time by male historians. Both were activists, engaged in the politics of the day, and this is reflected in their approach to Aboriginal history in their book. The book began with a prologue ‘A Mask of Australia for Inaudible Voices’, speaking from five different perspectives: ‘Voice of the Continent’, ‘Chorus of the Trees’, ‘Herald of the Future’, ‘The Black Man’ and ‘The Black Man’s Future’ – a very imaginative and perceptive approach. The bulk of the book was divided into two parts: New World and Old World, but in an coda of two chapters, they returned in a chapter titled ‘The Dispossessed’ to critique settler Australia’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. Yet this coda stands, with no integration at all, alongside long pages of ‘dying race’ rhetoric in the body of the text. Fascinating.

The first day finished with Faye Rosas Blanch speaking on Looking through the Frame, what are the shifting sensory and affective relations? There was no written paper for this presentation where she described a photograph of her family standing outside a wooden church at Pinnacle Pocket, near Atherton in Queensland. She did not show the photograph. I assumed that, as an indigenous presenter, she declined to display the photograph because some of the people depicted had died, but that was not the case (information about the church was placed on YouTube by the family in any case). Instead she chose not to show the photograph as an act of refusal, and to force us to “listen” to the photograph. Interesting approach- but I wonder if I was the only one who then looked it up on YouTube?

The second day started with Ass. Prof Sharon Crozier-de Rosa presenting Emotional Politics at Play: Ridicule, Embarrassment and the Limits of Reimagining Colonial Relations. You might not guess it from the title, but it examined the response of British Anti-Suffrage activists to the defeat of the conscription referendum in Australia during WWI, where they blamed women (who had the vote in Australia) for being too emotional in the ballot box. Stung by this criticism, anti-conscription women voters, through their large political organization the Australian Womens National League, moved away from their language of Britain as ‘Mother’ and Australia as ‘grateful child’ to see Australia instead as ‘motherland’. The paper talked about family metaphors in describing political networks and affiliations.

Keeping with the war theme, Prof. Joy Damousi followed with Empire, evacuations and emotions in war, which also spoke to Jordy Silverstein’s earlier paper on child refugees. In this case, she spoke about the child evacuation program conducted under the auspices of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, which sent British children to Canada, Australia and South Africa. Harry Foll was the program’s most public champion in Australia. Drawing on the archive of memoirs of the child migrants themselves, Damousi has been interrogating the scheme, which definitely preferenced blue-eyed, fair haired, sturdy children, with the hope that they would stay in Australia, rather than Jewish children who were in more immediate danger.

This was followed by Dr Natalie Harkin, a critical Indigenous scholar, who gave a presentation titled Archival-poetic Witnessing/ Decolonizing Domestic Labour Stories in South Australia where she integrates oral and intergenerational blood memories with the official state records on indigenous domestic service in South Australia. Even though South Australia did not become involved in the 2006 Inquiry into Stolen Wages, claiming incorrectly that it did not apply to them, she has found an archive that spans cruelty and brutality through to kindness (although not equality). Historians often speak about ‘the archive’ and their response to it, and while wary of the state archive, she likened it to a ‘medium’ through which the past speaks. She found that the archive, both written and oral, underplayed instances of cruelty, and captured surveillance, the constant hum of anxiety and the threat of child removal. Smells, food, and cleaning agents could trigger memories amongst her oral informants, and she has uncovered letters from parents and the girls themselves, anxious to know what type of white family the girl was working for, and whether she could come home for Christmas.

The final paper by Ass. Prof Jane Haggis was called Imperial Dispositions: Then, Now and Mine: (Mis) Adventures in Unknowing and Common Sense. Unfortunately, the only ‘unknowing’ one was me, because the sound quality was really poor and I just couldn’t hear. From her slides, I know that she was talking about Martindale Hall, the National Trust Mansion (used in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’) but I’m afraid that’s all I know. It was a rather incomplete and disappointing way to finish off, and having been a ‘lurker’ throughout, I slipped away half-way through the Plenary Discussion. But I really enjoyed listening to a really strong selection of papers, that fit well into their different themes and yet spoke to each other, and spoke to me too.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 July 2021

99% Invisible. One of the few things that I DO like about budget airlines is that no-one can put their seat back. Instead, everyone sits bolt upright, in full possession of the meagre space in front of your knees. This episode “Mine” is a cracker – talking about the concept of ‘owning’ something – a physical object, land, space, sunlight – based on the book of the same name by Michael Heller and James Salzman. They suggest that there are 6 deliberately-ambiguous conflicting ‘stories’ of ownership: 1. I’m here first 2. Possession 3. It’s attached to something that is mine 4. I worked for it 5. It’s part of my body 6. It belongs to my family. Really interesting.

