Monthly Archives: September 2014

‘Mr Pip’ by Lloyd Jones


2006 256 p

Sometimes the challenge in reading a book lies in negotiating its different threads and clambering over complex language that is so clever and slippery that you’re constantly on your mettle as a reader.  But sometimes – ah, sweet relief!- the book itself is so easy to read that you just lie back and let it sweep you along, only to find yourself rewarded with layers and counterpoints that emerge long after you shut the book. Mr Pip, for me, was such a book.

Everyone called him Pop-Eye” is the opening sentence of Mr Pip, echoing Dickens’ immortal opening lines of Great Expectations,

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Pop-Eye, or Mr Watts, is the last remaining white man on Bougainville after the implementation of the blockade by Papua New Guinea in 1990 and the descent into civil war between the ‘rambos’ (village boys who joined the rebel insurgency) and the ‘redskins’ (PNG soldiers).  Fourteen year old Matilda lives on the island with her deeply religious mother Delores, her father having travelled to Townsville for work with the Australians and unable or unwilling to return because of the civil war.   Successive raids by the rambos and the redskins have left the village in tatters and Mr Watts offers to teach the school, in the absence of any other alternative teacher.

What Mr Watts brought to these children was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: a book which, at first sight, could hardly be more removed from the experience of these village children, or their parents.  Mr Watts invited the parents into the schoolroom, where they shared their own stories with the children, and the parents too, came to know of ‘Mr Pip’, Miss Havisham and Estella through their children.  Mr Watts was always an outsider.  He was quite frankly eccentric, pushing his demented village wife around the village in a shopping trolley.  But somehow he managed to interweave the experience of Pip and his great expectations into the shared knowledge of this small Pacific village.

The book changes direction abruptly and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

There is a coda to the book where Matilda, as an adult, revisits Mr Watts’ hometown, trying to fill in more of the paradox and mystery of ‘Pop-Eye’ and his wife.  What she learns there gives the narrative yet another twist, unsettling much of what has preceded this.

Despite its simple, flowing almost-fable-like language, this book has multiple levels.  I found myself thinking about it long after I’d finished it.

Rating: 9

Read because: CAE bookgroup selection read with The Ladies Who Say Oooh (my bookgroup)





So, Lady Franklin, now we know…

It was a rather poignant coincidence that I should be over in Hobart when the news broke of the discovery of one of the ships from Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic.

The discovery was announced by the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who has staked much personally and politically on the development of ‘the North’.  The political edge of his announcement was knife-sharp:

This is truly a historic moment for Canada. Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty

There’s an interesting article about the discovery and a discussion of the political and historical ramifications here. As it points out, the territorial jockeying over the Arctic circle between Russia and Canada has taken on even more significance since the Ukraine crisis.

Canada has adopted Franklin as a national hero, but Tasmania has a claim on him as well, as he was Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land between 1837-1843. (This time period coincides closely with Judge Willis‘ tenure as judge in the separate colony of New South Wales across Bass Strait). There’s a statue of Sir John in Franklin Park, the site of the original Government House.


The inscription, complete with verse by Tennyson reads:










BORN 16 April 1786

DIED  11 June 1847

Not here! The white north hath thy bones and thou

Heroic sailor soul

Art passing on thy happier voyage now

Toward no earthly pole.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote a lively and insightful entry on Sir John Franklin for the Australian Dictionary of Biography.  It’s well worth reading.  And of course, Lady Franklin, who made the search for any trace of her husband her life’s mission, features in several books that I’ve read and reviewed here.  There’s Richard Flanagan’s Wanting,  Penny Russell’s This Errant Lady, McGoogan’s Lady Franklin’s Revenge– and of course A.T.T. (after the thesis) (or maybe sooner) I’ll read Alison Alexander’s National Biography Award winner The Ambitions of Lady Jane Franklin.

Walking around Hobart after the Transnationalism Masterclass, I stepped into St David’s Cathedral, and what should be hanging on the wall but this flag.


The panel underneath reads:

Lady Jane Franklin, respected and influential wife of former Governor Sir James Franklin, gave this simple flag to Lieutenant W. R. Hobson RN in 1857. Hobson was second in command of Captain McClintock’s Franklin Relief expedition, organized by Lady Franklin to search for her husband, lost in the Arctic.  With one sledge drawn by four men and another drawn by seven dogs, Hobson crossed the  Northwest Passage from Cape Victoria [indistinct- to Cape Felix?] on King William Island and on 3 May 1859 came across cairns [indistinct- erected by?] Franklin and his followers, which proved both their discovery of the North West Passage and their eventual fate in 1847.

