Monthly Archives: March 2014

A little trip to Phillip Island

One of the real advantages of Steve only working four days a week is that every weekend is a long weekend.  We’re taking advantage of the beautiful autumn weather to take a weekend down at Phillip Island.  Yes, THAT Phillip Island which Matthew Guy is getting all het up about. My, he’s as cross as patch, isn’t he?  I think he doth protest too much.  Something very fishy about it all, I reckon.  What a joke that IBAC can’t investigate politicians.

Nonetheless, I really don’t know why we don’t come down here more often.  It’s only 90 minutes from Melbourne, on freeways the whole way.  It really is quite beautiful.

We’re staying at a Genesta B&B in Cowes. Very nice it is, too.  Full marks for having a top sheet and summer blanket that can be used instead of the pretty but stiflingly hot doona.  I can’t work out why more places don’t do the same.

It’s on a quiet side street that abuts onto Westernport Bay, about three minutes walk away.   Have you ever wondered why Westernport bay is actually located east of Port Phillip Bay?  That’s because Bass, who named it, did not venture any further west than this before heading back up along the eastern coast.  This bay WAS west of the coast that he had charted.  Apparently the Bunurong name for it is Warn’marring.   Given that Westernport Bay is east of  Melbourne, that would be a pretty good case for renaming it, I reckon.

If you’ve been to Phillip Island (and most people in Melbourne have been at some stage), you’ll probably remember the Isle of Wight Hotel overlooking the pier.


Rather ordinary, I must admit, but I saw photographs of it at the local Historical Society this morning, and it was originally a mock-tudor hotel built in the early 1930s.  It was rather attractive, and reminiscent of the guest houses that used to be in Marysville.  It was built to replace an earlier wooden hotel that had been on the site and burnt down.

Well, it ain’t there now.  The site has been empty for four years.  Is that a burning rat I smell?

Phillip Island is well known for its penguins and koalas.  It’s a very popular destination for bus tours of international tourists who want a day trip to see furry animals.

We went to see the Penguins last night.  I can’t quite remember the controversy over the Seal Rocks Centre or whatever it was…something about Jeff Kennett?  Well,  whatever it was then, it’s now a huge slick place full of shops and merchandise  and cafeterias.  Still, the penguins are the real show.  The lights on the beach are dimmer than I remember them being, and you sit in two large ampitheatres facing the sea. At first you can’t see the penguins at all (although you can hear them), then they seem to just materialize out of the waves.  They huddle in a little cluster like shy, giggling, stagestruck toddlers, they scuttle up in a group into the sand dunes.  There were three main groups of them that we saw- there may have been more, but we decided to leave by then.  The sky was clear and the stars magnificent.  I was rather proud that I was able to identify Mars when it rose.

Then today over to Churchill Island.  It’s a beautiful, tranquil spot.  Thank you, Dick Hamer, for purchasing it for us all.  Lt. Grant established the first farm there in 1801 although they can’t locate the exact site. Now surely that’s  a 3-day job for Time Team, I reckon- the first white agricultural site in what is now Victoria?  The first permanent settlers between 1860 and 1866  were Samuel and Winifred Pickersgill, but he lost possession of it in a card game.  It was taken over by John and Sarah Rogers who lived there until 1872, when it was purchased by the successful stonemason and ex-Lord Mayor of Melbourne Samuel Amess. He built the holiday house that is the main building there today.  You can read more about the history of Churchill Island here.  I must dust off my copy of A.G.L. Shaw’s The History of the Port Phillip District when I get home and re-read those first chapters.

Melbourne in 1954

In 1954 the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works produced a film showing the planning challenges that faced Melbourne, that “vast metropolis of one and a half million people”.  The 17 minute film is available in full here:

I was surprised to see so many women in the footage of the city, and despondent to see the absolute dearth of women in the planning offices of the MMBW.  I had a chuckle at the apocalyptic music that accompanied scenes of traffic jams and am puzzled by the footage of new suburbs which look a bit like West Heidelberg or perhaps Ashwood with their housing commission homes.  The images of the slums must predate their demolition and replacement by the inner city high-rise Housing Commission flats.

