Monthly Archives: May 2017

Recordings for ‘Democratic Opposition to War’ conference

You might remember that a fortnight ago I attended a conference hosted by the Brunswick-Coburg Anti Conscription Centenary people (among others).  When I hear about a conference that I would have liked to have attended, I’m always delighted when the presentations are put online afterwards. That’s the case with this conference, so if you thought it sounded good, have a listen yourself!

Details of the recordings can be found at

‘Spanish Mystery Stories for Beginners: El Detective Pepe Sevilla’ by Alex Diez


2016, 108 p.

Well, it may only be 108 very widely spaced pages, but it took me weeks to read! There were 60 chapters, each no more than two pages in length. And believe me, my Spanish is so rudimentary that one chapter a night was about all that I could manage.  Each chapter has vocabulary at the end of each chapter, with a special focus on colloquial expressions, of which there were many.

And the story? Well, surprisingly enough, there was one. Pepe Sevilla is a detective with his dog Kiko who is called to a luxurious mansion to investigate the death of a woman found at the bottom of a swimming pool. Her husband insists that it is suicide, but Pepe has his suspicions and gets to the bottom of the mystery.

It’s a pretty sparse text and I found that, in many ways despite (and because of) its brevity, it was more difficult to read than a newspaper article on BBCMundo because there’s no redundant text to help you guess the meaning of words.

I have the utmost admiration for anyone who ever becomes fluent in another language. Millions and millions and millions of people manage it so it must be possible, but it all seems a long way off yet.

This Month in Port Phillip: May 1842 (Pt.1)

In May 1842 the talk of the town was BUSHRANGERS!  There had been reports filtering into the newspapers from late April about a spate of holdups and invasions and by early May it was clear that the same gang was involved. They were dubbed the Plenty Valley Bushrangers.  I wrote about them at length here, (complete with map!) so follow the link and read about their spree and capture before coming back here to follow up with the trial.

Reenactment of a bushranger robbing some travellers on a country road

Re-enactment of a bushranger robbing some travellers on a country road. Photograph taken by J.W. Lindt 1845-1926, State Library of Victoria

Are you back?  On 3rd May an inquest into Williams’ death was held and the three surviving bushrangers were committed to trial.  Willis scheduled a special sitting on 11 May (even though the usual criminal session would be held on 16th anyway).

Rather controversially, Willis wrote to La Trobe immediately following the committal hearing but prior to the bushrangers’ trial, noting that should the death sentence be passed, “it would have a much more effectual example were that sentence carried into execution within a very short period instead of delaying it until the proceedings could be sent to Sydney and returned”. He suggested that La Trobe request permission from Governor Gipps to make the arrangements at the local level, and that Willis would announce the time and place from the Bench.[1] Governor Gipps in Sydney, however, would have nothing of it.  A terse letter reiterated the necessity, under the Queen’s instructions to the Governor, to bring every sentence of death before the Executive Council.[2]

The courtroom trial itself was unremarkable, beyond Willis’ alacrity in scheduling the  unnecessary special sitting on May 11.  His opening comments congratulating the captors for their services to the community do not seem to have attracted attention or criticism at the time. [3]  The three surviving prisoners faced twenty-four counts, all related to the shooting and wounding of Henry Fowler, the leader of the “gay and gallant Five”. There were other charges that could have been laid from the five-day outbreak of violence but only the charge of shooting with intent to maim, disfigure or disable carried the death penalty.  Given that the wounding occurred during a shoot-out, there was a heavy reliance on forensic evidence and crime reconstruction to prove that it was the bushrangers, and not the captors, who had fired at close range and at particular angle to cause the injuries sustained by Henry Fowler.  The prominence given to scientific evidence is striking, given the usual reliance on character evidence and eyewitness reports that was usually tendered to the courts. [4] The jury retired for an hour and returned with the guilty verdict.