There’s a short podcast about the flag and how it came to be in the cathedral here.

The fate of Sir John Franklin gripped the imagination of Britons, but it evoked anxieties as well.  Stimulated by the recent news of the discovery of the wrecks, Laura MacCulloch, College Curator at Royal Holloway wrote a fascinating article on The Conversation website about Edwin Henry Lanseer’s confronting 1864 painting ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’ that depicts of  grisly outcome of the doomed expedition.  Gory, yes, but more comforting perhaps than the rumours of cannibalism that so unnerved the British nation.


On hearing of the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships- they’re not sure yet which one- I felt rather sad for Lady Jane.  All those unanswered questions; all that fruitless effort; all that time.

[If you have the stomach for it, there’s also an article about the exhumation and thawing of the bodies of three of Franklin’s sailors in 1986,  after 140 years.  The photographs are graphic, but fascinating.]



The Seymour Biography Lecture: Ray Monk


“How Can I be a Logician before I’m a Human Being?” The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals, Seymour Biography Lecture, 22 September 2014

“I don’t even know who this guy is….” I thought while RSVPing for the Seymour Biography lecture in Melbourne, held last night.  When I looked the books he’s written, I understand why.  While I’ve read many historical and literary biographies, I must confess to not being overly attracted to biographies of philosophers and scientists.  However, in my own work on Judge Willis, I share the problem of working on a man who has a body of work in the intellectual realm (in my own case, an accumulation of addresses to a jury and written judgements) which, while abstract and de-personalized (in a way that, perhaps, a fiction oeuvre for a writer is not), is also integral to his own identity.

Ray Monk is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, coming from a background in the philosophy of mathematics. Although his four works are based on philosophers and, more recently, a scientist, he does not believe that biography necessarily contributes to an understanding of all philosophers and moreover, that you can’t evaluate the philosophy in terms of the life of its proponent.   However, he was attracted to write about Wittgenstein after reading two very different appraisals of Wittgenstein’s work and concluding that, if these writers had understood Wittgenstein as a man, they would not have developed particular misunderstands in their analysis.

In a very academic-y way, he investigated the methodology of biography writing before embarking on his biography of Wittgenstein.   In effect, he followed Biography 101, commencing with classical biographies,  Samuel Johnson and Boswell, Virginia Woolf, and ending up with Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde and Andrew Hodge’s Turing: The Enigma as exemplars for his own work.

In his presentation, he focussed on Johnson’s own reflections on biography that he expressed through two articles ‘Biography’ in The Rambler in 1750 and ‘On Biography’ in The Idler 1759.  He addressed five questions from Johnson:

1. What is the relation between biography of other genres, most particularly history and fiction?  His answer- there’s an overlap.

2. Who deserves a biography? Many philosophers don’t live sufficiently interesting lives to warrant a biography, he said.

3. What details to include? He mentioned that there were facts that he had omitted from his two-volume work on Russell – a publication that he seemed oddly apologetic about.  He explained that had he included them, they would have completely skewed the response to the book, and so he omitted them.

4. What are the moral responsibilities of the biographer? He identified three- to the subject; to the public and to the truth. Although he nominated the ultimate responsibility to the truth, he noted that surviving relatives often have a stake as well.

5. Can one know the inner life?  Johnson believed that this was not possible: “By conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments”. Monk disputed this very 18th century view, giving examples in his books where he had looked to action as a window on the inner life.

There is a particular challenge, I think, in writing biographies of intellectuals, as opposed to biographies of politicians or literary figures.  There is the content of their philosophy, as well as their own life as part of a familial, historical and intellectual milieu.  Monk noted the tendency of academic biographers, in particular, to give a quote from the philosopher’s work then in the following paragraph to proceed to paraphrase and explain it. Just leave the quote alone, he advised.

He noted that a biography is not just a collection of facts: that the facts need to be shaped, and that the biographer has a point of view. He finished with a very Wittgensteinian idea that is particularly applicable to biography-writing “The understanding that exists in seeing connections”.

There’s a very good review from the Guardian (10/11/12) of his Oppenheimer book which also discusses Monk as a biographer. You’ll get a good taste of the lecture from this article.


I’ve been frustrated in the past that the Seymour Biography Lecture has been delivered in Canberra and, as far as I’m aware, not in Melbourne as well. But I’ve just found podcasts or transcripts of recent lectures on the NLA site. Ah, isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?

A day to myself in Hobart

A day to oneself in Hobart, before the Transnational Masterclass,  so what to do?  I know that I could do MONA, (the Museum of Old and New Art)  but I decided to save that for our next trip to Tasmania, when Mr Resident Judge would be with me.

