Monthly Archives: February 2011

Tim Minchin vs The MSO

I’ve written of my admiration for Tim Minchin previously, and on Saturday night as a birthday/Christmas gift from my daughter we toddled off to the Palais to see his new show Tim Minchin Vs The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

It was a curiously named event because there was no ‘versus’ towards the MSO at all. But against organized religion and hypocrisy, yes, as you’d expect in a Tim Minchin show (in fact, I wonder if the MSO subscribers who’d opted for this knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for!)  I’m not really sure what the MSO was there for, except as an indulgence- a fact  which Minchin readily admitted.

The show itself was a combination of old stuff and new material that I hadn’t heard before.  I found listening to unfamiliar songs in a large venue with such a strong orchestral backing a bit challenging. But for his earlier material that I have loved and watched several times on video, it was an indulgence for me, too,  to sit back and hear a slightly different but still recognizable rendition of his witty, wicked lyrics.

A well-deserved  standing ovation at the end, after leaving us with my two favourite songs-

Perfect and

White Wine in the Sun

Ah! I’m so vicariously proud of the lad! How lucky am I to have seen him again.

I can see it all…

I shouldn’t laugh.  It’s a serious matter, especially for the victim. But nonetheless…

Crime stopper reports are not often known for their evocative descriptions, but somehow I can see this whole scenario unfolding before my eyes and I think I’ve seen the perpetrators before….


Police are hunting a couple who them say deliberately ran over a man because his dogs were barking.

The man was sitting on a planter box outside a supermarket in Vines Road, Hamlyn Heights, a suburb of Geelong, when he got into an argument with a man and a woman about his two dogs.

The couple got into their silver Ford sedan and drove at the man, who sustained serious injuries when he bounced off the car bonnet and hit the road.

Police are looking for an obese man with a grey beard who was wearing a windcheater

The woman, also described as obese, was wearing a floral dress with glasses.


‘The hated Protector’ by Lindsey Arkley

2000, 469 p. & notes

Lindsey Arkley The hated Protector: The story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42. Mentone Vic, Orbit Press, 2000.

Charles Sievwright is an ‘interesting’ man from 170 years distance, and was certainly controversial and combative at the time.  This biography of Sievwright examines his time in the Port Phillip District as Assistant Protector for Aborigines in the western district of Victoria between 1839-1842.  Lindsey Arkley, the author, also wrote Sievwright’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The Aboriginal Protectorates were an experimental measure, urged on the Colonial Office  in London by the evangelical pressure groups concerned about the treatment of indigenous subjects throughout the empire.   They were established as a secular adjunct to the church missionary system and comprised a Chief Protector and several Assistant Protectors. They were given the remit to firstly, protect indigenous people from settler cruelty and secondly, assist the church-based missionaries in converting Aborigines from a wandering and barbaric state into sedentary,  ‘civilized’ Christians.   The inland areas of the  Port Phillip District had only been recently exposed to widespread settler incursion, and it was rather optimistically hoped in London that this could herald a new and better approach.  It was an experiment imposed on Governor Gipps in Sydney and his local superintendent in Melbourne, Charles LaTrobe, and in the absence of any clear vision of how it would work in practice, George Augustus Robinson was appointed Chief Protector on the basis of his work in Van Diemen’s Land.  Unlike the other Assistant Protectors who were school teachers, Charles Sievwright had a military background and used his admittedly rather impressive patronage ties to get the position after some rather dubious gambling problems back in Europe.

It was a position fraught with tension, ambiguities and contradictions, even without the added complication of the deeply flawed individuals who were chosen to fill the roles.  Chief Protector Robinson was variously jealous, ambitious, inefficient, blustering, out of his depth and conflicted, and the Assistant Protectors soon began fighting both with Robinson and among themselves over lack of supplies, perceived lack of support, ambiguous instructions and – importantly for Sievwright- rumours of sexual impropriety.   In Sievwright’s Port Phillip career, and in his subsequent dismissal, these rumours of sexual misconduct including domestic violence, attempted seduction of other Protectors’ wives and most damaging of all, incest with his own daughter bubbled underneath all his interactions with his superiors, other bureaucrats, and the white settlers who resented his presence in prime grazing territory.

This is a very long biography at over 400 pages dealing mainly with three years of Sievwright’s career in Port Phillip, although the ‘before’ and ‘after’ are dealt with in the opening and closing chapters.  Arkley has drawn heavily on official correspondence, particularly the letters written to, from and by La Trobe and the local bureaucracy and the resultant reports between and by Gipps and the Colonial Office.    This is territory that I have been likewise wading through with my own research, and seeing how Arkley has dealt with it has made me more reflective about its value and limitations as a genre and source.  He has published much of this information in a much more accessible form than the originals, and been punctilious in his footnoting, but there is so much of it and often over so little.   This is something that I have likewise struggled with, in both a narrative and methodological sense.   Arkley reproduces the texts and has placed  the ‘controversy of the moment’ (and there were many!) within its context, but much of this is ‘he said/he said’ reportage.

