Monthly Archives: November 2013

British Guiana and the Booker Prize

They don’t exactly intuitively go together, do they?  But the money that lies at the foundation of the Booker Prize arose from Caribbean slavery, and from British Guiana in particular.

John “Jock” Middleton Campbell, Baron Campbell of Eskan was the Chairman of  Booker Bros. McConnell and Co.  His great, great grandfather John Campbell Senior established the Campbell  family fortune through merchandising and provisioning the slave plantations along the coast of Guiana towards the end of the 18th century. As was quite common, the company began acquiring estates through the bankruptcy of their clients. By the 20th century the family owned Las Penitence Wharf on the Demerara River, Georgetown, where they were agents for the Harrison line of shipping. They also owned Ogle Estate, up the East Coast from Demerara, and Albion, further Eastward in the Berbice district. When John Campbell’s grandfather died, he left an estate of 1.5 million pounds, gleaned from the canefields of British Guiana.

Jock Campbell first travelled to British Guiana in 1934 to take control of the family’s sugar estates.  The company, which controlled 80% of the sugar industry,  was so prominent in British Guiana that the country was known as ‘Bookers Guiana’ instead. He was appalled by what he found.  Of course, slavery had been abolished a hundred years earlier, and the place of slaves on the plantation had been taken by East Indian “coolies”. Driven partially by guilt, but also by his Fabian socialist ideals, he declared that

People are more important than ships, shops and sugar estates.

He became in effect a socialist-capitalist and introduced a string of reforms that modernized the sugar industry and trained Guyanese to take over the management of the company.  He improved housing for the sugar workers, introduced pension schemes and sickness benefits, and vastly raised the salaries of workers.  On his return to England, he was made a life peer by Harold Wilson and was active for the Labor Party in the House of Lords.  It was there that he disassociated himself from his ancestors on 5 May 1971, in the House of Lords, arguing that “maximising profits cannot and should not be the sole purpose, or even the primary purpose, of business.”

He had diversified the company into many other interests other than sugar, including taking over the company that owned the copyright on Ian Fleming’s books- a lucrative acquisition as more and more Bond films were produced. It was fitting, then, that the Booker Prize was launched in 1969, after the publishers Jonathan Cape suggested that Booker-McConnell might sponsor a major fiction prize.

I see that on the Man-Booker Page, only Man is listed as the sponsor. But it will always be the Booker Prize to me.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #19


Roger K. Newman, ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’

To be honest, I had no idea who Justice Hugo Black is. My interest is not so much in him as in the advice given by his biographer, Roger K. Newman in a chapter called ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’ in a collection of essays with the rather utilitarian title The National Conference on Legal Information Issues: Selected Essays.  His chapter is about the process of writing a judicial biography, although his advice is applicable to any type of biography, judicial or not.  Indeed, much of it applies to any writing, biography or not.  And, I suspect, the chapter is more relevant to writing a book than a thesis.  Nonetheless-

The cardinal rule- call it Newman’s first law of biography- is to show the reader what happened, not just tell him.  Dramatize dialogue and set scenes- even the most flat-footed facts can be presented appealingly. Indulge in metaphor, vary sentence length and structure. Foreshorten perspective, summarize when necessary and recapitulate (some things are important enough to remind the reader). Pace the narrative- a biography is a story, not an argument.* Drop hints.  Planting my pistols early, I was able to use flashbacks.  I took to calling this “closing the circle”. (p.208-9)

*Me: A story, not an argument? Mmm. Not sure that I agree.  Especially in a thesis/biography.

Newman’s second law of biography is to omit almost anything that does not bear directly on the central protagonist… The point is that a biography should be shaped and molded. Condensation is indispensable.  Even in this egalitarian age, not everything is of equal importance.  Just because something happened, and we know about it, does not mean it should be immortalized.* (p. 210)

* Me: This is a real temptation when you have only a limited amount of source material of a particular type.  You’re so grateful for the scraps that you have that you feel that you want to make as much as you can of them.  But, to be honest, they don’t really advance the story (or is it the argument?) much.

