Monthly Archives: September 2015

‘Kin’ by Nick Brodie


2015,  365 p.

In her wide-ranging book on DNA and history, The Invisible History of the Human Race Christine Keneally spoke of the interaction of highly personalized ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ -type family history with the Big-Data digitization processes currently being undertaken by libraries and genealogical companies across the globe.  No longer limited to Births, Deaths and Marriages, both family and professional historians now browse  Trove (the Australian online newspaper library) and finding within minutes details that would have taken years of research to uncover.

It’s interesting that within the past couple of months two professional historians have released books that contextualize their own family histories into the broader Australian story: one by Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison, and the other by a young historian, Nick Brodie. I heard and very much enjoyed Nick’s paper at the recent AHA conference (in fact, I awarded it my ‘Packer’s Prize’ for the best paper). He struck me as a particularly enterprising and forthright historian and just the sort that television producers would be looking for: young, good-looking, articulate, intelligent.  (As an aside, I note that his book is marketed by SBS….)  I’m interested to see how these  two histories compare, written as they are by historians born forty years apart and at the two extremes of an academic career. Continue reading

Movie: Far from Men

Yep, the setting of this film sure is far from men. Far from anything, really. And yet, somehow children line up outside this small rural (the word doesn’t do justice to the isolation!) Algerian school, nestled between the bare Atlas mountains, where they are taught by their quiet, self-contained teacher.

But Algeria in 1954 is a dangerous place for anyone to be, even in this god-forsaken place.  When Daru the teacher is coerced into assuming custody of Mohammed, an Arab villager accused of murder, the lines between jailer and prisoner dissolve and both are forced to make decisions.  There’s lots of shooting and violence in this starkly beautiful setting. It’s based on a short story “The Guest”  by Camus, and it felt deceptively like a Western, but with layers, just as you’d expect from a Camus story.

The 2015 Hazel Rowley Lecture, Adelaide Writers Week

I’ve been very much enjoying catching up on the podcasts from the 2015 Adelaide Writers Week. What a terrific site!

The 2015 Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture was delivered by David Marr.   Unlike Rowley, who wrote from historical sources after her subjects had died, Marr comes to writing biography through journalism, particularly through the genre of the long form political profile of 5000-10,000 words- a length rarely encouraged in our sound-bite, tablet-friendly, swipe-driven media landscape.


marr2Marr particularly embraces The Quarterly Essay format, which at 30,000 words, is a form that provides scope for a slim biography of subjects who are still alive, still dangerous and where there is still time to warn.  I’ll certainly be dusting off his Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott after recent events, and his latest one on Bill Shorten landed in my letterbox this week.

Marr recounted being tackled by a psychiatrist on Q&A who derided his qualification to make assessments of character, claiming it as a skill that psychiatrists took years of training to master.  However, as Marr pointed out, biographers are in the “business” of character too. In the maelstrom of politics, character, he argues, is fixed.  In both political and literary biography, the approach is the same: to discover the character, paint the world, follow the life and rate the work.

The winner of the 2015 Hazel Rowley fellowship was announced: Caroline Baum. She will write on Lucy Dreyfus, the wife of Alfred Dreyfus.  She delivered what sounds to have been an unexpectedly emotional acceptance speech which, like Marr’s presentation, honoured Rowley as a biographer in a fitting tribute.

Time Travel: Listening to the Adelaide Writers Week 2015

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Adelaide Writers Festival – six months after it was held.  The festival was recorded and is available on podcast. What a treat! No having to toss up which session to go to. No regretting that you’d hadn’t gone to the other one instead. No trying to think back after a full day of talk, trying to remember what the first session was about.


So I’ve heard Rohan Wilson talking about his book To Name Those Lost, which I’d just finished at the time, and which I will review soon.  He talks about the relationship between history and fiction, although not at the depth I might have expected from his PhD thesis (which he omits to mention at all- it’s as if he’s distancing himself from his academic credentials completely).


I very much enjoyed Clare Wright interviewing Jenny Uglow. In fact, I enjoyed that interview so much and was so taken by Uglow’s readings from her most recent book In These Times that I even purchased it (even though, as part of the TBR20 challenge I committed to – and have not really fulfilled- I promised I wouldn’t buy any more books until I read twenty of the books I already have.  Yet another resolution bites the dust).  I’m particularly attracted to the domestic scene in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, because this was the period during which Judge Willis (my own research interest) grew up and formed his character and opinions.


