Monthly Archives: May 2013

Banyule Homestead VCAT appeal

2011_06_04. Banyule Homestead. 1.

The VCAT hearing over the subdivision of Banyule Homestead is scheduled for Wednesday 29th, Thursday 30th and Friday 31st May at VCAT, 55 King Street Melbourne, commencing at 10.00 a.m.

VCAT hearings are open to the public.

The case has been brought by Banyule Management Pty Ltd to challenge Banyule Council’s refusal to grant a permit to subdivide the grounds surrounding the homestead in order to build three luxury townhouses.  In the photograph above, the townhouses will be built to the left of the homestead.

After the hearing, the approximate waiting time for a written decision is 4-6 weeks.

My other blog, BanyuleHomestead gives more information about Banyule Homestead, a pre-gold rush mansion that is too important to Victoria’s history to be compromised by inappropriate development.

Heide Gallery in Autumn

The redoubtable Sarah Palin is famously and erroneously noted for announcing  that she could see Russia from her porch.  Well, it’s not quite as exotic but if I had known that it was there, I would have been able to see Heide from our front porch as a child growing up in Heidelberg.  However, I was not at all aware that John and Sunday Reed lived on the hillside across the river until they were long gone and Heide Museum of Modern Art had been opened in what had been their homes.

Autumn is a lovely time to visit Heide.  The deciduous trees stand out against the bushland setting.

Heide Gardens, Bulleen May 2013

Heide Gardens, Bulleen May 2013

We’ve been to Heide several times but it’s always seemed that one or other of the three galleries has been closed either for construction or refurbishment.  But when we went last week, all three were open and bustling.

Heide I is a weatherboard farm house that the Reeds renovated in French Provincial style after purchasing the property in 1932.

Heide I

Heide I

At various times Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, John Perceval and Danila Vassilief joined them there.   Sidney Nolan painted his Ned Kelly series in the dining room.  The study has been left much as it was and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the conversations, the wine, the cigarettes, the laughter, the arguments.  I wish that there were other photographs of the way it looked when they all lived there.

Rear view Heide I

Rear view Heide I

Heide I features an exhibition called “The Sometimes Chaotic World of Mike Brown”.  You can see a slideshow of his work here . The first image shows him painting the dining room at Heide I.  His work referenced pop lyrics, pornography, psychedelics, tribal art, Dadaism and garbage and he was the only Australian artist to be successfully convicted of obscenity.

In 1963 the Reed commissioned architect David McGlashan to build Heide II, a grey concrete structure with huge north-facing windows, a cantilevered staircase and mezzanine and a snug conversation space with open fire.  It was designed to be a ‘gallery to be lived in’  and small pictures in each room show the ways that it was used domestically while the Reeds lived there. There’s a display ‘Collage’ in Heide II.  The Reeds lived there until 1980 when  they sold Heide to the Victorian Government, and shifted back into Heide I.  They hadn’t been living back in Heide I before they died in December 1981 just ten days apart.


Looking out from Heide II

Heide III is a purpose-built gallery built of black titanium zinc and completed in 2006.  It is a striking building, but because it was designed as a gallery, it doesn’t have the same connotations of living-as-art that the other two buildings have.


Heide III

Until July 21, Heide III features an exhibition ‘Big Game Hunting’ by Fiona Hall.  Like the Mike Brown exhibition in Heide I, it is a very political exhibition with repeated themes of the threats of war-mongering and abuse of the environment.

The gardens of Heide are beautiful. Sunday Reed’s kitchen garden has been rehabilitated and now supplies Cafe Vue.  Her Heart Garden is now visible.

Kitchen garden adjacent to Heide I

Kitchen garden adjacent to Heide I

Entry to the Heide Galleries (I, II and III) costs $14.00 for all three.  The gardens and sculpture park are free.

[And of course, since you’re in the neighbourhood, you could visit the Heidelberg Historical Society Museum on a Sunday afternoon between 2.00 and 5.00 pm to see the Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin exhibition ‘Against the Forces’.  Cost $5.00.  I’ll write more about it soon]

Vale Hazel Hawke


This morning’s Age had eleven full pages and one editorial devoted to the Ford closure.  On page 13 there was a 9 paragraph story about the death of Hazel Hawke, barely 1/4 of a page.  Her obituary, written by Gerry Carman, was headed “A woman with homespun appeal”.