Arkley started each chapter- and there are (too) many at 35 of them- with a few brief, interest-arousing observations but these are fairly general, often rejoicing in coincidence and juxtaposition and not always particularly relevant to the chapter.   In Arkley’s telling there are clearcut baddies- “Flogger” Fyans, Robinson, and the duplicitous La Trobe and Gipps- and one senses that Arkley’s purpose is largely to rescue Sievwright’s reputation from their clutches.

But in doing so, there is no scholarly discussion of the protectorate system and its ambiguities and no exploration of the meaning of the sexual scandal and its relationship with the other grounds given for Sievwright’s dismissal.  Perhaps this was not Arkley’s intention: I see in the blurbs that the book was embraced by local historians and Arkley himself works as a journalist.  Other historians have picked up on Arkley’s work- in particular Alan Lester and Fay Dussart in their article “Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies: protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century” [1] who thank him directly in their Acknowledgments.  I’m sure that Kirsten McKenzie [2] would do much with  Arkley’s work on Sievwright as well.

Is it valid to critique a book for what it doesn’t do, and perhaps even had no intention of ever doing? I’m not sure.  After all,  we stand on the shoulders of other researchers, and there is certainly value in Arkley’s collection and reproduction of much of the archival material on Sievwright.  His footnoting is excellent, and I’ve been able to find many of the sources he cites.  But at times I found myself wary of his clear attempt to promote and rehabilitate Sievwright’s reputation, and found myself having to read against Arkley’s text for much of the time and wanting to prod him a bit further.  Sometimes a bit of ambiguity and scepticism is not a bad thing.


[1] Alan Lester and Fay Dussart ‘Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies:  protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century’ Gender Place and Culture, vol 16, no 1, 2009 pp.  65-76

[2] Kirsten McKenzie Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850 Carlton Victoria, Melbourne University Press, 2004


Ian D. Clark The Hated Protector: The Story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42 [Book Review]  Aboriginal History, Vol. 24, 2000: 305-313.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #8

Ged Martin, in Past Futures:  The Impossible Necessity of History, Toronto, Toronto University of Press, 2004

The original  lectures from which this book derives were delivered as part of the  1996 Joanne Goodman Lecture series, conducted annually at the University of Western Ontario. However, the closing chapter of the book  reflects on September 11, which indicates that this written version is far more recent.

One of the themes that runs throughout the book is the nature of decision making in history and the historian’s task in reconstructing it at a distance:

...historians must not simply embrace with gratitude whatever survives from the past. Rather, the whole process of historical reconstruction is one of dialogue, between our questions and their answers.   Sometimes that dialogue requires some sharp interrogation on our part, since there is often a mismatch between our concerns and their evidence…

A related problem, especially for those studying the activities of government, is that while historians ask questions about ‘why?’, most official records were designed to apply answers about ‘how?’. (p.22)

In fact, ‘why?’ is not the right question:

Unlike computers, people do not face an infinity of choices , but are usually obliged to select from a finite range of available options.  The real task for historians is to locate that moment in time and account for the range of options on offer- in short, to ask ‘why when?’ and ‘why what?’.   (p. 85)

Every decision is a double decision, requiring us to ask first, ‘why when?’ and only then ‘why what?’. The operative second part is the action of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the available options.  The historical core is to be found in that crucial first part, the decision to take a decision.  We should begin by seeking to understand not simply why a decision was taken but when it was taken.  This helps us to appreciate why, at that time, some options but not others were available to those making the decision. (p. 93)

Far too often, historical analysis begins by pressing the pause button on a videotape of the past.  The historian traps the characters to be studied in the awkward attitudes of the moment, and proceeds to explain how they had come to relate to one another in that frozen past present.  We need rather to ask which of the characters captured on the screen contemplated some form of future, in the hope of recovering how they shaped their actions in the moment of their past present to meet those futures.  Were their perceived futures short-term or long-term in scope, optimistic or pessimistic in character.  Were they adjusting to the collapse of previous assumptions about the road ahead or coping with the sudden arrival of a destiny that had previously been perceived as only a distant possibility….

Such an approach means that historians must place less emphasis on explaining static moments in the past, an exercise that is in any case impossible, and more upon locating those events in a longer sweep of time.  In other words, we must approach the study of history by seeing past, present and future as a single continuum.  Only thus can we enter into the world view of the people we study, to recapture how they reached their yes/no decisions in response to the propositions that confronted them at that ephemeral instant when they too stood on the moving frontier between their own past and a future that they could rarely foresee but never ignore. (p. 147)


I  bought a netbook this week- a very cheap, basic one that I will not mourn too much should I lose it – purchased from the home of the interesting junk-mail catalogue, Aldi.  This is the…let’s see…sixth computer I have bought.  The first was a hulking monster that my father bought me for $1000 second hand with two 5.5 inch floppy disks, running on DOS.  Then I replaced it with another desktop which took 3 inch floppies (that were by then no longer floppy) and may have even had a CD perhaps.  I had a laptop in between- an enormous thing that made you go all lopsided and walk in circles when you hefted it over your shoulder.  It was later replaced by a smaller Compaq which still works but doesn’t have a single USB port.  Then an ASUS laptop that I paid close to $2500 for because I wanted a light model with an 80gb hard drive ( which I’ve just noticed is almost full) and really does need to be replaced sometime very soon.  And now my very el-cheapo Netbook with a 250gb hard drive, purchased very much as a second computer.  And all this within the last twenty years, I’d say.

