Monthly Archives: December 2011

‘The Bean Patch’ by Shirley Painter

2002, 310 p

Spoiler alert. 

The author of this book was 83 years old when this book was published.  It was the product of a writing course undertaken at Holmesglen TAFE in her later years, and its narrative voice is just a little stilted.  But she is conscious that she is crafting a narrative, as well as relating it and so she makes the decision to withhold and complicate information so that the reader experiences the same partial and confused state that she did for so many years:

Because memories are often disjointed, I had two choices in dealing with them.

The first was to tidy them all up into a neat chronological order, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  But a lifetime of reading wonderful books has made me a highly critical reader, and I feared that choice might make for a very flat narrative.

The other choice was to present the reader with the same gaps, the same clues, and the same dilemmas as I had, so that the effect would be the same: What’s going on? Who in this dangerous and contradictory world can be trusted? Who are the goodies in white hats and who are the baddies in black hats?

Tough, reader! I have chosen for you the hard option   (p. vii)

This stylistic choice works well, and it is the promise that it will all come clear that draws the reader through the narrative.  There seems to be such a disconnect between what seems like an ordinary-enough life with husband, children, career, house, brothers and sisters, juxtaposed with a nightmare existence of extreme brutality.  This disconnect becomes even stronger in part 2 where, tangled in amongst the narrator’s story of breakdowns and therapy, details of the abuse are released in jerks and flashes- as indeed, such searing and painful memories must be.

But the reader is left with the final question of credibility, and here I find myself in uncomfortable territory.  I had let suggestions of the paranormal go through in Part I, but with the litany of abuse and crime in Parts II and the Epilogue  of the book, drawn out through extensive therapy, and encompassing recovered memories at and before birth, I found myself stepping back and asking “Do I really believe all this?” Although I feel almost disloyal to the narrator in distancing myself from these recovered memories,  I just cannot credit the bloodshed and crime without external corroboration.

I’m obviously not alone in my hesitation as this Sydney Morning Herald review shows.  The Bean Patch was awarded the Dobbie award in 2003 for a first book by an Australian woman writer.  The book is marketed and publicized as ‘memoir’.  Deborah Adelaide, one of the judges for the award is quoted in the review as saying that the truth or otherwise of parts of the memoir is immaterial:

Because we know it is based on her life, and the thrust of the story is true, to me the details don’t really matter

Ah, but it’s more than just details- it’s the whole premise of the book.  All memoirs are constructed narratives, and the reader takes on the author’s part in this construction as part of the memoir genre, aware that these choices are an inherent part of what is being offered.  There is always the question of fidelity and soundness of the architecture by which the author has chosen to structure the narrative, but if the whole intent of the endeavour is suspect???  I’m not sure.

Update 27 August 2014

The Age this morning published a beautifully crafted obituary for Shirley Painter (3-11-1918 – 29-07-2104) written with the assistance of family members.  It notes that:

Shirley was dux of both her primary school and MacRobertson Girls’ High School and earned an honours arts degree from Melbourne University.  She married and raised three children.

She taught Latin and English with diligence and care at St Catherine’s Secondary School for Many years. .. She was supported financially to go on to university by a bursary created by her teachers who recognized her extraordinary ability.  As a teacher she gave her tireless support and encouragement to young women seeking to find that spark in knowledge and thought that might enliven them.  She felt angry, in recent years, that free education had become a thing of the past….

Shirley was a lover of art, film and literature and a member of book clubs, film groups, bridge clubs, ACSA (Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse) and Probus…

Shirley is survived by her three daughter, four grandchildren and the legacy of hope and love she embodied.


At the NGV: ‘The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-1937’

Some months ago we went to the NGV to see the Vienna Art and Design exhibition.  As you walked around that exhibition, which took a largely chronological approach, the 20th century works in the final rooms became increasingly fractured, subversive and unsettling, and the political chill of the approaching Nazism was almost palpable.

However, entering this current exhibition, part of the Art Gallery of NSW’s travelling exhibition program,  what had seemed to be subversive in the Vienna exhibition now appeared defiant and brave.  As a child, one of my favourite stories was The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, where a shard from an evil, broken mirror enters the eye and makes everything appear ugly.  Shards have warped the vision of the world here- a perverted, edgy, dissonant world- but it’s also a world clearly responding to the ugliness outside of  war, defeat, inflation, radicalism and increasing totalitarianism.