I wonder what happened to the survey conducted by all those university students? I mourn the loss of planning for the “rural zone around the city”.

Well worth a look!

I seek it here, I seek it there….Historic newspapers on Google

Once upon a time, the Port Phillip Herald was available online.  It was on a site called “Paper of Record” prior to the evolution of our wonderful Trove.  Then all of a sudden it disappeared- just like that!- swallowed by the Google Gargantua.

But miracle of miracles- it resurfaced! There it was on Google News Archive, along with hundreds of other historic newspapers, mainly from North America, but with a  smattering of English, Scots and other newspapers as well.

Then all of a sudden (again) they changed the Google News page and it disappeared again. Oh woe.

But I’ve relocated it! It was there all the time!  And as a reminder to myself: here’s the link as of 25th March 2014.

Will it still be there when I look at it again?  Who knows….

‘The Ghost at the Wedding’ by Shirley Walker


2009, 247 p

It has often struck me that I am part of a blessed generation that has lived in a time of peace and ,with only a few blips of recession, continued economic growth.  My father was too young to have fought in World War II, my brothers too young for Vietnam, and unless world war breaks out within the next ten years, my son is unlikely to have to fight (and indeed, I find it hard to imagine the scenario that would prompt him to volunteer to do so).  An earlier, blighted generation, however,  experienced World War I,  the Depression and World War II again in what must have seemed an almost never-ending succession of difficulties and disasters. Jessie Walker, who is the subject of this book, stood at the pier to wave off her brothers and their friends in World War I and then sent off her own sons and younger brothers to the Second World War.  It is a war story, but told from the point of view of the women left behind.

The author, Shirley Walker, describes this book as “a memoir of my mother-in-law, Jessie and… an imaginative reconstruction of her family’s truth“. She has used letters, diaries, service records and family documents but she writes “the inner life of each character, especially that of Jessie” from the imagination.  She draws on the existing paintings that Jessie created in later life as a way of reconstructing Jessie’s inner life, but imagines and describes other paintings never made.  The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is often tentative- it is, after all, the love of the same man in the different guises of son and husband that links them-  and you sense Shirley Walker’s sensitivity to the wider family in writing this book. She has changed some names to protect some family members.

The book opens in 1983 with Jessie in a nursing home, and from here the  chronology of the book skips back and forth.  The author (the daughter in law) identifies herself as “I” and Jessie’s story is told in the third person.  There is limited dialogue. Although Jessie is the focus of the book, it also describes at third-hand or through letters, the war experiences of sons, fathers, nephews and uncles. It is a book very much grounded in Jessie’s life with her husband and sons on the peninsular island that emerges from the waters of the Clarence River, but it traverses much further.

It is a beautifully written, lyrical book.  The men of the Walker family were alive to the sights and sounds around them, and it comes through in Shirley Walker’s retelling. The book comes with high praise from the novelist Alex Millar whose blurb reads:

An unqualified masterpiece.  The most moving account of love and war I’ve ever read.

I must confess, though, that even though I was saddened by the book and the thought of so much death across several generations, I was not moved to tears.  Perhaps it was the author’s restraint in telling another’s story, or perhaps it was the ethical distance that her relationship with the subject imposed on the author, already a published academic.

Like Lisa at ANZ Litlovers, I would have appreciated a family tree, as different generations were named after their forebears.  I’m still a little perplexed by the title, which does not seem to refer to any particular wedding, but perhaps that is intentional.  The story here of one individual woman is a generational story, and as such, one that I hope women yet unborn never have to experience.

