Monthly Archives: January 2010

What I’ve been listening to: Paul Mullaly on crime

I was sorry to have missed Judge Paul Mullaly speaking at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria on “Crime in Port Phillip: 1835-1851” in June 2009.   Through the power of podcast, I was able to download it here.

We live in wonderful times.

His presentation (about an hour in length) starts with a brief summary of the extension of the law to Port Phillip in the 1830s,  the status of aborigines before the law, and some cases heard before the courts at the time.

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones

2003,  388p.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, but I have only just read it.  In many ways, I’m glad that I’ve read it six years after the hoopla, when the coodabeens and shouldabeens of other competing titles for that year has subsided and the book has to stand on its own two feet.

Edward P. Jones is an African-American writer, and as a recent Washington Post article explains, has written two books of short stories and The Known World is his only full-length novel.  He hasn’t written a word of fiction in four years but he’s obviously a slow worker:  he carried around The Known World in his head for ten years, then wrote it in a three-month rush.  Once I saw this, I recognized what it was that I’d sensed while reading it: that we have been given a self-contained story world, complete and interwoven, unfolded to us by an all-knowing narrator.  It was the voice of this book that really drew me in- it had a formal dignity in its own simplicity, mixed with sadness and wisdom.  It felt like an old, old story.

It is entirely appropriate that the story be written by an African-American writer, and I really don’t know what the effect would have been had it been penned by a white author.   For in this book, based on a footnote to the documented history of slavery in America, the slave-owner, Henry Townsend,  is black and the owner of black slaves.  Henry’s father saved the money to purchase his son’s freedom from William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia.  But Henry in turn, purchased his own slaves.  His ‘investment’ (and Jones does not let you forget that slaves are a commodity, with a dollar price) falls under the protective umbrella of the whole slave-owning economy and structure established by white slaveowners, and when Henry dies there is a restless anxiety amongst Henry’s slaves about whether they will be liberated, sold or whether the overseer Moses will emerge as a controlling force.

It is a fact of history that blacks did hold other blacks in slavery. But there are many things in this book that are not, despite appearances, historical fact.  Manchester County itself is an invention; Jones cites studies that do not exist, invents historians and publications, and smudges reality and fiction.  In  what could have been, in cruder hands a “gotcha” white-triumphalist tract,  characters (both white and black) are morally complex and the situation challenges our preconceptions of slave ownership.

The narrative is not easy to follow.  There is a huge array of characters, and the omniscient narrator flings us around chronologically at a dizzying pace.  We are introduced to a character and immediately told that “ninety years later, she will…”.  In a reflection of the powerlessness and contingency of life, appalling things happen abruptly without warning.  But there is no mistaking the author’s horror at slavery and its corrosive effect on all people it touches, and he passes it to us.

I was challenged by this book in its style and in its content.  I know that it has been compared (generally unfavourably) with Toni Morrison’s work, but to me that seems a little unfair and too simplistic.  The book is valuable in its own right and its real power  is in the creation of this bounded, “known” world- Jones’ world- crafted by him alone.

Peter Cochrane and the writing of narrative history

I’d only read about three pages of Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition before I realized that I was reading a very different Australian colonial history than I am accustomed to reading.  Why is this? I wonder.  It’s not that I eschew narrative history: in fact, I seek it out when I’m reading in an area that is not particularly familiar to me, and I enjoy it.  I’ve read quite a few Simon Schama books:  his History of Britain series to support the television documentary, Rough Crossings and Rembrandt’s Eyes.   I loved Orlando Figes’ works on Russia  Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy ,   or Nathanial Philbrick’s Mayflower.  I’m drawn to biographies ,and especially group biographies which have a strong narrative thread, for example Louis Menard’s The Metaphysical Club or Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder.  I enjoy Peter Ackroyd’s border-crossing as, for example, in London: The Biography.   I encountered most of these books through online book clubs that I belong to ( for example Yahoo’s All NonFiction group) and I guess there’s part of my answer:  such groups gravitate towards best-sellers, and best-sellers tend to be narrative histories.

And yet, for Australian history, I tend to steer clear.  I have four Manning Clark volumes on my shelf and am daunted by them.  I have Michael Cathcart’s abridgement but, perversely,  haven’t read it because I feel I would be cheating.  I am wary (perhaps without justification?) of Thomas Keneally’s Commonwealth of Thieves or Australians: Origins to Eureka, even though I’ve enjoyed several of his fictional works set in colonial times.   Alan Atkinson’s The Europeans in Australia is right at the top of the list- particularly because am I grappling with another library patron with holds and recalls over Volume 2 which is nigh on impossible to buy-  but I haven’t started it yet.  I notice that these are all very long works: perhaps narrative history requires length in order to unspool character and chronology?