The shadows of World War I are long, and they manifest themselves through confronting depictions of maimed soldiers, pushed to the margins of society.  Were disfigured soldiers found in English art of the same period?- I’m not aware that they were.  I’m sure that the wounded were just as present but their meaning was different for the side that ‘won’ the war.

There is also the underlying menace of sexual violence, exemplified by Davringhausen’s painting of Der Lustmorder (The Sex Murderer) where a sickly, boyish prostitute lies on a bed oblivious to the murderer lying underneath (see here)  and there are film clips of abducted women in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and debased women in Metropolis.  This is an ugly world.

The last room of the exhibition has archival footage showing Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibition, where works such as these were collected and shown, captioned with ridicule, before being destroyed or sold off onto the international market.  One of the final paintings in the exhibition is The Mad Square, from which the exhibition takes its name, by Felix Nussbaum, depicting artists protesting against their exclusion from the Prussian Academy of Arts, their artworks tucked under their arms.  It is sobering to remember that Nussbaum and his entire family perished in the concentration camps.

This is an unsettling exhibition.  After a while, the blockbuster exhibitions tend to merge into a bit of an blur  (did we see that at The Impressionists? or Vienna? or Dutch Masters?) but I think that this exhibition stands alone. Well worth seeing.

There’s an excellent companion website here at the Art Gallery of NSW.

‘Shadowboxing’ by Tony Birch

2006, 178 p.

Shadowboxing is a collection of ten linked, largely autobiographical short stories set in Fitzroy during the 1960s.  As such, it ticks all my boxes: Melbourne-based, baby-boomer, cumulative stories.  They stand alone quite well, while building up into a longer-term, more nuanced work, and indeed apparently several had been published previously and were reworked for this collection.

The stories are written in the first person by the fictional Michael Byrne, looking back as a young father on his own childhood.  He was brought up in one of the sidestreets in Fitzroy where the houses were demolished as part of a slum-clearance program in the 1960s.  As such, it is a vanished landscape, and many of the attitudes of the people living there have vanished too.  Children had their own world, largely divorced from that of adults; people looked the other way from domestic violence in their own families and the families of their neighbours; there was an expectation that boys needed a good slap around the ears from their peers and older men to be a ‘real man’; mothers were alternately put onto a pedestal and abused.

The relationship that lies at the heart of these stories is that of Michael and his abusive, wounded, father.  Indeed, many of these stories are observations on masculinity and fatherhood and Birch resists the temptation to give easy, feel-good answers.  Redemption and forgiveness are here, but they are both fragile and deeply ambivalent.

The Melbourne depicted here, while in many ways more closely aligned with working-class slum suburbs across the world, is clearly recognizable to Melburnians.  I’m surprised that ‘The Return’ hasn’t been picked up in an anthology of  Australian Christmas stories because, while it describes a December Melbourne well known to Melbourne baby-boomers, it also captures the tenderness that can exist between an older brother and his little sister.

These are terrific stories, honing in on small details and events and yet able to take big strides across a family’s history-  indeed, across the history of a suburb and a generation- as well.

Update: You might be interested in the Radio National Hindsight program about the slum clearances in Fitzroy that Andrew mentions in his comment below.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: it was the December read for the Yahoo Groups Australian Literature group

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

The dilemmas of reading a sequel

At the moment I’m reading River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, the second in what will be the Ibis trilogy.  I very much enjoyed the first book Sea of Poppies, written in 2008 which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

So, some eighteen months later, here I am with the second installment. The sad reality is that I really can’t remember all that much about the first, except that I enjoyed it.  Even my own blog post doesn’t enlighten me particularly.  I’m aware that he’s providing small snippets of back story for those who have not read the first book, but they’re not evocative enough to trigger a rush of memories.  At the moment, all they’re doing is frustrating me- should I remember more about this character???

Reading a trilogy as it is being produced, rather than coming to it later as a finished product, means that there is often a long waiting time between volumes- three years in this case.  Authors generally do back track a bit, but there’s a limit to how much they’re able to do this without retelling the first story over again.  I assume that they write so that a new reader could read it without having read the first book.  However, while the author has probably been living with his characters – and maybe even his/her vision for the work as a whole , for years- readers (or at least, I)  don’t have this same level of intimacy and have moved on to other books and other stories.

