Monthly Archives: December 2015

‘My History’ by Antonia Fraser



2015, 320 p

Clever little title for a historian’s memoir, this. “ My history” in terms of background, family, early life etc and “my history” in terms of Fraser’s professional identity and published works.  I generally enjoy reading historians’ memoirs. They usually have the skills to put together a satisfying narrative arc ( or at least, you’d hope that they do). I enjoy reading about their intellectual and academic growth, and their perspectives on the writing process. I quite like the namedropping if it’s an area I’m familiar with (and read through gritted teeth if it’s not).

I’ve read quite a few Antonia Fraser books, all before I began blogging (Six Wives of Henry XVIII; The Gunpowder Plot; Marie Antoinette: The Journey). Oddly, though, I’ve never really thought of myself as a fan and I find myself recoiling a bit from the very proper and so terribly British persona she projects when I’ve seen her interviewed. However, I also read, and blogged The Perilous Question which I thought was excellent, and because it was based on a phenomenon -in this case, the 1832 Reform Act- rather than a person,  quite a different endeavour to her other books.

She was born in 1932 as Antonia Pakenham, the daughter of the 7th Earl of Longford, named after Willa Cather’s book My Antonia and pronounces her name that way (AN-ton-ee-a). Her parents sound interesting: her mother was a Unitarian and a later convert to Catholicism, along with her husband and children. Antonia’s parents were both Socialists and both well ensconced within the gentry, a combination which I find fascinating. In many ways, she ‘grew into’ her parents as she became older. She attended Dragon School and St Mary’s School Ascot and went to Oxford University through Lady Margaret Hall. However, she describes herself as a less-than-brilliant student and went to work at the publishers Weidenfeld and Nicholson as an all-purpose assistant.

Despite this less than stellar academic career, she was always drawn to history, most particularly the story of Mary Queen of Scots. It was only when her mother, herself a historian, mooted writing a biography of Mary Queen of Scots that Antonia threw herself into what had been until then desultory research, to fend off her mother’s interest in what she saw as “her” topic. It was the first of Fraser’s books, published in 1969, followed by other biographical works with a particular focus on royalty, but she widened her scope over time. She has also written crime novels and an account of her relationship with playwright Harold Pinter, her second husband.

Lady Antonia Fraser is titled three times over: first as the daughter of the Lord of Longford; then through her first marriage to Sir Hugh Fraser, the Tory politician (to whom she says she was attracted because of his politics on the colonies), then finally as the recipient of a DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2011 for her services to literature.

There’s quite a bit of name-dropping in this book, and the first chapter was disconcertingly genealogically-based. Fortunately, it picked up after clambering around in the branches of family trees and I found her account of her racketty-gentry upbringing interesting (although quite foreign to this antipodean reader). At the end of the book she discusses some of the difficulties of biography-writing, most particularly the telescoping of time when the subject’s life grinds to a slow pace. Like all biographers, she speaks of the emotional experience of seeing letters written by her subject, and her love of “optical research” (i.e. touring around visiting places of significance in her subjects’ lives).

In all, a capably written memoir, as you might expect, but one that underscores that Fraser is not firmly ensconced within the world of academia. It gives an interesting perspective on a WWII gentry upbringing, and although it didn’t make me fall in love with Fraser as a biographer (as Richard Holmes’ memoirs did here and here), it did me a new respect for her biographical works.  I’m not sure if she’s still working- born in 1932 she’s getting on a bit- but she certainly has a solid body of work to her name.

‘Histories of the Hanged’ by David Anderson


2005, 406 p.

(I commenced this review in November immediately after finishing the book: I am now writing it nearly two months later, drawing mainly on the impressions that I took away from the book. I regret not writing this review earlier, because much of the nuance has escaped me.)

It was been a strange experience, reading this book in Kenya at this particular time.  The city teems with Kikuyu people whose parents (if not they themselves) would have most certainly be touched by the Mau-Mau rebellion in one way or another.  The battle for reparations from the British government now plays out in British courts  (see here and here)  and in September 2015 the British government funded the erection of a commemorative sculpture in Uhuru Park as part of reparation payments.  Most pertinently for me at the moment, the response to Mau Mau described in this book has resonances in the current political and legislative response to ISIS and religiously-inspired terrorism that we’re witnessing today.

