Monthly Archives: July 2008


1989, 371p

I have rather mixed feelings about historical fiction.  On the one hand, it was probably historical fiction that led me to my love of history in the first place, and the type of history that attracts me always has a strong human and imaginative thread to it.  When there is a basic fidelity to the setting and the mentalities of the main characters, then I love it.  It can be playful with the facts, but not earnestly wrong.  I really relished Peter Mew’s Bright Planet set in- surprise, surprise- 1840s Port Phillip, and Patrick White’s historical fiction (e.g. Fringe of Leaves, Voss ) is solidly grounded in research and yet nuanced and sophisticated in its themes.

But I have my reservations too.  I agree with Inga  Clendinnen (my heroine) with her qualms over Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and the issue of historical fiction attempting to contribute to a historical debate. I am annoyed when something is just plain wrong- the research has been done and exhibited, but it’s WRONG! I dislike the arrogance of projection of modern mentalities onto characters set in the past.  I sometimes feel as if the story is suffocated by meticulous research that the author can’t bear to let go of.

Which leads me to Rose Tremain’s Restoration.  It is set, as you might guess, in Restoration England, complete with Charles II, the Great Fire and the Plague.  There’s a certain predictability about this- of course they are all such write-able events that no author writing a book set at the time could resist them!  I thought that Tremain captured the voice of a 17th century male writer well, and my admiration for it increased even more when I returned, as I do from time to time, to to read Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for the day.

But of course, ventriloquism is not the same as creation, and it added to my sense that I was reading a set piece, with hackneyed settings and events and a reproduction of a 17th century voice.  This probably sounds more scathing than I mean it to be: I enjoyed it well enough, happily persisted to the end, but I only rate it as a  ‘good enough’ read.

Position, position, position

Today’s real estate agents really can’t hold a candle to those of the 1840s.  Not only did they offer champagne lunches at THEIR auctions, but their literary and biblical effusions really do put modern billboards and advertisements to shame.

But they rarely mention the fact that perhaps the sunlit rolling plains and luxuriant growth might have been occupied by Aboriginal people previously.  Notwithstanding John Batman’s countermanded attempt at a treaty, the official policy promulgated by Governor Bourke at the time stated that aboriginal people could not sell or assign land, nor could an individual person acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown.  Indeed, there was little acknowledgement that aboriginal people had even been on a particular piece of land. However, I did find this advertisement in the Port Phillip Herald of January that surprised me.  It’s for allotment 16, block 28 in Lonsdale Street (now part of the inner-city grid of Melbourne)

Who is there remembering Melbourne in her infancy…who knew Lonsdale-street as it was, so lately the quambi of the savage, would imagine that a period almost imperceptible would exhibit the same Lonsdale-street as the centre of the white-man’s comfort, as the spot to which all love to congregate, yet such is the fact, Lonsdale-street once the centre of savage orgies, with nought to break the silence of the forest, but the wild yell of the Australian Cannible, sheltered by his Mia Mia alike from the heat of summer and the chill of winter, now exhibits all the most fastidious could desire…

I have no idea what a ‘quambi’ is- wait- yes I do!  ‘My baby name’ website gives the meaning as Aboriginal for ‘shelter’ should you decide to name your baby boy Quambi, which is, after all the site’s 50584th most popular baby name.  But how appealing- the memory of ‘savage orgies’ in the location, and the ‘wild yell of the ‘Australian Cannible (sic)’. As they say, position, position, position…

Putting your name on the line

In Saturday’s Age there was a full-page advertisement ‘Honoring the Life of a Great Australian: Ken Dyers 14 July 1922-25 July 2007’.  No doubt the anniversary of his death (it’s odd that there’s no word for that) has prompted this outflowing of emotion.

Apparently he was the founder of the Kenja Communication group (see and he previously had links with Scientology. Kenja was named in NSW Parliament as a “sinister organisation”, and there have been suggestions of sexual abuse of children and a link between Kenja and Cornelia Rau’s mental state.  According to Wikipedia, for $130 you can undergo an Energy Conversion Session, where you sit opposite another person and stare into their eyes.  That would do it, I reckon.