So what to do? Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can easily find a plot summary of the earlier book but somehow that feels like cheating.  I feel as if the book should be able to stand on its own two feet, but I’m willing to admit that perhaps the problem in this case lies more with the reader than the author.

Dammit- I’m going to do it.  Lord Wiki, here I come.


An Australian Christmas c.1963

Christmas seemed so much more fun when you were a kid.  Will our children and grandchildren look back at their Christmases with such fondness? I hope so.

My Mum was the youngest of seven and no doubt as the spoilt youngest child, managed to avoid doing Christmas dinner until I was about thirteen years old. Until then, every Christmas was the same with lunch and dinner over at Auntie Flo’s and it is these Christmases that I think back on.

Father Christmas would come as he could always be relied to do, leaving presents in a pillow case at the end of the bed. He was an orderly Santa- along with larger presents there would always be a rectangular box of assorted lollies that included Fruit Pastilles (both multicoloured and blackberry), a Choo-Choo bar and a Kit Kat.  There would be a glass jar jar of puce-coloured candied peanuts: the jar itself bore a very strong resemblance to a  jar that might once have held Vegemite or Kraft Creamed Cheese spread, and I’m almost sure that it did.  Among other presents, there was always a book for me, sourced from a large box of remaindered children’s books that my parents bought at auction somewhere.  As a result, the book itself was pretty hit-or-miss, although one year it was Charles Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare , another year a collection of Greek myths.   One particularly memorable year there was a wooden paddle-board that obviously didn’t fit in the pillow case which was maneuvered into my room by Santa with much un-Santa-like giggling and muffled laughter.  On another earlier Christmas, Santa brought my doll Debbie in a pink dress in a proper doll box.  There was always, always an orange at the bottom of the pillow case.

Then over to my Auntie Flo and Uncle Ted’s for Christmas lunch. They lived in Waiora Rd Heidelberg Heights in a house with huge gardens, overlooking the Yarra Valley right across to the Dandenongs.  I always loved going there. Although I was a little scared of my uncle’s very dry sense of humour and bristling moustache, I loved my Auntie Flo, my favourite aunt and my godmother.   Girl cousins were fairly rare in my family- four girls to eleven boys.  Auntie Flo didn’t have a daughter, and I always felt very special with her. My cousins Wayne and Paul held all of the attraction of older male cousins: they were handsome, funny and big and very affectionate to their little girl cousin.   The Christmas I can remember most clearly was a very hot day, so the canvas awnings were all pulled down, bathing the inside of the house in a green, almost underwater light.  The house  smelt of Christmas pudding that would have been bubbling away for hours: I now make the pudding for my own family to the same recipe, amused every year at how much alcohol is in this pudding that was eagerly eaten by a family of teetotallers (3 tablespoons of spirits; 200 ml beer).  After lunch, more presents- always something special from Auntie Flo, and once even a doll’s house WITH STEPS made by my cousin Wayne in woodwork, all decked out in curtain and carpet scraps from their own decorating and my initials JL in gold paint over the front door.

I'm sitting on the extreme left hand side at the back. My brother Colin is sitting 5 from the left with Auntie Flo in the middle, 9 from the left. I THINK that Cousin Paul is wearing sunglasses 11 along, with his brother Cousin Wayne turning towards him. Mum is seond from the right hand side. Uncle Ted is sitting on the ground at front left, and my brother Rohan is sitting on Dad's lap front centre.

After lunch, the other cousins would come over- all older than us- and loud and funny and boisterous.  Auntie Flo and Uncle Ted had a fully tiled inground pool, which was rare in those days, complete with a changing room up the back, and footbaths set into the concrete to wash the grass from your feet before going in.  Once the obligatory and scrupulously kept hour for our “dinner to go down” elapsed (does anyone do that these days?), it was into the pool. They had inner tube tyre rings in the pool, and there would be a rough game of pool basketball, races up and down the pool and  pool-wrestling perched on top of my cousins’ shoulders.  Once our fingers were corrugated and our lips blue with the cold from being in for so long, we’d play shuttlecock on another terrace of the lawn, with the shadows from the trees lengthening around us.

