Monthly Archives: July 2014

‘Auld Lang Syne’ at the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Well, it’s not quite over yet! You can catch this exhibition at the beautiful Art Gallery at Ballarat before it closes on July 27th 2014.

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When we talk of ‘British’ settlement in Australia, we often glide over the fact that this included English, Scots, Irish and Welsh settlers and officials.  Hidden in plain sight is the fact that Scots permeated the empire, both as agents of colonialism through their Scottish enlightenment skills in botany, surveying and art, and as settlers in their own right.  Once you’re alert to this, you find them everywhere in colonial Australia- and in my own research into Upper Canada and British Guiana, they’re there as well, as this Slaves and Highlanders site conveys.  Their Scots ties were not left behind, and they were reinforced in new colonies by the church (both Presbyterian and Catholic), Scottish organizations and the familial networks between new settlers.

This exhibition of artwork and artefacts underscores the importance of the Scottish artists who accompanied the First Fleet (think Sidney Parkinson), and those officials who dabbled in artwork in the early Port Jackson settlement (think John Hunter).  Their education and scientific learning , to say nothing of toughness), fitted them well as explorers (think Stuart and Sturt and Major Mitchell) and their financial acumen and entrepreneurial nous served them well as merchants (think Robert Campbell) and agriculturalists (think William Anglis).  They were governors (think Lachlan Macquarie) and firebrand preachers ( think John Dunmore Lang) .  When Queen Victoria adopted Balmoral into her ‘brand’, Australians did too, and Robert Burns and Highland games became incorporated into the Britishness that colonial Australians held onto while at the same time developing their own variation.

All these aspects are explored in this exhibition which covers the First Fleet to Federation.  There is, as you might expect in an Art Gallery, an emphasis on artwork which is drawn from many collections, including the Natural History Museum in UK.  (I liked the fact, conveyed through one of the information panels, that a wombat skin sent ‘home’ by one of the early Scots settlers is displayed standing on its two back paws). But there are some objects as well, including a silk scarf commemorating the Scottish Martyrs who were sent here as convicts (an EXCELLENT Radio National podcast on Thomas Muir here).  An introductory panel warns that women are not heavily represented in the display, but Georgiana McCrae had a presence.

The dearth of women might have been ameliorated by a stronger focus on family connections, which was hinted at with the displays on Thomas and James Mitchell, but not really brought to the forefront.  It could likewise have been drawn out further with Georgiana McCrae whose brothers-in-law popped up in different aspects of Port Phillip Society.  Family connections, the networks across colonies, and chain migration as one son, then another, then the whole family came across, ensured that the Scots spread across Australia and the empire generally.  They became part of, and shaped their new communities but retained still an emotional attachment to their Scots identity.

I would have loved to have purchased the book that accompanied the exhibition but it was just SO expensive.  It was available in hardback only, at $79.95.  I’d gladly buy a softcover book for $40.00 if it were available (even though the glue binding them is often inferior) but double the price is just too much.  The same applied at the Bendigo exhibition we attended recently.

I’m pleased that the regional galleries are mounting such well curated and well publicized exhibitions.  And we certainly weren’t alone in our enjoyment. It was a bitterly cold Ballarat Sunday afternoon, and the gallery was comfortably full.

 

 

‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld

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2013,  229 p.

Well, it’s won the Miles Franklin. The author was included on the once a decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists List. Her earlier book After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was acclaimed everywhere. So why was I underwhelmed by All the Birds, Singing?

It certainly starts with a jolt:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p.229)

Jake is a sheep farmer on a remote, unnamed British Island, where she lives in a dank farmhouse with only Dog for company. We do not know how she came to be there, and why she is there unfolds gradually during the book.   It’s a visceral book, with not only carcasses of sheep and the bloodied life on the land, but the bodily violence of her other life- the one before this- as an abused prostitute in remote outback Australia.

The book is told in alternating chapters, with her life on the island told in first person past tense, and the Australian chapters told in first person present tense. It took some time into the book for me to realize that the Australian chapters were being narrated in reverse chronology. And so the author juggles two questions from the reader: ‘what happens next?’ as Jake gradually opens herself up to the company of an itinerant rambler who somehow ends up staying at the farm, and ‘what happened before?’ to bring her to such a lonely, cold and harsh environment.

The author is a master of setting. The whipping rain and inky darkness of the island is a stark contrast to the dessicated, searing light of the outback that opens the book. The motif of birds runs throughout the book like a soundtrack.

Part of my problem with this book might have been that I read it so quickly after finishing After the Fire, a Small Still Voice. When I look back at my review of After the Fire, I find that I could apply most of my observations about that book to this one as well. It’s almost the same story, with variations. Both books interweave two narratives. Both involve trauma and separateness that is heightened by isolation. In both, the setting is rendered carefully.  Even the titles are structurally similar and almost interchangeable.  Yes, there are differences- there are two characters in the first book and one in the second; the first book deals with the issue of masculinity, whereas there is a female main character in the second.   But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading variations on the same basic structure. Is this deliberate? Are these books elaborations on the same structure, rendered with different characters and scenarios? Is this part of a bigger project?