China If You’re Listening (ABC) ‘Chinese Students: Commodity or Opportunity?’ looks at the dependence of universities on international students, especially from China. Education is seen as Australia’s third most important ‘export’ and this has skewed funding models and educational provision shamelessly, in my opinion. Not just in universities either- TAFEs too have allowed themselves to be compromised by their English language class provision. I hadn’t really thought of it from the students’ perspective either: that they don’t want to be in a class entirely of Chinese students any more than the few Australian students do.

Travels Through Time. I love this podcast but it’s steadily adding to my list of To Be Read books! In The Quest for the Lost City (1833), historian Edmund Richardson speaks about Charles Masson, a deserter from the East India Company, who after merging into Kabul society, is driven to search for Alexandria Under the Mountains, one of the many cities across the Middle East that Alexander the Great established in his own name. The book Alexandria: the Quest for the Lost City sounds fascinating.

Heather Cox Richardson It’s NAIDOC week in Australia, and it seemed appropriate to tune in to Heather Cox Richardson’s short series on Native American History (even though she recorded it in June). Her episode of June 4 starts off with the Plains Indians – I’m not really sure what terminology I’m supposed to be using here – during the Civil War. At the same time that Americans were fighting for human rights via the Civil War on the east side of the country, wholesale dispossessions were taking place in the middle of the country as settlers swarmed across indigenous traditional lands.

The Last Archive During the second season of the Last Archive, historian and writer Jill Lepore has been looking at the rise of doubt over the last 100 years of American history. The episode Epiphany brings this right up to date, with the storming of Congress on January 6. But before that, there was the little known Iron Mountain hoax of the late 1960s- a publication that lingers on far-right websites to this day.

‘Civilisations’ by Laurent Binet

Translated from French by Sam Taylor 2021, 310p.

Since learning Spanish with my various Latin American Spanish teachers (from Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina – think of the terrible accent I must have!), I’ve been interested in Latin American history. When I heard the premise of this book, I was instantly fascinated. Imagine if Erik the Red’s daughter headed south from Greenland in 1000 AD and landed in Cuba. Imagine if Christopher Columbus was captured by the Incas and died there. Then imagine if thirty years later, the Incas arrived in Europe.

This book is told in several parts. Part One, ‘The Saga of Freydis Eriksdottir’ is written in the form of a narrative, starting “There once was a woman called Aud the Deep-Minded”. Set in c.1000 it follows Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis as she leaves Greenland because of family conflict and ends up in Central America. They bring iron and horses, leaving them in the hands of the Panamanians and Cubans when they leave to return to Europe, aware that they are bringing disease (but unknown to them, immunity) to the defenseless populations that have given them shelter.

Part Two, almost five hundred years later is ‘The Journal of Christopher Columbus (fragments)’, starting on 3 August 1492 as Columbus sets sail. Written in the form of journal entries, Columbus’ crew find indigenous people with iron tools and weapons, and riding horses. The journal peters out as Columbus sickens and dies while the Incas around him are immune to disease.

Part Three ‘The Chronicles of Atahaulpa’ is by far the longest part of the book, written in the same narrative style of Part One, with an omniscient narrator and the formal distance of a ‘chronicle’. In the 1531 Ataphaulpa, the last Inca emperor, flees Central America using Columbus’ abandoned ships for much the same reasons as Freydis did 500 years earlier (i.e. family feud) and lands in Lisbon, just after the earthquake. It’s Europe, but not quite as we know it. Of course, Spain has not been enriched from her colonies, because Columbus didn’t find them. Europe is riven with the Reformation, the Inquisition is torturing its way to infamy, and Henry VIII is casting around trying to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon. Ataphaulpa does not have a large army, but he triumphs nonetheless by appealing to the down-trodden peasantry, and his sun-based religion sweeps Europe, co-existing with Christianity- or as Ataphaulpa describes it, the religion of “the nailed god”. He finds a good handbook for how to deal with these Europeans: nothing less than Machiavelli’s The Prince. Henry VIII converts to the Sun religion as a way to escape his marital problems; Ataphaulpa revolutionizes agriculture by terracing and the introduction of avocados and tomatoes; 95 theses are nailed onto the church door at Wittenberg but these proclaim the supremacy of the Sun religion. Meanwhile, the Aztecs arrive in France, and a battle between the Incas and Aztecs ensues, with alliances with various European nations playing but a minor part. It’s a long section, comprising 214 pages of this 310 page book, but it is broken up with correspondence like that of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, and Ataphaulpa and his consort Higuénamota.