Yet more food- cold meat brought by my butcher Uncle from Geelong (and maybe the butcher uncle from Reservoir?), salads, my mum’s famous pavlova and my Auntie Flo’s shortbread.  I once announced that I prefered Auntie Flo’s shortbread to my mother’s: I was not popular.  Another family of cousins had joined us by this stage, and then there would be the third round of presents, although often smaller ones by this stage.

By now, there would be much rubbing of little eyes and we’d head off home. We travelled out of our way to see the Boulevard lights in East Ivanhoe- strings of multicoloured globe lights and decorated gardens.  There would be one or two illuminated houses, then a few more, then the main display, concentrated in the middle of this long, curving street.  Crowds would cluster around these main houses, and the traffic would slow to a crawl.  Little did I realize that some 15  years later I would marry the little boy who then lived in the house on the bend with the most spectacular lights, and that 20 years later the week-long display of “the lights” would be an integral part of my own children’s Christmas.

But gradually the gaps between the displays would get wider and wider, until there would be just one or two outlying houses and the car would finally reach Burke Rd.  It was then- and only then- that I would know that Christmas was over for that year.

Happy Christmas.

Count me in too!

The Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge sets out to actively promote the reading and reviewing of Australian women’s writing.  It shouldn’t be necessary, but this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist without a single female author and the imbalance of women writers (18/48) in the National Year of Reading’s Our Story  suggests that it is.

The idea is that you  sign up for reading and reviewing books by Australian women writers during 2012.  You can read in one or multiple genres, and you select the number of reviews you’d like to commit to.   There’s genres listed there that I’m not particularly enamoured of (romance, crime, SF) so I’ll limit myself to fiction and nonfiction and aspire to be a Franklin-fantastic Dabbler (i.e. read 10 books and review four).

Gender bias in reading is so insidious.  I would have thought that I already leaned towards female writers in my fiction reading, but when I count through my Australian literature reviews for 2011, I’ve reviewed nine male writers against eight female.  I didn’t include Australian non-fiction largely because I knew that it would make the statistic look even worse!  Given that I try to read the Miles Franklin shortlist each year, the male authors ticked up during the middle of the year and it was only a bout of female writing at the beginning of the year that brought some semblance of balance to my figures.

So here goes in 2012

‘The Great Melody’ by Conor Cruise O’Brien

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke

1992,  618 p

I’m not in the habit of reading 600 page tomes about eighteenth-century history in bed before sleep, and I must admit that it took me about six weeks to get through this book.  The eighteenth-century is a foreign country to me in a way that the nineteenth-century isn’t, and I have a towering pile of other books that I should be reading instead- so why was I reading this?

One reason was the subtitle “A Thematic Biography”.  I find it hard to clearly say what my own writing is- I can say what it isn’t  (not a straight biography; not a judicial biography) but somewhat harder to say what it is.  I wasn’t quite sure what a “thematic biography” is, or how it differs from any other biography.

The second reason was that I keep coming across quotations from Burke, or people who quote him.  Edmund Burke (1729?-1797) was a statesman, orator, writer and member of the House of Commons. He was known as a “Rockingham Whig” at a time when there were not so much political parties as constellations of politicians who would cluster around a particular individual- perhaps similar to the “Petro Georgiou Liberals”- not a party in its own right, but a political flavour exemplified by one person. I know that he came to be associated with conservatism and yet I’ve heard him described as a classic liberal as well.  On consulting my Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, I find him well represented (more than George Bernard Shaw and Macaulay; nowhere near Milton, Pope and Shakespeare!) although it seems that he didn’t say that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” even though it is often attributed to him.  What he did say was

When bad men combine, the good must associate;else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle. (Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents).

  I’m aware of ‘Burke’s Law’ that could be used to remove colonial officials and -importantly for my work- judges from their colonial posts.  I knew that Burke was a great orator, and that he had been bitterly critical of the French Revolution right from the start….and that’s about it.