A second panel chaired by Claire Wright discussed the art of historical writing with Jenny Uglow (again) and Helen Castor, who is sometimes seen on television documentaries.  Castor’s most recent work deals with powerful medieval women and Joan of Arc. Given Wright’s own interest in the historical documentary format, it was interesting to hear the way that the narrative can be shaped to the demands of a television audience while maintaining historical integrity.  A note of verisimilitude to the podcast was introduced by the RAAF flyover that interrupted the presentation!


After listening to the session with Don Watson,  I’ve resolved to borrow  The Bush again, as I had to return it to the library before starting it.  In his laconic style, he makes some pointed current-day political observations, as well as discussing settler and urban perceptions of ‘the bush’ over the last 200 years of white settlement. He observes that, unlike the American West, (e.g. Shenandoah) the Australian bush has never prompted a love song, and that the few ‘bush’ songs we have (Waltzing Matilda etc) are variations of songs written elsewhere.


The session with John Lanchester, author of Capital (reviewed here) gave insights into the opportunities and constraints of the fiction and non-fiction genre for authors.  Lanchester, whose work often deals with economic themes – most recently, the GFC- writes in both genres, with a leaning towards non-fiction. The fiction genre, he says, has two cardinal rules: first, that the author must not explain to the reader, and second, that unlikely events can not be introduced.  Non-fiction has no such constraints.


The theme of fiction/non-fiction was also explored in a panel on Van Diemen’s Land featuring Nicholas Clements, the young historian who has recently released The Black War: Fear Sex and Resistance in Tasmania (definitely on my TBR) and Rohan Wilson (recent author of To Name Those Lost) whose first book The Roving Party dealt with the Black War through fiction.  Wilson’s book took the contentious path of writing from the perspective of one of his Indigenous, historical characters, while Clements faced criticism that he had not consulted with present day Aboriginal groups.  In response to this, he argued that he wanted to present voices from the time, without the interposition of contemporary perspectives. Both books, from fictional and historical approaches, aimed to complicate a goodies v baddies dichotomy.

What a lovely virtual and asychronous day I’ve had at the Adelaide Writers Week!  I may just hop in my time machine and travel a bit further back and enjoy the podcasts from earlier years too.

Podcast: Margaret Bird on time consciousness in 18th century England


Backdoor Broadcasting has a wonderful archive of  UK academic podcasts on a wide range of topics.  I enjoyed listening to historian Margaret Bird from Royal Holloway, University of London, speaking on “Inculcating an appreciation of time pressure in the young: the training of children for working life in 18th-century England.”

Abstract: The rearing of children has been a topic at the centre of academic debate since the Annales historian Philippe Ariès analysed le sentiment de l’enfance in 1960.
Margaret Bird’s exploration of the tensions between respecting children as individuals and the need to hurry them into maturity for working life relates to the mercantile and manufacturing class in England. Understanding time pressure, as in expecting six-year-olds to watch the clock, formed part of their moulding as useful members of society. Time-conscious capitalism and Calvinism lay behind much of the thinking. It draws in part on the newly published diary of Mary Hardy, wife of a farmer and manufacturer.

Bird challenges E. P. Thompson’s assertion that time-consciousness was a result of industrialization. Instead she argues that during the 18th century, before the rise of large-scale industrialization, middle-class mercantile families had a strong consciousness of time and inculcated it into their children from a very early age.  She uses as her source the family diary of Mary Hardy (see website), the wife of a Norfolk farmer, master and brewer. She kept a diary for 36 years, running to half a million words, detailing family life and business operations on a daily basis.A second diary penned by her apprentice covers four of those years. Working on the Mary Hardy diaries has been a long-term project (25 years!) for Margaret Bird, who has editted and published them in a four-volume set, with a detailed commentary to come.

It’s a lively presentation by someone who obviously loves her project, well-integrated into the academic literature.  The website has the powerpoint images that were shown during the presentation, and the question time that follows.

‘The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery’ by Alexandra Roginski


2015, 79 p & notes.

Great title and a good little book.  There are, in effect, three mysteries rather than just one- and all within 79 pages, grounded in careful research and a sense of humility towards the unknown and unknowable.

The first mystery explored in Chapter One, is the identity of the skull in Museum Victoria.  Catalogued as ‘Jim Crow’ and part of the Hamilton collection that was gifted to the National Museum of Victoria in 1889,  the skull had puzzled museum curators for some time. The matter had assumed a more urgent, human significance in the wake of the international trend towards repatriation of indigenous artefacts from collecting institutions.  The label on the skull designated it as ‘Jim Crow’,  a name frequently cast on indigenous men and evocative of African-American blackness, but physical tests suggested that the skull was that of a female.  It was only with a re-reading of the ambiguity of the analysis, and a preferencing of the historical record over the skeletal one, that opened up of the possibility that the skull was male after all. Roginski makes no secret of the conditional and still uncertain nature of this classification.  It might indeed be the skull of the man known as Jim Crow, and from this suggestion the rest of the book flows.