This year I didn’t get round to reading the other short-listed titles for the Miles Franklin. I think that I might just have to think “Well, interesting choice….”

awwbadge_2014 Posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Janet McCalman on the Founders and Survivors Project

A couple of weeks ago, Heidelberg Historical Society was delighted to welcome Professor Janet McCalman to our open meeting to speak about the Founders and Survivors Project.  This is a fascinating partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are using the convict records of the 73,000 men women and children who were transported to Van Diemens Land (VDL) between 1803-53 to create a collective biography of the transportation experience as it played out through succeeding generations.   Not particularly “Heidelberg-y”, you might think, but you’d be wrong: from among the records she found three ex-VDL convicts who settled in the Heidelberg/Diamond Creek/Whittlesea district, and in many ways their lives illustrated the ‘lifestories’ approach of the project as a whole.

The Van Diemens Land records are one of the most complete databases of the bodies and lives of an entire population in the world- so unique that it has been placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2007.   The Founders and Survivors Project links them with another parallel database: that of those who served in the AIF in World War I.  These two data banks form the bookends of a project that looks at the convicts as a population, rather than as individuals, gathering data on their lives before sentence from which to infer their early life influences, examining their progress through the penal system in VDL, then tracing their lives after sentence.  It moves onto succeeding generations, looking at the  occupations, life span, families, mobility and social location of their descendants ending up, if possible, at the AIF records.

Using the methodology of prosopographical demography, it is a project built up from small records into an over-arching collective biography.  The convict indents are a starting point, but it widens out to genealogical records, shipping records, newspapers and institutional records as these individuals move through different life stages.  As you can imagine, this is a hugely labour-intensive process, involving records from all over the world.  In a way that just would not have been possible twenty years ago, the grunt-work of the project has been crowd-sourced, with local historians, family historians and genealogists from all over the world making their contributions.

You can see a video and read a transcript of Janet giving a talk similar to the one she gave us here at the State Library of Victoria website.

The people of Port Phillip during Judge Willis’ time liked to pride themselves on belonging to a ‘free’ society rather than a penal colony.  However, as I wrote about here, there were many convicts in Port Phillip, and through the Founders and Survivors project,  they have established that many of them were attracted to either Melbourne and its suburbs or the goldfields.  I was not surprised to learn that of the ex-convicts they were able to trace to death (just under half), the majority of men did not marry, but I was surprised to learn that 30% of women did not marry either.  Moreover, the majority of the women they have traced did not have children, although as Janet explained, a large tranche of the earlier female transportees were street-walkers whose venereal disease may have affected their fertility.   One of the criteria that the project has used for ‘success’ in later life is the presence of grand-children. Grandchildren suggest that the former transportee was able to carve out a life that was sufficiently secure to raise children to adulthood, and that those children, in turn,  were able to find life partners with whom to start their own families.  It puts the present-day pride in convict ancestors into another light: as far as VDL convicts are concerned, those who went on to sprout forth large family trees were very much the exception rather than the rule.

Two comments that she made struck me in particular- probably because they have resonances with events today.  The first was that of the punishments inflicted during transportation, solitary confinement seemed to be correlated most strongly with poor life outcomes, with fewer marriages and children afterwards.   Physical punishment (e.g. lashing) declined over time, as the system moved towards more psychological punishment.  Women in particular suffered from transportation (or the life prior to transportation), with their life expectancy some ten years lower than that of  free settler and native born women.

The second observation that Professor McCalman made was that it was government activity that gave many of these ex-convicts a leg-up.  Many were employed on the railways, and moving beyond WWI, those who served in the AIF and received returned-service homes managed to avoid the worst of the depression.  Many from later generations worked on the large infrastructure projects- Yallourn power station; roads etc.  In a world today of for-profit, public-private partnership, it underlines the importance of government activity in infrastructure, not just in its construction but its ongoing operation as well.

This project combines big-picture analysis with fine-grained family stories. There’s a wonderful, beautifully-designed  site called Founders and Survivors Storylines that presents these family stories through video, song and words.  Well worth a look.

 

A damned big ‘small’ business

According to Mike Seccombe in the Saturday Paper of June 7-13, the Abbott government has a rather expansive view of what constitutes a “small” business.  As a result, they have announced their intention to revise section 25-90 of the tax act, the “thin capitalisation” rules.

The previous Labor government had announced steps to limit the process by which companies could structure their operations to load up a subsidiary with debt borrowed from a related company off-shore, and then claim the interest as a tax deduction.  Under this scenario,  once the debt to equity ratio passed 1.5 to 1, and total interest repayments exceeded $250,000, the tax man would start asking questions.

Not any more.  The Abbott government will increase the threshold for interest repayments eightfold, from $250,000 to $2 million, in order to “spare small business compliance costs”.   Somehow, a small business borrowing enough to incur interest repayment costs of $2 million each year, and then writing it off as a tax deduction, doesn’t quite sound like a small business to me…..

Just sayin’.