As Peter Cochrane himself explains in his essay Peter Cochrane “Stories from the dustbinGriffith Review, 19, Autumn 2008 (Full text available here), academic historians tend to distance themselves from narrative history, characterizing it as “dumbed down, simple storytelling, the business of amateurs, a trick, sub-history- myth even.” (p. 71).  He cites John Hirst (who contributed a blurb to the back cover) who, in an essay about his own attempt to write an “official history” of Australia for John Howard’s government, described narrative histories as ” a standing temptation to evasion” that avoids big questions. And yet, as Don Watson has noted “history is nothing less than the whole human drama and it is pretty well anything we want it to be” (cited in Griffith Article on p. 71)

Cochrane picks up on the theme of “human drama” and in his essay explains his choice of Wentworth as “leading man”.   And yet, as he explains:

Colonial Ambition is not a biography. It is political history written as narrative.  The story turns like a double helix winding through the book, political history curving into and around the biographical thread of Wentworth and his family, a thread that gets thicker as we go, knitting in other key players in Sydney and London: Henry Parkes, Sir George Gipps, Earl Grey, Robert Lowe, Charles Cowper, Herman Merivale, Lord John Russell at the Colonial Office, and numerous others including the women whose political influence was a much neglected and elusive part of the story (Griffith article p. 74)

I was interested in the way that, structurally, he used the Wentworth character.  The book starts and ends with him.  In the opening pages we have Wentworth in an uncharacteristically humble speech, apologizing to the Legislative Council for his bad language and the “flood of lava” that bubbles up out of him him,   and intimating that he would soon be leaving Australia.  This speech re-appears much later, on p392, and as a reader I experienced that deeply-satisfying ‘aha’ moment when, like a kaleidescope, a pattern falls into place.  The book closes with Wentworth too, but in juxtaposition to the very public opening speech, we end with an intimate family communication between the father and his physically close but unwillingly estranged daughter.  My favourite part of the book- the section that made me think “Gee, he’s doing this well” – was when he reported on political changes taking part in Australia from the distant perspective of Wentworth over in England.  This view with the telescope, instead of the magnifying glass, allowed Cochrane to maintain the metropolitan and colonial perspectives at the same time and enabled him to stride quickly over events that would have bogged him down had he located the narrative back in New South Wales.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s movement in the narrative that is the problem, and Cochrane has obviously worked hard on achieving this:

The emphasis here is on the movement of the story.  How should it- how can it- move? Narrative movement is a bit like tacking on a yacht- the line is constantly shifting while moving forward, zigzagging from one location to another, from one debate to another, from drama here and drama there.” (p. 77)

I enjoyed the shift from location to location, but at times felt a little uncomfortable with the heightened sense of drama that pervaded the book.  In examining the various sides of a debate, Cochrane took pains to describe the motivations and passions lying behind the individuals’ differing stances, but such an approach intimated that titanic political and personal struggles underpinned all such debates.  This fevered atmosphere can become breathless, particularly when sustained over such a long book.  I found myself yearning for the prosaic and everyday, half-hearted politicking just for the sake of it, without such crucial issues at stake.  And after arousing and keeping the reader at such a pitch of expectation for over 500 pages, the denouement, when it comes, is drawn-out and rather disappointing in comparison.

But movement also occurs, Cochrane writes, through the dialogue between historian and historical documents.

The narrative historian has to wrestle with the literary dimension as well as the problem of how the past has been defined, interpreted, ignored or mischaracterized by other historians.  And that engagement has to be immersed or infiltrated into the story without getting in the way of the story.  In narrative it is argument by stealth… Analysis may be unobtrusive but it is, or should be, present at all levels. ..But this does not mean that historiographic concerns are neglected.  On the contrary, they become part of the story only occasionally removed to a footnote- the manuscript that routinely exiles historiographical concerns to the footnotes is likely to be a vacuous and probably a tortured text.” (p. 79, 80)

Cochrane does engage with other historians- in particular John Hirst and Ged Martin- but much of the detailed by-play takes place in the footnotes.  However, in the text itself, as a reader you are aware when Cochrane is planting his feet in the narrative as a historian and taking a stand.  It’s not a combative or dismissive stance,  but you’re aware that you’re reading a historian with his work-apron on.

Historian, and writer too.  There’s some crystalline phrases here: the “dialogue of echoes” in the months-long communication lag between the Colonial Office and New South Wales (Colonial Ambition p.204); his description of Parker’s impotent ministry shuffling on “like a man who could not get out of his slippers” (Colonial Ambition p. 459).

There’s much here that appeals to me: the emphasis on personality; the concept of life trajectory with its own timelines and chronology; the dual focus of empire-wide events and perceptions and the grounding in physical and social locations.  Ah- but he’s been given the luxury of 500 pages: I have 70,000- 100,00 words.  He has Melbourne University Press: I have a couple of thesis examiners.  Sigh.

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.