Monthly Archives: July 2010

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #5

‘Being there’ for an historian is the feeling for the past that can only be matched by the hours, the days, the weeks, the months, the years I sit at the tables in the archives. It is the assurance that my extravagance with time here is rewarded with a sensitivity that comes in no other way. It is an overlaying of images one on the other. It is a realisation that knowledge of the past is cumulative and kaleidoscopic, extravagantly wasteful of my energy.

Greg Dening ‘Culture is talk. Living is story’  in Hsu-Ming Teo and Richard White Cultural History in Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2003  p. 232

‘Cosmo Cosmolino’ by Helen Garner

1992, 221 p.

Helen Garner is thirteen years older than I am, and I feel as if I have been walking in her footsteps all my life.  Not following her lifestyle, mind you, but watching her with curiosity, as a life that I might have led had I been a little older and more confident. I felt as if I knew Dexter and Athena in The Children’s Bach– in fact, I’m sure I know where their house is!  When I was an undergraduate, still living at home with Mum and Dad, I’m sure that my fellow students were living a far more exciting Monkey Grip life than I was. Like Garner, I felt troubled by the challenge to feminism in The First Stone, and repelled and yet fascinated by Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s Consolation.  Now that I’m growing older and facing the deaths of parents and friends, I see myself in The Spare Room.  But with Cosmo Cosmolino, published  in 1992 when Garner was fifty, my sense of identification breaks down.

The book contains three stories, tangentially linked.  Cosmo Cosmolino is the longest of the three, and although they are different characters, the lifestyle of its protagonists almost picks up, twenty years on from where the lifestyles of the people of  Monkey Grip left off.  The anarchic share-houses of the 70s are now just shells, containing wary, embittered middle-aged people, somewhat discomfited by the capitalist mores they found themselves adopting almost in spite of themselves, and younger drifters in a world of marginal working lives that is less tolerant of the artistic temperament than the 70s were.  These are people whose family relationships are just single strings rather than a densely woven fabric; there is a bleak loneliness about their situation and their outlook.  They are trying to find some meaning in their days, either through trying to recreate an idealized past of share-houses now gone, or through a fervid evangelical Christianity or a loopy new-age spirituality.

I’m not sure if my discomfort with this mushy angel-think is a reflection of my own cynicism, or whether it is because the book is nearly twenty years old.  Perhaps in the early 1990s, belief in angels was not so twee and flaky- after all, didn’t they market those bumper stickers “Magic Happens” back then? When were healing crystals and all that other dusty paraphernalia around?  There’s something pathetic about this book, and I suspect that it was not intended to be so.  I think that Garner is genuinely working through issues of spirituality and meaning.  It’s just not a quest that I find particularly compelling.

‘Bright Planet’ by Peter Mews

2005, 295 p.

I was browsing around my local library the other night and caught sight of “Bright Planet” and smiled.  I read it several years ago and loved it, and given that some of you may have been lured here by a search related to early Port Phillip, you might love it too.

I’m a difficult customer as far as historical fiction is concerned.  I feel smothered by too much research if  it means that the story is battling to escape, but on the other hand I am annoyed by small inaccuracies and a basic inauthenticity when twenty-first century ideas are put into nineteenth-century heads.  I first heard of this book during the brouhaha between Kate Grenville and Inga Clendinnen over Grenville’s book The Secret River, where it was held up as an example of a novelist using history well.

Bright Planet is the name of a ship- and it really is, too!  After reading this book, each time I came across Bright Planet in the shipping news column in Port Phillip newspapers, I’d have a little smile to myself.  It sails into Bareheep (one of the early names suggested for Melbourne, and strongly recognizable as Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass)  and the small town forms the backdrop for a succession of walk-on Port Phillip characters, Johnny Fawkner,  John Batman complete with his diseased nose and Mr Le Soeuf the Aboriginal protector.   There’s a slew of fictional characters as well, who could just be true, including Quiet Giles the botantist, who sails up what seems like the Yarra on a fictional expedition.  In best Voss-meets- Monty-Python tradition, there are a string of deaths through a whole range of misadventure, and it’s an irreverent romp through a young, bawdy town on the edge of the unknown.  It’s not true and it plays with the historical fiction genre.  It’s very carefully researched and, in its way is a critique of colonialism and imperial masculinity.  But don’t let that put you off: dammit-  it’s just downright good fun.

