Monthly Archives: January 2010

Squishy things on the beach

As a child, I used to love standing on the jellyfish washed up onto the beach and feeling them squelch through my toes.  You know the jellyfish- those clear, crescent shaped wobbly jelly shapes.

But then Port Phillip was invaded by blue blubber jellyfish one year and I was no longer so confident to stomp around on jelly things lest I be stung.

But – guess what?  Those clear, crescent-shaped wobbly jelly shapes aren’t jellyfish at all!  Instead, they are the egg sac from the conical sand snail, each containing hundreds of snail eggs. So squash away- if you want hundreds of snail eggs between your toes- it’s not going to sting you!

And wait- there’s more! You know those shells with the hole conveniently drilled into them for easy stringing for a necklace?

Well, the hole is brought to you by none other than the very same conical sand snail!  It injects a dissolving agent into an unsuspecting pipi through the hole, then sucks up the contents.  Mmmm-mmm.


‘Colonial Ambition’ by Peter Cochrane

2006, 511 p & notes.

As you might expect, I am fascinated by the 1830s and 1840s in Australia- that time when the penal colonies were emerging into something different-( but what? ) and new colonies driven by a mixture of philosophy, moral entrepreneurship,  political theory and capitalism were being brought into being- (and would it work? ).  But try as I might, I find it hard to get energized by the crown land acts and constitutional legislation.  Perhaps it’s those years in school going on about squatters, selectors, dummying and peacocking;  and all those men in top-hats and Legislative Councils and Legislative Assemblies.  The lived politics of the time only really came to life for me with Margaret Kiddle‘s Men of Yesterday (of which more anon, I think) which brought people back into the situation- and this is what Peter Cochrane has done in this book too.

In one of the blurbs on the back, John Hirst wrote that

This is not the usual political history; it’s more wide-ranging, more vivid, more alive with people, places and talk.

At first I thought this a rather prosaic endorsement, but having finished the book, Hirst is spot-on.  There are people here- strongly drawn, complex, real people who change over time, whose public life is interwoven with their private concerns and anxieties.  And what a cast:  the strange-looking, brilliant, waspish Robert Lowe; the wealthy, bombastic, driven Wentworth, stung by  social exclusion on the grounds of convict origin ;  the versatile, enthusiastic, financially-straitened toyshop owner Henry Parkes.   And there are places: the action is located onto the Sydney city map  in theatres, parade grounds, street corners and houses.  The sense of place is perhaps not quite as strong as in Grace Karsken’s The Colony, but it’s reminiscent, say, of Jeff and Jill Sparrow’s work on Radical Melbourne.  It’s a politics that spills out of Governors’ offices and Legislative Council chambers onto the streets and newsprint, placards and petitions. And talk- yes, there’s lots of talk as well in the bubbling cauldron of the newspaper editorial and the forceful oratory of the public address.

What comes over strongly in this book is the dilemma of liberal politics at this time.   “Democracy” at this time- and especially during the politically turbulent mid-1840s-  was a concept that dared not speak its name. Both liberals and conservatives drew on the trope of Britishness, and ancient British traditions and loyalties.  For the liberals in particular,  responsible government was a poisoned chalice if it was a means by which the existing elites could cement their political position indefinitely.  For conservatives, long-standing demands like a nominated upper house and lifetime nominations became just as toxic when it was a liberal government in ascendancy, cementing its own position indefinitely.  To draw on cliches: you leave the book aware that, somehow or other, a fork in the road had been negotiated and that there was an alternative road that had not been travelled.

The book weaves local and imperial politics together well.  The regular churning of Secretaries of State at the Colonial Office was matched by the instability of the early ministries in the years immediately following responsible government in Australia.  Cochrane alerts us to the wider political debates and issues that the Colonial Office was dealing with at the same time: the Durham Report in Canada and the gradual implementation of its recommendations; the political trickiness for the British Government of the Crimean War; the empire-wide horror at the Indian Mutiny.  In the speeches quoted from radicals, liberals and conservatives alike, we see orators cherry-picking from historical analogy, particularly drawing on the American War of Independence and Canadian history for examples.