Thus comes Newman’s third law of biography: Use spirited prose and humour… A biography is, after all, about people, and people want to read about other people  It is the most humanizing of all literary ventures, especially at a time when heroes have been taken off the pedestal and defrocked. (p. 210)

And so-

Portraying character in action lies at the heart of biography. A biographer must look for the telling incident, the revealing detail.  He is the unseen hand- the biographer as Adam Smith- shuffling, dealing, reassembling the deck, his active imagination dealing with malleable facts.  Like a director, he changes the scenes and brings supporting figures to the fore as needed, dressing them as needed and then sending them backstage.  He is present everywhere yet seen nowhere- only in his choice of materials and language.  I could have written almost every chapter in at least one other way. (p. 212)

Roger K. Newman, ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’ In Timothy L. Coggins The National Conference on Legal Information Issues: Selected Essays. (American Association of Law Libraries) AALL Publications Series No. 51, Colorado,  Fred B.Rothmann & Co, 1996.pp. 201-214

‘Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir’ by Robert Kenny


2013, 245 p.

I must confess to feeling silenced by this book.  I finished it about a week ago, and have been turning over in my mind how, and whether, I should respond to it.   I’m proceeding on the basis that the act of publishing one’s writing is, on the author’s part, some form of invitation to engagement and response, and so write  I will, even though I feel inadequate to do so.

Robert Kenny is a historian formerly based at La Trobe University and now at Deakin.  I know him by sight only.  He read the opening pages of the book at a seminar earlier this year, and it seemed that the whole room held its collective breath, not just because of the beauty of the writing but also because of an awareness that we were being offered a perspective from the heart and from the head.

Fire.  When I that that word now I see a crazed red dancer surging up the slope, at whose feet I train the hose of spraying water to no effect.  Its dance mocks me.  As I face it, it has personality.  Wilful. Contemptuous.  It is the enemy at the my gate.  Literally at my gate, for I am standing at the gate of the high metal fence that protects the north side of the house.  I can feel the searing heat on the parts of my face not covered by mask or goggles.  And the flame producing the smoke provides the only light.  A dreadful light.  The wind pushes heat into me.  All there is is this fire and, behind me, my house, and inside that house my cat.  The rest of the world has gone.  (p. 4)

The fire at Redesdale that destroyed Kenny’s house on Black Saturday is told over the first hundred or so pages of this book.  But it is not told as a continuous narrative.  Instead, almost as if it is too painful to touch, Kenny steps towards telling of the physicality of the  fire, then steps back into abstractions – history, philosophy, reflection- before venturing again to try to put into words the experience of being inside the fire.  On one level, I found it frustrating that he was inching through the narrative in this way, but in many ways it reflected his own emotional response to the experience: that it was too hard to face head-on again.

These digressions are not merely distraction, however.  Instead they are the ‘investigations’, as the title suggests, of a well-read, insightful reader and historian as he ranges across European and Aboriginal mythology, colonial history, art, environmentalism and philosophy.   It is an argument, built incrementally, of the relationship between man and fire: that it is fire itself that makes us human.

Halfway through the book, the fire has ravaged and passed on.  The Redesdale fire was capricious, taking one house and leaving another.  Because the township was spared, the fire doesn’t have the public profile of  Strathewen or Marysville, where the whole town was wiped out.  His narrative shifts to the emotional and community aftermath of a fire and runs the gamut of grief, resentment, bewilderment, poor judgment and shaken pride.

Robert Kenny was well prepared for this fire.  A fire nearby some years earlier had shown him how quickly this grassland could catch, and he kept a whole fire-fighting kit beside the back door in readiness.  When I recall how oppressively and drainingly hot Black Saturday was, I can only admire his foresight and discipline in dressing himself in long trousers, woolen socks, heavy shirt, jumper and beret before venturing out with the pump and hose that was to let him down so badly.  When I see footage of people dwarfed by flames, fighting for their houses dressed in shorts and thongs,  I forget that to be better protected would involve deliberately covering up in heavy clothing before the fire was anywhere near.  My head would tell me I should, but I don’t know that I would have the determination to actually do it before it was too late.