O’Brien identifies this book as a thematic biography because it is not so much about Burke as a man – certainly his intimate family life, his marriage, his friendships are almost completely absent- as about the four main political issues on which he became known as spokesman.  O’Brien picks up on two stanzas of a W. B. Yeats poem ‘The Seven Sages’

American colonies, Ireland, France and India

Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it

and argues that ‘it’ is ‘ abuse of power’. Burke saw, and deplored, abuse of power exemplified through Britain’s declaration of war on the American colonies, the Catholic question in Ireland, the widespread admiration of the early days at least of the French Revolution, and in the failure in Parliament of his attempt to impeach Warren Hastings in India.  It is a thematic biography in that the chapters circle between Ireland, America, India and France in a roughly chronological fashion, darting back in several places to revisit the idea of the ‘great melody’. The book assumes familiarity with these issues, and the minutiae of British Parliamentary Politics  and I struggled with the Indian section in particular.  I do now, however, know what Barry Jones was getting at with the Governor General of Bengal question on Pick-a-Box

O’Brien suggests that, despite identifying himself as a member of the Anglican communion of the Church of Ireland, Burke actually followed his mother’s Catholicism, and although claiming a Quaker school as the site of  his first education, he may have instead attending a Catholic hedge-school.  Burke’s sublimated and unacknowledged Catholicism, he argues, was the lens through which he decided his stance of the issues of American, French and Indian political events, even though he never clearly identified it as such.

The second theme that runs through this book is O’Brien’s own dispute with historians, particularly those influenced by Louis Namier who have questioned Burke’s significance and highlighted the inconsistencies in his approach.  He certainly doesn’t hold back against these “pullulating insects of trivialising calumny” (p. 306) and he does so far too often.  At times he draws a very fine line.  He criticizes, for example, Lucy Sutherland and others of the Namier school for conflating  “documentary gaps” and “silence”-

But the two are not the same; not by any means.  A documentary gap often reflects a period of particularly intense communication. The people concerned are not in correspondence, because they are in daily conversation…What an eerie place, …is eighteenth century London, once it has undergone Namierisation! This is a world in which no one ever talks to anyone else.  All communication is in writing.  The spaces between the bouts of penmanship are filled with silence. Anything that doesn’t get written down doesn’t happen. (p.333)

Yet O’Brien himself makes much of Burke’s silences, especially over Ireland, both as a revealing political stance and as a sign of Burke’s inner psychological tension.  I’m a bit uncomfortable about extrapolating from the utterances and silences of the public record in Burke’s own writings and in his Parliamentary speeches-  ‘performances’ for a specific political and strategic purpose- and psychological explanations of the inner man.  However, in trying to capture the inner man O’Brien is constrained by his material, given that Burke himself destroyed all personal papers, and this work is rooted deeply in the public arena.

The other part of the subheading is “commented anthology”, and much of the book quotes directly and at length from Burke’s own words.  There was a great deal of this, and while bristling with lacerating observations and wit in places, there was also a lot of high-flown rhetoric that flew right past me propped up in bed with my eyelids drooping.  Alas, I found nothing about ‘Burke’s Law’ but I do think that I have a more nuanced perception of Burke and his influence both on parliamentarians at the time and later.


Inspired by the ‘Pioneers of Bushwalking’ exhibition,  I turned to an article in the most recent Victorian Historical Journal about the Melbourne Walking Club’s trek to Wonnangatta in Easter 1936.  The article, written by one of the walkers is written in the rather flippant, “what-an-adventure!” tone that we use for holiday emails or blogs today. What really intrigued me in the article was a photograph accompanying the article, now part of the RHSV archives, showing Wonnangatta homestead as a mere speck on a wide, grassed plain that opened up amongst the folds of the surrounding mountain peaks.  The photograph below is not the one in the article but it gives an idea of the remoteness of Wonnangatta and the splendour of the landscape.  What particularly struck me was that there are no roads at all.

Wonnangatta was, until late in the 20th century, Victoria’s most remote high country cattle station.  It is located in the high country east of Mansfield and as late as 1947 it could be claimed that there were no records of a wheeled vehicle ever visiting it (although the claim was qualified by noting that a dray was built in-situ at Wonnangatta and two bicycles were carried in). It is two-and-a-half day’s horse ride from Mansfield, and a day-and-a-half from Dargo.

It is ironic that in many ways Wonnangatta was more accessible in the 1860s than it was a hundred years later (after which four-wheel drives became more common).  During the 1860s Gippsland gold rush a number of small towns sprouted around the Crooked River, Snake Creek and Jungle Creek diggings, connected by a pack-horse trail. Twenty to thirty horses would be saddled with two padded flaps on either side, joined at the top with iron loops like an inverted U to which hooks were attached and loads secured.