Part Four is just short, and in the form of an 18th century novel, with its little chapter summary at the start, it tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes, who is living with El Greco in Michel de Montaigne’s tower and ends up being exiled to Cuba and not writing Don Quixote.

As you can see, there is a lot in this book, and for most of it, I found myself wishing that I knew more history. I’m vain enough to be uncomfortable about being made to feel stupid. At times little things had me laughing out loud- the Aztecs building a pyramid outside the Louvre for their sacrifices, for example – but it only made me realize that there are probably hundreds of allusions here that just passed me by.

The book is, in effect, a series of fictional historical documents – and I’m not unfamiliar with historical documents- but documents in themselves are not a novel. The reader has to work hard in this book, and I found my will to continue flagging. It’s more of an idea than a novel: there is little character development, and as many additional parts as the author had the energy to write could have been appended.

I’m glad that I read it, though. ‘What-if’ history is a guilty pleasure (very guilty) for a historian, and you come away from reading the book being knocked off-centre by its suppositions and alternative perspectives. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any longer at all- in fact, I was rather pleased to have even finished it- and I certainly feel as if I have been in the company of someone who is much brainier than I.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Con subtítulos en español: Victor XX

A young transgender girl, Mari is experimenting with her identity as Victor. She is in a gay relationship with another young girl, who doesn’t know about her illicit excursions as Victor. It’s really well acted, with Alba Martinez as Mari/Victor. For a film only 19 minutes long, it’s sad and beautiful.

I watched it through Instituto Cervantes, who have a number of short LGBTI films available during July. I choose to watch them with Spanish subtitles, but English subtitles are available too. Each film is only available for 48 hours.

Yarra Valley Writers Festival – Sunday 18 July 2021

Back again for the second day of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival that very presciently selected ‘Resilience’ as the theme. The current lockdown, announced on Thursday night, meant that the organizers had to pivot to the curated Zoom stream which they had fortuitously prepared in advance- that’s resilience for you!

The day started off with Kathryn Heyman’s Fury. I have heard her interviewed before: she has a beautiful speaking voice, and now I see is a really engaging screen presence as well. This book is a memoir of both her childhood, a sexual assault, and her time on a fishing trawler which helped her reclaim her own body and pre-assault identity. She had always been ‘a reader’, reminding me of the SRA reading cards (I loved SRA although I suspect that poorer readers did not). She raises the question of whether there is today a class dimension to unwanted sexual attention as a child. (Interesting question.) She talks about the title (Fury) which she chose, and had to fight for. I don’t know- I think I’m on her British publisher’s side here. The book is not written from a position of anger – she had worked that out of her system through the fishing trawler experience – something that is not suggested from the title. On the other hand, I haven’t read it, so what would I know. Interesting to see the authors who are present through the chat box: Robyn Cadwallader, Eleanor Limprecht and the historian Marguerita Stephens.

The next session ‘Believe It To Be True’ is about belief and faith, but I was about to engage with my own belief and feeble faith with my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, so I attended the service and will watch this one later. I also missed the session on Motherhood.

I tuned back in for the panel discussion led by Hilary Harper (from Life Matters). I hadn’t read any of the books A Room Called Earth by Madeleine Ryan, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason and My Year of Living Vulnerably by Rick Morton. I know that you’re encouraged to attend sessions at Writers Festivals where you know nothing about the books, but I found this session a bit hard to follow. There was discussion about neurodiversity and labelling, autism and fear of touch and the interesting comment from Meg Mason that she toyed with making one of her main characters imaginary. The session did finish off with some lovely advice about long-term relationships: feeling adored to the point that you wonder about your partner’s sanity.