Willis then held sentencing over for two days until the following Friday, perhaps in the expectation that a reply to his request to announce the date and time for execution might arrive.  The audience for the sentencing was more than sufficient: the crowd rushed into the courthouse as soon as it was opened and “both ingress and egress were forcibly prevented”. In the tumult a window was broken, and Willis threatened to clear the court if a “more discreet and distinct silence were not maintained.” [5] He ordered the three bushrangers to remain in jail “until such day as His Excellency the Governor shall appoint for your execution”.

This, however, was not the end of Judge Willis’ involvement with the bushrangers. The Port Phillip Herald of 24 May carried a startling report that Ellis, Fogarty and the now-deceased Williams had planned to murder Judge Willis as he crossed the creek on the way into Melbourne, but had been dissuaded from the plan by their colleague Jepps.  News of this reached Judge Willis, possibly through petitions that were forwarded to him by three settler victims of the bushranger, each mentioning Jepps by name as instrumental in restraining his partners in crime.  No doubt relieved at his reprieve from the fate of being a kidnap hostage, Willis wrote to La Trobe, enclosing the petitions of the settlers and submitting them “for your serious consideration, and that of His Excellency the Governor.” [6]

But too late, too late – the report had gone up to Sydney and now everyone just had to wait until June when the bushranger story met its sorry end.


You can see an exhibition about Victoria’s Bushrangers, including the Plenty Valley Bushrangers at the Old Treasury Building Museum in Spring Street in the city.  It’s called Wild Colonial Boys:Bushrangers in Victoria and it’s on until August. It’s closed on Saturdays, but it’s open every other day of the week between 10.00 and 4.00 and entry is free.  While you’re there, check out the terrific ‘Melbourne Foundations of a City’ exhibition and the Melbourne Panorama- a display to spend hours looking at.




[1]Willis to La Trobe 3 May 1842, PROV 19 Unit 31 Encl to 42/1163

[2] E. D. Thomson to La Trobe 16 May 1842 PROV 16 Unit 31 42/1163

[3] Port Phillip Herald 13 May 1842

[4] Especially the evidence of Dr Charles Sandford, Judge’s notes enclosed in Willis to La Trobe 3 May 1842 PROV 19 Unit 31  42/1163

[5] Port Phillip Herald 17 May 1842.

[6] Willis to La Trobe 25th May 1842 PROV 19 Unit 31 42/966 enclosure to 42/1163.


Movie: The Innocents

“So, what are you off to see today, Janine?” they asked. Nobody suggested joining me when I told them that I was going to see a movie about Polish nuns being raped after WWII.

It was just as grim as it sounds. One day a young female French Red Cross doctor based in Poland is importuned by a nun to come to the convent. When she finally agrees, she finds a young novice giving birth. She learns that Russian soldiers had ransacked the convent three times, raping the sisters. The rapes were not just physical, but spiritual and existential as well.

The film is based on a true story (follow the link in this story to a translated interview with the real-life doctor’s nephew) although I don’t know if the ending – which I found a bit too easy – was true or not.

The cinematography is just breathtaking. The convent is surrounded by a bare forest in the snow, setting off the black-and-white habits of the nuns. But it feels almost callous to think of beauty in a story which is anything but beautiful.

Once again, it’s just about to leave Melbourne cinemas within the next few days.

My rating: 4 stars

‘The Mysterious Mr Jacob’ by John Zubrzycki


2007, 262 p & notes

Transit Lounge

In 1912 it was said that when the real story of Alexander Malcolm Jacob was written, it would be invested with more wonder and mystery than “even in our strangest dreams we never imagined it could possess.”(p.247)

Well, it took a hundred years, but in this book John Zubrzycki has probably got as close to the “real” story as anyone else is likely to do. Mr Jacob – diamond merchant, magician and spy – was happy to embroider and dissemble about his actual origins, but for the civil servants of the British Raj who escaped to the Indian hills of Simla to escape the summer heat, Mr Jacob was a celebrity. His shop was full of  gems, curiosities and wonders, he lived in a opulent mansion ‘Belvedere’ and he was sought out for his magic and mystical skills and political contacts. He appeared in multiple newspaper articles, essays, books and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim  (albeit, not under his own name but as Lurgan Sahib).  He dealt with Indian princes and maneuvered the shadow world of British spies operating in the Far East, and yet he ended up largely impoverished, living on a rather miserly pension before his death in 1921 aged 71.