We are sure to read many biographies and histories of World War I this year, and next year, the centenary of Gallipoli which has assumed such importance in popular Australian historiography.  There is, among some historians, an uneasiness about the overwhelming prominence given to ANZAC -hence the Honest History website which notes:

There is much more to Australian history than the Anzac tradition; there is much more to our war history than nostalgia and tales of heroism. Honest History is being set up to get those two messages across. Our approach is ‘not only Anzac, but also [many other strands of Australian history]’. We see history as complex with many interwoven, competing evidence-based strands. This sort of history should be the mainstream; hyperinflation of a particular strand is an anachronism.  Editorial and moderation policy, Honest History website

The bookshops already seem to be stuffed full of Big Books of War, generally written by men, many of whom have a journalistic background. I’m thinking Les Carlyon, Peter Fitzsimons etc. and of course, the author of the biggest Big Book of War of them all, Charles Bean.   Where women have written about war, the focus tends to be less on battles and more on the men themselves; less on valour and bravery and more on loss and suffering. (I must confess to not having read Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs, and so I don’t know whether this holds true for her book or not). The Ghost at the Wedding fits into this more person-centred approach that encompasses both the warfront and the homefront, those who stayed behind and those who returned.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I want to post it to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.


‘Life after Life’ by Kate Atkinson


2013, 477 pages.

Spoiler alert

This should be my absolute favourite, top-of-the-list read for 2014, even though the year has just started.  After all, it’s written by Kate Atkinson, an author whose books, across various genres, I really enjoy.  It’s a time travel book and I love those too, even though it feels a little bit adolescent. It has the Sliding Doors/Groundhog Day thing going on as well, which is also good, although my enjoyment of these two movies became a bit rocky when I began thinking “But hold on, how….?”  and questioning the logistics of it all.  In terms of subject matter, much of this book is based during the Blitz, which has attracted me ever since I read Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch.  So, all in all, it should have been a 10 out of 10 winner.

Spoiler alert

The reason why it isn’t a 10/10 winner confronted me on the opening pages.  On November 1930 Ursula enters a German cafe and joins a table laden with cakes where a blonde woman is draped over a fleshy, “softly repellent” man.  She places her handbag under the table and settles amongst the others at the table, then reaches down for a handkerchief from her bag.  She pulls out a gun and shoots the Fuhrer dead. Darkness falls.

This is the first of multiple deaths that Ursula experiences in this book, each marked by the appearance of snow before darkness falls.  She is strangled by her umbilical cord at birth: or she is not.  She catches Spanish influenza: or she does not.  She is beaten to death by a brutal husband: or she is not.  She is killed in an air-raid attack during the Blitz: or she is not.  It takes a little while to adjust to these constantly-reset scenarios, and by the end of the book I found myself turning frequently to the table of contents that lists the dates of the different episodes.  Once I’d realized what was happening, I was happy to go along with the premise and there were few times when the death, or not-death, did not seem completely natural or plausible.

With the exception of the Hitler scenario which opened the book, that is.  I found the whole scenario that placed Ursula in Germany unconvincing, and by tying this fictional character to a real-life historical figure Atkinsin rather clumsily and half-heartedly opened up the ’what-if’ historical can of worms. She doesn’t really DO anything with this historical question (which I do enjoy rather guiltily as an historian) and the book as a fictional work doesn’t really need to venture into historiographical waters.

Most of the scenarios are fairly short, until she reaches 1939-40. The Blitz takes up a large proportion of the book and I found myself wishing that Atkinson could get herself out of this narrative quagmire somehow.  She does, with the same sleight of hand as she does elsewhere in the book, and even though I like Blitz stories, I was glad that she could leave them behind eventually.

By the time I finished this fairly lengthy book, I found myself pondering just how well Atkinson had developed Ursula as a character.  The old writing adage is “show, don’t tell” as far as character development is concerned, and certainly the plot-driven structure of this book means that there is a lot of showing, again and again.  Ursula’s responses to these various scenarios all ring true, so Atkinson must have succeeded in creating enough of a character for me, as reader, to judge fidelity against.  This is character revealed through events, and through events that occur to Ursula alone. Do we become ourselves only through the events that befall us, I wonder?   I found myself wishing that the spotlight could shift away from Ursula for a moment, to encompass the views of other characters as well.

And so, my enjoyment of this book that seems at first sight to tick all my boxes, is somewhat alloyed.  I still very much like Kate Atkinson as a writer, and the book brought me a great deal of pleasure.  But a 10 out of 10?  Probably not….

My score:  8.5/10 ???