There is bitterness in this book, and it is his anger against the co-option of grief and commemoration by people who lost nothing that makes me feel hesitant to write this response. Do I, as an outsider, kilometres away from these fires, a spectator only,  have the right to say anything here?   I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the perverse logic that planned a community ‘celebration’ to reclaim fire for good instead of loss, so prematurely amongst people literally seared by Black Saturday.  I shift uneasily at his vehemence against commemoration by the community at large who have lost nothing and yet vicariously appropriated the trauma of Black Saturday for themselves.

This book is also the work of an academic and writer who uses his intellect and knowledge to try to make sense of an experience that is almost beyond words.  In this regard, it reminds me of John Tulloch’s book One Day in July about the London bombings that I reviewed here.  Kenny’s exegesis on the Strutt Black Thursday fire painting  is masterful, especially in comparison with Edmund Capon’s weak and cliched commentary in the recent Art of Australia documentary.  It’s offered as just one of the many  ‘investigations’ that thread throughout this book.  You are very much aware that you’re reading the work of a historian.  He engages with the recent debate elicited by Bill Gammage’s controversial and acclaimed recent book The Biggest Estate on Earth, which challenges the settler fantasy of an untouched country.  He juxtaposes Gallipoli and the multiple commemorations of fire (Black Thursday, Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday) as an expression of national identity within place.  He attends conferences; he gives papers; in the midst of his own ruptured world he is awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, among other accolades, for his book The Lamb Enters the Dreaming.  He has the book-lover’s grief for his library and the impossibility of replacing the spatial layout of his book collection and the memories of buying that particular book in that edition.

My books no longer survive. It is as simple as that.  I have no catalogue of what was on those shelves and what I remember is fragmentary.  Even if I could recover in my memory all the titles of those books, and manage to find copies of them all, they would not be the same books, they would not have been the physical things I handled so often over the years, and this is important. Colleagues offer me books they no longer need.  I am grateful, but puzzled- don’t they know how personal a library is? How it is the history of encounters? What would be the point of shelves of strangers’ books? (p. 161)

This is a very human book. He makes bad choices, he responds brusquely and angrily.  He is clear-sighted and yet blinded at the same time.  The fire has burnt off layer upon layer.  I can’t do the book justice. Read it.

A tale of two memoirs

By chance I found myself reading two memoirs concurrently over the last week.  The first, Unpolished Gem was for my bookgroup and the second, The Lucy Family Alphabet was just a bit of fluff to read on nights when I was too tired to read anything else before going to sleep.

I must admit that I’m not completely sure of the difference between memoir and autobiography.  I think of a memoir as being a more consciously constructed thematic work than an autobiography.  A memoir mounts (perhaps a bit strong– suggests?)  an argument and the experiences written about are selected to support the overarching theme that the author/narrator has chosen.  There’s often a central motif that drives the work (gem, alphabets…)  I wouldn’t want to be held too strictly to the distinction between the two, though.


Alice Pung: Unpolished Gem, 2006, 280 p.

“This story does not begin on a boat. Nor does it contain any wild swans or falling leaves” announces the blurb on the back cover.  Well, thank heavens for that, say I.  The world certainly doesn’t need yet another Asian three-generation book written by a Westernized daughter.

Alice Pung was twenty-five when this book was published to great acclaim. It tells of growing up in Braybrook as the eldest daughter in a Chinese/Cambodian family who had arrived in Australia in the wake of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields.  Her father owns a nearby Retravision store and her mother is an outworker making jewellery which she sells to retail stores.  Her paternal grandmother lives with them, Alice has several younger sisters and brothers, and there are blood aunts and other nominal ‘aunties’ within the Vietnamese/Cambodian  community in which they live. Interwoven with her own chronology of primary school- secondary school- university there are flashbacks to her parents’ early experience in Australia.  She is very conscious of her status as eldest daughter in a family fighting hard to find their own place in a new society.  As a daughter, she is an ‘unpolished gem’ compared to the highly polished lustre given to eldest sons, and during her final year at high school she suffers a breakdown under the pressure of her own high educational expectations, the drudgery and imposition of looking after her younger siblings, and her own attempt to fit in with her Australian peers and yet remain the ‘good’ girl.