I’ve been particularly struck by this  cavalier obsolescence  having just finished reading Behind Closed Doors. The purchases that she describes there were carefully considered, repaired when broken,  and often handed down from generation to generation.  Vickery points out that there were fashions in things, and people were quite specific in describing their orders.  Her chapter on wallpaper focuses on fashion and the language for describing it. Wallpaper was valued because it provided a quick and relatively inexpensive decorative effect, sometimes used to decorate rooms that had been leased  for ‘the season’ amongst the aristocracy in fashionable locations.  She particularly mentions women’s handicrafts and challenges the dismissive perception that they were merely inconsequential and a way of keeping women quiet by having them sitting, stitching away at their embroidery.  Instead, she notes that the handicrafts were often handed on, so much so that modern Georgians complained about the heavy embroideries of the previous century with which their houses were decorated.  They did replace them with something lighter and more fashionable, but the fact that 17th century hand-worked decorations were still being used during the 18th century suggests that they certainly didn’t have the “ditch it” mentality we do.

She also notes that renovations (as distinct from just wallpapering a room)  took decades and decades, especially to country houses when Gothic architecture was modified and extended for a more Palladian appearance. There was a strong familial imperative but often the generation that had initiated the renovation died before seeing it completed.  It brought to mind our penchant for renovation “blitz” television shows, where everything is tacked up over a weekend.  I think that with our demands for immediacy, especially when we are paying for other people to perform the work,  we would wilt under a renovation that might take years, let alone decade after decade.

Mechanics Institution

Melbourne Mechanics Institution, Collins St near Swanston St.

Next to the Melbourne Town Hall in Collins Street is the original site of the Mechanics Institution. This is one where a little bit of imagination is required.  The Melbourne Mechanics Institution was established in 1839 with the police magistrate and later sub-treasurer William Lonsdale as its first President and the Superintendent of Port Phillip, Charles La Trobe as its first Patron.  Willis himself does not seem to have had anything to do with it, which is a little surprising.  In a nascent civic community, as early Port Phillip was, this is precisely the sort of organization in which a resident Judge could express his philanthropy and civic presence.  As it was, many of the men who were to become his vocal opponents were involved, and perhaps this explains his distance?

The building now on the site is the much-loved Atheneum theatre and library.

Edmund Finn (writing as Garryowen) describes the original building:

The edifice, early in 1843, was occupied by the members.  It was a substantial two-story brick building, some feet from and above the street level.  It was reached by several steps, and during the winter season the footway and street approaches were in a terrible state of mud and puddle.  Yet in those primitive times the progress of the erection was regarded with much interest, and not only the people, but the newspapers actually felt a pride in it as one of the coming constructive wonders of the Antipodes.  One of the later thus gushingly referred to it: “The Hall of Arts is nearly complete, and will be ready for occupation in the course of a few days; the size, arrangements, and architectural proportions of the building will make it, when finished, the noblest edifice in the Province.”  On the ground-floor were the Library and Reading-room, and for years the Town Clerk had his official quarters in another portion of the building.  The meeting place for the Town Council was upstairs in the large room.  This larger apartment or “hall” as it used to be grandiloquently styled, was one of the most historical places in Early Melbourne, for here were held some of the most important gatherings in Port Phillip- social, charitable, and political.

You can see a picture of the original Mechanics Institution  here.

There’s plenty more information on the website of the Melbourne Athenaeum Archives– well worth a look!

A pilgrimage around Willis’ Melbourne

Richard Holmes, one of my favourite biographers, once wrote:

The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer- in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals.  Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality… (Footsteps of a Romantic Biographer p. 67)

He describes a sort of ‘haunting’

an act of deliberate psychological trespass, an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present.  And in this experience of haunting I first encountered- without then realizing it- what I now think of as the essential process of biography.” P. 66

As I walk around the streets of Melbourne, I find myself trying to reimagine the town that Willis would have seen.   Probably more so than in other cities, much of it was engulfed by the gold rush and its associated prosperity that followed some seven years after Willis left to return home to England.  Nonetheless, it’s a haunting that often accompanies me as I walk around my home town, and I’d like to share it with you.

Because so much has disappeared, I’m having to interpret “Willis’ Melbourne” very, very broadly and creatively.  Basically, if there is any connection with Willis and the years 1841-3 at all- an acquaintanceship in earlier years, an event in Willis’ time that occurred there, an earlier building that once stood there- then I’ll accept it as a glimpse of Willis.  It’s my own particular and rather idiosyncratic haunting.