Anyway, what interested me most about this advertisement was the list of the names of the people who signed, and I assume, paid for this advertisement.   During the Howard government, there seemed to be a string of letters by Eminent Australians castigating the government over treatment of refugees, climate change,  industrial relations legislation etc. etc.,  and a cynic would sniff that they were all signed by the ‘usual suspects’. I was interested to see if the ‘usual suspects’ had signed this one too. Certainly not.  There was not a single name that I recognized.

There did seem to be a preponderance of sports people and dramatists.  And how cute, people affixed their academic qualifications-  two Ph.Ds, quite a few Bachelors degrees and even  an Associate Diploma of Medical Reception Administration- there’s a qualification to conjure with!!  Several company directors, a few personal trainers, and even a “Mother of Five”.  But, thankfully, no-one I’ve ever heard of before.


Perhaps it’s all this reading about mumbo-jumbo, but I have never been completely won over by Barack Obama. There’s something that disturbs me about the lack of content in his rhetoric- what is he actually talking ABOUT? “Hope” and “change” could be easily interchanged with “love” or “freedom” and his speeches would still soar and the crowds would still roar.

I was transfixed by this picture of his speech at the Victory Column in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park.

There’s a screen, and another screen, and then right in the middle, under the column is a tiny little dot that is Obama himself.

An edited version of the speech was reproduced in the Age. I’m quite interested in the rhetorical speech as a genre with its techniques and cadences, and this is a brilliant example.

People of the world- look at Berlin! Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle.

Look at Berlin, where the determination of a people met the generosity of the Marshall Plan and created a German miracle…

Look at Berlin, where bullet holes in the buildings and the sombre stones and pillars near the Brandenburg Gate insist that we never forget our common humanity.

People of the world- look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.

“People of the World- look at Berlin”, repeated over and over, enough for us as listener/readers to realise that there’s a pattern at work here.

From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened.

Nice alliteration there- Kiev, Cape Town….but I’m not quite sure of the causal relationship though. And a bit more alliteration- “the doors of democracy”. Democracy has doors?

The terrorists of September 11 2001 plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil.

Hamburg…hmm how inconvenient. But at least we’ve got the K-places, Kandahar and Karachi where all this nasty stuff really comes from. It’s all really their fault.

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the icecaps…bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

Yep, that alliteration works a treat….

This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it. This is the moment when we must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan and the traffickers who sell drugs on your streets. This is the moment when we must build on the wealth that open markets have created, and share its benefits more equitably. This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East. This is the moment when we must come together to save the planet…..

This is the moment he should stop saying “this is the moment”.

People of Berlin- and people of the world- the scale of our challenge is great. Let us answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.

And here we back at the beginning with the people of the world looking at Berlin again. A carefully crafted, absolutely honed rhetorical performance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But just remember, folks, it’s still a performance.


2004, 312 p.

It was the week-long World Youth Day in Sydney that prompted me to read this book, although I was, I confess, disconcerted by the big yellow chicken on the front and Jeremy Paxman’s acclamation of it as “hilarious”. I don’t really know that “hilarious” is the apt description- certainly the author swipes both left and right in his tirade against mumbo jumbo.  He attacks post modernism (saving special venom for Julia Kristeva- I’m with you on this one, Francis!), Thatcherism, New-Ageism, Blairism (particularly), globalism, fundamentalism- really, there isn’t an “ism” that he doesn’t turn on.

At its core, the book is an argument for “truth” and the principles of the Enlightenment, but in all this slaughter of sacred cows, it’s difficult to detect what he is in favour of.  He is rather cavalier with his quotations and footnoting- he is careful about one quote on a page, but completely silent about another more outrageous quote from another source on the same page- which makes me a bit distrustful of his  academic thoroughness.  And I find myself still wondering HOW mumbo-jumbo conquered the world.

July 25 1842- a momentous day!