Many rumours spread about his origins –  Jewish? Greek? Polish? Italian? – but Zubrzycki has tracked his birthplace down to a small town in Turkey, near the Syrian border. He was actually Catholic, but in a world obsessed with spiritualism, he attracted Theosophists and the adherents of Madame Blavatsky. He arrived in Bombay in 1865 penniless, and within 12 years had achieved celebrity status. His greatest, and as it turned out, most damaging challenge was to sell the Imperial diamond, the largest brilliant-cut diamond in the world, to Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad in 1891.  Fabulously wealthy and opium-addicted, the Nizam liked gems, and Jacob undertook to bring him the diamond from Europe on approval, hoping to make a hefty profit for his efforts. But the sale ended up in court and here, if perhaps anywhere, Zubryzycki got closest to discovering what may be the truth about Alexander Jacob.

The book is framed as the author’s search for the ‘real’ Mr Jacob, and the author strolls onto the page quite frequently as he hunts for locations, searches for documents and seeks an elusive photograph of him. It certainly seems as if Mr Jacob is reaching out from the grave, sometimes thwarting some of his efforts (as in when he finally tracked down Mr Jacob’s grave only to find that it had just been destroyed), and permitting “just in time” discoveries at other times (as when he found the decrepit Belvedere mansion, just before its demolition).  In this case, Australian readers benefit from the six year lag between the book’s publication in 2011 and its recent release through Transit Press in Australia, as in the meantime he found the much-sought-after photo to add a physical presence to such an elusive subject. The author has an engaging style, whipping up interest at the start of each chapter, and if he digresses it’s because they’re such interesting alleyways into which he is being drawn.

We are taken on a fascinating journey into an India of  the scarcely-imaginable wealth of its Indian Princes and the rather disdainful manipulation of British colonial politics. There is a fluidity in Mr Jacob’s life as he defies national definitions and flits in the shadows of spies and diplomats.  There’s little attempt- and I dare say, little scope- for any exploration of Mr Jacob’s personal life, and in this he is just as slippery and elusive as in his professional life. It’s a rattling good yarn, as Mr Jacob knew himself in his various retellings and embellishments, and you can’t help but be imbued with Zubryzycki’s passion for such an enigmatic character.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: review copy from Transit Lounge Publishing.


Conference: When we voted ‘NO’: Democratic Opposition to War 20 May 2017


I attended a very enjoyable conference last Saturday at Brunswick, under the auspices of the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Committee, Melbourne Labor History Society and Victorian Trades Hall Council. Just look at the speakers: Barry Jones, Stuart Macintyre, Joy Damousi, Ross McMullin as the ‘big names’ but all of the speakers were excellent.  The day started with a small group from Brunswick Secondary College (who featured in the play 1916 that we saw last year) who sang two songs from WWI.

Barry Jones gave the keynote address where he outlined the political context for the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917 (which someone noted was not ‘referenda’, as I always assumed). He pointed out that even before Federation, Australia had always been enthusiastic for war, with involvement in the Maori Wars, Crimea, US Civil War (on both sides),  the Sudan, Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion. During WWI, Australia was impelled by a need to be seen, a sense of adventure and hope for reciprocal support. He described the political environment of the new Commonwealth, which before the war was relatively civilized, with no party system. Into this came Billy Hughes, a divisive figure, vicious campaigner and wrecker, who unleashed sectarianism and broke the ALP.  He outlined why Hughes needed a referendum, and why he went for a second one in December 1917 after the first was defeated in 1916.

He was followed by Murray Goot who analysed the returns of the two referendums, looking for patterns and anomalies.  He challenged a number of the received explanations for the defeats, and explored a number of ‘what if’ scenarios, including a consideration of what might have happened if the second referendum had passed.

