Monthly Archives: February 2017

‘Births Deaths Marriages: True Tales’ by Georgia Blain


2008, 224 p.

When an writer dies, I often make a point of reading one of their books. It’s an act of tribute, I suppose, even though the reality is that all books live on beyond their authors eventually.  Although the book has to stand on its own merits, the recent death of the author probably does affect the way I read it. With an older author I read the book as the affirmation of a career, and with a younger writer it’s with a sense of lost opportunities and books not written.

This is particularly the case when the book is a beautifully crafted memoir, as Georgia Blain’s Births Deaths Marriages most surely is. As the daughter of the writer Anne Deveson, Georgia Blain died recently with a brain tumour at the age of 51, one day before her mother also died after many years living with dementia. In this series of autobiographical essays, we have met the whole family- mother, father, husband and daughter, and the overwhelming feeling that I am left with is: “I think I would have liked you”.

The book starts and finishes with a chapter titled “A Room of One’s Own”. In the opening chapter, Blain returns to her childhood home, now up for auction, and remembers her mother typewriting in the 1970s as her children waited resentfully in the doorway, for the tip-tap of the typewriter to finish. In the essay that closes the book “A Room of One’s Own II”, she is now the writer, jostling with her husband Andrew for space in the shed at the back of their ugly house to use as a workroom.   The essays between these two bookends are arranged roughly chronologically, as she writes about her years in an ‘opportunity’ class for gifted students, travelling with her mother and brothers to Adelaide after her parents separate, losing her virginity, establishing a relationship with film-maker Andrew after other unsuccessful relationships, marriage counselling, having a child, buying a dog.  Her description of her ambivalence about motherhood is one of the most honest and raw accounts that I have read. Her descriptions of place are almost cinematographic: you can feel the hot prickle of the Adelaide summer; smell the salty tang of Sydney beaches and the dust of Terowrie, a disintegrating outback town, seems to coat your skin.  As with Helen Garner’s work in sketching both people and place, I liked the sharpness of her vision, as if she is looking through a window that is cleaner than the one I’m behind.

The book itself is not new: it was published nine years ago in 2008. Even though as the title suggests, the book is about relationships, it is also very much about the act of writing itself.  In an interview with Sophie Cunningham in Meanjin in 2008, she explains that the book started as a Ph D and that several chapters had been published in a range of literary journals, each with different editors. At the time of writing it, she had already published four novels and she reflects on her decision to write from her own life:

There is a private space and a public space, and within each there are many layers. I wanted to hold the private up to the light, to look at it and put it out there on the table for public viewing, but I need to think carefully about how I wanted to do this. (p. 128)… I believed and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate. (p 130)

It’s an odd mixture of the very ordinary  set alongside the particular circumstance of being the child of two journalists who had their own public personas, and as the sister of a brother whose schizophrenia was explored publicly in her mother’s own book Tell Me I’m Here. Most particularly, the essays are a conversation on paper with her parents as professionals.  She listens, with embarrassment, to an old tape of an interview her father conducted with Germaine Greer and realizes how ineffectual he was as journalist.  She describes her ambivalence over her mother’s writing about her brother, Jonathan, thereby making his story public property, in much the way that she has herself done in this book.

Indeed, much of the book is a dialogue with her mother as writer. After years of writing non-fiction, Anne Deveson tried to write a novel but was frustrated because it kept turning into autobiography or reportage. Blain, already a published novelist, decided to switch in the other direction:

We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each others shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across, once again, curious as to how this had happened. (p 158)

Even though the chapters are self-contained, there is a real unity to the book, best captured by the circularity of the opening and closing chapters. She writes about the narrative problem of ‘finding’ the ending in a memoir, when life that still offered more. She found that she had reached the end of the book, almost without realizing it:

There was no need to search for it. It is right here where it had all looped back on itself, complete in this moment. Here is the place to stop, to pause before the next swoop of the arc continues following the path of all that has gone before, the same shape but a different line. (p. 163)

And a different line it certainly was to be, nine years later, even though she did not know that at the time.  Last year Georgia Blain began contributing a column to the Saturday Paper, talking about the brain tumour and the world of illness that she had been plunged into. The columns stopped late in the year.  Her friend, Charlotte Wood, wrote a beautiful tribute in the last edition for 2016. Yet in many ways and unconsciously at the time, Blain herself leaves us with her own words of comfort:

Because this is the place where I am, like my mother, writing about us. And I have so much more than I ever hoped for; I have love, work that I want to do, and a couple of rooms to move between each day.

My rating: 9/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book.


I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017


‘Reading in Bed’ by Sue Gee


2007, 344 p.

Although I’m well aware that I probably fit a reading-market segment very neatly (retired, university-educated, politically progressive, book-grouper, ABC watcher) I don’t like reading books that feel as if they have been written precisely to fit a market niche. Unfortunately, this is just how Reading in Bed felt to me, and the ‘Daily Mail Book Club Summer Selection’ sticker on the front was the probably final kiss of death in my approach to the book.

The book opens with two sixty-year old, long-time friends returning home to London from the Hay Reading Festival. Georgia has been recently widowed, and is wondering how to fill in her life.  Her thirty-one year old daughter has embarked on a relationship with a married man – not that she has confided this news in her mother- and Georgia needs to find aged care accommodation for her husband’s batty old cousin Maud.  Her friend Dido (and even the name annoyed me) is returning home to her noisy family, with her married children, grandchildren and her academic husband Jeffrey.  The two couples had been friends, their now-adult children are known and loved by each other, and they are all missing Georgia’s husband Henry after he died with cancer.  As the book unfolds, Georgia’s daughter needs to sort out her relationship with the not-quite separated Jez; there is trouble in Dido’s son’s marriage to Paula, Dido falls ill and comes to distrust the solidity of her marriage.

