Monthly Archives: September 2013

‘The Conjuror’s Bird’ by Martin Davies


2005, 400 p.

On Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific, a bird- not necessarily uncommon and rather unprepossessing – was caught, preserved and sent back to England where it became part of Joseph Banks’ enormous collection.  But the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta was never seen again, in either its preserved form or in the Pacific.  The lost bird is the central motif of this book.

The story is told through two separate and alternating narratives.  The first, set in the present day  tells the story of  John Fitzgerald, an academic whose specialty is extinct birds, who is visited by his ex-lover, conservationist Gabriella. He is spurred by her visit to renew his search for a trace of the now-lost specimen, aided by Katya, a young graduate student.  There’s lots of skullduggery and double-crossing as various people, with even more various reasons, are all looking for the same lost bird.

The second story line, displayed in a smaller font and voiced in  more formal, old-fashioned language, tells the story of Sir Joseph Banks, a man well-known to Australians as the naturalist on Cook’s first voyage of discovery.  He intended travelling on Cook’s second voyage as well, but suddenly withdrew, ostensibly because the cabin arrangements were not to his liking.  This narrative thread explains his withdrawal and the provenance of the preserved remains of the mysterious bird.  It’s a love story and is quite beautifully told, in a way that honours the careful  style of nineteenth-century fiction.

Martin Davies is a BBC television producer and he brings this experience to the first narrative thread of this book.  It’s all very much BBC Friday night mini-series fare: fast paced, with multiple story-lines and red herrings and a nice satisfying ending.   I preferred, and have more respect for the second storyline, woven around on a number of documented facts into a plausible and satisfying explanation.

I read this book with my bookgroup, and quite a few of us spent time Googling Joseph Banks.  It made me almost regret that Googling is so easy now, because the real art of historical fiction of this type is colouring in the spaces between the known facts.  It brought to mind something I read in the London Review of Books recently, where a review of Rupert Thomson’s book Secrecy discussed techniques that writers like Peter Ackroyd and A. S. Byatt have adopted (changing the name of their character; cutting the biographical link) in order to defend the imaginative space to write about historical figures:

…instant access to information strengthens the case for  such defensive strategies.  It only takes a mouse-moment to move from ignorance to an unrooted expertise.  There’s a lesser allocation of breathing space to projects that both plunder the real and depart from it.  It becomes all to easy to collapse a fictional narrative into a piece of failed history, turning it into a travesty of something it never claimed to be  – Adam Mars-Jones ‘The screams were silver’ London Review of Books 25 April 2013.

I enjoyed this book as a bit of a romp, with enough fidelity to the historical record to go along willingly for the ride.

My rating: 8.5/10 (it would be a good holiday read)

Read because: Book group selection

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups.

‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’ by Wendy Moore


2013,  259 p. & notes

The original Pygmalion of Greek mythology was a sculptor who, disgusted by the impurity of the daughters of Propoetus, fell in love with the beautiful sculpture of a woman that he had carved out of ivory.  Before the altar of Venus, he secretly wished that he could marry a woman who would be the living likeness of his sculpture, only to find that his wish was granted.   A man creating his ideal woman is a story that was repeated in Shaw’s Pygmalion, in My Fair Lady and  Pretty Woman– and so too, in this book.  But there’s nothing romantic, feel-good or funny about this book at all.

In 1769  twenty-year old Thomas Day was wealthy, intense, disheveled and a young man of questionable personal hygiene. He did not take his first rebuttal in love at all well.  Spurned by the sister of his friend Richard Edgeworth and deeply influenced by Rousseau’s book Emile, he and Richard contrived to adopt one, then two, 12 year old girls from the Foundling Hospital in order for Thomas to mould them into a woman who would make a perfect wife. Although ostensibly adopted by the safely married Richard Edgeworth, the two girls became Thomas’ possessions as he changed their names, took them away and followed the prescriptions in Emile.  When the first girl proved unsuitable, she was bundled off to be apprenticed and he turned his attention to the second, ‘Sabrina’.  We certainly would see his treatment of her as abuse today: isolation, exposure to the cold and wet,  the dropping of hot wax onto bare skin and the expectation of unquestioning and  absolute obedience.  But in Georgian Britain?  His friends, members of the nonconformist and free-thinking Lunar Society of Birmingham   (James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood etc. ) were aware of his ‘experiment’ and his odd obsession, and while they thought it strange, did not intervene.