Stuart Macintyre described the electoral context generally, then focused particularly on the Brunswick-Coburg area.  Two local political identities were discussed in more detail. Peter Love spoke about the local Labor MP Frank Anstey- a man prone to hyperbole and opposed to conscription from the start. Caroline Rasmussen examined Maurice Blackburn  (commemorated in the law firm of that name) who was M.P. for the adjoining seat of Essendon who also opposed conscription, but from a more dispassionate commitment to ‘liberty’, the right of conscience and the law.  His wife Doris, was also an activist, although hampered by family commitments at the time.

Kate Laing spoke about two women’s groups active at the start of the war that were both involved in international movements. The Sisterhood of International Peace, which emphasized ‘respectability’ was at first reluctant to take a position on the war, out of fear of the War Precautions Act. The Womens Peace Army grew out of the suffrage campaign, and was always the more activist organization. Joy Damousi expanded on the Womens Peace Army, led by Cecilia John. She emphasized how both sides of the conscription debate leveraged motherhood: what would a ‘responsible mother’ do?

[And at this stage, I missed the next two speakers because I was in the Serenading Adela Choir, and we had to prepare for our performance of our party-piece ‘Ghosts Don’t Lie’]

serenading serenading2






[Images from  and And no, you can’t see me! I’m hiding in the corner]

After lunch Ross McMullin emphasized the significance of the fact that while other Labor governments in the world only had to react from Opposition, the Australian Labor Party was in office, voted into power in 1914 largely on the strength of its Defence policy. He spelled out the options facing Hughes and traced the political maneuvering chronologically during the war. He then moved to the long term consequences, including the National Party’s portrayal of themselves as the party of the AIF Digger.

From this point attention shifted to the Vietnam War and conscription. Ann-Mari Jorden examined the shift attitudes towards universal compulsory military training, from its introduction prior to WWI in 1911, the development of the Citizens Military Force between 1951 and its abolition in 1959, and the introduction of compulsory (although largely unenforceable) registration in 1964. She traced the treatment of religious conscientious objectors right from the Defence Act of 1903, and the gradual dropping of the ‘religious’ criteria of conscientious objection.

The day finished with Paul Barratt, who is currently promoting the reform of the Australian Government’s war making powers, preferably so that a motion needs to be passed in both house of parliament, with a statement from the Solicitor General that it is legal, and passed by the Governor General. Jenny Grounds from the Medical Association for the Prevention of War canvassed an array of steps that the government could take to promote peace.

So- what a treat! Excellent speakers, well-organized and lots to think about.

Movie: “A Man Called Ove”

It seems that recently I’ve read seen several books (Extinctions; Our Souls at Night; Reading in Bed) and movies (45 Years; I, Daniel Blake) that deal with older characters. Is this the demographic pressure of Baby Boomers who prefer to watch movies on the big screen, I wonder?  Nonetheless, here’s another movie about a crusty old widower who ends up with a bigger heart than it might seem as first. I was rather horrified that he was only supposed to be 59 which seemed rather young (especially as I am older than 59!) however, he makes up in gruffness what he might lack in chronological years.

I laughed and I cried at this very human movie, which tells the story of Ove’s life and marriage in  multicultural, urban Sweden. Yes, it’s been done before with other gruff men like Jack Nicholson, and the multiple manifestations of Wallender, but I thought that this was just lovely. I came home wanting to hug my dad, my son and my curmudgeonly husband (who I think wanted to see it to get some tips, although he said that Ove was even too brusque for him!).  And of course, true to form with my movie reviews, it’s just about to finish, so either hurry or look for it on DVD.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Exhibition: Something Borrowed


This fleeting exhibition at Victoria’s Parliament House would have to be the closest-held secret in Melbourne!  It’s only on for a week (i.e. 15-19 May 2017) and there’s not a single sign or indication outside Parliament House that it’s even on.  You need to walk up the steps and ask the person on the door to let you in, then go through X-ray security before going to reception and signing in. Even once you’re inside, there’s nothing to let you know that the exhibition is on.  But enter the beautiful Queens Hall, you’ll see it, and an interesting little exhibition it is, too.