So what was the Mau Mau rebellion, or uprising or revolt or Kenya Emergency (which ever term you want to use?) It was a military conflict that took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. As David Anderson, the author of this book explained in a short article for History Today:

The end of British colonial rule in Kenya was bloody and brutal. In October 1952 a state of emergency was declared to fight the Kikuyu insurgents known as Mau Mau. The rebellion was defeated by 1956, but emergency powers remained until January 1960.

The British made extensive use of detention without trial and applied the death penalty to a wide range of offences. The official rebel death toll was above 10,000, but the real figure may have been double this, while the rebels assassinated over 2,000 African ‘collaborators’. The story of this struggle has been presented in Kenya as one of nationalist heroism, and in Britain as an episode in the deconstruction of empire: but both views are under challenge. …

This gritty struggle divided the Kikuyu communities of central Kenya: many people were unwilling to support violence, and Kikuyu Christians in particular stood against the rebels. The British nurtured a ‘loyalist’ movement, recruiting more than 60,000 Kikuyu men: much Mau Mau violence was aimed at these ‘collaborators’. Loyalists gained considerably in terms of property, land and political rights, while rebels and their supporters were imprisoned and dispossessed.

– See more at:


Anderson commences his account by contextualizing it within the politics of empire and colonialism generally. World War II had given a huge boost to the settler economy, and capital was flowing into White Highland farm mechanization, boosting the confidence of white settlers to contemplate forcing Kikuyu squatters from what had been their traditional lands, thereby triggering the Mau Mau rebellions. He points out that in the 1950s Britain was moving towards independence generally for the former colonies, but that in both Rhodesia and South Africa, the white minority had managed to entrench its power and it seemed likely that a similar phenomenon would occur in Kenya as well.

Anderson draws upon court reports, both from the Supreme Court and the Special Emergency Assize Courts in order to populate his book with individuals, on all sides.  This emphasis on the individual, instead of the ‘mob’ is important, as it always is when fear of the ‘other’ is being evoked and whipped up.  The names of the Mau Mau generals are well known, but through the meticulously detailed court records, he finds the  shadowy and nameless “subalterns of the movement”: the food carriers, the oath administrators and the ordinary foot soldiers in the forest.

In Anderson’s focus on court records and processes, I found resonances with my own work looking at colonial courts during the 1830s-40s.  In Kenya in the 1950s, as in colonial courtrooms more than a century earlier, the court became the site in which the different political impulses of society were aired, but often shut down just as quickly to ensure that the political dimension of unrest was ignored. As in the 1830s slave colonies, Governors had to use legislation and special tribunals to circumvent settler (or in the case of the slave colonies, planter) dominance of the bench, and a small number of  judges sometimes raised their voices, albeit futilely, against legislative and political overreach. Many other judges, however, acted as the ultimate manifestation of systemic injustice  and repression, and became the state-legitimated enforcers of settler power.  In a foreshadowing of the emphasis of many governments today to ensure that punishments for terrorist offences are not ‘complicated’ by legal ‘niceties’ in the conventional legal system, the Special Emergency Assize Courts were promulgated in Kenya to ensure swift, uncompromising, consistent sentencing intended to quash Mau Mau action.

Local white settlers saw Mau Mau as a savage, depraved tribal cult. Certainly, this was intimate, close-up violence. However, in a foreshadowing of our current conceptualization of Islamic radicalization as an ‘evil’ that can be ‘cured’, Louis Leakey and other ethnographers advised the local and British governments instead that Mau Mau was an illness, innate to the African in transition. Emphasis was laid on confession and rehabilitation, which led in turn, to large-scale detention camps- a prospect not entirely impossible today in our present-day quest to stamp out extremism. The outlines of Abu Ghraib are detectable in the detention camps that swallowed up huge numbers of the population.

