Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.