I’d like to think that The Age could do better than that.

I was not particularly impressed by the writing style in the book Hazel’s Journey: A Personal Experience of Alzheimers.  But I deeply admired the woman it described: her resilience, her warmth and her sheer courage in agreeing to become the public face of Alzheimers.

When I heard that she had died, I felt so sad for her family because I know what such a death would have meant.  Vale Hazel.


‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins


2012,  288

One of the fundamental and potentially riskiest decisions that an author makes is the narrative voice that s/he adopts to tell the story.  It doesn’t come much riskier than this:

Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep. Strong though she was,  she was weak from my birth, and as she dug the wind filled the hole with leaves and the rain collapsed it with mud so that all was left was a wet and spindly bed… I opened my mouth wide to make a sound, but instead of air there was only fluid and as I gasped I felt my lungs fold in.  In that first light of morning my body contorted and I saw my own fingers reaching up to her, desperate things.  She held them and I felt them still and I felt them collapse.  And then she said Shhh, shhh, my darling. And then she slit my throat.

I should not have seen the sky turn pink or the day seep in.  I should not have seen my mother’s pale arms sweep out and heap wet earth upon me or the white birds fan out over he head.

But I did.  (p. 9)

A newborn baby as narrator rather does your head in if you think about it too much.  In Courtney Collins’ hands, though, the baby-narrator can see all things, know all things, and be as one with the sky, the earth, the universe.  It also frees the author for some beautiful, lyrical writing that would perhaps be too baroque and overwrought otherwise.

The Burial is based on the true-life story of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, a bushranger who ranged around the Wollemi area in the 1920s.  A ‘wanted’ poster (which I assume is authentic??) for here can be seen here  and a brief account of her life by her granddaughter can be found here.  Both in fact and in this novel, Hickman was a circus performer, cattle rustler and rider.

This post about the real life Jessie Hickman here mentions her marriage to the brutal Fitz, thus opening up the space for Collins’ story as Jessie escapes Fitz into the bush.  She is pursued by many men, chasing her for many different reasons: her Aboriginal lover Jack Brown, the opium-addicted Sergeant Barlow, and the violent gun-happy posse of local farmers bent on revenge and punishment for the theft of their cattle.  The feeling of them closing in on her drives the narrative, and it comes almost as a shock when the baby-voice narrator interposes itself again.

Collins has many balls in the air here: the dead but all-seeing baby, the circus back-story, a somewhat superfluous story of a cattle-rustling gang that she joins with in the folds of the mountains, an encounter with a Chinese prostitute and a love story.  While they were perhaps necessary to the knitting together of the plot, just the escape and the flight would have been enough for me.

This book has been likened to Cormac McCarthy’s work (indeed, the  frontcover is rather McCarthy-esque) and was eagerly anticipated after acclaim in its manuscript form.  I can see the parallels with McCarthy, but what I liked in this book was the theme of thwarted maternity- both Jessie’s own and that of the few women she meets- and that’s something you don’t get in McCarthy, whose books explore masculinity so well.

A rather petty quibble: I was irked by the author’s name on the top of each left-hand page.  Whose decision was that, I wonder? Possibly not the author’s. It made me feel as if I were reading someone’s homework.

This book was shortlisted for the Stella and the NSW Premier’s Award under the UTS Glenda Adams category for new writers.  It has been optioned for a film, and I can certainly see how easily it would translate to the screen as it is already composed of a series of ‘shots’- a technique that I’m not particularly fond of and which betrays, I think, an author’s difficulty in wrangling the disparate elements of a  story  into a flowing narrative.

And what about that baby as narrator?  Well, I think that the gamble paid off. It liberates her to write lyrically and, given that I often only take a broad-sweep memory of a book with me, I think that it makes the book stand out.  I’m not sure that she sustained it throughout- or even if I would have wanted her to have done so- but it was a brave move and one that this new author handled well.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was short-listed for the Stella and I want to use it as one of my Australian Women Writers Challenge reviews.