I’ve heard several interviews with Helen Garner, and each time she has been thoughtful, respectful of the question and you can just see her thoughts whirling as she responds . In her interview with Sean O’Beirne, she starts off with reading entries from her second volume of her diaries One Day I’ll Remember This (something that I wish they would do in each panel, to give a taste of the writing for those who haven’t read the book). In relation to the discipline of writing a diary each day, she quotes the AA aphorism “a fearless and searching moral inventory”. In this volume of her diaries, she writes about the breakup of her relationship with ‘V’ (whom she did not consult before publishing her diary, although she did for many other people) which she saw as a cautionary tale for women. He certainly doesn’t come out of this very well. I could listen to Helen Garner for hours and hours.

And then some bird watching!! I’m a frustrated birdwatcher, and I am determined to turn all my grandchildren into bird nerds too. Both my granddaughters are co-operating, with the older one very aware of rainbow lorikeets and the younger one able to recognize kookaburras. I wish I was walking along that path with Sean Dooley.

The final session featured Kate Mildenhall and Sally Hepworth, speaking about Hepworth’s book The Good Sister. I haven’t read books written by either of these bubbly young women. It seems that it’s yet another book about a neurodiverse character, which fits in with the Ryan/Mason/Morton interview with Hilary Harper. My ukulele strumalong is calling me- think I’ll call it a day.

And so, for me, ends the Yarra Valley Writers Festival. They did such a good in rescuing what could have been a disaster. Perhaps NEXT year.

Yarra Valley Writers Festival – Saturday 17 July 2021

I realized the other day that I am missing two things in particular under COVID restrictions: writers’ festivals and conferences. I miss the lining up, the bookshop to browse in, the ‘housekeeping’, the stewed coffee, the nametags, the plenaries and the person standing up at the end to say “this is a comment more than a question” before rambling on while everyone shuffles their feet.

So when I saw that the Yarra Valley Writers’ Festival was going to be on in Warburton this weekend, I thought – right, I’ll go on the Saturday! But then on Thursday night the lockdown descended again, and that was the end of that. But not quite, because forced online last year, the YVWF already had a ‘curated’ Zoom stream set up as well as their face-to-face offering. With this fifth lockdown (I can’t believe I’m writing ‘fifth‘) the focus shifted to the online program instead. When I learned that the links would be available for 7 days after, I decided that I was still ‘in’. I wouldn’t watch everything: I really wanted to go for a walk because I haven’t been outside for 2 days, and the thought of sitting staring at a screen all day didn’t fill me with joy.

The morning started with Don Watson, who has released a collection of his writing called Watsonia. I’ve read many of his books over the years, and even though I find his public persona rather dry and prickly, I do enjoy his writing. Either he has mellowed, or I am getting dry and prickly myself, but I enjoyed this wide-ranging session. He displayed his usual diffidence about the act of writing, and his dislike of managerial sludge. He spoke about the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on his history writing, and his regret that Recollections of a Bleeding Heart fractured his relationship with Paul Keating, while rebutting the charges of ‘betrayal’ that were levelled against him. He talked about the press gallery then and now, and the way that Trump has upended the idea that if a politician attacked the interviewer, the political argument was lost. He finished by noting that liberating ideas always have their dark side: the scientific revolution led to Hiroshima; Christianity led to the Inquisition, the dream of a neoliberal society with a strong safety net destroyed the ALP. I realized again how much I enjoy his writing, and I’m tempted to buy the book.

I hadn’t read either of the books for the next session (Kokomo and A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing). It was time for a walk while the rain held off, and by the time I returned the poetry session with Ellen Araluen and Tony Birch was half-way through. I’ll catch it up later.

By the time I finished lunch, the next session was underway. ‘Putting Music into Words: Music Industry Writings, Murmurings and Generation Change’ featured Stuart Coupe, Brian Nankervis and Phillip Frazer (who I had never heard of, but I learn that he was involved with Go-Set, my teenage bible). It was a bit ‘old blokes sitting round yarning’ and name-dropping- although both Stuart Coupe and Brian Nankervis had enviable bookshelves.

I caught half of ‘ Can I Pay for Dinner with my Postcode’ with Dennis Glover (Factory 19), Glyn Davis (On Life’s Lottery) and Rick Morton (On Money). I’ve often seen Rick Morton on ‘The Drum’ and I like his writing in the Saturday Paper. This will be another one to catch up on, because I had to leave to talk with my Spanish-speaking friend Diego for our regular Saturday one-hour 1/2 Spanish 1/2 English conversation.