It’s like living someone else’s life vicariously, sprinkled with literary allusions that the well-read 60 year old female reader will recognize and BBC4 name-dropping that is familiar even to an Australian ABC watcher and BBC overnight listener. There are descriptions of meals and outfits – oh, how tedious- and page after page of internal monologue as each very ordinary character muddles through her own private but unexceptional little life dramas.

It is written in the present tense with an omniscient narrator who stumbles onstage occasionally, blinks and then scuttles back to the curtains:

In London, Georgia and Chloe do their very best. They go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve as they’ve always done. Both of them cry as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sounds in that pure high note through the crowds of people, but then, who doesn’t? I’m crying now, just writing about it. (p.334)

The dialogue is written almost like a play, with no quotation marks or ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’. The narrative skips from one character to the other, with just a slightly larger space between the paragraphs.  No detail is too small.

Enough! I’m already living this middlebrow life- a term I very much dislike but somehow it seems particularly appropriate- and I don’t need to read it in this middlebrow book. That’s about six hours of reading that I’ve wasted- most of it in bed, just as the title predicts.

My rating: 5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup and read for bookgroup.

‘Hunt Them, Hang Them’ by Kate Auty and Lynette Russell


2016, 78 p.

This slim book of  78 pages stands in its own right as the account of a historical incident – that of the execution of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener in Melbourne on 20 January 1842- but it is also (and perhaps more importantly) a contribution to the present-day debate over marking and commemorating the frontier wars in Port Phillip.

First- some background. In 2016 the City of Melbourne launched a public memorial to Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener on the corner of Franklin and Victoria Streets in Melbourne, close to where the two men were executed on 20 January 1842.  This was the culmination of a long campaign by activist Joe Toscano, who had been marking the anniversary of the execution of these two ‘freedom fighters’ over many years.  In laying the ground work for this memorial, the City of Melbourne commissioned a booklet by Claire Land available at  .


[Image attribution: By Canley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

In response to this proposal for a memorial, historian Marie Fels, former Aboriginal Affairs Victoria heritage operations manager David Clark and Mornington Peninsula local historian Rene White published an article in Quadrant magazine titled ‘Mistaken Identity, Not Aboriginal Heroes’ available at   .  In speaking out against the proposal to commemorate Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, they wrote:

Our problem with it is that it is history-lite, based mainly on secondary sources, with little primary research. It reads as an argument that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were resistance fighters deserving of memorialisation. Our research, based only on primary sources, demonstrates conclusively that they were not resistance fighters: on their own personal testimony, they shot and killed two whalers by mistake.

I have reviewed Marie Fels’ work previously (here and here) and I have seen her described as one among a number of  ‘benignist’ historians who, while not denying settler violence and injustice towards indigenous people, also point to co-operative strategies between settlers and indigenous people in early frontier history.  The journal in which their article appears, Quadrant,  is a right-wing publication which strongly supported Keith Windschuttle when he accused historians of ‘fabricating’ aboriginal history.  An interview with Fels, Clark and White reported in a Frankston local newspaper notes that when they had difficulty in having their criticisms of the Melbourne City Council memorial publicized (most particularly in the Age)  they turned to Quadrant which, perhaps not surprisingly, took up their article with alacrity.

This, then, is the context in which Hunt Them, Hang Them has been published.  The authors, Kate Auty and Lynette Russell, note Fels’ public opposition to the City of Melbourne commemoration, on the basis that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were convicted on the basis of ‘their own personal testimony‘.  In making their own argument they claim:

The events outlined here are just one part of an unfolding tragedy- race relations and the judicial process in Australia.  The ultimate question is whether these men received a fair trial and whether they should be memorialised.  We answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’. (p.7)

In making this argument, they delve deeply into the details of the arrest and trial of the Tasmanian prisoners. In particular, they raise questions about the manner of the arrest of ‘The Tasmanians’, an event I described in my ‘This Week in Port Phillip’ entry for 25-30 November 1841.  They ask why the Assistant Aboriginal Protector William Thomas, who was present at the arrest, was not called at the trial, and raise questions about the ‘admissions’ of guilt.  They question whether Judge Willis was biassed, most particularly  in his decision to force the trial in the absence of an important witness and against the application of the prosecutor, and they ask whether there was a conflict on interest on behalf of their legal counsel, Redmond Barry.

Their argument is framed very much within a consciousness of the intertwining of Port Phillip and Van Diemen’s Land history, an awareness strongly reinforced by Lynette Russell’s earlier work on sealers and whalers along both sides of the Bass Strait (see my review of Roving Mariners). They note that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were part of a ‘family’ (loosely defined) of indigenous Tasmanians brought over by Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, who had made his reputation as a ‘conciliator’ in Tasmania.

The opening chapter begins with a description of the historical actors most pertinent to the trial: George Augustus Robinson, who they (along with many others) portray  as a vain social climber; the vainglorious and unpredictable Judge John Walpole Willis (a view I also share) and mineowner William Watson, the shadowy ‘charlatan and liar , the only witness called during the trial.