‘Biography and history’ by Barbara Caine


2010,  124p & notes

This is only a small book and would have fitted well into that ” Very Short Introduction to ….” series put out by Oxford University Press.  As it is, it is part of Palgrave Macmillan’s series on ‘Theory and History’ which aims at introducing undergraduate students to themes like transnationalism, gender, narrative, postmodernism etc. and history.   It is very clearly written, and while the experience of reading it is enhanced if you are familiar with some of the biographies that she describes (as I am) , it stands in its own right as a review of the methodological and narrative questions raised by the relationship between history and biography.

Barbara Caine was Professor of History at Monash University and is now at the University of Sydney.  Many academics working in biography come from the literary studies area, rather than history.  Her projects and publications testify to her long and deep experience with biography, autobiography and history, and the ways to approach an individual life as an exercise in historical methodology. Continue reading

‘Ancient Light’ by John Banville


2012, 245 p.

To be honest, I wonder if I’m clever enough to read John Banville.  I’ve read other books of his and admire his smoothness, his archness, his reflexivity and most of all, the control he has over his writing.  It seems that recently I’ve been reading books which, though enjoyable, are a bit flabby and undisciplined.  Banville’s neither of these things.   I’m increasingly feeling that transitions are the litmus test of good writing, and Banville can shape up a long chapter and switch between time periods and plot lines almost without you noticing. He’s good.

There are two main narrative lines in this book.  The narrator is Alexander Cleave, in the autumn of his acting career who has unexpectedly been called up to make a film “The Invention of the Past” about Alex Vander, based on a script written by J. B.  He is rather flattered and surprised to be approached for the part, but his mind is really not on the film.  His adult daughter has committed suicide some time earlier and he can hardly bear to think about it, so his mind skitters off to other thoughts.

Instead, he reminisces about the affair he conducted as a teenaged boy in a small town in 1950s Ireland with his best friend’s mother.  He calls her Mrs. Gray throughout the book, as they indulge in furtive couplings in the laundry and in the midst of the fug of domesticity, and in a rundown cottage in the woods.  You know that they are going to be caught eventually: he tells you as much, and so each time he goes back to describing the illicit gropings and the fervent pumpings, you feel quite nervous for them both.

Banville switches between the two narratives quite effortlessly, while undercutting your faith in the fidelity of the narrator’s memories.  Alexander himself admits that the memories are probably wrong: he has the impression that it was raining during a particular event when he knows that it was a hot and dusty day instead; the details are somehow skewed in his memories and he can’t quite work out what’s wrong with them.  Banville has been leaving hints throughout the book that Alexander can’t be trusted, and finally when Alexander mentions Gary Fonda in The Grapes of Noon I eventually acknowledged that, despite his urbane demeanour and smooth narration, Alexander is a very unreliable narrator.

But that’s not the only thing that made me feel rather stupid in reading this book.  His daughter’s suicide was obviously fundamental to the story, and yet it seemed such an underdeveloped plot line.  In the back of my mind I had something about Cass and a suicide into the ocean below a castle…and Alex Vander, he sounded familiar…  Was there something that I should know that I didn’t?

Well, yes.  This book is actually part of a trilogy and I’ve even read the other two books without realizing that they were all related!!! In fact, I didn’t realize it at all: I had to read it in reviews of the book by people who are obviously more astute than I am. The allusions to the other books and the reflexivity on Banville’s own performance as a writer and puppet master were being piled up higher and higher at the end of the book- and because he is the brilliant writer that he is, they didn’t  sink the whole endeavour as they would in less skilled hands.

Then there’s the vocabulary! I’m no slouch vocabulary-wise but I’d never heard of ‘brumous air’ ‘caducous leaves’ etc. etc. I started writing them down to look up later, but there were too many.  Doesn’t matter- it’s good for me to realize that someone has a vocabulary that far, far outstrips mine.  I wonder if Banville actually has those words in his consciousness all the time, or whether he’s playing a game of word one-upmanship here.

So, while this book made me feel rather abashed and stupid when I finally realized what was going on, I did enjoy it.  The story of the obsession and selfishness of young love stands on its own two feet and doesn’t even really need the other Alexander/Alex Vander  thread at all. Ah, but then it wouldn’t be a Banville, would it?

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I wanted to read a book with chops.

An interesting little slideshow Port Phillip early days

I found this slideshow of images of Port Phillip and its early settlers.  It seems that it was prepared by members of the Port Phillip Pioneers group for their annual Pioneers Church Service held at St James Old Cathedral in Melbourne a few years back.

