Monthly Archives: January 2009

‘Hazel’s Journey’ by Sue Pieters-Hawke


2004, 306p.

At the moment, I am wary of books written by children about their parents’ struggle with Alzheimers.  Increasingly, I know, I will find myself identifying with them more and more because someone very close to me has Alzheimers.

I picked up this book in a bookshop while I was down at the beach, and put it down again.  But when someone who knows my family-member offered it to me, with some trepidation, I accepted her offer and settled down to read it.

Hazel Hawke is the ex-wife of Bob Hawke, the former prime minister.  In Australia, we don’t particularly think in terms of “first ladies” as such, but the Prime Minister’s wife often escorts her husband on official occasions and acts as patron to charities and causes close to her own heart.  Prime Minister Bob Hawke was a flamboyant, emotional larrikin. Although he always acted with propriety while Prime Minister, his past of alcohol and womanizing always seemed close to the surface.  You always sensed that he would be a challenging man to live with.  When the marriage broke up after he was no longer Prime Minister, Hazel kept her silence and her dignity.

When reading this book, I was reminded of the deep affection I have for Hazel Hawke.  She earned it through her own intelligence and interests, her strong advocacy of abortion rights, and although I’m sure she didn’t wish it this way, her resilience after her marriage breakdown was a model for the many others in similar situations.

In 2003, she and her daughters revealed on the ABC television program Australian Story that she was suffering with Alzheimers, or ‘The Big A’ as she called it.   I watched the show with a mixture of admiration for her courage and selflessness in so publicly aligning herself with such a silencing, stigmatized illness, and a feeling of dread that I was watching what will, inevitably, also be my fate as daughter.

To be honest, the tone of this book really annoyed me.  It was like listening to someone affecting a rather forced cheerfulness,  full of platitudes, and talking too much.  If it’s beautiful writing you’re after, then Sue Miller’s book The Story of My Father is far superior.  But both these books are not really about the writing and  they’re not only about the father or mother whose stories they are telling.  What they are both about is grief, loss and being a parent to one’s parent.

This book reminded me that, in spite of the loss of planning abilities, routines and conversation, it is the emotions that remain.  As someone who loves them, it is the emotions that matter and emotions that we need to respond to.

On the road from Heidelberg

From the Port Phillip Herald 6 Dec 1842

BLACK OUTRAGE. As a woman was coming to town the other day from Heidelberg, carrying a bundle in her hand, she was met by two black lubras, who attempting to take the bundle from her, the woman screamed out for assistance, whereupon she received a severe blow over the temples with a waddy, and the two blacks made off.  She complained of the assault at the police office, but no redress could be afforded, as she declared she could not identify the offenders.

Heidelberg was about seven miles out from the centre of Melbourne, but generally viewed as being ‘in the country’.   There was a road out to Heidelberg by this time built from donations and public subscription lists by the Heidelberg Road Trust , representing the interests of  the gentlemen who lived there (Judge Willis himself, Verner, the Boldens, Wills, Porter etc).  Heidelberg Since 1836 describes the route as:

…an extension of the great Heidelberg Road, which commenced in present day Smith Street Collingwood, winding through the Edinburgh Gardens and then crossing a ford in the Merri Creek.  The track to the village was approximately along the present Heidelberg Road, along Upper Heidelberg Road, and then branched off down to the village from the top of the hill at Heidelberg.  The road continued on along the ridge of the hill, down to the Lower Plenty and then on to the Upper Yarra.  (p. 12)


By 1842, over 500 pounds of local money had been spent on the road, and log bridges were built at the Darebin Creek and the Plenty River.  Late in 1842 the Government paid the wages of unemployed labourers to clear stones and stumps from the road.  From 1845, as a result of the deterioration of the road, a levy was placed on landowners and a toll was established.

Not that our “woman” (note- not a lady) would necessarily be using the road.  I’m astounded by the distances that even ladies would walk- Georgiana McCrae seemed to think nothing of walking across the paddocks into the city from her house ‘Mayfield’ near the corner of present-day Church and Victoria Streets Abbotsford.  Abbotsford is of course much closer to the city than Heidelberg, but even a lady of one of the most prominent families in Melbourne would be prepared to hoof it through the bush.