Jim Crow’s death certificate indicates that his birthplace as Clarence Town, near Maitland.  We know little of his origins, but we do know his end: hanged for rape in 26 April 1860 at Maitland Gaol.  Jim Crow bursts into the historical record on 24 January 1860 when he visited a farmhouse near Dungong and asked for water, and then- according to Jane Delanthy’s  deposition- asked “Will you give me rape Missus?”. In Chapter 2 Roginski unpicks the case, weighing it against other rape cases involving white prisoners. Although, as she acknowledges, we will never know what really happened, she suggests that the evidence did not appear strong enough to secure a guilty verdict.

But Jim Crow – or at least, his body- was to leave a longer trace in the historical record. Three months later, the noted  showman-phrenology  Archibald Sillars Hamilton (known professionally as A. S.Hamilton) approached the sexton at the Anglican Church at East Maitland asking where the bodies of Jim Crow and another man hanged at the same time were buried.  The sexton felt uncomfortable enough about the request to report it to his superior who then reported it to the police magistrate.  Hamilton was committed to stand trial for inciting another person to exhume corpses from a burial ground.  After a widely reported trial, Hamilton was acquitted, but his purpose was achieved when ‘someone’ disinterred the bodies.  Chapter 3 deals with this case, and explains the ‘science’ of phrenology as an international and then Australian phenomenon.  A. S. Hamilton led a colourful and disreputable life, and his attitude towards indigenous people is complex.  His slipperiness as a character further complicates the identity of that skull in the museum.

Chapter 4 deals with the provenance of the Hamilton collection and how it came into the possession of the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria.  Hamilton’s third wife, Agnes, gifted them as a phrenological collection to an organization embedded within the cultural and scientific life of Melbourne. A rather rueful note in the author’s acknowledgments notes that an Overland article by Jill Dimond about Agnes Hamilton (which she cites quite a bit in this final chapter) appeared just as she submitted her thesis (and here we all experience a collective shudder of fellow-feeling).  This chapter, however, is broader than just Agnes Hamilton, as it widens out to consider the collecting policies of the Melbourne institution more generally.

This is only a small book, but it is told in an engaging voice and makes reference to many larger academic arguments without becoming bogged down in them.  The introductions and conclusions bear the hallmarks of the thesis genre, and she has been served well by Monash University Publishing which has allowed her the academic accoutrements of decent footnotes and -bliss- a separate bibliography.  It’s a rollicking good read, but weaves together important questions with rigour as well.  ‘Jim Crow’ is no longer mere artefact.

Other review: Tom Gilling’s review in The Australian

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

History Week Walk: Migration and the private lives of the Hoddle Grid Oct 18, 2015

This upcoming event for History Week in October might be of interest to those of us interested in Port Phillip and early Melbourne history.

From the History Week website:


Join historian of colonial Melbourne, Nadia Rhook, to retrace the urban foot paths of migrants – from the British colonists who laid the Hoddle Grid over Wurundjeri land to the nascent South Asian diaspora based around ‘Little Lon’ and the politics of love, labour and opium in Little Bourke’s Chinese Quarter.

Discover how Melbourne has been made and remade by migration and its fraught restrictions.

This 2 hour walk will leave you amazed at the tapestry of cultures and languages woven across the streets, residences, shops and churches of colonial Melbourne.

Date: October 18, 2015 Time: 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm

Location: CBD

Cost: Free

Enquiry: Bookings via Nadia Rhook –

Movie: “Girlhood”

This is a very different Paris than the one I dream of. Where is the Eiffel Tower? The Louvre?  The Arc de Triomphe?  Where is the elfin Amelie-type mademoiselle, with a pixie haircut and a dimple?  Not a sign of any of them. Instead we have the high-rise social housing in suburban Paris outside the central city, with windswept barren gardens, concrete and a large gang of African -French girls.

Marieme is sixteen years old, living with her violent, menacing older  brother and younger sisters in a single-parent family where the mother is often absent working in a hotel. She is doing poorly in school, but resists the idea of vocational education or working in the hotel alongside her mother.  There seems to be no structure to her life. If she’s at school at all, it’s marginal to the rest of her life, and her all-girl gang dabbles in shoplifting, drinking and fighting. Re-named ‘Vic’ (for Victory)  by her gang, she escapes her brother but becomes involved in drug-dealing. However, she retains some degree of agency and makes choices, although the ending is ambiguous.