But even the  young orphans refused to be part of a such a perverse undertaking, and he lost Sabrina. He immediately turned his attention to other women in his circle, still striving for the perfect wife who would live with him in isolation and penury by choice, completely subservient to his wishes.  The chapters in the book are arranged by the women he turned to, one after the other and some even more than once,  in his quest.  At last he found a woman who loved him deeply and complied with his wishes, even though she was not at all the type of woman he had tried to create.

The book focuses on Thomas Day and Sabrina, one of the orphan girls.  She survived him, but was almost brought undone by the exposure of her story and her illegitimacy by the writings of people in Thomas Day’s literary circle.  Thomas Day himself is a paradox: a strange, driven, single-minded man who was at the same time the author of one of the most popular children’s book series  (The History of Sandford and Merton), the author of a highly influential anti-slavery tract The Dying Negro, and a strong supporter of American Independence.

The author, Wendy Moore, obviously knows a good story when she sees one.  She wrote the best-selling Wedlock (see my review here) , which was a retelling of the story of Andrew Robinson Stoney and Mary Eleanor Bowes, the inspiration for Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon .  Both that book and this one are non-fiction, well researched and well-documented, drawing on the extensive writings of these educated, literate characters of Georgian England.

Moore writes a rattling good yarn, which moves quickly and lightly.  It is told in a rather conversational style that is rather sweeping as far as the big picture is concerned, but the extensive footnotes at the end reveal how source-based the material is when she is dealing with Thomas Day himself.   It’s a good, if unsettling, read.

Banyule Homestead: VCAT decision!

On 29, 30 and 31st May the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal heard the case between Banyule Management PL and  Banyule CC.  The developers challenged Council’s refusal of a permit to build three townhouses on the southern end of the Banyule Homestead site.

Some time ago I wrote a post on this blog called Why I’m as mad as hell about Banyule Homestead.  You might want to go back and read it to see why I’ve been so engaged with the whole matter.

We received notification of the decision today.  The chairman, S. R. Cimino concluded:

I accept that the subject land presents some opportunity for increased development over the southern part of the land. However, the land is subject to heritage and environmental constraints. In this case, the proposal fails to respond appropriately to its context. I suspect that too much development is proposed over the southern part of the land. A reduced development which provides for an appropriate setback from the homestead and escarpment boundary, suitable landscaping and does not present unreasonable visual bulk to the rear open space of 58 Buckingham Drive is required.

I will affirm the Council’s decision. The permit application is refused.

You can read the full decision on the Friends of Banyule website here. 

I will post the link to the decision on the AustLii site when it is available.  For now at least, the proposal in its present form has not been approved.

If you’d like to read more about Banyule Homestead itself and its long history, please visit my other blog at

Banyule Homestead (b)PeterCRone

Please Sir, may I have some more ….

A letter to Noel Whittaker “(financial adviser and international best-selling author”) in the Money section of the Age Wednesday September 11, 2013

My husband is 61 and retired.  I plan to retire when I reach 60 this year. We live in an apartment worth $1.7 million with an outstanding loan of $350,000. Our combined super is $1.2 million.  Do we have to draw on our super to pay off the loan so we qualify for the aged pension when we turn 65?

Well, obviously even Noel Whittaker (“financial adviser and international best-selling author”) found this a bit rich… (groan for bad pun):

Your assets are at a level where you’re almost (my emphasis) over the threshold for pension eligibility; therefore I certainly agree you should use $350,000 of your superannuation to pay off the home loan.  Just keep in mind that you are four years off pension age and even when you make the withdrawal from super, it is possible that good returns over the next four years will push you back over the asset-test threshold.  That’s a good problem to have because it puts you in the top 1 per cent of Australians in a financial sense.