There’s some here that I haven’t seen before.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #18

Actually, a whole article this time.  And not so much ‘uplifting’ as ‘sobering’.

How not to write a PhD thesis by Tara Brabazon.

Weeping Judges

My research interest is Mr Justice Willis and it is almost a reflex action now whenever I encounter a book about 19th century justice to flip to the index to see if ‘my’ judge gets a mention.  Again and again my heart has leaped at seeing   “Willes, J.” only to look more closely and see that it is Willes (with an ‘e’) instead of Willis (with an ‘i’).  The two judges were roughly contemporaneous and I wouldn’t be the first person to have confused them .   Of course, I’m fairly wedded to the human story in my own Judge Willis, but Judges Willes (with an ‘e’) has a damned good story as well.  Perhaps I should write it when I’ve finished with my man? (Only joking- mostly).

When reading 19th century press reports of trials, there are stock phrases that are used in describing the demeanour of the judges.  In the court reports, judges might be “twitchy”, they “stifle a groan”, they are “grave” and- rather strangely to our way of thinking today- are sometimes “overcome by weeping”.    Thomas Dixon from the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions has written an excellent article titled ‘The Tears of Mr Justice Willes’ in the Journal of Victorian Culture  2012, Vol 17 No. 1 p.1-23.  It is available on open access here.

James Shaw Willes was born in 1814 and died in 1872. He was born in Cork and was educated at Trinity College Dublin but was called to the English Bar and commenced practice on the Home Circuit.  At the age of forty one (which is young) he was knighted and appointed a puisne judge of the Common Pleas and he presided over a number of sensational and widely reported cases.  Most particularly he presided over the 1865 trial of Constance Kent for the murder of her young half-brother at Road Hill House Wiltshire, a case which was so ably explored in Kate Summerscale’s recent book The Suspicions of Mr Witcher (which I reviewed here). In this case, along with others he heard, Justice Willes was overcome by emotion, breaking down in tears.  According to press reports, in passing sentence on young Constance, Justice Willes ‘bent forward and wept for some few seconds’ and  ‘the learned Judge here again wept, and the solemn words of his sentence were almost inaudible’.  Dixon’s article gives several other examples of Justice Willes’ displays of emotion, before moving to talk about the meaning of tears across history and particularly in the 19th century.

I have come across several mentions of Justice Willes- in fact, ‘my’ Judge Willis cited him in a court case once.  Indeed, he was highly acclaimed for his judicial knowledge at the time and after, although apparently he had his detractors among some of the other judges (as did ‘my’ Judge Willis who in fact seemed to take pride in his unpopularity with his fellow judges).   Justice Willes seems to have been a deeply intelligent, cultured, literate man.  It would appear that his personal life was rather unhappy, and there are suggestions that he married only to avoid a breach of promise action.  He sat at the highest levels of the judicial establishment in England at the time, and was a member of the Privy Council.   He committed suicide in 1872.  Explanations for his suicide have included his over-sensitive and melancholic  nature, ‘repressed gout’,  the burden on his health of heavy court sittings, and the prospect of potential political scandal.  In his article Dixon looks at the diagnosis of ‘repressed gout’- a malady much in fashion at the time- and its relationship with the emotions.

Thomas Dixon has a 3-part posting on the History of Emotions blog.  It’s a good read, interspersed with video clips and comments on a BBC program (to which Dixon contributed) called  Ian Hislop’s History of the Stiff Upper Lip, which screened in England in November 2012.  I wonder if we’ll see it here in Australia, or whether it will be scooped up under the highly unpleasant Foxtel deal.

I’m fascinated by this whole area of history.  I can see a whole other area to explore in relation to ‘my’ Judge opening up in front of me!

Going down to see them at Geelong

Every Christmas my Uncle Johnny from Geelong would say to me

Coming down to see us, Jan-nine?

Kenny’ll drive you round.

My Uncle Johnny was a broadshouldered, tanned man, butcher by trade, Geelong Football Club player as a young man, and in my mind’s eye he always wore a hat, as men often did in the 1960s.  Kenny was my cousin, and they lived a stone’s throw away from the Cardinia Park football ground at Geelong, about 75 kms south-west of Melbourne.  I must admit we didn’t go down to Geelong very often and when we did it always seemed a monumental trek for a day-trip.  You’d pass the abattoirs in Kensington, the smelly sewerage farm going through Werribee, the You-Yangs in the distance and the yellow tongue of flame flickering above the Corio oil refinery.