Finally Louise Milligan spoke with Kerrie (as distinct from Kerry) O’Brien about her recent book Witness which explores the effect of our justice system on those who appear as victims and witnesses in our courts. As a Four Corners reporter, she has broken several big stories over recent years about Cardinal George Pell, and more recently against the Attorney-General Christian Porter. She is fearless in her reporting, but I fear for her as reporter.

All in all, a pleasant way to spend a cold, wet, locked-down Saturday. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that I’ve signed up for tomorrow again, for another day’s viewing that will be punctuated by my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a Spanish movie that is only available tomorrow and a ukulele strumalong.

´With the Falling of the Dusk´ by Stan Grant

2021, 314 p.

When I saw the title of this book I assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that it was responding to that ANZAC day exhortation “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”. Well, not only did I get the words wrong, but the title is in fact a quote from Hegel: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk”. It appears as the very last sentence in this book, and in many ways it encapsulates the preceding 314 pages with its appeal to Hegel and its ultimately pessimistic tone.

As a well-known journalist and – increasingly – public intellectual, Stan Grant has been writing about himself, his indigenous/Irish heritage and themes of identity and Australianness for many years. I was interested to read this book because he steps beyond these themes to reflect on the present historical moment, informed both by his own experience as a foreign correspondent and as an indigenous commentator on identity and history. Subtitled ‘A chronicle of the world in crisis’, I must confess to being more interested in ‘the world’ rather than Stan Grant himself.

Grant’s various postings form the narrative skeleton of this book. The prologue starts on a train to China on Christmas Day, with his wife and children still asleep, at the commencement of his posting to Beijing as CNN’s foreign correspondent. He stares at an old man in a field, and thinks about all the things that this man would have seen during his life: the birth of the People’s Republic, the veneration of Chairman Mao, the Cultural Revolution and now the urbanization of the new generation. He then launches into his Introduction, which reflects on COVID, suggesting that it has centralized government control, revealed the fragility of democracy and brought the looming threat of authoritarianism. (I do not agree with him here). He suggests that we find ourselves at ‘a hinge point in history’ (p. 22), where the United States is staring down China, with democracy challenged by “the blood of identity, poured through the strainer of history” (p. 29) and COVID overlaying “this mix of great power rivalry, fear of war, rising authoritarianism, retreating democracy, political populism, nationalism, tribalism and toxic weaponized identity” (p. 31).

Finally, at p 37, he starts the book proper, although his opening chapter ‘The End of History’ continues with this scene-setting introduction, drawing particularly on Hegel’s philosophy of history. He is rather fond of ‘hinge points’ and ‘turning points’, and after acknowledging that ‘received wisdom’ sees 1989 as a turning point, he nominates instead 1979. Why 1979? Because the Clash released ‘London Calling’, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to power and the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Not, I feel, a strong defence of his choice of 1979, but he does return to the year 1979 a number of times during the book. Chapter 2 ‘The Return of History’ is the start of his own recounting of his life as a foreign correspondent, where he talks about his employment by CNN and deployment to Hong Kong as the first step of this new career.

In the chapters that follow, he gives a good overview of recent Chinese history, interwoven with his own biography. (Grant currently hosts a weekly program China Tonight on the ABC). He devotes several chapters to China: its history, Mao, the rise of Xi Jinping, and the rise of a China determined to reclaim its place after a century of humiliation. He then moves to other countries as his overseas postings lead him to North Korea, to Pakistan, Afghanistan. He feels the pull of identification with the people he meets through his own indigenous identity:

I was not born of the West, but the West was certainly born in me. By the time I was born, Australia was opening up for my people. I was always acutely aware that I was a bridge between my parents’ lives and mine. They had been locked out, segregated, denied the West’s greatest promise: progress. Change was long and hard, and we shill walk that road. My people- Aboriginal people – are the most impoverished and imprisoned in Australia (p.81)…