Today is the 166th anniversary of one of the most momentous ceremonies in Port Phillip up until that date- the laying of the foundation stone of the new court house. The 25th July 1842 was a “black and lowering day”, and the ceremony itself had been postponed because of inclement weather. But at 12.00 o’clock, just as the procession was about to begin “the sun burst forth with all his splendor and dissipated the clouds of mist and vapour, all nature seemed to rejoice, while contentment and happiness beamed forth from the countenances of the assembled multitude.”

Starting off from the old court house (seen above in my header), this was some procession!

The Ranger on Horseback

Mounted Police

Melbourne Police


The Schools

Odd Fellows

The Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons

Civil Officers of Government

Chief Constable on Horseback

Magistrates of the Colony (two and two)

Civil Officers of the Government who are heads of Departments (two and two)

Tipstaff of the Court

Members of the Bar

Police Magistrate and Staff

The Resident Judge (supported by the officers of his Court followed by members of the legal profession) (two and two)


It was estimated that 4000 people were in attendance: quite a turn-up in a city of about 7000 people. The presence of the Masons is emphatic and striking. The involvement of the school children is heart-warming. But where was Superintendent LaTrobe??

The procession wended its way along Collins Street, up Elizabeth Street and turned right along Lonsdale Street to make its way to the site of what is now the closed City Court on the corner of Russell and LaTrobe streets. This location was in close proximity to the newly-completed Old Melbourne Gaol just behind it and was on the outskirts of the settlement.

Peter Ackroyd, in his book London, described that city as a palimpsest where different iterations of buildings, often serving the same purpose, were built on the one spot. This is true here: the ‘new’ Supreme Court building built in 1842/3 was demolished by the end of the century, to be replaced by the City Court (which to my eye looks much older than that). It is no longer used as a court, and has been taken over by R.M.I.T.

The ‘new’ Supreme Court building was the most expensive erected in Port Phillip to that date, with an initial quote of 7480 pounds (Deas Thomson to LaTrobe 23 July 1842). There was professional jealousy and argy-bargy between Lewis, the Colonial Architect up in Sydney, and Rattenbury the Clerk of Works here in Melbourne over the size, design and cost of the building. In particular, Lewis was critical of the lancet windows that Judge Willis was particularly enamoured of.

Supreme Court 1843

Supreme Court 1843

The 'new' Supreme Court

The 'new' Supreme Court 1900s prior to demolition

There’s something rather ironic, and if I am to be charitable, bitter-sweet about Judge Willis’ oration to the assembled crowd:

He added that in all probability before its walls were grey with age he would long have left them; but that wherever and in whatever position he might be placed, his warmest wishes and best exertions would ever attend the colony, which if left to its own resources and own self-government, unshackled by other districts, would rapidly rise in general prosperity and be the first province of the crown in this hemisphere.

Port Phillip Herald July 26 1842.

A bit of playing to the gallery there: Port Phillipians were clamouring for self-government, and the Sydney/Melbourne rivalry that still exists today was there in 1842 as well.

Warmest wishes for the colony? Bah! He fulminated about Port Phillip and Gov. Gipps the whole way home.

And as for the walls being grey with age? Not likely. They hadn’t even finished painting the building when he headed off for home, after being dismissed. It opened for business as his ship sailed for South America. He’d laid the stone; he’d gone for a stroll each time to inspect the progress; he’d pushed for those lancet windows…but he never got to sit in ‘his’ court. It opened the week after he left, with his successor, Justice Jeffcott presiding.

John Banville THE SEA

2005, 263 p

This won the Booker Prize, and it’s very much like his other books.  There’s his care, deftness and sophistication of language and vocabulary; a deluded and unreliable narrator; and allusions to an artistic and professional life in which the main character immerses and obscures himself.

Banville’s handling of three timelines is masterful.  A widowed art historian returns to a childhood holiday spot, where he reflects on his wife’s recent death from cancer and recalls his infatuation with the mother of a childhood friend in a golden summer of his early adolescence.  In this regard, the book reminded me of Ian McEwan’s  Atonement and L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Banville slips effortlessly between these three storylines and there’s a dishonesty about his narrator’s telling in of all of them, through a mixture of naiveté, pomposity and emotional blindness.  Banville writes so well- his descriptions are often so beautiful and apt that you stop to savour them.  The ending was, perhaps, a bit of an anticlimax but it’s the language and sheer virtuosity of the author’s writing that is the real strength of this book.