Read because:  CAE book group selection.  I missed the meeting- I wish I’d been there to discuss it further!

Sourced from:  CAE Bookgroups.

‘The Judas Kiss’ Heidelberg Theatre Company

I saw this play a couple of years ago, and I see that it is currently being staged by Mockingbird Theatre with the same lead actor between 15-22 March 2014 at Theatre Works 14 Acland St, St Kilda.

The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Once again, I wish that I’d seen this before the final performance so that I could encourage you to go.  Alas, too late (again) .

Written by David Hare, the two-act  play concerns Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alf Douglas. Act One is set in a London hotel, just prior to Wilde’s arrest where his friend Robert Ross is trying to persuade him to leave for the continent; the second act is in Naples two years later where Bosie decides to leave the impoverished and broken Wilde to return to London and his family.

I find it hard to see anyone else other than Stephen Fry playing Wilde- surely a part that he was born to play, and there’s a danger that playing such a flamboyant figure can descend to parody. But Chris Baldock, playing Wilde made the part his own, to the point at the end of the…

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‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’ by Michela Wrong


2009, 368 p.

Amazon preview here.

Before I went to Kenya my son told me that I had to read this book in order to understand Kenyan society and politics.  Already rather anxious about his two-year stint in Kenya, I was not encouraged to find that a book that I expected to be about politics and history had been catalogued by my library as ‘True Crime’!

“Our turn to eat” refers to a Kenyan view that when you’re in a position to take advantage, you should do so because others have done so before you, and will do so again once you are no longer ascendant.

The book is written by a British journalist who sheltered the Kenyan whistle-blower John Githongo when he turned up on her London doorstep in 2005 after abruptly leaving his position as the Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics.

As the head of Transparency International, Githongo had been appointed to the position by President Kibaki, who had been elected to office on an anti-corruption platform.  He found that  instead of being empowered to challenge corruption, the position muzzled him.  Once safely in England, he blew the whistle on Kenyan corruption, most particularly the Anglo-Leasing Scandal  which, although started by an earlier government, was carried over into the new administration as well.

I was vaguely aware of the 2007 election violence and the international nervousness that it would be repeated during the 2013 election.  (It wasn’t).  Kenya was catapulted in Western consciousness with the Westgate Mall terrorist attack last year. [ John Githongo has written an interesting article about the official response to this attack, which draws on his arguments that are presented in this book.  It’s worth a read here.   ]  He argues that underlying the newsworthy, big-headline events Kenyan politics is a longer-running and more disturbing story of corruption that continues almost irrespective of the political party in ascendance at the time.  Because “it’s our turn to eat”, parties that campaigned against corruption in opposition will themselves embark upon it in the sure knowledge that they have only a short window of opportunity to do so.

Although  Githongo is the main character, the book is clearly written by Wrong and is  fast-paced, compelling  and very easy to read.  It provides a wealth of historical and social history about the tribal divisions in Kenyan society which were played out in the  violence that followed the 2007 elections.  It also presents a very pessimistic view of Kenyan politics: that corruption is endemic, and that there is no end in sight.  The fault lies with Western countries as well (particularly Britain) which turn a blind eye to money laundering and facilitate ongoing corruption through their banking, procurement and insurance practices.

As the epilogue explains, the book was boycotted by booksellers which  almost guaranteed its success.  The boycott was circumvented by a PDF version made freely available on the internet and an  NGO which gave away copies of it.  Apparently even today the book is not often found on the open shelves of Kenyan bookshops

After reading this book, I found myself more able to make sense of the politics that dominate the print media and news reports in the Kenyan public sphere.  I must admit, though, that it didn’t really reassure me. Perhaps it’s not the best book for a young ex-pat living in Kenya to recommend to his mum.

Moomba: the dodgiest festival of them all

Labour Day is celebrated on different days in different states.  Today, it’s celebrated in Victoria, and also in Tasmania under the name of its earlier incarnation as Eight Hours Day.