So, instead, a little browse around the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.  I was impressed.  It was free, for a start.  I find Melbourne Museum’s $12.00 entry fee discouraging, especially for a museum that I feel has little depth.  It may be doing good work behind the scenes, but there’s little evidence of it in its focus on ‘entertainment’.  So- a big tick for free entry to the TMAG  and a well-placed donation box to which I was happy to contribute. Continue reading

Conversing about Judge Willis

Well, I wasn’t struck dumb with nerves, so now I can divulge that I was on the Conversation Hour this morning, with Jon Faine and Damien Carrick (from RN’s Law Report)  along with Richard Broome and Simon Smith.

Should you wish to hear it, you can listen at

My part starts at 12.22.  The first section features Damien Carrick discussing assisted suicide in Belgium, so if you might find this topic distressing, you may want to skip ahead.


Judge Willis Casebooks on the web

The Judge Willis Casebooks website is up and running!

The address is   You can access it through RHSV’s website, but believe me- it’s much quicker to go directly!

RHSV website

One of the treasures of the RHSV is the Judge Willis Casebooks.  There are twenty-six in total, mostly from Willis’ time in Sydney.  They were one of the earliest acquisitions of the Society,  coming through James Palmer Savage in 1909, with one donated later in 1931 by Savage’s daughter when she found it in the family home.  The website presents the casebooks relating to Port Phillip trials, with a particular focus on the criminal trials rather than civil trials.

The casebooks are Willis’ own notes that he took either during or after the trials over which he presided.  As such, they are rather opaque because they are jottings of what Willis perceived to be particularly significant during the trial.  They are, if you like, a little window into his framing of what he heard.   Most cases start with his summary of the evidence given by each witness.  He notes the questions raised in cross-examination, and a brief summary of the responses. He briefly notes the arguments raised by counsel in summing-up, and any laws and cases they make reference to.  At the end of each entry, he notes the verdict.

To see the notebooks themselves, click on the ‘Transcripts’ section of the site.  There you have a choice- the typed transcripts with a commentary, or scans of the original document. If you click on the scans, you’ll see a PDF image of the book, in all its scrappy, underlined and scribbled out glory.  These are personal working documents, not intended for publication (and in fact, I can’t begin to imagine what Willis would say if he knew…..)


The real strength of this website is that His Honour Paul Mullaly has written a commentary to go with each transcript.  He contextualizes the case and  explains the points of law that Willis has identified.  For the non-lawyers amongst us, this is invaluable.  He has followed up the case in the Public Records Office holdings, and read the newspaper reports that followed the trial.  In this way, he has fleshed out what would otherwise be raw material into a fuller, coherent artefact.

Box 55 is a grab-bag of documents that had originally been placed with the casebooks.  Among other things, it contains his preparation for addresses to the jury, petitions from some of the people who appeared before him and character references.  Justice Mullaly has cross-referenced these loose documents against the case book entries, and again provided a commentary here too.

Under the Support Materials tab, you’ll find some background material on Willis and Port Phillip that I prepared for the site.

The website was launched last night by the The Honorable Chief Justice, Marilyn Warren.  His Honor Paul Mullaly then spoke about his long labour of love in researching and preparing the material on the website, and [here comes some shameless self-promotion!]  I spoke about the transnational career of John Walpole Willis.


I finished off my presentation by saying :

In these casebooks, we see a hard-working, conscientious judge with his sleeves rolled up.  If you’re looking for evidence of Willis’ career of “follies and consequent disasters”, you won’t find it here…Instead, you’ll find a court at work.  In the sloping hand that filled the pages of these casebooks, and especially through Justice Mullaly’s commentary, you’ll find a judge who had a sharp mind, kept up to date with current developments across the empire, and knew his law.  There are no similar documents from the Canadian or British Guianan phases of his career.  These casebooks shed a unique light, and serve as a reminder that, despite all the controversy attached to John Walpole Willis’ transnational career, he was ultimately a Judge, in a courtroom, with a duty to perform justice.

How illuminating!

Some time ago, I wrote a post wondering what was meant by the ‘illuminations’ described at Anniversary Day celebrations during the nineteenth century.  I was delighted to find an illumination at the museum at Hobart.  It was created to celebrate the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868.

Illuminations were painted onto glazed linen and then lit from behind by lamps and candles.


As the panel beside it shows, existing transparencies seem to be relatively rare. It’s the only remaining one of  three that were exhibited from the Survey Office that was then in Davey Street Hobart.