This is also a reminder that the “blacks” were not only up-country but relatively close to Melbourne .  In fact, there are fleeting mentions of aboriginal people still visible on the streets of Melbourne itself.  I’m not sure what the significance is- if any- of these two women accosting another woman. Would they, I wonder, have approached a man, who was more likely to defend himself?


C. Cummins Heidelberg Since 1836: A Pictorial History.

Presidential ponderings

I see that Barack Obama is about to be sworn in using Abraham Lincoln’s bible,  he will attend a formal lunch modelled on food that Lincoln enjoyed, served on china replicating that chosen by Lincoln’s wife.  On Saturday he will reprise part of the train journey Lincoln took before his inauguration, travelling from Philadelpia to Washington, meeting people on the way.  It’s Lincoln redux.

I know that both men hail from Illinois; I know that Barack deeply admires Lincoln.  I  recognize that Americans lionize their past presidents in a way that is quite foreign to us in Australia.  For instance, I noted that G.W. B. referred to Little Johnny Howard as Australia’s 25th [?- see, I don’t even know!] Prime Minister when awarding him the Medal of Freedom- and what a nauseating ceremony that was.  The idea of counting off  a succession of prime ministers wouldn’t occur to us.

But, returning to these inauguration plans,  does any politician today ‘own’ a politician of the past?  How would I feel if it were G. W. Bush cloaking himself in the mythology and symbolism of Lincoln?  Surely such parallels should be earned over time, and conferred by others rather than appropriated by some event-planner.

Those party animals of 1842

Port Phillip might have been on the other side of the globe and its seasons might have been the wrong way round, but when it came to the expression of status, the ‘respectable’ citizens of Port Phillip looked, at least in this pre-Gold Rush period,  to the practices of ‘home’.


Private Quarterly Assemblies were a normal part of English social life.   Hundreds of people would flock to assembly rooms in London and the provincial cities like York and the spa town of Bath.  They were formal events where entry was by subscription, and attendees were screened to ensure the quality of those who gained admittance.  The most aristocratic was Almacks while Jane Austen’s books describe the famous Bath Assemblies and more humble affairs at provincial level.

And so to the Port Phillip Assemblies.  They were established in the midst of controversy over celebrations for the Queens Birthday ball, which culminated in two balls- a public one and a private one.  The success of the private ball prompted the establishment of a committee of twenty men to arrange Private Quarterly Assemblies.  Membership, vetted by the committee, was limited to gentleman colonists and their families.  Merchants were included, but tradesmen were not. As Edward Curr was to find out, squabbles between gentlemen settlers could bubble over into the Assembly committee.  He had argued with Lyon Campbell over the hiring of a cook, and the matter was brought before the Assembly Committee which, much to his gratification,  refused the demands to strike him from the subscriber list.

The Port Phillip Herald of 21 October 1842 has a report of the Assembly Ball held on 19th October in the long room of the new Mechanics School of Arts on Eastern Hill.  I assume that this was the original Atheneum building in Collins Street, although it was not officially opened until December.  Certainly the new building was a source of great pride, described as a building “that would do credit to a town three times as old as our metropolis” (PPH 11 Oct 1842).  Tickets for the ball had been available from the Melbourne Club.