There are many (including me) who lament the loss of the radical and working-class focus on this holiday, but I was surprised to learn today that the original Eight Hours Day was not celebrated on this weekend in any event.  The stonemasons of Melbourne achieved the eight hour day on April 21st 1856 and had their first celebration on 12 (or maybe 15th?) of May that year.  Subsequently it was celebrated on 21st April each year, and declared a public holiday in 1879.  However, over time May Day assumed more importance as an international labour celebration, and the increasing significance of Anzac Day on 25th April sidelined the Eight Hour Day celebration held four days earlier .  Numbers attending and viewing the Eight Hour Day procession declined after World War I  and the date of the public holiday was changed to March in 1927 ( I can’t find why- this excellent article here deals with Eight Hour Day between 1928-1935 but does not explain the change in date.)  The name ‘Eight Hours Day’ itself changed to ‘Labour Day’ in 1934.  The date was changed yet again in 1949 (and again, I don’t know why).

However, while it might be ‘Labour Day’ on the calendar,  for many Melburnians it’s better known as ‘Moomba weekend’.  This Moomba celebration is particularly auspicious because it is the sixtieth anniversary of this rather retro and often unloved procession.  However, as with much involving this ” invented tradition” (to use Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase), even the ’60 years’ date is dodgy, given that the first parade occurred in March 1955.

The name ‘Moomba’ is dodgy as well.  I had taken some pleasure in the story that Moomba actually means ‘up your bum’ in Koorie English.  ‘Moom’ certainly does mean ‘bum’ and is still in use in Victorian communities in that way today (e.g. ‘shift your moom’ when asking someone to move up).  Lin Onus, the son of Victorian Koorie elder Bill Onus claimed that his father had offered up the name as a joke when the idea of a commerce-backed parade (which Moomba certainly was originally) was first mooted, mischievously suggesting that the name meant ‘Let’s get together and have fun’.

However, even this rather subversive story seems to be dodgy as well. Lin Onus later tried to recant it, pointing out that his father had been instrumental in the staging of An Aboriginal Moomba: ‘Out of the Dark’ at the Princess Theatre on 23-27th June 1951 with an all-Aboriginal cast drawn from local and interstate communities.  The core dance group came from Cherbourg, where the term ‘moomba’ did have connations of show or celebration, and it is possible that Bill Onus and his wife Mary referenced this in naming the stage show and later offered it as the name for the planned Autumn festival.

The fact that there are to be seven floats today is being loudly trumpeted but as a child who grew up in the 1960s, the heyday of Moomba, that seems a particularly paltry offering.  It’s somewhat better, I suppose, than the tortured ‘community’ parades of recent years which seemed to involve a whole lot of kids either dressed up in stiff and embarrassing national costumes to mark their parents’ migrant origins, or the presence of every circus and dance school in Melbourne.  Fun if you were participating, I guess, but not really the sort of thing you’d want to line the footpath to watch.  You can read this rather celebratory history of Moomba as a downloadable PDF published under the auspices of  City of Melbourne here, or a rather more critical view of Moomba from 1985 here (try logging in through the State Library of Victoria)

As a child, I can remember going to Moomba, being lifted onto my father’s shoulders or pushed to the front of the crowd for a better view.  I can remember the smell of the brewery one year, and I’ve located some photos from 1961.

I’m mystified to know where we were standing.  I think that the domed church in the right hand corner of the Coles ‘horse’ float is Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rathdowne Street, and certainly the terrace houses behind the parade look as if they are in Carlton.  The tall chimney perplexes me- the brewery wasn’t up there, was it?  The parade has changed its route on several occasions, especially as its popularity has declined.

We certainly loved it.  With the booming of the drums still throbbing in our ears, we’d come home from Moomba and make our own Moomba procession out in the street with billy-carts and bikes, wobbling along on paint-tin stilts and banging an old saucepan.  Seems all rather innocent and sweet now.

Anyway, happy Moomba!  Embrace the dodginess of it all and enjoy the holiday!

‘Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist’


272 p. 2013

What turns someone from an interested observer into an activist?  I think that we all have our hot-button triggers, where something enrages us so much that all of a sudden we make the political personal.  For me, it was seeing slimy Alexander Downer talking about the Greater Sunrise oilfield and, smiling sweetly, excusing Australia’s reprehensible behaviour in denying East Timor the riches that would flow from it  with the comment “well, that’s what foreign aid is for, isn’t it?”  At that point, I vowed that I needed to know more about Australia’s actions in the immediate neighbourhood and speak out (however ineffectually).