The book captures change well.  An idea that might be greeted with horror in one decade is not so unthinkable in the next.  The empire changes: local politics change: people change.   Cochrane illustrates that all sides of politics needed to learn how to “do” politics: governors needed to learn how to withdraw; liberal politicians like Cowper needed to learn how to make space for negotiation;  conservative politics like Henry Parker needed to learn how to bring his own colleagues along with him.   Liberals, conservatives and governors alike had to learn how to handle the politics occurring “out of doors” in meetings and street protests; how to project decisiveness and yet temper it with a degree of responsiveness.

I learned a great deal from Cochrane’s intermeshing of personality, place and politics- and it’s something that I’d like to emulate in my own work.  The book was written for the Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government in New South Wales (hence the focus on Sydney) and could have suffered from a eye-glazing sense of  “worthiness” and hat-doffing to a small readership.  Instead, it won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2007, along with Les Carlyon’s The Great War.    At over 500 pages, Colonial Ambition is a long book but it moved quickly.  It is a very human book, and this focus on personality, flaws, ambitions and emotions was well-sustained and only on rare occasions struck me as being perhaps a little too fervent in places.  The ending, while emotionally satisfying and well-crafted in terms of the structure of the book, was rather too  rounded-off for my taste, and is perhaps my main qualm about the book. Nonetheless, as throughout the book,  his final paragraphs returned us to a person, to encapsulate the long constitutional journey we had been on.

But I don’t want to end on such a snarky note.   Cochrane has opened my eyes to a different sort of writing, and he has breathed life into a topic that could be otherwise dry and unappealing.  It’s a damned good read.

‘Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader’ by Anne Fadiman

1998, 125p.

My husband gave me this book.  He bought it second-hand for $1.99 at an op-shop  and inscribed it.  None of this may seem significant, but after reading this small delightful morsel of a book you’ll realize that it is.  The book is a compilation of  “The Common Reader” columns that over a number of years Anne Fadiman contributed to Civilization magazine, the journal of the Library of Congress.  Hence, the chapters are short (4 or 5 pages) , snappy and personal and you come to feel that you are in the company of a good friend who shares your love of reading.  The book as object is itself a thing of beauty- very small, with a tasteful crimson and gold cover with what looks like a gold-embossed bookplate on the front.

Its opening chapter concerns the merging of book collections of two avid readers and immediately this struck home.  Mr R.J. and I have quite distinct collections aided by the rather unconventional design of our living arrangements- we live in two separate but joined units with our own separate lounge rooms, kitchens, bedrooms etc.  I suppose that at some stage we will actually live in the same house- but what to do with the books?

Mind you, he has FAR more than I do.  He is the most appalling library patron, accumulating fines with gay abandon.  He reads more voraciously than I do, and is happy to have his reading diet determined by what he finds in op-shops, garage sales and fetes. He is equally reluctant to relinquish them.   He ALWAYS finds good books amongst towering piles in second-hand bookshops, even though I might have looked at the same pile just two minutes earlier.

And yes, they are doubled-up on the shelves.

My collection is much more modest, and particularly in the relatively new shelves in the study (which is itself a new incarnation of my son’s bedroom now that he’s moved out of home), there’s PLENTY of space to buy more!  I’m more a library-gal myself and I make good use of the “place hold” function on the library catalogue to borrow books that I see in bookshops selling new.  However, I’ve become increasingly aware of the ephemerality of book availability nowadays with books often restricted to the initial edition and shunted off the shelves for the next new thing, so I tend to buy more non-fiction than I used to.  The fiction shelves in the lounge room (a particularly crowded loungeroom at the moment because it has to also accommodate my precariously-balanced Christmas tree) are doubled up, but at the moment the non-fiction shelves in the study are single-row only and share the space with scanners, printer paper,  recipe books and unopened issues of ABR and The Monthly.