If I’ve piqued your interest, there’s a transcript of an interview with the author from the ABC’s Book Talk program.

‘The Judas Kiss’ Heidelberg Theatre Company

Once again, I wish that I’d seen this before the final performance so that I could encourage you to go.  Alas, too late (again) .

Written by David Hare, the two-act  play concerns Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alf Douglas. Act One is set in a London hotel, just prior to Wilde’s arrest where his friend Robert Ross is trying to persuade him to leave for the continent; the second act is in Naples two years later where Bosie decides to leave the impoverished and broken Wilde to return to London and his family.

I find it hard to see anyone else other than Stephen Fry playing Wilde- surely a part that he was born to play, and there’s a danger that playing such a flamboyant figure can descend to parody. But Chris Baldock, playing Wilde made the part his own, to the point at the end of the play where there was absolute silence as the audience collectively held its breath, then exhaled.  In a wonderful performance,  Baldock as Wilde was on the stage for almost the whole time, burbling forth a stream of dialogue,  then lapsing occasionally into a deep, black silence that in itself spoke volumes.  Tim Constantine as Lord Douglas captured his petulance well, but also his insecurity and jealousy.

There was a warning about nude scenes and cigarettes, and I must admit that the nude scenes were rather more than I expected! Must be a David Hare trademark- wasn’t ‘Our Nic’ nude in her performance of Hare’s The Blue Room?  It’s just as well that the theatre itself is so well heated.

I don’t always go to HTC productions, but I have been to a few. There’s something quite warming about a local theatre: looking around the audience and always spying someone that you know, the sherry before the performance, the squeaky orange seats that, in this case, fell silent too at the end of the play.  This was certainly the best performance I’ve seen there, and I only wish that I’d gone earlier in the season so that I could tell more people about it.

An Invitation to the Ball

And now for a bit of shameless advertising. My local historical society has been hard at work recently putting together an exhibition called “An Invitation to the Ball”.  The inspiration for the exhibition arose when the curators were transferring our textiles collection into new textile archive boxes.  Many of the items had been donated forty years ago when the Society was in its infancy, and surveyed as a whole, we realized that we had a collection of beautiful objects.

There is, of course, the much more extensive costume exhibition on at the NGV at the moment, but what I really love about this exhibition is that the displays are interwoven into a broader history of the Heidelberg/Ivanhoe area.  The focus is on women’s formal wear between 1850 and 1950, and there are many connections between formal occasions and the nearby Heidelberg Town Hall, the site of many mayoral occasions, debutante balls, concerts – to say nothing of regular Saturday night dances.

Because these are garments worn locally, we were able to trace through the original wearers and the occasions on which they were worn.  A search through our records and photographs found studio photographs and invitations for a debut ball held in the 1930s which, supplemented by an oral history memoir, are displayed beside the dress itself.  We were able to identify the lady mayoresses who wore particular gowns, and we found records of a number of formal occasions held in nearby facilities including “Sunday afternoons”, concerts and sporting festivals.

We were also able to locate, through our holdings of local newspapers,  advertisements for the web of haberdashers, drapers, outfitters and shoe shops in the local shopping centres- particularly the women dressmakers, all coyly named Miss or Mrs, and often formerly of Collins Street or other addresses.

The exhibition is open on Sundays 2-5 and will run until November 2010, so unlike most events that I write about here, it’s not closing soon!  Entry is $5.00 for adults, $2.00 for children under 16.  The Heidelberg Historical Society Museum is on the corner of Jika Street and Park Lane, Heidelberg. If you live in the northern suburbs you’ve probably driven past it dozens of times on the way to Burke Road. And who knows,  you may just even see me there!

Quote? Unquote?