As you can guess, this is a pretty grim film, showing a Paris that is barely recognizable to tourists, and focussing on a Parisian demographic that is rarely depicted in the media at all.

This is advertised as ‘Last Days’ at Cinema Nova, so I suspect that I’ve caught it just before it disappears.

‘The Mothers’ by Rod Jones


2015, 334 p

Spoilers ahead.

By rights, I should have loved this book.  It’s a family saga, focussed firmly on the female characters; it’s based largely in Melbourne; it covers 1917-1990 and is rich with social history. It is written in five parts, encompassing seven separate chapters.  Each of the chapters is named for its female protagonist, followed by location and year (e.g. Alma, Footscray 1917; Anna, Cockatoo 1990.) So it is a book firmly anchored in its characters who are embedded into a particular place and time- usually a structure and concept that I enjoy. However, in this case, I found myself dissatisfied.

There are four mothers in this novel.  The book opens with Alma, who has walked out on her adulterous husband with her two children in 1917, at a time long before Supporting Mothers’ benefits and in the midst of WWI.  Homeless and without support, she is taken in by Alfred Lovett and his mother. It is  when she falls pregnant to Alfred that the relationship sours, and under pressure from his mother, Alfred pays for Alma, her two children and her new daughter Molly to shift to Seddon.  When this arrangement falls through, Alma cannot afford to support her daughter and so young Molly is sent to the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Brighton. Jones writes a nuanced account of Molly’s time at the orphanage: it is not a horror story of deprivation or cruelty, but a stripped down, anxious time. Molly does rejoin her family and marries, but does not fall pregnant.

The second mother is Anna, an unmarried, pregnant twenty-year old girl from Cockatoo who is brought to the Salvation Army ‘Haven‘ in Alfred Cres, near Edinburgh Gardens in North Fitzroy in 1952.  But this institution was no haven: instead it was part of the twentieth-century adoption process-line so heartbreakingly detailed in the Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption Practices of 2012.   I read this section with a sinking feeling of inevitability and found it the most compelling part of the book.   It comes as no surprise, really, that the adoptive mother- the third mother in the book- is Molly who, in many ways, projects the insecurities of her orphanage experience onto her adopted child, David.

The fourth mother of the book is Cathy, David’s girlfriend in 1975. Cathy, too, is pregnant but it’s a completely different scenario in Whitlam’s Australia than the one faced by David’s unknown biological grandmother Alma when she fell pregnant in post WWI Footscray.  David, the father of Cathy’s child, is prickly and restless, reluctant to engage with the bourgeois conceit of marriage.  He is aware that he had been adopted but unwilling at that stage to follow it up any further.  It is not until the 1990s, in the final chapter of the book, that there is a coming together – an awkward, tentative and inconclusive coming together- of his birth and adoptive mothers.

So, why didn’t I fall in love with this book?  Part of it, for me, was its rather self-conscious attempt to be historically grounded.  Much as I love Trove,( and I truly do), I wonder sometimes if it’s not strangling Australian historical fiction by enticing writers to indulge in a form of literary product placement.  There were too many details that Jones seemed unable to omit, and rather than adding authenticity, I felt as if I were being conducted around a movie set.

This was compounded by the very simple writing style that Jones uses.  I found myself craving something that was meatier- although not in an emotional sense because he did manage to get inside his characters’ consciousness, and equally well for both his male and female characters.  But this was achieved through a succession of many short sentences, and I felt as if I was being written-down-to. This is  a book about hard things, and I wanted the language to match it.

In an article written by Jane Sullivan about an interview with the author, we learn that Rod Jones was adopted and that this very much is his story.  Perhaps we need to read it as fictionalized memoir, and acknowledge the pain that seeps through it.  But it’s much more than the “penitential exercise, however worthy” that Peter Pierce denigated it as in his review in the Australian, and it has an emotional integrity that shines through.  I just felt that it was smothered by the period detail and short-changed by the writing.

Movie: Far from the Madding Crowd

I hadn’t seen the 1960s version of Far from the Madding Crowd, nor have I read the book.  I really had no idea what it was about, although I assumed (correctly as it turned out) that it would be yet another of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex tales. I’d enjoyed Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a first-year university student in the 1970s; came out thoroughly depressed from the movie Jude based on Jude the Obscure and I’ve never read The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Carey Mulligan is luminous, as she always is.

My rating: 4 out of 5.