Now that Canberra has been Australia’s capital city since 1927, we tend to forget that the newly-constituted Commonwealth Government first sat in Melbourne. Why Melbourne? First, it may have been a bit of a sop to Victorian pride, given that the decision was made to locate Canberra in New South Wales.  Second, thanks to the Gold Rush, Victoria had suitably grand buildings available- probably more so than in the older capital city of Sydney.

So, like a guest that lingers too long, the Commonwealth Parliament sat in what was then, and is again now, Victorian Parliament House. It was anticipated that they might squat there for four or five years, but it ended up being 26 years.  The Victorian parliament was booted up to the Exhibition Building where they took over one wing while the Exhibition Building continued with its usual functions- including a huge hospital ward for the Spanish Influenza (I bet the pollies weren’t too keen on sharing the premises then!)

The Victorian pollies didn’t particularly like being shunted off to the Exhibition Building. It wasn’t right in the centre of the city like Parliament House was, and they had to leave behind their Parliamentary Library for the use of their federal colleagues.  To add insult to injury, there were 1400 volumes missing from the library when they finally moved back in 1927. The exhibition shows the correspondence back-and-forth between the state and federal librarians, each blaming each other for the disappearance of so many books.

The Exhibition Building was hot too. During the hot summer of 1902-3 the Commonwealth Government took pity on their sweltering state counterparts and allowed them to use their own Parliament House for thirty sitting days, but that was a one-off.

Meanwhile the Federal politicians made themselves right at home, with our first Prime Minister Edmund Barton taking up residence in the attic, and Billy Hughes building a man-shed on the roof of the north building, complete with a microphone connected to the parliamentary chambers so that he could hear what was going on.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Melbourne during WWI, and it was good to remind myself that the wartime Federal Government was located right here. Melbourne was the centre of all the action. Nonetheless, I suspect that the worthies of the Victorian Parliament were glad to pick up sticks from Exhibition Building and head back to their ‘real’ chambers once the Commonwealth government moved to Canberra on 9 May 1927.

So, an interesting little exhibition- but you’ll need to be quick!

Movie: Manchester by the Sea

A nuanced and bleak view of masculinity.  Lee Chandler left Manchester By the Sea many years earlier to work as a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts.  He lives alone and he is a coiled-up ball of trauma, grief and aggression.  When his brother dies unexpectedly, he is called upon to move back to Manchester to act as guardian to his nephew.  He is resentful, grudging and gruff, and as the film goes on we learn why. I felt rather depressed by the whole thing

And it’s only on for about another five minutes.

My rating: 7.5 / 10

‘Wild Island’ by Jennifer Livett


431 p., 2016

From the opening lines of this book, you hear echoes of a book you have read before:

Reader, she did not marry him, or rather, when at last she did, it was not so straightforward as she implies in her memoirs. Jane Eyre is a truthful person and her story is fascinating, but some things she could not bring herself to say. Certain episodes in her past, she admits, ‘form too distressing a recollection ever to be willingly dwelt upon’ .. My name is Harriet Adair, and forty years ago on that ship I was Jane Eyre’s companion (xii)

Thus begin Harriet Adair’s own memoirs, written forty years later.  Readers of Jane Eyre have met her before, as Grace Poole, caring for the mad Bertha Mason at Thornfield.  But in this telling, Bertha did not die in the fire thus freeing Edward Rochester to marry our Jane.  The woman we knew as Grace Poole was really Harriet Adair, and Bertha was instead  Anna – not Antoinette as in Wide Sargasso Sea, a model for this book in extrapolating and subverting Jane Eyre into a new story. There was a way in which Edward would be free to marry Jane, but it involved sailing to Van Diemen’s Land to seek out Captain Booth, now a commandant at Port Arthur Penal Settlement, who was the only man who could confirm an earlier marriage that would invalidate Edward’s marriage to Anna (Bertha). Part way along the journey it is decided that Edward and Jane will return to England, and so off they sail back into the northern hemisphere to become shadowy, background characters who tether this book to its original inspiration but play no further role.