Wonnangatta at the time lay on this trail, and was visited by William Bryce and his pack-train who brought supplies to Oliver Smith who had settled there with his sons, his second ‘wife’ and her son Harry from a previous marriage.  Bryce decided to bring his wife and six children there as well, and the men from the two families worked together to build Wonnangatta Homestead.

What an isolated life for these two families!  Ellen Smith died in childbirth in 1873, giving birth to twins who both died within a week.  Oliver Smith quit the station with his sons, signing it over to Bryce and did not return, although his youngest son Harry did come back later.   Two years later, Mrs Bryce also gave birth to twins, attended only by her thirteen year old daughter. A year later the ninth and  final child, Cornelius, was born.

Wonnangatta Homestead itself consisted of two parts.  The first section, constructed jointly by Bryce and Oliver and Harry Smith consisted of five rooms, and this was extended by a second section of nine rooms, joined to the first by a covered verandah.  Bryce employed a cabinet maker to assist with the construction, and he built furniture from locally grown blackwood that was so heavy and well-constructed that it was left behind when the homestead was sold in 1914 to pastoralists who let it fall into disrepair when they used it as a storage shed.  In the main bedroom was a triple-doored wardrobe almost ceiling height with a large drawer at the base; there were carved mantlepieces, and elaborate sideboards, tables, chairs and ottomans.  The house was wall-papered in a green-and-gold design throughout (even the kitchen!), although in later years this was covered by layers of newspapers.  The homestead survived the 1939 bushfires, only to be burnt down some time between a visit in 1955 and the next visit two years later in 1957.

Although remarkable for its remoteness, Wonnangatta may have remained largely unknown except for two murders which occurred there in December 1917/January 1918.  The body of the caretaker, Jim Barclay was discovered by one of Wonnangatta’s first white occupants, Harry Smith, who lived in (relatively) nearby Eaglevale, by now an elderly man, who used to call in one every three weeks or so with the mail.  At first the cook John Bamford was suspected of the murder, but his body was also found some months later.  The mystery was never solved, despite wide coverage of the inquests and investigation in the newspapers.

The mystery of the murder is the main focus of a small publication on Wonnangatta called The Saga of Henry Smith by Geoffrey H. Mewton, with contributions by B. Alex Trahair and Ellen Walsh.  This is a small, typewritten publication of 24 pages, written in Melbourne in October 1984.  It comes with a rather forthright claim to accuracy:

This is a historically accurate account of some of the events which took place in the Wonnangatta Valley in northern Gippsland and the surrounding mountainous country from the early 1860s until the year 1945 when Harry Smith died.  This area is probably the most isolated and remote part of Victoria and until recently was unknown to most people, except of course to the few inhabitants themselves and the very occasional and more adventurous walker. … Before commencing writing I had read many books on the general subject of the mountains and the people who lived in them and with the exception of Wallace Mortimer, I was so surprised to find many authors giving inaccurate accounts of these people, particularly regarding the mysterious murders which occurred there, that I felt in necessary to make an accurate record.

The following is therefore the outcome of talks with people who lived in this country…Nothing is mentioned that is not from first hand information from talks with the people involved.  Nothing is the result of gossip or hearsay. (Foreword)

A similar claim to accuracy is found in the aforementioned Mortimer book History of Wonnangatta Station by Wallace Malcolm Mortimer, published in 1980:

This book is not intended as a novel, but simply as a document of facts.  There is very little information in this book that is hearsay; all statements have been checked and verified by documents, or are quoted from first hand knowledge.  In the course of research hundreds of miles have been travelled, and no stone has been left unturned in an attempt to gain the truth. (Author’s Note).

Neither book names the perpetrator/s of the murders, although they both hint that the authors, like their informants from the Wonnangatta area, know but they ain’t telling.

It is no doubt a reflection of their time and purpose, but both books blithely assume (despite the very name of the homestead and the nearby river) that this vast, grassed area was some kind of untouched pastoral Eden, lying waiting to be discovered.  Of course, such a fertile, watered expanse would have been well known to the local aboriginal people who had incorporated it into their  dreamings, along with all the mountains and waterways of the surrounding areas.  This is mentioned, almost in passing on p. 63 of Mortimer’s book where Bryce and another farmer, Riggall were the first white people to see Lake Tali Kargn in the heart of the forest near Mt Wellington, closer to Dargo.