As Anderson presents it, there was violence on all sides, including within the Kikuyi themselves . It was, as he says “a story of atrocity and excess on both sides, a dirty war from which no one emerged with much pride, and certainly no glory.” p. 2  He questions the role of Jomo Kenyatta in the rebellion, and notes his influence in shutting down any discussion of Mau Mau in the years immediately following. Anderson is obviously ambivalent about the recent memorialization of Mau Mau as an expression of political liberation.

Anderson’s work in this book, as well as that Caroline Elkins in her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, are part of the ongoing debate about the nature and scope of  the Mau Mau rebellion. I read this book as an outsider, unfamiliar with the field, and I found Anderson’s writing engaging and easily accessible.  I know too little to assess his arguments, but I very much enjoyed his emphasis on the individual and the myriad influences that led all sides to act as they did. It strikes me as a balanced, nuanced appraisal, grounded in primary documents, with an eye to providing an informed and sober contribution to  current politics.

Bernard Porter has written a detailed review of both Anderson and Elkins’ work in the LRB that is far more erudite and detailed than anything I could hope to write.  There’s also an excellent podcast on Mau Mau at





‘Flood of Fire’ by Amitav Ghosh


2015, 607 p.

Yes, I know that I vowed after reading River of Smoke that I’d only read trilogies that were finished, so that there wouldn’t be a long gap between volumes. But I’d already read the first two books; Flood of Fire was sitting there on the library shelf;  and I did enjoy the first two, didn’t I?  And so,  having checked my own blogposts, and armed with the Wikipedia synopsis of the first two books, once more I ventured forth into this final, 600 page volume.

I found that I really needed the synopsis because this book draws together the narrative of the first two volumes. Sea of Poppies had focussed on the passengers on the refurbished slave-trader boat the Ibis; the second volume River of Smoke shifted to two other boats in the fleet, the Anahita and the Redruth. In this final volume, characters from both preceding books are thrown together, on opposing sides, in the First Opium War of 1839-1842.  As with the other books in the trilogy, it is exhaustively researched (evidenced by the long reference list at the end) and pointedly political.  As a work of informed, fictionalized history it flirts with the boundaries between fact and fiction, especially with the character of Neel Rattan Halder, who even now,  after I spent ages looking on the internet, I’m not sure was an invention or not. (Ghosh’s epilogue suggests that he is a historical figure who generated a rich documentary archive- but I’m not sure. Is the epilogue part of the story too?)  There’s an interesting interview with Ghosh posted here on his website where he discusses methodology.

As with the earlier books, there is re-invention (such a strong theme in colonial social history, as Kirsten McKenzie had shown in her work) and slippage between racial boundaries, caste and political loyalties. These themes are shot through with a trenchant critique of colonialism and the free trade philosophy trumpeted by British commercial interests to justify the opium trade. Ghosh’s historical argument is more overt in this book than in the preceding ones, where it was played out mainly through his characters.  Nonetheless, here too, he uses characters, most especially Zachary Reed and his illicit relationship with Mrs Burnham, to exemplify the transformation of seduction into blackmail,  a metaphor for the way that opium itself lured, then became an instrument of power and coercion.

Even though I admire the historical thoroughness of the book, I did find myself bogged down in the descriptions of battle, even though Ghosh was John Keegan-esque in depicting the visceral assault of the battlefield.  There was a long build-up to the battle scenes as Ghosh rotated between a small number of key characters, and I was on the verge of finding the long wind-up tedious and wishing that he’d just get on with it.

I think that I’ve had enough of the Ibis trilogy, and I suspect from the afterword that Ghosh might have too.  He leaves the door open for other books with an open-ended conclusion, but he seems to suggest that the whole thing is such a huge endeavour that no one person came finish the huge, complex embroidery that he has begun.  I think that’s how I’m happy to leave it: sated, and full of admiration for the narrative and research sweep that he has laid out before us.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 wrap up


Well, I probably should have posted this ages ago because I met the challenge some time earlier.  I had vowed to concentrate on histories written by Australian women, and I didn’t do particularly well at that. A resolution for 2016 perhaps? Nonetheless… here’s the wrap-up, roughly in the order in which I read them,  for what it’s worth.


Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

A Short History of Richardby Klein by Amanda Lohrey

The Anchoress  by Robyn Cadwallader

The Girl with the Dogs by Anna Funder

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

Medea’s Curse by Anne Buist

The Fine Colour of Rust by P. A. O’Reilly

Nine Days   by Toni Jordan

The Strays by Emily Bitto

Charades by Janette Turner Hospital


In Good Faith? Governing Indigenous Australia through God Charity and Empire 1822-1855 by Jessie Mitchell

Restless Men: Masculinity and Robinson Crusoe 1788-1840 by Karen Dowling

This House of Grief by Helen Garner

The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Keneally

Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham

Savage or Civilized? Manners in Colonial History by Penny Russell

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

The Boyds: a family biography by Brenda Niall

Warrior by Libby Connors

‘Charades’ by Janette Turner Hospital


1988,  345 p

I hadn’t heard of this book at all, although I’ve read several of Janette Turner Hospital’s books previously (see here and here for reviews).  It was written in 1988 which is, after all, quite some time ago, and was included in the New York Times Book Review‘s fifty most notable novels of 1988. It was long-listed for the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, the Banjo and the Adelaide Festival National Fiction Awards.

Stripped back to its bare bones, it’s the story of a rather lecherous Canadian university lecturer in physics, Koenig, who embarks on a relationship with a young student who, between bouts of frantic and sweaty lovemaking, regales him with stories of her search for her father and her unconventional mother.  The stories distract Koenig from his own woes about his wife’s breakdown, the end of his marriage and his son’s conversion to the Moonies.

That’s the simple version.  It’s also a riff on Scheharazade, story-telling and truth.  It’s all a bit contrived: we have the rather twee twist on ‘Charade’ as the young student’s name.  Add to this some rather laboured complications of physics and the uncertainty principle. Hence we have Bea, her mother, or ‘B’ (as in the B-narrative) and Kay, her ‘aunt’ (as in K, the symbol for constant value in physics), Nicholas Truman (true-man) and the mysterious Verity.

It’s not an easy book, and I very nearly abandoned it after Part I. But just at that point, either it improved or I succumbed to it, and I’m glad that I did. As a reader, you have to tolerate leaps between the frame story and flashbacks, and to have one story immediately contradicted by an alternate story.  At this point, you just have to hold on and trust Turner Hospital that she’s going to hold it all together- and she does, largely.

I could have done without all the physics, which nearly tipped me over the edge.  There are elements of this book that she repeats in later work (looking for lost parents; mobility and dislocation; the Queensland setting; bohemianism etc) and I think that she has become more refined and controlled in her writing over the decades.  But the book is worth persevering with, and is a satisfying read as you reach the end.  The word ‘virtuoso’ is often used to describe her work and it’s apposite: she flies high and takes risks.  It’s exhilarating, but not comfortable.

Posted to the Australian Women Writers challenge site as surely my final contribution for the year!


Adela Pankhurst

Suffragettes are all the go, with the movie being released here in Australia tomorrow (although there have been previews).  Jeff Sparrow wrote an interesting article about Adela Pankhurst in the Guardian here. 

Adela may only be mentioned briefly  in the movie but after being despatched to the colonies, she took up a prominent position in Australian politics, especially during World War I. If you do a search on Trove under her name from 1914 onwards, you’ll find many reports of her speeches and activities.  Here’s just a taste:


Table Talk,  Melbourne, 16 July, 1914, p. 41.


Hearing voices

All of my research of Upper Canada, British Guiana, Sydney and Port Phillip has involved written documents: letters, court documents, despatches, newspapers, diaries.  It’s a rather quiet world.  You can detect voices in letters and the court depositions perhaps, but generally you’re hearing with your eyes, rather than your ears.