The things I have seen weigh heavily on my soul. It isn’t just the violence and the misery that I reported on, but the stories of these people, which connected deeply with my own. When I looked into the eyes of a child or a parent in a refugee camp, I saw the eyes of my own family. Reporting the world was my way of trying to understand myself. Like the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or China, I had been shaped by history. My family’s story, too, was one of invasion, occupation, colonisation and oppression. We had been left on the margins, excluded, impoverished and imprisoned. I knew how easy it was for small peoples everywhere to feel the humiliation of history, to feel angry and grow bitter at some still-open wound, and to hate the people you believe inflicted it


After travelling through these Asian and Middle Eastern countries, he closes the book by turning to America, and the flabby impotence of liberalism, “a timid faith, a tepid, bloodless idea but one with which white people have ruled the world.” (p. 266) He despises Trump, but is equally damning of Obama and Clinton. He sees Biden as part of the same problem of meritocracy, entitlement and inequality. It’s a bleak vision

We are all on the highway of despair. As for the idea of truth, there is debate now about what that even means. Democracy itself has broken with liberalism, hijacked by demagogues who use it as a cover for tyranny. The champions of liberal democracy…now confront the prospect that their great faith itself will not outlast history.


I was drawn to read this book after hearing Grant give the Manning Clark lecture, which you can hear on Big Ideas. I now realize that much of that lecture was drawn verbatim from this book. I had thought that Grant had laced his lecturer so heavily with references to histories and other secondary sources because it was the Manning Clark lecture (Manning Clark was, after all, the Grand Old Man of Australian History). But I now realize that the whole book is like this, combining personal reminiscence with analysis bolted together with quotes from numerous sources. I found myself frustrated by this frequent recourse to the juicy quote, without the footnotes needed to check it further, and I found myself wondering, rather unkindly, why he felt that he needed to cloak his own work with so many words and works of other people. The book sorely lacks an index, and I was surprised that it was marred by so many small proof-reading errors. If you have seen or heard Stan Grant, you will know that he speaks in the cadences of the prophet or the preacher, and yet in several places his prose takes on the awkward, somewhat obsequious ‘well-done-that-fellow’-tone that you find in military histories and the letters inserted in Christmas cards:

I worked closely with an Iranian-American cameraman, Farhad Shadravan, who was the most talented camera operator I had ever worked with; he also became one of the closest friends I have in the world. His family is my family, and we are bonded in ways that can never be broken.

p. 216

The final chapters of the book look at current events. He is not the first commentator to parallel the 1930s with current events:

What happened then, and how can we learn from that today? I can break it down to four things: hubris, history, resentment and identity. Each feeds the other: the hubris of victory and a faith in moral or political universalism inflicts humiliation that breeds anger and resentment – a victim looking for someone to blame- and this hardens into an identity of ‘us versus them’


He may speak in the tones of the preacher, but there is no redemption in his final pages. Instead, he leaves us in the gloom of the dusk, and I could find little of the “capacity for negotiation, forgiveness and hope” mentioned in the blurb on the back cover.

I also wanted to read this book as part of my contribution to Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week that has now finished on the ANZLitlovers page. Stan Grant is probably one of the best-known indigenous commentators in Australia’s public life today. His politics do not fit into an easy right/left category, and I often feel uncomfortable with his opinions. I wanted to read this book precisely because Grant’s questioning of identity and history are played out on a broader canvas than just Australia. But if the theme of NAIDOC this year was ‘Heal Country’, then there’s little healing, comfort or hope on offer here.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 July 2021

Lectures in History (C-span) Prof. Alan Kraut starts his lecture The 1920s American South talking about Southern progressives- something that I had never heard of – in relation to child labour laws, and pointing out that Woodrow Wilson, who was generally acknowledged for his progressive ideas, was born in the South. He points out that Wilson made sure during WWI that some of the economic benefits flowed to the South. With the flight of African-Americans to the north, mills were constructed that kept the wages of their white workers low (so that they could compete with cheap Asian labour) but were supplemented by paternalistic side-benefits that kept workers poor and ‘stuck’. Innovations supported Southern manufacturing (at least at first) with the tobacco industry inventing cigarettes and marketing them to ‘flappers’ and modern women, and the creation of Coca-Cola. Government policies extended protection to Southern industries because the Southern Democrats, who kept getting elected, achieved seniority in congress committees and could push the interests of the south. It was a different story for African-Americans. At first the South was happy to see them move north until monied interests realized that they were losing a cheap labour-force. There was the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and its link to the ‘Birth of a Nation’ movie. However, as far as white society was concerned, before the Crash that presaged the Depression, the South was looking forward. I hadn’t heard such a benign argument towards the South before, although I was struck by how clearly Kraut had to distinguish between white and black conditions.