As Mortimer notes:

Evidently during one of Bryce’s visits to Glenfallock he was out riding with Riggall and an aboriginal who worked on the station.  As they approached a certain tract of the country the aborigine, who was very old, became agitated and told them not to go any further because of the evil spirits.  This only spurred their curiosity and they rode on and found no evil spirits but the mountain lake.  Tali Karng is aboriginal for “Little Lake”, and the aborigines believed that it was inhabited by evil spirits because they could see water running into the lake but no evidence of water running out. (p.63)

Where the Mewton book clearly focusses on Harry Smith, who had a rather ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ reputation, I was less clear about the intent of the Mortimer book.  However, this all came clear in the final chapters where he mounts a lengthy argument for the building of a road between Buffalo and Wonnangatta as a way of opening up tourism, driving and forestry traffic between Gippsland and the high country.

I’m rather glad to think that his pleas fell on deaf ears, although it does seem from a Google search that 4 wheel drivers, deer stalkers and bushwalkers make their pilgrimages there.  It was also the site of a mountain cattlemen’s protest ride in recent years as part of their lobbying to have National Parks re-opened for cattle grazing. How curious that politics should reach all the way to this remote spot.


Brennan, Nial ‘Historical Aspects of the Wonnangatta Valley’ Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 22, 1947, pp. 67-84  (available online at SLV)

Davey, Trevor W. ‘The Trail to Wonnangatta’ Victorian Historical Journal Vol 82, No. 2 November 2011 p.217-235

Hogan, Peter ‘The Trail to Wonnangatta, Easter 1936: Introduction’ Victorian Historical Journal Vol 82, No. 2 November 2011 p.212-216

Mewton, Geoffrey H. The Saga of Harry Smith, Melbourne, typescript, 1984

Mortimer, Wallace Malcolm History of Wonnangatta Station, Melbourne, Spectrum Publications, 1980


Argus 28 February 1918

Argus 1 March 1918

Argus 2 March 1918

that’s enough- search for yourself!!!

‘Walking on Water: A Life in the Law’ by Chester Porter

2003, 309 p.

One of the high points of my CAE bookgroup meetings (a.k.a. The Ladies Who Say Ooooh)  is when the book for the upcoming month is fished up out of the plastic box and brandished with a flourish. I’ve found recently that one advantage of actually doing some work on my thesis is that I am no longer likely to look at the next month’s offering and think “Damn, I’ve already read it!”. When our book for our final meeting was revealed last month, I found myself thinking “Good grief, who on earth chose this?” because it was Chester Porter’s memoir Walking on Water: A Life in the Law.

At first I thought that I’d never heard of the man, but I soon realized that I had without realizing it.  Most famously, he worked as Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into the convictions of  Lindy and Michael Chamberlain case, and he successfully defended Det. Sergeant Roger Rogerson on a bribery charge. He was known as “the smiling funnel web” and the title of the book comes from a quip directed towards him that “Chester Porter Walks on Water”.

Even though I encountered this book as part of my “off-duty” reading, I was very happy to read it in relation to Judge Willis.  The little gremlin of self-doubt that lives in my head regularly derides my ability to write about a man of the law (albeit a 19th century colonial man of the law) when I have no experience of that milieu at all.  The 19th century judicial culture is something that I am deducing for myself, largely from negative evidence of Willis’ breaches of judicial etiquette, rather than from any deliberate exposition of it by an insider.   So what did this book, written by a late twentieth century Australian barrister show me?

First, that even though a man might be a highly educated, brilliant barrister, he is not necessarily a successful memoirist.  Although Porter clearly expresses a number of opinions about the law, they are hedged with qualifications and nimble logical footwork. The book reads like a series of mini-essays which, from a reader’s perspective, made it easy to abandon a chapter or two if one’s attention was wandering.  There was no discernible overarching structure or motif to tie the book together.  In several places it was quite repetitious and the prose was doggedly careful. His daughter is the late poet Dorothy Porter, but whatever else she gained from her father- and I am sure that there is much- there is little poetry here.