I’ve long been fascinated to know what those early generations of settlers sounded like.  For those settlers who came from the United Kingdom, where accents can be pinpointed to a small, particular location, how long did such a distinctive accent last?  Crikey’s Full Sic blog today has an article by Richard Ingold ‘So where did the Aussie accent really come from?’ He draws fairly heavily on Bruce Moore’s book Speaking Our Language, the introduction to which you can read here, and which was reviewed well by Mark Bahnisch on Larvatus Prodeo.

Moore, who is Director of the National Dictionary Centre at ANU,  argues in Speaking our Language that convicts, administrators, military personnel and later, free settlers, spoke a variety of accents, especially from south-eastern England.  In such an environment, the elements of pronunciation that were especially associated with a particular dialect were eliminated, often within a generation.  This ‘levelling’ process led to an established Australian accent by the early 1830s.  It was only then that dialectical words that were marginal in British accents became incorporated into Australian English, especially during the tumult of the Gold Rushes and afterwards.  But importantly, these words were superimposed onto an already existent, levelled Australian accent. The negative reaction to the Australian Accent, particularly in the wake of the creation of Received Pronunciation in England, did not arise until the 1880s. This fits in with the emphasis on elocution in Joy Damousi’s book Colonial Voices, and rings true when I think of that peculiar, strangled, rather British accent that is heard in old Australian documentaries.

Ingold’s article also cites Peter Trudgell’s far more technical book New-Dialect Formation: The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes. Published in 2004, Trudgell concentrates particularly on Australian, New Zealand and South African English and argues that these varieties of colonial English are similar to each other because they were formed out of similar mixtures, according to the same principles.  He stretches the process out over two generations, but it is still, nonetheless, a fairly rapid process.

My research based in New South Wales centres on the years 1837-1843. If Moore is correct, then the voices on the street would be levelled Australian voices, although in circles being supplemented by a succession of appointments from elsewhere in the empire, this may have been less apparent.  Interesting thought.

Movie: ‘Truth’

I was disappointed in this one.

Based on her book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power (2004), this is the story of Mary Mapes, the producer of Sixty Minutes in America. She produced the segment, presented by Dan Rather, that questioned  George W. Bush’s selection for enlistment and later performance in the Texas Air National Guard which allowed him to avoid being drafted for Vietnam.  The film follows the uncovering and verification of documents and the search for evidence to back up the story. After the segment was aired, questions were raised about the authenticity of the documents, and three CBS producers, including Mapes, were fired. Dan Rather resigned soon after.

I must confess that I’m not particularly aware of the role of producers in news programs and the distinction between a producer and a presenter.  I looked through the list of producers in the Wikipedia entry on Four Corners (probably the Australian program most comparable to that depicted in the film) and while some names were familiar, others weren’t.

I had been hoping that this film would be more like the excellent BBC Series The Hour  (alas, we’ll never know what happened to Freddie…) or Good Night and Good LuckTruth did not have the tautness of either of these programs and was too schmaltzy. Although you’re left with questions at the end of the film, you feel more suffocated than lacerated.

It’s a brilliant cast, with Cate Blanchett and an increasingly wrinkly Robert Redford, but the roles didn’t seem to stretch them at all. It was a surprise to see Noni Hazlehurst there- yes our Noni- and she played her small role really well.

So, a rather lukewarm 3/5 from me.

‘Warrior’ by Libby Connors


2015, 280 p.

If you, like many others, watched the ABC production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, then you should read this book. Think back to the silent, foreboding presence of indigenous people as they filed past the boundaries of what William Thornhill thought of as ‘his’ land, inscrutable, chilling, ethereal. There was a simple logic at play: settlers wanted the land and the aborigines wanted them gone. Kate Grenville complicates William Thornhill’s response and renders it explicable, even if it’s a response that we’d like to distance ourselves from. But beyond the defence of their country, the actions of the indigenous protagonists, in Grenville’s book and in settler reports of the time, remain fragmentary, apparently random and unknowable. Until now.