I hope that this letter writer and her husband and in your sights for the ‘sense of entitlement’, Joe Hockey.

‘Roving Mariners’ by Lynette Russell


Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Ocean 1790-1870

2012,  140 p & notes

There are two decenterings that this book demands of its readers.  The first is encapsulated by a map that looks something like this:


It’s a map showing the great circle route of the southern ocean.  Dotted around and radiating out from the centre of the circle are the islands of the southern ocean: the larger land masses of  Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand,  and although you can’t see it here, Macquarie Island, Pitcairn Island,, Kerguelen, Chatham Island, Tahiti, Society Islands,  Solomon Islands, Falkland Islands, South Georgia.  It’s a view that challenges our land-mass bias by emphasizing the ocean and the space, and the relative proximity of small islands flung into the centre of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The second decentering reflects the focus on whaling and sealing in this book right up to 1870.  We’re often told that whaling and sealing were primitive, increasingly marginal endeavours which were eclipsed by the pastoral industry and then the gold rushes that super-charged the Australian economy in the 1830s, 40s and 50s.  It’s odd: I’ve been reading through 1840s newspapers for years now seeing mainly sheep, sheep, sheep but after reading this book suddenly I saw references to whaling all over the place- not long articles mind you, but the steady ongoing enumeration of whaling ships in the shipping news and, I must admit, the frequent presence of whalers and sealers in the criminal news.

Lynette Russell is the director of the Monash Indigneous centre at Monash University, and is herself of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent. Her own personal engagement with the history of whaling and sealing was prompted by a discussion she had with an elderly distant cousin who, like her, acknowledged descent from both Aboriginal and European ancestors.  He explained that his great-great-grandparents had been sealers, she a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman and he a British seaman.  When she sympathized with the virtual slavery in which Tasmanian Aboriginal women were kept, he pulled her up.  They were both sealers, he said, rather than a sealer and his ‘woman’ (p. 22).  This set her off to explore in a more nuanced way the complexity of the Southern Australian sealing industry.

In regard to her own Aboriginal identity, Russell embraces notions of undecidability and uncertainty:

As such, I emphatically state that I am neither one thing nor another.  Though I recognize that for many (perhaps most) people the desire to acknowledge one identity over all others is paramount.  For me, the binaries of Indigenous- non-Indigenous or native-newcomer- binaries that, despite their obvious artificiality, continue to be widely used- are meaningless; such simplifications hamper our understanding of the past. (p. 21)

This personal stance is reflected in the history that she writes in this book.

One of my key desires is to create a more complex and less linear narrative than has been previously produced for southern Australia.  One of the complexities I wish to develop concerns the question of the boundaries surrounding who was categorized as native, who was not, and who was described as newcomer…. I believe that these categories were not stable, and during the sealing and whaling period they were perhaps in a greater state of flux than they were either before or afterward. (p. 13)

The whaling and sealing industries of the Southern Oceans were always ethnically diverse with a strong representation of ‘coloured seamen’: African and Native Americans, Native Canadians, Pacific Islanders, Maori and Aborigines. Her sources are the archival records of the maritime industry including  logs, ships’ records, diaries, journals, visual materials including photographs and European artifacts.  After trawling through the sources, she concluded that there was ultimately a paucity of information about the ‘coloured seamen’ that she wished to write about.  This, she says, enabled space for her to imagine their lives and labours and to be “intentionally creative” (p. 16).  She plunged herself into the experience of whaling and sealing:  standing on the deck of a ship in the midst of a pod of sperm wales; standing on Kangaroo Island amongst a colony of noisy, smelly fur seals.

I must admit that there is much in her upfront description of her political stance and methodology that discomfits me (and I should imagine that within Indigenous politics, some would be even more uncomfortable), but I found little  in the text itself that unsettled me.   Instead, I sensed that she had read widely and imaginatively and that there was a strong tethering in verifiable, if diverse, sources (with one major exception where I felt that her creative imagination was straining the evidence too much).  She is very much present in the text. Her argument is strenuous and well argued, and it has the effect of challenging easy assumptions.