The second private assembly ball of the season took place at the Mechanics’  School of Arts, on the evening of Wednesday last; and, notwithstanding the wetness of the weather, the coldness of the air, and the almost impassable state of the streets prevented so numerous an attendance as was expected, at eleven o’clock eighty guests had assembled, one half being ladies.  The noble long room of the Institution was set apart for the ball, leading from which was an ante-room plentifully supplied throughout the whole evening with refreshments.  Three large chandeleers [sic] with oil burners suspended from the ceiling, and innumerable wax-candles fixed in branches fastened all round the room, threw a brilliant light upon the handsome faces and splendid dresses of the ladies, and the happy countenances of all.  A temporary orchestra was erected at the further corner of  the room, containing seven musicians, who, to do them justice, played admirably from the first quadrille to the closing country dance.  The waltz tunes were very well selected, and the time excellently marked.  At half-past one o’clock the company went below to partake of a substantial supper, provided by Mr Howe, in the two left-hand rooms, which having been done ample justice to, the ball-room was again the scene of the stirring dance till daylight, when the company separated highly gratified at the evening’s festivities, which were considerably enhanced by the excellent arrangements of the stewards.

My, these Port Phillipians knew how to party! I thought that it was only clubbers of the late twentieth century who arrived just before midnight and continued on until daybreak.  This is October, so it would have been completely dark when they arrived.  And supper at 1.30 a.m.!!


Paul de Serville  Port Phillip Gentlemen

‘Consolation’ by Michael Redhill


2007, 469p

So what does a new historian, weary of combing 19th century newspapers about  little colonial communities read when she heads down to the beach for a few days?  Why, a NOVEL emerging from combing 19th century newspapers about a little colonial community, of course!

I’d heard Michael Redhill talking about his book ‘Consolation’ on Radio National’s The Book Show last year.  The 1850s setting in Toronto, Canada attracted me particularly because if I am going to trace my Resident Judge John Walpole Willis to his career in Canada and British Guiana by upgrading to a PhD, then these places are going to be as familiar to me as Port Phillip is now.  But is that possible?  One of my fellow students commented that she had heard that, in the end, your thesis is always about you.  I’d resisted that thought for a while, as there seems something so self-indulgent and self-aggrandising about it, but perhaps there’s more than a little truth in it, especially in my case.  After all, my first awareness of Judge Willis came from living in Heidelberg, in what was originally the Port Phillip district.  I do not have a judicial bone in my body, but I am attracted to the idea of community cohesion, and its flipside, community rejection of someone who doesn’t fit role expectations.  I’m fascinated by the intersection of small, face-to-face relationships and politics and the Big Imperial Politics of the nineteenth century Colonial Office.

Is it possible to write about a place and a culture that you have never been to?  In the furore over Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, particular criticism was directed at her efforts to absorb the atmosphere and emotional responses to a rough sea crossing, or the banks of the Thames by visiting them today and trying to imagine herself into the responses of people of the time.   Approaching the Heads of Port Jackson on a safe twentieth century boat with lifeboats, communications and a nearby coastguard could not possibly parallel the experience of a small boat with men alone facing huge seas, it was argued.

But, on the other hand, can a description of the courtroom atmosphere of the 1840s ignore a February heatwave?  Can the episode of two men serving papers on Judge Willis on his way to inspect the half-built courtroom make sense without an imagination of the straggly streets of early Melbourne?    How necessary is it to be aware of such things?   If I’m drawing on this almost environmental contextual awareness as the well-spring for my treatment of him in the Port Phillip community,  will I be able to do it for Upper Canada- where I have never been, and as  an even greater challenge, in British Guiana?   Port Phillip, Upper Canada, British Guiana- even their names have changed, to say nothing of the colonial nature of their societies.

And so, I thought I might turn to fiction as a taster.  Consolation is written as two interwoven stories.  The ‘modern’ story is set in a Toronto high-rise hotel, where the widow of a recently-deceased historian is looking down on an excavation where, perhaps, artefacts will be discovered to vindicate her husband’s claims over the shoreline and the likely existence of a shipwreck containing a box of photographic plates of 1850s Toronto.  The ‘past’ story concerns the photographers who created the plates and their adjustments to colonial Toronto and separation from family and ‘home’.

There’s always a peril in the ‘two interwoven stories’ structure that one will overshadow the other, and I think this happened here somewhat.  I really enjoyed the 1850s sections, and felt quite impatient when I was dragged back to the drawn out ‘suspense’ of a Time Team program written on paper.  Of course, my motivation for reading the book may differ from that of other readers, but I felt that he made the characters of the photographic partners  J. G. Hallam and Mrs Rowe come to life.  His descriptions of 1850s Toronto had the whiff of the newspaper article about them, but I enjoy that.