Big Ideas (ABC) Stan Grant presented the 2021 Manning Clark lecture An all historical fever: how history may yet be the death of us on 17th June. It’s a beautifully written and presented lecture, although it does have a little too much of the pulpit in its delivery for my liking. He makes an important point about the use of history as the basis for popularism and hyper-national politics, and spends quite a bit of time on China and Xi Jingping. He posits the idea of consciously deciding to forget history – an interesting idea. I think I might look out for his new book, where he talks about what he has learned from his foreign assignments.

The Real Story (BBC) I’ve often wondered how Palestinians feel about their government when Israel responds with such force against them. ‘Palestinians turn against the leadership’ features three Palestinian commentators, Dana El Kurd – Palestinian academic; author of ‘Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine’; Nour Odeh – Palestinian politician and former journalist and Mariam Barghouti – Palestinian writer based in Ramallah, in the West Bank. None of them have any great love for either Abbas or Fatah, and are angered by endemic corruption and frustrated by the recent cancellation of elections which might bring change. What a mess.

‘The Invisible Land’ by Hubert Mingarelli

2020, 139 p. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

This book felt so similar to another of Mingarelli’s books that I had read, Four Soldiers (see my review here) that I had to go back to check to see if it was a sequel, or whether indeed I was inadvertently re-reading a book I had read earlier. But no, this is a different book, dealing with soldiers from a different country, who have fought in a different war. The sameness of Mingarelli’s probing of the effects of war on the men who fight is, in itself, a commentary on the universality and tragedy of war.

Once again, this is only a small book of 139 pages. It is set in the days of July 1945 in Germany, after the fighting has stopped. We know nothing of the war that the unnamed narrator, a British soldier, has had. But now, after being present after the liberation of a Nazi labour camp, he decides that he wants to photograph German families outside their homes. He approaches his colonel, who, like him is haunted by the sights he saw in the camp. When he requests a car and a driver, in order to take his photos, the colonel asks him why. He cannot answer. When a young driver, O’Leary, is assigned to him, he asks him as well.

I hesitated, and said: ‘My work, O’Leary. I’m going to take photographs’.


These are not benign photographs. The narrator and O’Leary drive into the countryside, not really sure of where they are going, soldiers from the victor’s side travelling through what had been, until a few weeks earlier, enemy territory. Often they demand food, as well as the photographs, and many of the photographs are taken at gunpoint. I really can’t imagine that these would be ‘happy snaps’. I’m sure that the subjects were resentful, hateful, frightened and bemused. At one house, the narrator demands that a new husband wake his wife on the morning after their wedding, so that he can take their photograph. This is not art: it is a power relationship.

I don’t think that our narrator knows why he wants to take these photographs, and neither does O’Leary. He is a young soldier, originally with the Signals Corps, who arrived to fight just as the war finished. He has his secrets too, but is unwilling to divulge them with the narrator. There is a dreamlike quality to their journey, but it’s more like waking from a nightmare. Neither man pushes the other for any explanation, and so we as readers are none the wiser either. I’m not quite sure that I took the meaning from the ending, but it works well enough for me.

I read from the back cover that Mingarelli died during 2020. Apparently he has written numerous novels, but he is best known in English for this collection of small novels comprising A Meal in Winter (longlisted for the Booker in 2019), Four Soldiers and now this one. It’s interesting that the front cover of each identifies it as ‘A Novel’, despite their short length, and I wonder what the effect would be on the reader to have them bound within the one volume. With two set in Germany and one in Russia, amongst German, Russian and now English soldiers each book explores the question of what war does to a soldier when the immediate rush of adrenaline subsides.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Lisa Hill’s recent review on ANZLitlovers

Con subtítulos en español: Después también (2019)

I’ve joined up for the short films presented by Instituto Cervantes during July for their LGBTQI short film festival.

‘Después también’ is short indeed at only 25 minutes. A young boy, Edu, learns that he has been exposed to HIV by a gay ex-lover and he now has to tell his new girlfriend. “I have something to tell you” he says. And then it ends. What did she say? Did they stay together? I guess I’ll never know. Unfortunately the trailer doesn’t have subtitles.