Chapter Two ‘Context, conflict, cases, confessions’ describes the frontier resistance with the ‘settlement’ of Port Phillip, fraudulently presented by John Batman (another Tasmanian) as a consensual, treaty-driven process.  In particular, they look to Major Lettsom’s ‘dispersal’ of  ‘Goulburn black’ men, women and children, a little over a mile from Melbourne in late 1840. This action, involving 58 armed troopers, culminated in the death of two indigenous men and the wounding of another, and the detention of 300 people in the Melbourne stockade. A dozen indigenous men were charged and nine were sentenced to ten years transportation. This occurred prior to Judge Willis’ arrival in Melbourne, and he  overturned all the verdicts on a technical miscarriage of justice. However, Willis’ findings in other cases highlight the unpredictability of Willis’ stance in indigenous cases.  The authors correctly identify Willis’ direction that his neighbour Bolden be acquitted as an important factor, occurring almost simultaneously with the Tasmanians’ trial.

Chapter Three ‘Hunting stories’ triangulates the accounts of three of the men involved in the pursuit of the Tasmanians in different capacities: the journals of  William Thomas and George Augustus Robinson as Aboriginal Protectors (albeit with professional differences in approach), and  military ensign Mayor Rawson who wrote an undated account ‘ Journal of an expedition after some Van Diemen’s Land Blacks who were committing depredations at Western Port on the Southern Coast of New Holland October and November 1841.’ As well as highlighting the bumbling farce that the pursuit became,  they remind us  that this occurred during the visit of Governor Gipps- an important event for Port Phillip pride and identity.

Chapter Four  ‘The Dispersal- a thrice-told  tale’ again takes the approach of triangulating three accounts: those of Frederick Powlett, the Commissioner of Lands and J.P. responsible for the Border Police contingent, Ensign Rawson as one of the military troops involved in the pursuit, and the Assistant Protector William Thomas.  The discrepancies between their accounts are most pertinent in the varying accounts they gave of ‘Truganini and the grave’ in Chapter Five where, along with the evidence of Corporal Johnson of the Border Police, there are different opinions over whether or not Truganini took her captors to the grave of the murdered men and ‘admitted’ the murders and the varying involvement of the indigenous men and women who were now being charged.

Chapter Six traces through the committal before a bench of magistrates, which was attended by Judge Willis, a permissable but unconventional practice that he undertook, claiming oversight of all justice in the Port Phillip District as its only resident Supreme Court Judge.  Moving on to the Supreme Court trial in Chapters Six and Seven, Auty and Silver stress the significance of the absence of three important witnesses who were present for the committal but not the Supreme Court trial.  In particular, they ask why and by whom Assistant Protector Thomas was prevented from attending – a point now revealed by the recent and very valuable (but prohibitively expensive)  publication of Thomas’ journals by Marguerite Stephens. They highlight the inappropriate interaction between George Augustus Robinson and Judge Willis, and Willis’ indulgence of sloppy testimony from Commission of Lands Powlett, (especially in the light of the lambasting he had recently given Aboriginal Protector Charles Sievewright in the Bolden case).  The authors suggest that Willis may have been smarting under the criticism of George Arden from the Port Phillip Gazette, but as I have shown through several This Week in Port Phillip postings, Willis well and truly had Arden’s measure.  I don’t dispute that Willis was very aware that this was a ‘hot-button’ case, but he didn’t need Arden to tell him that.  They finish their book with a brief description of the hanging.

Have they convinced me about the shortcomings of the trial?  Yes- most particularly in regard to Assistant Protector Thomas’ absence, who would have provided a completely different angle. In other cases where Willis had an interest in seeing a particular outcome- in the case he heard against Bolden, for example- he would have picked and picked until it all unravelled. But Auty and Russell, along with Claire Land in the Melbourne City Council publication, sidestep the issue that Fels has emphasized: that two whalers were murdered.  The Tasmanians admitted this, and said that it was a case of mistaken identity because they intended retribution against William Watson instead.I think that the jury understood this, whatever the shortcomings of the trial. I have always been struck by Willis’ rejection of the jury’s recommendation to mercy when he called for the death penalty, to which Gipps agreed.

Auty and Russell’s argument for memorialization is based on the insufficiencies and failures of the trial:

This case is tainted.  It unfolded at a time when ‘near enough was good enough’ for Aboriginal people in legal settings.  We no longer should accept that reasoning. If there is a memorial to Redmond Barry, a street and a river named for Powlett, an inlet named for Anderson, a creek named for Watson and a town named for Rawson, then Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener should have their own travails recognized. (p.73)

While they have convinced me about the shortcomings of the trial, I’m not convinced that they should be memorialized for this alone. I should imagine that this justification would rankle with Fels, Clarke and White too, who suggest that Winberri, who was shot in Major Lettsom’s raid is a far more fitting “Melbourne hero” to merit a memorial. For myself, I have never been comfortable with the ‘freedom fighter’ frame that has been placed on this episode- a point well made in the Fels article.


Whatever my reservations about the design of this memorial (and yes, I do have reservations), I absolutely love the image of the Wurundjeri elder, Barak, that has been shaped out of the white building behind.

[Image attribution: By Leighblackall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]


I am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge page.  In a way, it’s a 3-for-1 review, because all three texts that I have mentioned in this review are written by women, which is in itself interesting. I strongly suggest that you dip into all three. Hunt Them, Hang Them is available for $28.95 through Justice Press, while Fels’ Quadrant article is available here,  and Claire Land’s City of Melbourne booklet is here.  Auty and Russell’s book and Fels’ article both draw heavily on primary sources, and there is much commonality between them until the political implications are drawn out. Even if you just read the two online sources, you’ll see historians at work, raising good questions about the rationale and impetus for memorializing in the present-day.






This Week in Port Phillip 1842: 16-23 January 1842

This entry contains a lengthy description of the execution of two indigenous prisoners

I’m rather embarrassed that I’ve fallen behind with my weekly summaries of what happened in Port Phillip at this time in 1842.  Largely it was because I’m aware that during the week 16-23 January the first executions in Port Phillip took place after being heard in Justice John Walpole Willis’ courtroom, and I want to write about them in some detail even though I have written about them before here and here. Somehow my desire to do the event justice has meant that I haven’t done it at all.