But how to merge our collections?  It’s quite clear that there’s not room for both Mr R.J.’s books  and my own.  Anne Fadiman and her husband George, who shares her love of books, have had to face this problem.  It took them about a week to sort out the duplicates, then face the trauma of deciding ‘yours or mine’?  Hardbacks prevailed over paperbacks, unless the paperbacks contained marginalia.  The task completed, they kissed, and felt that they were now TRULY married.  I shall take another tack.   For me, I turn my eyes to our rumpus room, which was formerly a double garage that joins the two units and which we’ll keep if and when we “move in together” at a combined age of well over a century!  Yes, there’s scope for books here, with a gas-fired fake fire, winter sun, a  whole wall of shelf space and two under-utilised bookshelves there already.  I’m thinking -“hmmm, compactus!”

(Actually, looking at these photos about to be launched into the blogosphere,  I’m a little embarrassed by my furniture.  Our house is frozen in 1980s decor- no polished boards and downlights for us! I tell myself that our furniture will soon be ‘vintage’ and that people will murmur in appreciation, rather than disapprobation at its 1980s authenticity.)

Enough about me- back to Anne Fadiman and her books.  And really, that’s what this book is about: the importance of books to a book-lover’s lifestyle, environment and identity even.  It’s a lovesong to the act of reading, and you find yourself smiling, with a mixture of recognition and confession, at a kindred-spirit.  It’s all here- the lure of the second-hand book; the conversation of the annotation; the treasure-hunt of the footnote; the pedantry of apostrophes and spelling errors.  This is a delightful book- in fact, I eked it out over about a fortnight, a chapter a night,  not wanting to relinquish a conversation with a book-loving friend who knows me so well!

‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ by Margaret MacMillan

This is only a slim book, based on a series of lectures.  The lecture-hall origins still show- the chapters are all pretty much the same length; the sentences are short, and there’s a sparseness about the writing that would probably aid comprehension if you were listening, but comes over as rather bald and workmanlike on the page.

I’ve only read one of Margaret MacMillan’s works- Paris 1919. I thought that it was wonderful- an engagingly written analysis of the multiple perspectives being brought to the conference that culminated in the Treaty of Versailles, and the intractability for the participants of disentangling historical, cultural and national borders in the wake of  what had been a truly global war.

She brings this wide-ranging perspective to this book but I’m not really sure what the overall point is that she is making here.  Yes- history can be used to make ourselves feel relaxed and comfortable about ourselves; it can be used to justify actions in the present; it can be used to predict rightly or wrongly what is about to happen on the basis of earlier precedents; it can be used to create and bolster national identity for good and for ill etc. etc.   Each of these cautionary tales is supported by examples from all over the world; little cut-and-dried vignettes   to support the contention of that particular lecture.  But put them all together, and what are we left with?  That history should be used carefully and with humility- good advice no doubt, but I felt paralysed, rather than empowered, by such observations.  Given that “good” history can be used for “evil” purposes, that those purposes can change naturally or be subverted deliberately, well- perhaps we should just immerse ourselves within an event, culture or timespan and just stay there, in a rather antiquarian sense, resolutely mute in the face of current events.

If I had attended these lectures, I don’t think that I would have come out from the lecture theatre walking on air.  There’s an abstractness about the examples she uses and no real people. There’s no human story that you come away with; no image etched onto your consciousness that you’ll remember the next day. Other historians have done similar things- Inga Clendinnen in her Quarterly Essay “The History Question”  or in her Boyer Lectures, for example, but she leaves you fizzing with ideas after an encounter with a person or situation that  embodies the questions she has raised.

Perhaps, though, her global orientation and  rather jaundiced views emerge from the work she has done on the aftermath of World War I.  I’ve just been listening again to her speaking on a RN radio documentary about the Paris Peace Conference and this is big, policy-driven, grubby, idealistic, complex history that exemplifies all the human failings that she discusses in this book.   Abuse of history at its worst.


I’ve just been listening to a podcast of  Margaret MacMillan talking about this book on Radio National’s Hindsight program in a broadcast called “Dangerous Games- the Uses and Abuses of History”.  You can download it or read a transcript here.  It’s well worth listening to, and has caused me to re-think my response to the book somewhat.