This was the second time that I have read this book.  I had been rather lukewarm about it when I read the first time,  just after it had been published, and I wouldn’t have chosen to re-read it except that it was a bookgroup selection.  I think that I appreciated her writing more the second time around. Her story is told with insight and humour, although I (again) found myself becoming increasingly annoyed at the italicized internal dialogue as she grew older.  Just as I did the first time, I  again thought that the epilogue was clunky and rather too mannered in an attempt to bring what is truly an unfinished memoir to a close, given that the author was only several years older than the self she was writing about in the closing pages.  And so…. to the other memoir.

The Lucy Family Alphabet by Judith Lucybook cover.

Judith Lucy: The Lucy Family Alphabet , 2009, 296 p.

I don’t really know why I picked this book up, given that I’m not particularly keen on the comedic persona that Judith Lucy has created.  I must admit that I find the exaggerated, world-weary drawl rather wearing, and the constant mining of her own life for material a little tedious and self-indulgent.  So to willingly subject myself to more seems rather perverse.  On the other hand, the chapters were short (most about 2-3 pages in length) and not particularly chronological, so that I could dip into it at will.

Like all good Alphabets, the book starts off with A…. for adoption, and the chaotic Xmas family dinner at which she learned that she was, in fact, adopted. Normally in a straight autobiography this bombshell would come near the end of the book but she plops it onto the reader in the opening pages, then shuttles back and forth around this revelation, letting the letters of the alphabet supposedly drive the narrative rather than chronology.  The alphabet structure is rather artificial- there are, for example, six letter ‘A’ stories- and although the stories seem random, the longer you stay with the book, the more layered her anecdotes become.  There is more of an ending than just reaching the letter ‘Z’.  And even though the narrative voice is just the same as that distinctive drawling voice you’re likely to hear on a comedy show on the ABC, there’s more than just a string of acerbic, pointed anecdotes.  At times it is poignant and yes- wise (even though Judith Lucy the comedian would probably snort at such a description).

Judith Lucy wrote her book at about the age of 40; Alice Pung would have been in her early twenties.  Can an author write a memoir in her twenties, I wonder? I tend to think maybe not.  Or, rather, even though it might lose its immediacy,  I think that perhaps it would be a better memoir left to marinate for a few decades more.

awwbadge_2013Two memoirs- two Australian women writers.  I must add it to the Challenge!

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #18

June Philipp was a historian at La Trobe University during the 1980s.  I’ve heard her spoken of on several occasions, linked with Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac and Inga Clendinnen of the ‘Melbourne School’ of ethnographic history that appeals to me so much.   I was interested in a methodological paper that she wrote in Historical Studies in 1983.

Human action is generated within a social and cultural context whose forms- relations, roles, rules, values, rituals, symbols- shape its logic and project its meanings… Social actions from the past have been preserved in a piecemeal way by having been written down in the form of action descriptions- glimpses of people in the past doing things…. Action has an external dimension, and past action may be observed (though indirectly) as behaviour, as a sequence of physical movements, but its import is not immediately accessible to observers in the present who happen to look back.  It is the ‘inside’ of action that matters most and which the historian must seek to discover…  (p. 350)

Action-oriented history is an empirical study and, in one of its aspects, it is descriptive.  The first aim of the historian is to divest the account of what happened, as much as possible, of interpretation: of the interpretative overtones in which it is clothed by its past recital and by the historian in its re-telling.  The intent is to rehearse and display the actions.  The facts are then construed: actions are scrutinised and analysed patiently in search of clusters or patterns which signify institutionalised forms.  The historian then tries to grasp the meaning being expressed through those forms by the historical actors…  (p.351)

Getting inside actions or episodes in a means of reconstructing the experience and the meanings expressed by people in the past who were conversing in public, amongst themselves.  Getting inside episodes assumes that the primary aim of historical analysis is the recovery, partial although it must be, of the lived reality of people in their past.  To discount that reality is, in all likelihood, to fabricate a history which will try to breathe life into our concepts, models and categories so that they may pass for actuality… (p.352)

June Philipp ‘Traditional historical narrative and action-oriented (or ethnographic) history.’ Historical Studies, 1983, Vol 20, No. 80 pp.339-352