Tunnerminnerwait (also called ‘Jack’) and Maulboyheener (called ‘Bob’), whose exploits were being reported in my weekly round-ups in during November  (see here and here)  and December 1841 (see here and here), were hanged on 20 January in front of a crowd estimated to number 5000.  This first execution – significant not only because it was the first, but also because it involved indigenous prisoners- was reported in minute detail in the three Port Phillip newspapers. It was, as the Port Phillip Herald  proclaimed “one of the most important events which has yet taken place in our province”.  And so, this week in Port Phillip concerns only the execution.

It’s important to remember that writing about an execution follows a well-honed path. (In fact, much of the reporting of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s executions in Bali in April 2015 followed much the same structure). There are reports about the days leading up to the execution with particular emphasis on the night before; measurements of prayers offered up and food ingested; a report of the morning of execution day; the journey to the execution place; the execution itself, then the disposal of the bodies.

The days preceding and the  night before

The prisoners throughout the time which elapsed between trial and punishment, were lodged in the gaol at the west end of Melbourne, and from the day that their fate was ratified by the Governor, and made public in the province, were visited by several of the curious, besides most of the protectors, the Wesleyan missionaries, and the ministers of all denominations in Melbourne. (Port Phillip Gazette 22 Jan 1842)

There was particular interest in the prisoners’ appetites. A prisoner who displayed a hearty appetite was seen to be insufficiently penitential:

[Bob] slept soundly each night previously to his execution. On Wednesday evening he silently but impatiently rejected the food placed before him, and neglected to smoke, a practice in which both he and his companion had been allowed to indulge since their incarceration. Jack… sustained the most perfect indifference to the last moment; he has slept soundly and long ever since his imprisonment and been apparently in good spirits. On the night preceding his execution he eat [sic] plentifully, consuming half a loaf and three panikins of tea, repeatedly talking and laughing; he then enjoyed his pipe with the most perfect indifference, which, after having used for some time, he offered to Bob, this the latter rejected by waving his hand impatiently, and turning from his companion who only laughed and coolly replaced his pipe in his own mouth. (Port Phillip Herald 21 Jan 1842)

Because British Law and ‘ Divine Justice’ were intertwined, it was important that execution be seen to have a religious element lest it be merely revenge.  The men were attended by the Anglican minister, Reverend Thomson.

When the Rev. Mr Thomson visited and remained with them the greater art of the night, Jack assumed a more serious demeanour, and both the prisoners listened attentively, particularly Bob, to the prayer of the worth clergyman. Bob appeared much affected by the remarks and admonitions of Mr Thomson, frequently sobbing and moaning loudly, and expressing his conviction that he should suffer Divine Wrath for the murder he had committed.  Jack was apparently attentive, but evinced no signs of agitation. (PPH 21/1/42)

It is important to note that  Maulboyheener (Bob) was perceived to be the more penitent prisoner, while Tunnerminnerwait (Jack) was seen as the ringleader whose insouciance threatened to make a mockery of the whole procedure.

Bob was lively, pliable, and capable of affection, Jack was sullen, but daring, the latter was the leader in all the depredations that closed in their ignominious death; the former revolted at the crimes committed, but was compelled to submit: Bob had imbibed clearer ideas of religion, and was affected at the last by the terrors of his situation. Jack was evidently sceptical of the simplest truths of Christianity, and doggedly retained his firmness to the moment of death. (PPG 22/1/42)


On Wednesday night, that preceding the execution, the prisoners presented the greatest contrast in their demeanour; Bob was dejected; Jack thoroughly indifferent. The former made at this time a most important confession; it was to the effect, that he took no part in the murder, until threatened by Jack who placed & loaded musket to his head when commanding him to fire on one of the whalers-; even then, however, he would have refused had not the women bidden him remember the murder of their relatives at Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land by the white people, and, thus incited him to a revenge which all considered justifiable. (PPG 22/1/42)

The morning of the execution

It’s just as well that they slept soundly in the nights leading up to their execution, because Rev. Thomson surely stayed around for a long time- until 2.00 A.M.!- on the evening before:

After the Reverend Gentleman left them (about 2 o’clock in the morning), the prisoners slept for two hours. At half past 4 or 5 o’clock their breakfast was prepared and handed to them, which was heartily partaken of by Jack, who eat about three pounds of bread, and drunk two panikins of tea; Bob declined eating anything, and when pressed, only drank a little tea.  Jack here, as before mentioned, lighted his pipe and smoked for some time, after which the prisoners were washed, shaved and dressed; their gaol clothes were replaced by clean trowsers, shirts and stockings, during which preparations he seemed perfectly unconcerned and even gay; he laughed heartily when his attendant was assisting him to put on the stockings, and expressed his unconcern at his approaching fate, saying that after his death he would join his father in Van Diemen’s Land and hunt kangaroo; he also said that he had three heads, one for the scaffold, one for the grave and one for V. D. Land; his companion remained totally silent during these arrangements. (PPH 21/1/42)

Then followed another religious ceremony, attended this time by the rest of the prisoners of the gaol.