Libby Connor’s book Warrior challenges the simple classification of aboriginal ‘outrages’ as random, undisciplined and ultimately futile. Instead, she returns logic and agency to the indigenous tribal groupings in south-east Queensland during the pre-Separation days of the frontier. She does this through the story of Dundalli, a Dalla man who was executed in January 1855 for the murder of Andrew Gregor and his pregnant (white) house-servant Mary Shannon in an attack on the Caboolture River. White justice had taken twelve years to catch up with him. In the meantime, Dudalli had taken on mythic proportions by evading capture repeatedly, and his name became a byword for all ‘outrages’, whether he was involved or not. When he finally faced Supreme Court judge Roger Therry in a Brisbane circuit court hearing, in effect lawman-to-lawman, it was the judge who was intimidated by this tall, imposing  leader, and not the other way round.

Libby Connors is a historian who has written a great deal on the interaction between British law and indigenous people. She is well placed to go through the evidence, the courtroom arguments, the legal principles and the punishment regimes of white settler justice. But the real achievement in her work is in fleshing out Dundalli, so that he is more than one of those silent wraiths of Grenville’s book. Drawing on the memories of a tribal man recorded as an oral history during the 1950s , she is able to reconstruct (albeit through extrapolation) the nature of a Dalla childhood and adolescence than Dundalli is likely to have experienced. Using documents generated by white missionaries, bureaucrats, settlers, anthropologists and historians, she gives Dundalli’s leadership a context by mapping out the intra-tribal politics and strategies utilized by different groups in what is now the Sunshine Coast/ Brisbane area. These politics were instrumental, pragmatic and fluid. One group might encourage the establishment of a mission on tribal land as a means to gain access to technology that ensured supremacy over other groups; another might consciously defer to white justice in order to fulfil the demands of their own indigenous justice. The British and Indigenous justice systems existed, and continued to exist, side by side, and she highlights that both systems of law were mutable and in tension with the other.

The book is beautifully written and imbued with a deep sense of place. A map that appears in the opening pages shows indigenous places superimposed onto familiar Western towns and rivers, highlighting the co-existence of two competing senses of ownership. Her frequent references to present-day Brisbane and Sunshine Coast landmarks would prick the consciousness of residents of those places, reminding them that another history runs alongside the sun, cosmopolitanism and tourism of both those places. When you find yourself overwhelmed by who’s who, and which group is which, you turn the page and there is a table; when you think ‘gee, a map would be handy here’, there it is. The text flows effortlessly, and the footnotes are unobtrusive, but when you look at them closely, you realize just how intricate and painstaking her construction of indigenous polity is.

This book has received the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance, and I noticed that it was on the top of the list of recommended reading for Prime Minister Turnbull over his Christmas break issued by the Grattan Institute this year. It’s a tremendously important book. Many historians over the past forty years in particular have written, as Henry Reynolds does, of “the other side of the frontier” surveying the resistance of indigenous people to their dispossession across the frontier as a whole. What this book does is hone in on one particular location; one constellation of tribal groups; a set of named, individual leaders. It will make you pause the next time you read of an ‘aboriginal depredation’ in fiction, see it depicted in film or read it reported in settler testimony. It does what the fictional William Thornhill couldn’t, and white British justice wouldn’t do. It makes sense of what was perceived by settlers as brutish retaliation and gives it a legal, political and environmental logic, embedded in power structures negotiated and contested between intelligent, strategic and courageous leaders of men.


I’ve posted this review (the last for the year) to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.






Another reading challenge?

That’s what I need in my life…. another reading challenge.  I’ve probably completed the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge several times over by now ( I should write a wrap-up post) and I’ve failed dismally in the TBR challenge where I vowed to read twenty books from those already on my shelves before buying anything else.

But I was fascinated by Ann Morgan’s self-imposed challenge to read a book from every independent country in the world within a year.  There’s no way I could do it within a year- that is, after all 196 books- but perhaps a ten year plan?  You can see a TED-talk where she describes her project here and here is her list of books suggested to her, organized by country (the books she actually read are underlined and linked to her review).

Ah, who am I kidding? I won’t get round to this.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting idea.