Bill McKibben is the founder of, a global environment group that aims to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm.  He is a writer and journalist who has written on environmental issues before.  But with the mooted approval of the KeystoneXL pipeline that would carry tar sand  soil from Alberta Canada to the Gulf for processing, he stepped over the line from writer and commentator to activist.   It would be hard not to, I should imagine, having researched this arrogantly destructive, short-sighted proposal, backed by big business and the geo-political cheersquad for American supremacy.  But, moving beyond emailing and pressuring politicians and doing television interviews, he went one step further. He led a civil disobedience campaign that resulted in him spending three nights in jail, along with many other activists

It’s a rather unusual book.  I found myself wondering if there was an earlier book that I should have read first, because I felt as if I’d been dropped into a conversation half-way through.  However, when I look through the summaries of his books on his Wikipedia entry, I see that many of them are semi-autobiographical, and that many seem to use the overarching structure found in this  book as well: the juxtaposition of the personal and the political.

In this case, the juxtaposition is between the life of his friend Kirk Webster, who keeps bees in Vermont, and his own experience in exerting direct political action over Keystone.   A rather long and laboured metaphor for organization, the bee sections are interesting in their own right as a microcosm of the complex interconnections between life and environment.  The activist sections I found rather less enchanting.  He doesn’t particularly lecture about climate change or environmental degradation but instead describes the change in his life since becoming an activist as well as commentator.  I found myself bridling against the rather syrupy name-dropping, which reminded me a bit of military writing: that need to give every man and woman his due.

I was, I must admit, just a bit disappointed in the book.  I was expecting something punchier, but this is instead a gentler enterprise.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: it was there on the shelf

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘The Honey Guide’ by Richard Crompton


2013, 320 p.

I was standing in a Nairobi bookshop with my son.  “Show me a best-selling Kenyan book” I said, and he handed me this one, all wrapped up in clear cellophane as Kenyan books tend to be.  It’s the debut novel of Richard Crompton, a former BBC journalist and producer who has lived in East Africa for several years.  I think that you can tell his BBC credentials in the writing of this book: he is hoping to create a series of books and I can just see this one as a three-part BBC series in the future.

Mollel is a Masaai policeman based in Nairobi, which immediately marks him out as an outsider. Masaai’s as a rule, do not seek careers in the police force, and Mollel takes no part in the Kikuyu-Luo rivalry that is implicit in Kenyan politics today.  He has his own tragedies, and he has only just returned to the force after a lengthy period of leave.  The case which opens the book involves a prostitute who has suffered a violent recent genital mutilation.  The trail leads to a powerful evangelical church minister, dodgy adoption practices and corruption at the highest levels.

But for me the real appeal of this book is the setting of Nairobi itself.  The action takes place in the days leading up to the 2007 election which led to an estimated 1300  deaths and widespread internal displacement as people fled their homes to what they perceived as safer regions where their own tribal group is more numerous.  In fact, the refugee camps of these internally displaced Kenyans still exist, seven years later.  The action is sited in actual places ( I’ve been to them!) and he captures well the sense of shock as things falling apart in what had, until then, been perceived as an operational-enough democracy.

I’m not usually into police procedurals in the books I read, although I am rather partial to the Friday night crime-fest of BBC programs on the ABC each week.  I think that the writer’s intention in creating a series is a little too blatant here, as he piles on the back-story in this first book.   In a series, this background personal information would be drip-fed in a  more subtle way over multiple episodes and even multiple seasons.   (Although, apparently the manuscript languished in his bottom drawer for many years.  Perhaps he’s only aspired to a series since the Ladies Detective Agency success!) The plot is rather over-egged, I think: just one or two of the multiple plot lines would be sufficient.  But as a creative and narrative response to the 2007 election it is well worth reading, and it has been even more enjoyable reading the book in Nairobi itself.