My work for the last couple of weeks has been carefully reading the Port Phillip Herald.

I’ve been mystified by this advertisement which has been appearing regularly, issue after issue :

“WANTED. A Female Kangaroo. Apply at the Herald Office”

And now, on 10 December 1841 we have:

“FOR SALE. Two thorough-bred Kangaroo Pups, 5 months old.  Apply at Herald Office. Melbourne 6 Dec.”

What’s going on here?  I’m not sure if the advertisements refer to kangaroos (as in hopping marsupials) or whether they refer perhaps to kangaroo dogs?  James Boyce, in his excellent book ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ talks about the dogs used to hunt kangaroos, but in VDL they were known as the deerhound, the Irish wolfhound, Irish greyhound, Highland deerhound and Scottish greyhound.   Boyce writes:

Killing by the neck a full-grown kangoroo or emus was a difficult and dangerous affair, even for such powerful canines. Speed was of the essence, which led to the wolfhounds being crossed with greyhounds. One immigrant reported on the outcome of such breeding: “the dogs used here to hunt the kangaroo have the shape and general character of the greyhound, but are very much larger in size, and coarser all together, uniting great strength with speed. (James Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land p 24)

After all, how can a marsupial-Kangaroo be anything else other than pure-bred?  Did they know the term ‘joey’ for a young Kangaroo?  Why would anyone WANT a female kangaroo?

Helen Garner “The Spare Room”

2008, 195 p.

This is Garner’s first avowedly fiction book in over a decade, and was greeted with wide acclaim.  It is a beautifully presented book, right from its crisp front cover and its interesting face boards.  This care in presentation is amplified in the opening pages where Helen is preparing her spare room for the 3 week visit of 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.  I suspect that Garner herself is ashamed at her own behaviour, and is seeking absolution from herself and her readers in this thinly disguised memoir.  I loved the embeddedness of this book within Melbourne suburbia, and her confidential and warm tone- like a good, satisfying talk with an old friend.

Ah, technology!

I’ve been mystified by this THING that I’ve been seeing in the paper recently. What IS it???

Ah! So that’s what it is- a code for your mobile to take you to a website???? Obviously I’m not alone in my bemusement: there’s a website

It really is strange seeing a new technology being ‘born’, and being puzzled by what it is at first. More often, technologies build on other pre-existing technologies and there’s not that same sense of ‘I just don’t get it’.

I can though, from my 50plus vantage spot, remember a few technologies being born.  Dad used to have a mobile telephone in his car in the late 60s/early 70s.  You had to call an operator, who would then connect you. I can even remember the phone number 0172 21522!!!  He also had one that he could take out of the car, but it was VERY heavy, and was literally the size and weight of a brick.

I remember our neighbours across the road, who were international travellers (unusual then) and early adopters (also unusual) who had the first microwave oven I had ever seen.  We all stood around it, watching as Uncle Eric boiled a cup of water.  They also had the first reel-to-reel tape recorder that I had ever seen, and we had great fun round the table listening to it and recording our voices.

And my first personal computer? A little Macintosh- a squat, oblong thing higher than it was broad. Until then, my only contact with computers had been pushing out the chads on a card with a pin in mathematics, aware that it was going off to ‘the university’ to a computer kept in a specially controlled room. To this day I don’t really know what it was all about- push out bits of cardboard with a pin? Hey, even I can do that!

I’ve always been a television child- Mum and Dad bought one for the Olympics when I was a year old. But colour television was something else again.  We lined up at the Royal Melbourne Show to shuffle in a queue into a tent to see colour television- coming soon!! And when Mum and Dad bought one, I can remember sitting just LOOKING at it- even looking at the test pattern once programs had finished for the night. I don’t know if  television even stops anymore- do they still have a test pattern??

And so to this little code-thingie.  I don’t know what it’s called. I don’t know what it’s FOR.  It might be dead in the water in a year’s time: on the other hand,  we might forget that we ever didn’t know what it was!