She focusses in particular on two men: Tommy Chaseland, and William Lanne.  Thomas Chaseland was born illegitimately to an Aboriginal woman and a white emancipist father.    He was sent to work in the shipping yards of the Hawkesbury River and signed on to the Jupiter. After a succession of stints on various whaling ships, he settled in New Zealand where he became the husband of a high-ranking Maori woman and made his home on the isolated Codfish and Stewart Islands before moving to the Fiordlands west of Stewart Island where he and his wife worked on a whaling station.

William Lanne, often incorrectly described as ‘the last Tasmanian Aboriginal male’  is more widely known, largely in terms of the outrageously disrespectful treatment of his body after his death.  Russell examines Lanne as one of three  Tasmanian Aboriginal men who pursued their luck at sea alongside Captain Henry Whalley and Walter George Arthur.  The details of what happened after his death almost obscure the life that he lived, but Russell attempts to reconstruct it.

Reconstruction of a life becomes even more difficult when she turns her attention to Tasmanian Aboriginal women.  Here she follows two other historians, Rebe Taylor who examined Kangaroo Island and Lyndall Ryan who focussed on Bass Strait and Tasmania.  She acknowledges her debt to this work, and tries to take it further by endeavouring to bring the wives and women from the shadows of the narrative.  It is a difficult task that involves reading against the sources, many of which were written by the missionaries who tried unsuccessfully to get the women to leave the islands.  She is extremely careful in her discussion of freedom, action and choices and her caution in the text behooves us to read closely and to attend to her hesitations and qualifications.

This is a beautifully written and nuanced  reflective history. It is at the same time easy to read and yet requires much of the reader as well in terms of weighing the argument and her use of sources.

A review of the book is available on H-Net.

awwbadge_2013I am posting this review to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge under the History/Biography/Memoir section.

‘Against the Forces’ Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin Exhibition in Heidelberg

This year has been the centenary of the commencement of building Canberra. Part of that celebration has been the recognition of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin as the designers of a vision of a city that was only partially realized.

Most of the attention has been focussed on Canberra, but central Melbourne  and suburbs and in particular Heidelberg and Eaglemont,  have a strong Griffin connection as well.  Heidelberg Historical Society are marking this through their exhibition ‘Against the Forces: Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’.


I’m really proud that we have been able to mount this exhibition- it really is good.  Being located in Heidelberg, it has a focus on the nearby Griffin houses  (of which I’m aware of four- two in Glenard Drive, one in Outlook Drive and another in Darebin Street) and the subdivisions in Eaglemont that he designed but it’s much broader than that.

The exhibition traces the connection of the Griffins with American architects, most particularly Frank Lloyd Wright and their designs for theatres, public buildings, commercial industrial buildings -most particularly incinerators!- and  residential building in Melbourne, Sydney and even India.  You can read more about the Griffins’ building projects here.

The display depicts buildings but it also addresses the question of the Griffins’ ideas about the relationship between design and the big questions of environment, national identity and lifestyle choice.  There’s a lot of reading and thinking involved in the exhibition- it’s not the sort of exhibition that you can dash through in 5 minutes.

Which makes the $5.00 entry fee a small price indeed for a fascinating Sunday afternoon’s viewing!  The exhibition is open between 2.00 and 5.00 each Sunday until 24th November.  And if you come on the third Sunday in the month you may even glimpse a Resident Judge!

Heidelberg Historical Society is located in the beautiful old court house in Jika Street (the extension of Burgundy Street for locals).


AHA Rethinking Indigenous Histories podcast

You might remember that I blogged about the Rethinking Indigenous Histories panel at the recent AHA conference that I attended in Wollongong.

The podcast of the session is now available at Radio National’s Big Ideas page.

The panel, chaired by Richard Broome, Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University  included:

Professor John Maynard
Director of the Wollotuka Institute of Aboriginal Studies, University of Newcastle. He is a Worimi man from the Port Stephens region of New South Wales and currently holds an ARC Australian Research Fellowship (Indigenous).
Professor Tim Rowse
School of Humanities and Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney
Professor Marcia Langton AO
Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne
Professor Ann McGrath
Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University.