At seven o’clock the Sheriff, the Rev Mr. Thomson, and several of the Magistrates visited the gaol, when Mr Wintle the gaoler, immediately summoned all there inhabitants thereon to attend divine service in the yard of that building, after which, about 10 minutes to 8 o’clock a covered cart, with two grey horses, was drawn up to the gaol door, and the prisoners having shaken hands with Mr Wintle, walked quietly into the vehicle, which effectually screened them from observation. (PPH 21/1/42)


The prisoners were in a travelling van belonging to Mr. Robinson, and in which, concealed from public gaze, they were drawn from the goal to the place of execution ; the van was a small carriage frame, drawn by two horses and covered in with painted cloth stretched round on poles fastened to the the corners of the frame ; they were preceded and guarded by a body of mounted and border policemen, and were accompanied on the way through Lonsdale-street by several hundreds of people, who joined and merged with the dense mass round the gallows. The Sheriff, the Governor, and other officers of the goal, the chaplain, and chief constable, came up at the same time; and superintended the dreadful preparations. (PPG 22/1/42)

The scene at the gallows

At an early hour on Thursday morning, myriads of men, women and even children were to be seen wending their way in the direction of the new gaol on the eastern hill, in the rear of which a temporary gallows had been erected for the execution of the Van Diemen’s Land aborigines Bob and Jack, convicted of murder at the late criminal session of the Supreme Court, all apparently anxious to gratify that feeling of morbid curiosity which renders an execution a treat to the lower orders of the British. (Port Phillip Patriot 24/1/42)


From the earliest hour of the morning crowds of people began to gather round the gaol and to take up what they considered the most favourable situations for viewing the spectacle. At the commencement, and throughout the scene, the greatest levity was betrayed, and the women, who made by far the greatest proportion, had dressed themselves for the occasion. The side end walls of the gaol which were nearest the gallows were crowded with human beings; the trees in the vicinity had their inmates, and by eight o’clock the assembly numbered upwards of three thousand souls. Between eight and nine accessions to the crowd of spectators were momentarily received, and the most disgusting spirit betrayed in scrambling for places ; several even jumped upon the coffins, which stood at the font of the gibbet, in their eagerness-to watch any movement connected with the event. (PPG 22/1/42)


The concourse of people here assembled amounted to between 4 and 5,000, the greater proportion of whom were women and children, and, from the laughing and merry faces, which were assembled (assisted by the appearance of several horsemen, and some in topboots,) the scene resembled more the appearance of a race-course than a scene of death.  The walls and body of the new gaol were literally packed with spectators, as anxiously awaiting the awful scene about to be enacted, as if it were a bull-bait or prize ring. (PPH 21/1/42)

The crowds were so thick that Captain Beers had to clear the way:

The hour fixed upon for the spectacle was eight o’clock, and a little be-fore that time Captain Beers, with a detachment of the military, made his appearance on the spot and soon succeeded in clearing a passage at the point of the bayonet for the cavalcade which was seen approaching. (PPP 24/1/42)

The execution

On their arrival at the foot of the gallows the prisoners were removed from the van and directed to kneel while the Rev. Mr. Thomson read prayers, which done, their arms were pinioned and they were conducted to the scaffold, to which they were with difficulty got up owing to the steepness of the ladder and their being unable to use their hands. The gallows was formed of two upright posts about twenty feet in height with a cross beam at the top to which the ropes were attached; the scaffold was formed of a plank two feet wide fastened to the gallows at the one end by a hinge, and supported at the other by a prop which being pulled away let fall the drop. (PPP 24/1/42)


On the arrival of the van, two constables stepped up to hand the prisoners out, and the start back which Bob gave showed the terror inflicted by the sight of the unexpected populace; he came out, however immediately, after trembling violently, followed by Jack, calm and imperturbable to the end. It was gratifying to see the universal kindness with which they were treated, soothed by every one round, and tenderly handled even by the executioner. On coming out of the van, their arms were tied behind them slightly, and prayers commenced by the minister in attendance. Bob’s agitation increased with every passing moment, and his moans were terrible to bear. They knelt together with the clergyman, while he prayed joining at intervals in a few words which they understood. On rising again Bob’s feelings broke out in the most heartrending groans ; the terrified and piteous looks he threw around him, pressing against everyone that spoke to him as if to catch at some chance of salvation, was terrible to witness ; he trembled violently, while, the sweat burst from his face in the agony of his sufferings. At length every thing was completed, their arms were securely bandaged, and they were directed to mount the scaffold. (PPG 22/1/42)

I don’t want to go into as much detail as the newspapers did, but Maulboyheener (Bob) was extremely distressed, while Tunnerminnerwait continued to be impassive. However, the Gazette did note:

It was at this time that Jack, who was already standing in his appointed place, and whose eyes had been left uncovered at his own request to the latest moment, might have been seen fixing his eyes on some native blacks, who had taken their stations in the branches of a tree close to the gallows, to witness a sight to them so novel and impressive; it was the only sign of interest or anxiety he had expressed during the occurrences of the morning…(PPG 22/1/42)

I wonder who these ‘native blacks’ were. As Tasmanians, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were outsiders to the Port Phillip indigenous tribes as well. What was their relationship with the other tribal groupings in the district? I don’t know.

When the drop finally fell Jack’s sufferings were almost instantaneously at an end, but Bob struggled convulsively for several moments before death came to his relief, owing to the partial displacement of tho noose, and his fall being broken by the bungling manner in which the scaffold was struck away. (PPP 24/1/41)

The burial

The bodies were allowed to hang the usual time (one hour), and on being cut down were placed in shells provided for that purpose and interred outside the new burial ground. Thus ended the short career of two young and able bodied men, who in the course of six weeks Committed several extensive burglaries, and wantonly fired at and wounded four (two dangerously) white men, who had never given them cause for offence, besides murdering the two sailors at Port Fairy, for which they suffered.  May their fate have a beneficial effect upon the Aborigines of the province. (PPH 21/1/42)

Editorial opinion at the time

The Port Phillip Herald which carried the longest report of the execution also published a lengthy editorial. Although expressing a degree of sympathy for Bob in particular, it declared

Of the justness of the sentence, and of the policy of its enforcement, there cannot rest a doubt on the minds of those who have attended to the whole circumstances of the case.