There have been other books that have sprung from a much loved story – Wide Sargasso Sea is one; Pemberley is another- but in this book Jennifer Livett has added another level of difficulty.  The opening pages have two lists of characters: the first a list of historical characters drawn from the real-life inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land in the late 1830s and early 1840s; and the second a list of fictional characters, some of whom have been taken from Jane Eyre, others created to mingle with the real-life Hobartians.  The research for this book is exhaustive- and exhausting.  In her acknowledgments at the rear of the book, the author mentions that this book has been forty years in gestation, and I believe it.

From my own research into Port Phillip at the time that this book was set, I know these historical characters and, for me, there was a little leap of recognition as if I’d seen Tulip Wright (who later turned up in Melbourne) in his brilliant-hued waistcoat, disappearing around a corner.  You probably know them too. We’ve met Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin in several books previously (see here and here),  and Mathinna from Richard Flanagan’s Wanting makes an appearance. John Gould the bird-artist and his wife Eliza are here too, and there’s even Mad Judge Montagu and Charles Swanston, the bank director whose finances propped up the Port Phillip expedition, now immortalized in one of Melbourne’s main streets.

Livett has a beautiful turn of phrase: take for example her description of black swans, heads-down feeding, looking “like black mops floating on the surface” (p. 245).  Her ear for dialogue and her historical felicity are first rate. The details are absolutely accurate but -oh- there are so many of them and I often found myself wondering if a reader less steeped in Tasmanian/Port Phillip politics would find them overwhelming.

One of my favourite quotes about Port Phillip society is the Port Phillip Gazette’s observation that “Melbourne boils over like a bush cauldron with the scum of fierce disputes”. It’s a characterization of colonial life which holds true for many of nineteenth century port towns across the British Empire including Hobart. In this book we are taken to the factional conflict  between Sir John Franklin and his colonial secretary John Montagu, an adherent of the Arthurite faction who had prospered under the long governorship of Franklin’s predecessor Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. We are taken to the politics of the transportation policy and its change over time, with the cessation of the assignment system.  At times the narrative becomes a vehicle for explaining the politics, and at this point, it threatened to collapse under the weight of so much didacticism and so many peripheral characters.

And yet, even for a reader familiar with this period of Tasmanian history, reading this book brings this history alive, especially the world of middle-class women who have been swept up into the circuits of empire through the postings of their husbands to official positions throughout the Empire.  Livett captures well the jostling for position, the grabbing at opportunities that opened up in a settler-colonial economy, the importance of patronage and   the censoriousness among women restricted to a round of visiting and levees and balls. She is completely at home with the ‘networks of empire’ conceptualization of colonialism that underpins much recent historiography:

…there are always more connections than we know about, across the widest spaces. So many links between the colony and England, most of them fluid. Water, ink, blood, each carrying its own cargo. Frail ships criss-crossing the seas, their holds packed with innocent-looking objects as dangerous as guns: china tea sets; bolts of flannel; packets of seeds and bank drafts. All bearing the message that there are certain ways in which life must be lived, and ways in which it most assuredly must not.” p 44

At the same time, the author is pulling the strings of the Jane Eyre connection, with the question of whether Rowland Rochester  (Edward Rochester’s brother) had ever lived in Tasmania providing the narrative pull of the story. St John Wallace, Jane Eyre’s rather wet (in my opinion) cousin is here with his wife Louisa, and Anna (the former mad Bertha) moves in and out of the story.

It’s a long book, but Livett has maintained Harriet’s narrative voice throughout the alternating chapters which switch between Harriet’s first person point of view and a third-person omniscient narrative.  It is this high-wire act of playing out a twist on the Jane Eyre story, while maintaining such historical integrity that most impresses me about this book. But then I find myself wondering: is there such a thing as too much historical integrity? I suspect that there is; and I think that the book threatened to be engulfed by it, even for someone familiar with and appreciative of its fidelity.

And so, my praise for Wild Island is not completely unalloyed.  Livett has aimed high, but much though I admire the accuracy and richness of her historical rendering of Van Diemen’s Land, I wonder if it ensnared her in details and explanations that stopped this book from really soaring.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

I’ve posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. aww2017-badge