I’m reading and very much enjoying a book by Jane Errington called The Lion, The Eagle and Upper Canada: a developing colonial ideology.  The book was awarded the Corey Prize in 1988, a prize for the best book on Canadian-US relations, jointly sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Canadian Historical Association.  Reviews that I have read about the book at time of publication have not been universally glowing, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless, oblivious as I am at this stage of the nuances of US-Canadian historiography and politics.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that she does not use block quotes but instead snips them up and integrates them into a paragraph. For example:

On 3 June 1814 Rev John Strachan preached a Thanksgiving Service to his congregation in York celebrating the deliverance of Great Britain from the devastating conflict in Europe. “Thankfully and devoutly” he declared, we “acknowledge the mercy and goodness of Almighty God; for protecting His Majesty and His dominions during the whole of this arduous contest; and for the signal and glorious victories obtained by its armies.” “Our joy is full,” he continued, “when we reflect that … Great Britain has been chiefly instrumental, through the blessings of God, in bringing about the happy changes which we now contemplate.” “Truly” she was “the preserver of the independence of Europe” and “the proclamation of peace,” he declared, would triumphantly bring her to “a new era of glory.” And though peace had yet to be won in North America, Strachan called upon Upper Canadians to “rejoice”. We have earned “the happiest time…now rising upon us,” he maintained. (p.97)

This quote is duly footnoted as “Strachan, A Sermon Preached at York on the third day of June, Being the Day Appointed for General Thanksgiving, 1814, 22-3, 38, 34.  It reads smoothly, and it’s only when you look closely that you notice the rather clunky double inverted commas.

Still, I find myself a little uneasy about it.  It reminds me of the technique of “The Week” magazine, to which I subscribe largely because of the generous discount for subscriptions.  As a way of distilling the essence of commentary (and perhaps to avoid copyright issues), the magazine likewise uses snippets of sentences in inverted commas, although sometimes I wonder why they choose such banal words to highlight in this way. For example, it summarizes Rex Jory’s column from “The Advertiser” in this way:

The perfect monopoly has struck again, says Rex Jory. The price of postage stamps “crept up” 5c to 60c last week, and what could we do about it? Nothing.  This is preposterous and outrageous. It’s bad enough that Australia Post can charge “pretty much what it likes” but it also “contemptuously” refuses to provide a weekend service.   etc etc.

Errington’s integration of snippets into a prose summary probably does justice to the sentiments expressed- possibly better than verbatim slabs would have done, but I feel wary- what if she’s misrepresenting what is said?  Although, short of slavishly writing out the whole document, how is any reader to know that paragraphs are not chosen selectively and skewed by ellipses and omissions?

I think, too, of the advice given in Ann McGrath and Ann Curthoy’s recent book How to Write History that People Want to Read that examiners and readers always skip over slab quotes anyway.  Do they? Do I?  I must admit that I think I do sometimes.  I think I’m looking for the analysis rather than the evidence.  Yet the fear of plagiarism or sloppiness prods me into backing myself up when I am writing, even though I don’t always read the evidence when somebody else backs themselves up the same way.  Errington’s technique weaves the analysis and evidence together in a way where it is less easy to skip.  I think I like it, but I’m still not sure.  A little writing challenge to meet, I’m sure.

‘Memoirs recorded at Geelong by Foster Fyans’ ed. Phillip L Brown

“What is the use of a book, ” thought Alice “without pictures and conversations?”  I’m with you, Alice.  I  certainly wasn’t expecting conversations in Foster Fyan’s memoirs, and I very much appreciated the maps and illustrations.

Foster Fyans is well known in Geelong as the first police magistrate there (1837-40), then he became Crown Land Commissioner in the district.  The area just out of Geelong known as Fyansford is named after him, and there’s a Fyans Street in Geelong itself.  After visiting Geelong a fortnight ago for the Robert Dowling exhibition I seem to be rather Geelong-conscious at the moment, and I’ve been reading Fyans’ memoirs for a paper that I’ll be giving much later in the year.