It warned that

It is possible, but we consider extremely improbable, that the aborigines will attempt to revenge the act, and, goaded on by the dark and untutored passions of their nature, take summary vengeance upon the white population…

But this danger had to be weighed against

…the absolute certainty that had a milder punishment been inflicted, the colonists would have declared – and declared with truth, that there was in this colony one law for the black and another for the white man … the white population would take upon  themselves to obtain, directly and immediately, that justice which they had seen instructed by precedent they could not secure at the hand of the Government; and would not the result be, that instead of two murderers having suffered the extreme penalty of the law which justice awarded to their crimes, hundreds would fall before the incensed settlers, whose sole defence lay in themselves.  Open warfare would result….  [PPH 21/1/42)

Port Phillip prided itself on its ‘civilization’. It’s in reading such editorials that you realize just how fragile that ‘civilization’ was. ‘Retribution’ and ‘dispersal’ were open secrets.

How’s the weather?

The top temperature for the week was 80 (26.7) with light airs and fresh breezes. Fine agreeable weather, but frequently cloudy.  And somehow it seems fitting that on the 20th, the day of the execution, it rained.





‘Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam’ by Jeannine Baker


2015, 272 p.

Each night I sit down to watch the ABC news and just accept as a matter of course the presence of Lisa Millar in London, or Anne Barker in the Middle East telling me what new tragedy has occurred or which new crisis is emerging. Yet, when I think of reporters from far-off places in the past (and particularly in war zones) my mental picture is of a male reporter: Charles Bean in WWI,  or Neil Davis in Vietnam, Greg Shackleton in East Timor or more recently, Eric Campbell.  When did it become commonplace for a woman to be a foreign correspondent, even and especially in a conflict zone?   I’m also conscious  of the recent death of Claire Hollingworth, the famed (and very old) British WWI war correspondent.  I wasn’t aware, until I read this book, of any Australian women war correspondents that I could name from the top of my head.

In this book, Jeannine Baker argues that there have been female journalists in all the conflicts in which Australia has participated since Federation.  Their numbers are, admittedly,very small but not insignificant: she estimates that between 1900 and 1975 more than thirty Australian women reporters wrote for a range of London-based and Australian-based publications. They have been largely overlooked and do not have the prominence of male Australian journalists, and their role is seen as minor compared with their American and British female counterparts.  However, this, she suggests, is not so much a reflection of their ability but because the experiences and writings of women journalists were largely shaped by their national identity as Australians first and foremost, with the Australian armed forces particularly resistant to female war reporters, right up to the Vietnam War.  Partly this was a result of the “shut it down” reaction to publicity still exhibited by the ADF to this day, but it also sprang from a belief that the war front was no place for a woman; that they would have inconvenient toileting requirements; that they would distract the men and provoke them into a misplaced chivalry at times of crisis. Other countries changed their thinking about women reporters long before Australia did.

The book is structured chronologically, bookended by an introduction and afterword.  While she does namecheck probably most of the thirty female war correspondents across the length of the text, she focuses on several women journalists in particular. As the title suggests, she starts with the Boer War, the first war to which Australian colonies sent troops. The book title concludes with the Vietnam War, but Baker’s analysis stretches beyond declared wars to encompass female journalists sent to conflict zones ostensibly under the watch of Australian troops as peacekeepers and ‘trainers’.

Several of these women journalists ended up reporting on wars -albeit from behind the frontline- under their own initiative. Agnes Macready was the first nurse to travel from Australia to South Africa, where for two years she worked as a nurse during the Boer War and, as a sideline, contributed articles to the Catholic press under the pen-name ‘Arrah Luen’. A convert to Catholicism, she found herself an outsider as an outsider in her religion, as an Australian and as a woman. She opposed Britain’s imperialist expansion and was sympathetic to the Boers from the start. A second ‘lady war correspondent’during the Boer War was Edith Dickenson, who wrote for the Adelaide Advertiser and the Chronicle, who travelled widely and alone throughout South Africa.  At first she was strongly pro-British but over time became more critical of the war and more sympathetic to the Boers. She was the only Australian journalist to give a first-hand account of the concentration camps into which the Boers were corralled, and this work was taken up by the British activist Emily Hobhouse.  During WWII Lorraine Stumm, already a journalist in London, followed her Australian-born husband when he was sent to Singapore, where under American accreditation, she reported on New Guinea.

Other Australian women journalists were able to gain access to conflict zones because they were already employed with overseas newspapers, a reflection of the greater mobility for a particular class of young, unmarried and independent Australian women. Just before World War I Louise Mack (who, as it happens, Sue at Whispering Gums has been reading in a different context) was working in London and persuaded her London newspaper editor to send her to Belgium, where she travelled as a free agent. Likewise, Katharine Susannah Pritchard, who had based herself in London prior to the war, was unable to convince her editor to send her to Serbia, so instead travelled to France to cover the Australian Voluntary Hospital there. During World War II Elizabeth Riddell from Sydney, worked at the Daily Mirror and was asked to open a New York branch. In that capacity, she travelled to Britain, where she wrote about the ‘war weariness’ of the Brits, an observation at odds with the ‘brave Londoners’ stance being promulgated by other local newspapers.