Second, the book shares with military memoirs that felt need on the writer’s part to doff one’s hat (wig?) to learned colleagues, by praising them, rather formulaically, in passing.  Hence, many of his associates are named with the bracketed annotation (now SC; now QC, now Supreme Court Judge).  Given this emphasis on naming his colleagues, it seemed strange that there was no index.

I found myself wondering about the audience for the book. The frequent greetings-in-print that he gives to his colleagues suggests that he sees them as one readership, but the careful explanations and observations about the law are aimed at a more general lay readership.  The author comes over as a somewhat stilted, and rather old-fashionably decent man, able to look back at his life and acknowledge mistakes, and reticent about his family and private life.

Nonetheless, a book can work on one level while being perhaps less successful on another.  Despite my qualms about the structuring and language of the book, I found myself listening carefully to the radio report of evidence given recently by Ian Macdonald  at the recent Independent Commission Against Corruption hearing. It was another cross-examiner at work because Chester Porter retired eleven years ago, but as I listened I found myself thinking about the construction of a chain of questions and responses as an intellectual and rhetorical exercise. And as I read about the successful appeal of Jeffrey Gilham a few days ago, Porter’s warnings about expert testimony, the demeanor of witnesses and the shortcomings of police evidence loomed large in my mind.

My rating: 6/10

Read because: it was a face-to-face bookgroup choice

Copy sourced from: Council of Adult Education Book Groups

‘Pioneers of Bushwalking’ Exhibition at the RHSV

I’m up to my habitual practice of catching an exhibition in its closing days again. This time it is the ‘Pioneers of Bushwalking’ exhibition at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.  It was officially launched on the 24th of October by that intrepid bushwalker, Tim Holding M.P. and closes this coming Friday 9 December.

Between 2004 and 2010 the RHSV was donated archival material from the Melbourne Walking Club  including photograph albums, maps and archival material. The club was founded in 1894 as a male-only enterprise: a status which it (rather surprisingly)  still holds today, although women are welcome to attend ‘many’ of their events as ‘visitors’.  Early on it encouraged race-walking, and the exhibition shows two Edwardian gentlemen strutting along in that curious gait. However, it seems that a major part of their activities involved bushwalking, particularly in the high country mountain areas.

The photograph albums in particular are fascinating.  They are beautifully presented and labelled, and they document trips particularly in the 1930s around Healesville, Gippsland and the snowfields.  It looks to be a damned uncomfortable hobby, sleeping on groundsheets under the stars, or under tents with do-it-yourself waterproofing.  There’s a curious flavour to the exhibition though- lots of jolly-ho, rather private-boys’-school humour, and an unsettling hint of homophobia in one particular publication discreetly placed on a lower display shelf.

Looking at the names of the stalwart members, I was attracted by the name ‘Chris Bailey’, a now-deceased but well known Ivanhoe resident who was, among many other things, President of the Heidelberg Historical Society and heavily involved in conservation of the Yarra River. My husband noted R. H. Croll, prominent in athletic, literary and arts circles.

I thought of both these men whose names seem to pop up in varied contexts as I browsed the glossy magazine that came with The Age this morning.  It lists Melbourne’s 100 most “influential, inspirational, provocative and creative” people for 2011.  The 100 are arranged by theme: ‘provocateurs’ (the men and women shaking things up around this place); ‘power partnerships’ (when two heads are much better than one); ’cause and effect’ (the people encouraging us to give a little bit- or a lot; ‘social glue’ (Who brings everybody together to make things happen?); ‘bright ideas’ (Why didn’t we think of that?) ; ‘My first time’ (i.e. people’s debut events);   ’20/20′ (twenty inspirational people all in their twenties); ‘global sensations’; ‘changing lives’ (making a difference to people’s lives; ‘music’ and ‘from these hands’ (creative people).  Just flipping through, there is a strong entrepreneurial theme running through them, along with activism, sport, politics,and an emphasis on youth- although that may well just be me getting older!

I wonder what themes a similar list for the early 1900s would emphasize?  I think that early 1900s examples could be found under each of these headings- for example, there would be examples of young men, clever inventions, and provocateurs- but I think that the language to talk about them would have been different.   I’m sure that formal clubs and societies, organized with archives and meetings (just like the Melbourne Walking Club), would be far more prominent than the more ephemeral and individual-based networks that we see today.