It’s very similar to the book – no doubt it has been delivered countless times previously.  But listening to her, as distinct from reading the book, there’s a flow in her spoken presentation that to me seemed to be missing when chopped up into separate, longer written chapters- indeed I now start to wonder whether the speech or the writing came first!  And I didn’t feel quite so hamstrung as an historian- instead, her oral presentation seemed to emphasize the importance of history (and historians)  in asking the right questions and drawing on the right analogies.  I came away with a stronger sense of her statement in the book about the importance of humility and acknowledging the boundedness of our own perceptions of the past.

‘Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History’ by Bain Attwood

2009, 323 p & notes

We will never really know how much of the [Port Phillip] Association’s narrative was true because of the paucity of contemporary sources.  Indeed, all we have are the few accounts created by these colonisers.  In respect of the famous treaty-making, we cannot even be sure it took place.  Arguably, it might simply be an imaginary event that never happened.  In the end, it probably doesn’t matter very much whether it occurred or not. (I assume that some parts of the treaty-making did take place.) What is more important historically are the stories that have been told about it. (p. 47)

As you might gather from this quote, this book is not just about Batman’s treaty.  In fact, looking at the book lying on my desk here with  “Possession” in large silver letters on the spine, I’m not really sure that the book is about possession at all.  The treaty itself could be a construction, and whatever ‘truth’ there is about it has been overlaid by boosterism, intentional forgetting and spin.

The treaty document itself was drawn up in Van Diemen’s Land before Batman arrived in Port Phillip; the ‘signatures’ have a suspicious similarity, and Batman did not, as he claimed, walk the boundaries of the land ‘traded’.  The motivations for the treaty and its subsequent quashing by the NSW goverment,  as Attwood explores, are best explained in terms of the time in which it was put forward – 1835- in the wake of the Black Wars in Tasmania, under the influence of the humanitarian lobbyists in London, and in light of the invention through the NSW courts during the 1830s and 1840s of a spurious ‘authorized’ history of British sovereignty in New South Wales, some 50 years after the event.

The creation and rejection of the treaty takes up only the first 100 pages of the book.  It then meanders into an exploration of the artistic depiction of the treaty over time and the change in emphasis on Batman’s treaty to Batman’s purported (and spurious) sailing up the river and declaration “This will be the place for a village!”.  I found the artwork fascinating.  Some time ago I had pooh-poohed the grand, commemorative American artwork tradition but here it is, alive and well in Melbourne- see here – it’s just not displayed in our art galleries any more.

The book moves into a discussion of history-writing in Victoria, with a string of antiquarian historians burnishing the Batman legend and feeding the Victorian (in both senses of the word) obsession with memorials and commemorations.  There was the Batman memorial over his putative grave; a memorial stone embedded in the footpath, Batman Park, Batman Avenue.  Then gradually the cracks in the image started appearing with questions over Batman’s parentage and sobriety and the championing of Fawkner’s settler history as an alternative story, pushed along by the tourism industry and latter-day Melbourne boosters and P.R. agents.  Gradually the memorials were shifted to quieter, less prominent locations, parks were renamed, and explanatory plaques were attached to statues qualifying some of the more gushing tributes to Batman and his activities. Just to add another layer to this already contorted history, it was Aboriginal people in Victoria who maintained the memory of Batman as the white man who dealt fairly with them, at a time when white history had consigned his treaty to the status of a curiosity.  The turn to politics becomes more weighty when Attwood takes on Henry Reynolds’ book The Law of the Land , which Attwood argues was a juridical history, intended to present sovereignty as a legal problem for 20th century political  purposes and one that, oddly, disregarded the Batman treaty entirely in the original edition of Reynolds’ book.

This is a richly illustrated book with coloured reproductions of the grand celebratory paintings, photographs of top-hatted men at yet another Batman memorial unveiling, reproductions of the string of illustrated histories that were published over the years and recent colour photographs of the now-discredited old memorials  and their newly-minted replacements.  It’s a book that takes us far beyond the treaty.