The Mercury newspaper of 18 January 1868 had a long article describing the illuminations.  Fortunately the weather cleared sufficiently on the eve of Prince Albert’s departure to the illuminations to proceed, after being postponed on the previous nights.



After two postponements the general illumination of the city in honor of the arrival of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh took place last night, on the very eve of the illustrious visitor’s departure from our shores. ‘The display, though not such a success as   could have been wished on the one hand, was on the other by no means a failure. The weather was neither perfectly propitious, nor positively unfavorable, but it was at all events a great improvement upon any we have been fortunate enough to enjoy since the day succeeding that of the Royal Duke’s landing. During the early part of the day apprehensions were generally entertained that a continuous full of rain was about to set in, but those fears were removed long before dusk. Nevertheless up to the time of the actual commencement of the illumination, a fresh and very cold wind blew from the south-west, and rendered the watching of the display a matter of some discomfort…

Then followed some criticism of the gas supply, which was obviously insufficient.  Putting carping aside, the article then went on to describe the crowd:

The concourse of people in the streets was quite as large, if not larger, than could have reasonably been expected. The leading streets were in all parts and during the entire time of the continuance of the festivities well filled with curious spectators of all ages and conditions, and at certain points of special attractiveness they were occasionally thronged to inconvenience. Nevertheless there was nowhere any formidable crush, and the demeanor of the crowd was throughout conspicuous for good humor and unselfishness.

Finally, a lengthy description of the illuminations, including those at the Survey Office:

The Survey Office exhibited three large transparencies. That on the right wing was a portrait 8 feet by 6 of Prince Alfred in naval uniform leaning on a ship’s capstan. At the base a ribbon was gracefully entwined, and on it was inscribed the motto ” Welcome to Tasmania “. The entire was encircled in a wreath of laurel On the left wing was a full length portrait of Her Majesty the Queen in Royal robes, surrounded   with a wreath of laurel. This picture was of the same dimensions as that previously described. In the centre of the building was placed a transparency 8 feet by 12, the subject being Tasmania welcoming M R.H Prince Alfred. Her Majesty was represented standing in the centre of the picture on a raised dais in the act of introducing the Prince to a female figure symbolical of Tasmania, and Tasmania as  receiving with extended hand the Royal guest, who in his turn was greeting her with a like display of courtesy. Immediately behind the Prince was seen a sketch of the Galatea in the distance, and lower down were grouped cannons, mortars, cables and other appurtenances of a   ship of war. Behind Tasmania are barrels of oil, bales of wool, and other specimens of the products of the island, and underneath them a cornucopia. A ribbon supported by winged figures above the heads of the central group was inscribed with the words “Tasmania’s Reception,” and a corresponding ribbon at the foot of the picture bore the continuing words ” To tho Royal Duke.” The painting was executed by Mr Frank Dunnett of the Survey Department

Personally, I don’t think that Mr Dunnett should give up his day job- oops, painting and sketch-making was his day job.  The Design and Art Australian Online database provides a biographical sketch, describing  him as

 a painter, lithographer and surveyor. As a chronic asthmatic he was advised to leave Britain and so in about 1856 he migrated to Australia. Dunnett moved to Tasmania and found employment with the Hobart Town Survey Office. In 1866 he exhibited at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition and was awarded a highly commended certificate for a sketch.

Good old Hobart.  They gave Prince Albert a far better reception than he was to receive in Clontarf a few months later….




John Walpole Willis in cyberspace


Tomorrow night, my judge will be launched  into cyberspace!  Too late to ‘join us’, though.

I’ll give you the link after it’s made available.

‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Continue reading

Oooh goody!

I’m really looking forward to the Masterclass on “Networks of Empire & Transnational History’ that is being conducted down at the University of Tasmania tomorrow.  It’s being conducted by Zoe Laidlaw, one of my capital letter Historians I Admire Very Much.  It was her book ‘Colonial Connections’, along with Kirsten McKenzie’s ‘Scandal in the Colonies’ that spurred me to write about ‘my’ judge in the way I’m doing.   So I’m down in Hobart, one of my very favourite cities, having had an indulgent day off looking through the newly renovated Museum of Tasmania  and Narryna, a historic home in Battery Point.  The Jetstar God actually smiled on me and the plane left on time, and I was upgraded in my accommodation fromthe rather poky cheapest room to something rather more salubrious.  But I’m using my tablet and only just managed to get the bluetooth keyboard to work, and I’ve discovered that I have absolutely no idea how to make a new paragraph.  I probably sound very very excited, but it’s just my technological ignorance!