Other women happened to be in London when war broke out and offered to send their reports back to Australian newspapers. Margaret Gilruth, who wrote for a range of papers including the Courier Mail and the Mercury Herald, travelled to Europe before the Nazis invaded the Low Countries.  She held a pilot’s licence, and had good contacts with Charles Kingsford Smith and  Australian aviator Nancy Bird.  She attended and reported on Nazi rallies.   Sydney-born Ann Matheson from ACP travelled to Prague in 1938 and was in London during the Blitz, which she reported for the Australian Women’s Weekly.

But in general, the Australian armed forces were very reluctant to allow women anywhere near the frontline: more resistant even than the British and certainly more resistant than the Americans.  The Australian army did not permit women journalists to be accredited, issuing them only temporary passes on application.  Male journalists were not welcome on the front either, for that matter, but there was a strong view that the only role for a woman in war was that of a supporter or aide, through nursing or the female auxiliary service.  It was the relatively relaxed American attitude that eventually nudged Australia into allowing female journalists in war zones during the Vietnam War.

Women journalists in the Australian newspaper industry had had a very circumscribed role prior to WWII. Although women were granted equal pay in 1917, they were usually restricted to the lower grade payscales, with few opportunities for progress, and newspaper proprietors were keen to dismantle that equality.  I had not realized the significance of the advent of women’s magazines, most particularly the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933. Although I don’t particularly think of the writers for the Womens Weekly today as journalists, during WWII its editors looked for ‘a woman’s view’ on the war.  Through this, and the enlistment of many male journalists with the outbreak of WWII, opportunities opened up for women to move beyond the ‘women’s pages’ to write about crime, courts, sports and stock exchange.  Male journalists did not take this quietly: there were criticisms of the quality of their writing and accusations of flippancy and it was made quite clear that men expected to resume their positions at the end of the war.

During WWII Tilly Shelton Smith from the Australian Women’s Weekly was the first woman journalist to travel from Australia to report from an overseas military theatre with the sanction of the Australian government and armed forces. However, it was a posting that almost destroy Shelton Smith’s career when the Women’s Weekly misjudged its audience and the military botched the organization of her tour. She wore civilian clothes, thus marking out femininity and difference from the troops, and she was charged with reporting “with a woman’s eyes” on the men at the garrison and training base at Malaya,who were awaiting deployment elsewhere. Shelton Smith was central character of her own reports with titles like “How I Met the Sultan of Jahore” or “I go to Curry Tiffin”. She revelled in the exotica of Malaysia and highlighted the physicality of the Australian soldiers. She was not allowed to accompany the troops, so she was restricted to reporting on the domestic conditions in the training camp, and her social contacts were largely amongst the officers. When she portrayed the living conditions of the troops like a holiday camp, she incurred the wrath of the troops; when she publicized the ‘taxi dancers’ (Malay women who were paid a small fee to dance with the men) she roused the enmity of the wives and mothers at home.  Many troops remained bitter about Shelton Smith’s reporting for decades after the war, although there was some acknowledgement later that some of the trenchant criticism was unfair.

Shelton Smith’s experience served as a salutary warning for other female war journalists. When Dorothy Jenner, who wrote as ‘Andrea’ in the Sun visited Malaysia in Shelton Smith’s wake, she was careful to avoid repeating such errors and wrote a much more positive approach, still from ‘a woman’s eyes’ but she was treated as ‘one of the boys’. She was captured and interned, and kept a diary during her interment, at great personal risk. Likewise when Ida Drain from the Australian Women’s Weekly visited Hiroshima after the deployment of the British Commonwealth Occupation force in Japan between 1946-52, she had learned from Tilly Shelton Smith’s experience. She devised her own official-looking uniform (even though it had no standing whatsoever) and only gently reproached the government over living arrangements for Australian men. She carefully avoided photos of Australian soldiers with Japanese women. Nonetheless, she too, was criticized.

However, as the authorities found, women journalists writing ‘with a woman’s eye’ had their uses when they wanted to stimulate enlistment in the women’s auxiliary forces.  On the homefront during WWII ‘lines of communication’ correspondents wore official uniforms and were taken as a group on a four-week tour of factories and auxiliary bases to report on women’s wartime contributions throughout Australia, at a time when interstate travel was restricted.

By Vietnam, women reporters were no longer kept on the periphery. Australian journalist Jan Graham from AP and Kate Webb from United Press International spoke Vietnamese and French respectively,although neither had Australian military accreditation, and these skills gave them entry to reporting the Vietnam conflict.  The ABC – with whom I started this review- was slow to embrace female foreign correspondents let alone conflict reporters, but they have gradually become more common. Australian soldiers were no longer warriors but peacekeepers or trainers, working in hot conflict zones across the globe.  At this point Baker moves to interviews with current practising reporters- Monica Attard in Moscow, Iris Makler in Afghanistan, Ruth Pollard, Ginny Stein etc.  Female correspondents are no longer allocated different types of stories: their editors now want stories not through ‘women’s eyes’ but through the eyes of the people who are experiencing the conflict. It’s almost the opposite of ‘drone’type reporting from above.

Baker’s book is based on her PhD and the several academic articles which arose from that work, and it is eminently readable. She has been allowed space to identify historians whose work she has drawn on by name, and her extensive bibliography reveals the breadth of sources she has used.  She has drawn on the newspaper and magazine articles that the women wrote, and interviews recorded with the journalists themselves over several decades, as well as interviews with descendants and current-day practising journalists. For the Shelton Smith chapter, she uses soldiers’ letters from the time and interviews with old soldiers who were in Malaysia when and after Shelton Smith visited.  Several of the journalists wrote their own books about their experiences, but Baker is prudently wary of journalistic ‘war stories’ in a professional sense: it is not only men who are prone to exaggeration or underplaying their professional ambition. In the case of Louise Mack in World War I,  Baker’s caution over the veracity of Mack’s claims is prompted by her analysis of Mack’s writings alongside established facts, and her critique of the highly coloured mythology that Mack wove around herself when she returned to Australia and embarked on lecture tours full of patriotic fervour and boosterist claims.