Apparently the book received muted praise in Toronto itself.  There is a slightly evangelical authorial tone that comes through in the ‘modern’ section about heritage and community identity, and perhaps I, too, bridled a bit against being lectured about something that, in reality, I do feel strongly about.

Putting my historian hat on, I could see parallels between the 1850s Toronto he describes, and the 1840s Port Phillip where I spend most of my mental time.  Even the concept of the photographic panorama was replicated here in Port Phillip at much the same time, for slightly different reasons.  And as a fiction reader, I was drawn to the characters he evoked and the little community in which they lived.

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: a memoir’ by Peter Godwin


2006, 340 p.

A memoir is not the same as an autobiography.  An autobiography is driven by the ongoing elapse of time, where chronology imposes an order onto the narrative.  A memoir, on the other hand, is a construction placed over events which can be quite independent of time.  It is, in its own way, just as much an argument as a non-fiction book can be.

Godwin uses the metaphor of the solar eclipse- the crocodile eating the sun- to frame his memoir of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe.  And oh what a descent into darkness it is.  We can read in our newspapers of the inflation, the cholera etc etc and yet be none the wiser about how people continue to live in Zimbabwe (as distinct from merely surviving).  For me, it was the footage of the bashed Morgan Tsvangirai, right in the middle of an election campaign in the glare of the world’s media, that reinforced the ruthlessness, defiance and absolute power of an autocratic regime.  If this could happen to the leader of the opposition, what was happening to people without an international political profile?

But, just as much as a political commentary, this book is about being a son and identity.  Godwin’s parents are becoming increasingly frail.  Peter, the author is seeking citizenship in America where he works as a journalist, angling for African assignments that will enable him to be return to see his parents .  His sister Georgina works as an activist broadcaster and would be endangered by a return to Zimbabwe, while another sister was killed by gangs several years earlier.  At times I just wanted to shake him- why was he allowing his work to dictate when or if he would see his parents- just go there without waiting for an employer to pick up the tab.  Isn’t there some obligation on children?- I’m old enough to think that there is.  But then again, what if parents absolutely refuse to move from a situation that puts their children into danger in meeting these obligations?

The twist in this memoir is the author’s discovery that his father has hidden from his children his  Jewish identity and his lifestory as sole survivor of his family from the holocaust.  As well as shaking the author’s confidence that he ‘knows’ his father, this knowledge leads him to reconsider the role of the outsider, statelessness and exile in  twenty-first century Zimbabwe as well.

Although it would be easy to typecast the author’s family as stubborn white colonialist farmers in a changed political situation, it is not as clearcut as this.  The opposition to Mugabe’s rule seems to be class-based as much as colour-based, and many of the relationships that Godwin’s parents have with neighbours,  fellow professionals and employees cross racial boundaries.

But, as with all  people born into a post-colonial society, there is a mixture of guilt, self-interest, love of country and one’s own national identity.  Godwin’s mother, in trying to explain to her son why she cannot leave, turns to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Roman Centurion’s Song: Roman Occupation of Britain, A. D. 300”.  She chooses this prominent poet of the Empire, knowing that he is writing from the ‘invader’s’ perspective:

Legate, I come to you in tears- My cohort ordered home!

I’ve served in Britain forty years.  What should I do in Rome?

Here is my heart, my soul, my mind- the only life I know,

I cannot leave it all behind.  Command me not to go!”

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’  is a beautifully crafted memoir.  The book starts with the cremation of his father, and closes with the same episode, in exactly the same words- evoking for me the circularity and rhythm of the eclipse metaphor he has chosen.  The author’s deliberate and self-consciousness construction of his narrative at times threatens to become a bit forced, but the raw conflict of loyalities on so many levels is the stronger quality of this book.

Things that make me laugh #1 for 2009

Surely the shiny new padlock isn’t necessary?