As his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography suggests, there is not much known about his early life beyond that he was Irish and brought up by an uncle.  In these memoirs he springs from the page as a fully-formed army man, in charge of taking bringing a band of recruits to Portsmouth.  From the start he portrays army life full of masculine humour, eating and drinking, marching and high-jinks- almost a dead ringer for Lydia Bennett’s Mr Wickham and his mates.   His description of the Peninsular War likewise emphasizes life amongst his fellow soldiers, with more distress ascribed to the illness that swept through the camps rather than actual combat.  Then off to India for several years where again, life revolved around hunting and carousing and little mention of actual soldiering.  After a short time in Cape Colony (more parties and shooting), he arrived in Sydney where he spent a short, restless, lonely time before reporting to his regiment and joining his fellow soldiers at Parramatta.  Although he attended Government House, the jocular hail-fellow tone falters here, as the realities of convict settlement and official responsibilities become more apparent to him.  He is sent to the high-security  Norfolk Island where he eventually becomes Acting Commandant, and from there as commandant to Moreton Bay (now Brisbane) which was also a penal settlement at the time.  While  in Moreton Bay he oversaw the rescue of  Eliza Fraser.   His response to the convicts probably reflects the contradictions thrown up by the system- an uneasy wariness of violence that runs just below the surface co-existing with close day-to-day proximity with men not so different from oneself.

From there he was sent as Police Magistrate to Geelong, which is about fifty miles from Melbourne and rich pastoral land.  His memoirs become even quieter at this stage.  He spends quite a bit of time describing an expedition to the port settlement of  Portland, the first recognized land journey between the two settlements.  With only two mounted police and the surveyor Mr Smythe and no maps, they set off in what seemed to be atrocious weather, greeted each morning by the “flying jackass” (kookaburra), the “chanticleer of Australia”.   By 1840 he had been appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands, responsible for maintaining order among the squatters and investigating clashes between the settlers and the displaced aboriginal groups.  Here is a sad litany of violence,  where he mainly sides with the settlers in sympathy for what they perceive as needless stock loss. Like the settlers he is critical of the Aboriginal Protectors and the nearby mission station that he feels only attracts more aborigines to the area and imbues them with a misplaced sense of inviolability.

What started out as a military romp has become a nomadic police-like existence, accompanied mainly by his aboriginal “boy” Bon Jon (the purpose for my reading these memoirs).  It has become much quieter and more isolated.  Perhaps it’s the memoirist running out of puff too, because the memoirs stop abruptly in the bush in 1842.

The editor has written an introduction, where he describes the provenance of the manuscript and the various branches of the Fyans family tree, then gives a brief summary of the content of the memoirs.  I always enjoy hearing about how a manuscript comes to be published. The original, scrawled across five hundred foolscap pages had been typed up by Fyans’ great grand-son and it was donated by his descendants to the State Library of Victoria in 1962.   Although Fyans himself did not divide it into chapters, he did create sections by inserting a page with rough headings for the pages that follow. The  editor has created chapter headings and provided notes  at the end of each chapter.  These rather dour and punctilious annotations to the entries, which are painstaking in their detail, remind the reader of the fallibilities of memory and chronology, and the infelicities that arise when a raconteur is  telling a good story.

I think that it’s almost certain that anyone working exhaustively on an archive of memoirs, diaries or letters comes to build some sort of a relationship (albeit completely one-sided) with the author.  The editor, P. L. Brown (who also wrote the ADB entry) seems rather disenchanted by the many inconsistencies and errors he found

Fyan’s reminiscences had to be checked in order to assess their worth as historical material. This checking disclosed considerable and frequent divergence between actual and remembered events, and made it clear that the text, unless fully annotated, must be more entertaining than instructive. Hence the presentation of archives, both British and Australian, from the latter of which Fyans emerges as an energetic, conscientious public servant, rather let down by his rambling old self, who nevertheless conveys the authentic atmosphere of his historical period, and told few stories which lacked a germ of truth (p. xv)

The memoirs themselves ended abruptly, and the notes themselves end with the transcription of assorted letters and returns, and further details about wills and inheritances.  I found myself wishing that P.L. Brown had returned at this point to round out the picture somewhat and to help me, as reader, to bid farewell to Fyans.  After all, he’d been a rollicking companion for the first 100 pages or so, and despite infelicities and distortions in his retelling, he sure had a story to tell- Spain, India, Cape Colony and Australia- as did many of those peripatetic colonial civil servants.