As Baker points out, the war  reporter often frames him or her self as ‘I’ in telling their story, but only male reporters were able to write ‘we’ by identifying themselves with the troops they were describing, even though this was often fanciful and based on exaggerated proximity.  The journalistic one-upmanship of claiming to be the ‘first’- a professional competition indulged by both male and female reporters- meant that individual women reporters did not have a sense that they were acting in a longer tradition of female reporters.  However, the change in the nature of war reporting by focussing on the human response (both for soldier and victim) meant that the type of  behind-the-lines, participant-based reporting that women had previously been restricted to creating by editors and army personnel who refused to allow their presence at the front, now became the genre of choice and an integral part of how we understand war.

As Baker argues, Australian women war reporters were at a particular disadvantage in their work because of the tight control that the defence forces exerted over their movements – far more than was the case with British and especially American female journalists.  Australia may not have a Claire Hollingworth or a Martha Gellhorn, but through this book Australian women reporters are brought out from the ‘women’s pages’ and the women’s magazines Australian Women’s Weekly and Women’s Day assume a significance not readily apparent at the checkout in the supermarket.  The women who wrote ‘with a woman’s eye’  provided a view of war probably far more congruent with our current conception of war than the military bluster of manoeuvres and patriotism that constituted much war reporting at the time.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2017-badge I have posted a link to this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 site.

‘Extinctions’ by Josephine Wilson


2016, 280 p.

My library has taken to identifying fiction books by a label on the spine denoting categories like ‘Australian fiction’ or ‘Romance’ or ‘Science Fiction’.  (They’ve also taken to grouping non-fiction by broad themes that leads to the ludicrous situation where a book about the Holocaust ends up in the ‘Travel and Culture’ section- but that’s a complaint for another day.) Misled, perhaps, by the title and the curious egg-shaped image on the front cover, a librarian has labelled  Josephine Wilson’s book Extinctions  as ‘Science Fiction’. Once you’ve read it, you’ll know how inappropriate that classification is.

Professor Fred Lothian is a sixty-nine years old former engineer, and has recently moved into a retirement village following the death of his wife Martha.  Despite his relatively young age (a statement, I suspect, that says more about me than him!), he is thoroughly encased in old-man-curmudgeonliness, hemmed in by the modernist furniture from his large former home that he was unable to relinquish, disdainful of his neighbours and generally not looking after himself.  He is estranged, for varying reasons, from his adult children Caroline, a museum display curator and Callum, once a promising sportsman and architect.  Looking out his window, he sees another resident collapse in the courtyard, and this sparks a conversation with his next-door neighbour Jan.  All he knows of Jan is that she keeps many budgerigars, much to his disgust.  He comes to find that she is much more than this, and she brings him to the point where he is forced to face many of the silences and blockages in his life.

It’s not common to have a book set in a retirement village, with such fully realized older characters.  (I wonder if we’ll see more as the baby boomer generation ages?) The story is set over a one-week period in January 2006 in Perth.  The author, herself resident in Perth, captures the starkly sun-bleached and open nature of the Perth suburbs well, and her ear for dialogue is finely-tuned.  It is suggestive of Fred’s own mental scattiness that the book jumps abruptly in time and perspective, and Wilson succeeds well in withholding and revealing information, making the reader work hard in establishing events.  You don’t have to work too hard, though, and I realized at the end of the book just how cleverly Wilson had constructed the narrative.

There’s multiple themes and metaphors woven throughout the book- teetering almost on too many.  There’s the Stolen Generations, genocide and extinction, adoption, domestic violence and its intergenerational effects, regret and the fissures in family relationships.  This sounds a rather grim menu, but it’s leavened by little touches of humour over our shared human foibles.

The narrative time-frame of the book was tight and specific (15 January – 23 January 2006) but tendrils extended back into Fred’s childhood, his marriage, and his relationship with his children.  This 8 day frame seemed implausibly tight for the ending, although Wilson had drawn Fred’s impulsivity and mental flailing vividly enough that, as a reader, I could suspend my disbelief enough to be satisfied enough by the ending.

Reminiscent of a W. E. Sebald book, Extinctions contains many photographs which relate at a tangent to the narrative, and they’re a powerful and effective addition to the text. I haven’t heard much about this book beyond Lisa’s review of it at ANZLitlovers, which surprises me. It’s a very accomplished book, and its apparent ease belies careful plotting and a nuanced reading of regret and experience.  I hope that it’s there on the Miles Franklin shortlist next year.

My rating: 9/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have linked to this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.


Movie: Rosalie Blum

I was sitting in the cinema, watching trailer after trailer of upcoming American movies. It’s so good to see something that’s not American for a change. Something that unfolds with a different sense of narrative pacing; something that doesn’t have American accents; something that is underpinned by values that are not American.  The absolute dominance of American news and Donald Trump in our media is making this deluge of Americana even more suffocating.

So I was well and truly ready for Rosalie Blum. This is a terrific movie, set in the present day in a provincial French town, where a prematurely-balding hairdresser who still lives with his mother, finds himself fascinated by an older woman who he’s sure he’s met previously. The gently-unfolding movie tells the same events from three different perspectives and although billed as a ‘comedy’ is bittersweet and nuanced.

The movie is in French,  sub-titled in English

My rating: 4 / 5.