But a week or so ago I sat in traffic trying to drive from Bundoora to Fitzroy and it took 45 minutes to travel 13 kms.  Good lord, I thought, I may as well go to Geelong!  And so I did- 75 minutes to travel 95 km (because I live north of the city) on freeway the whole way and not an abbattoir or refinery to be seen or sewerage farm to be smelled-  although there was still the tang of something noisome when we passed an industrial estate on the way.


Geelong is much smaller than Melbourne. Its city centre is dominated by the bay and Eastern Beach which is a popular promenade complete with boardwalks, a carousel and sand.   They have some rather cute bollard figures along the boardwalk as a tourist feature, reflecting different aspects of Geelong’s history. There are over 100 of them, created in 1995 by artist Jan Mitchell, utilizing wood from an old pier.  I remember seeing them first in Barwon Heads, but they’ve obviously proliferated!


In Judge Willis’ time (i.e. 1840s) , Geelong very much rivalled Melbourne as the main city in the Port Phillip district.  It was surveyed only three weeks after Melbourne and it developed largely in tandem with it in the early years.  Its post office opened in 1840 (the second in the district); it had its own newspaper when John Fawkner, proprietor of the Port Phillip Patriot published the Geelong Advertiser under the editorship of James Harrison (the maker of the first mechanical refrigeration process to produce ice), and steamers plied the bay regularly between Geelong and Melbourne.  Many of its streets reflect the names of Port Phillip pioneers who had a presence in Geelong as well as Melbourne  (Fyans, Swanston, Lonsdale, Verner, Kilgour, McKillop…)  and there are still several large National Trust properties in the district that were built by wealthy pastoralists in the area.  Corio Villa, which is privately owned, is a beautiful cast iron prefabricated house that has a prime position overlooking the bay (you might remember that I visited the much more humble South Melbourne cast iron ones here).


The Geelong Botanic Gardens, opened just a few years after Melbourne’s were laid out by Daniel Bunce on the crest of the hill that overlooks Eastern Beach and the bay- probably a less than propitious place to establish a botanic garden.  Although quite small, they have all the formality of the Melbourne Gardens and they had- wait for it!- a pelargonium conservatory, although why pelargoniums need the protection of a conservatory is beyond me.  Apparently they were left the money to built it, as long as it was dedicated to pelargoniums (pelargonia?)


Geelong became the focal port for the pastoral industry of the western district. Huge bluestone and brick wool stores were built on the main streets and facing the wharf.  The Australian National Wool Museum is located in one of the most beautiful of them

wool museum

There is a permanent display at the Wool Museum celebrating the importance of wool to Australia’s economy and national identity.  Its a very hands-on exhibition with lots of wool to squeeze, with some fascinating recreated woolsheds, shearers’ quarters and wool factory workers’ houses.  There is a temporary exhibition space as well.  And what would you find there, you may ask…… NOT DINOSAURS!


They may look like dinosaurs to those of us not blessed with a six year old, but as a tousle-headed little blonde boy announced as he ran from exhibit to exhibit roaring in dinosaur-like fashion (whatever that is), “Not a dinosaur.  Not a dinosaur”.  Instead they were creatures from the Permian era, 290 million years ago.  They were nearly all wiped out by the Permian-Triassic Extinction which wiped out 96% of all marine life, 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates and all insects. None of the creatures shown survived the extinction as such, although some variants of them were the progenitors of the next stage.  The exhibition suggested (although I think that there are other theories)  that this mass extinction was prompted by the lava flows of the Siberian Traps, one of the largest volcanic events on earth that lasted a million years and  covered over 2,000,000 square kilometres with lava.   The exhibition has been extended until 10th June.  It costs $7.50 for an adult and both the Permian exhibition and the permanent wool exhibition  (how poetic) are included in the price.

Then off to our very prosaic motel which certainly looked better on the web than it did in real life: clean, quiet but still a motel.  The next day brunch with a friend that I haven’t seen for ages, then back up the freeway for 95 km again.

So, Uncle Johnny, I did come down to Geelong, even if Kenny didn’t drive me round.