Monthly Archives: February 2018

Movie: Sweet Country

Set in the Northern Territory in 1929 and based on actual events, this is a beautiful filmed story of menace and injustice. When an aboriginal stockman kills a crazed white station owner in self-defence, he and his wife escape into the outback, where they are hunted by a posse of self-appointed avengers, assisted by other stockmen as trackers.  It has Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, both of whom have appeared in too many films like this. There are no romantic frontier myths here: it’s brutal and harsh and unforgiving.  Hard to watch, but necessary to watch, too.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Movie: Menasche

This is certainly no action movie, and it’s more an exploration of a situation than a plot. Menashe is a widower, and as a result his son is taken from his custody and raised in his brother-in-law’s house in a ‘proper’ family.  He works as a poorly paid grocery clerk, and is looked down upon by the other men of the community. The best way to think of the film is more as a documentary than narrative, and it certainly gives a fascinating look into a Hasidic community within a modern city.  The main character is actually acted by the real-life man on whose story the film is based, and it’s a bit like watching a reality program as it does not feel acted at all.  It’s completely in Yiddish with subtitles.

My rating: 3 stars out of 5

Hardcore History podcast: Blueprint for Armageddon

I’ve taken to trying to walk a bit more for fitness, and so I kit myself up with my smartphone and wireless headphones, turn on a podcast and off I go.  For the past 23 hours I’ve been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History opus, ‘Blueprint for Armageddon’, which runs for six episodes ranging in length from 3 hours and 7 minutes to a massive 4 hours and 29 minutes.  It’s about World War I, told chronologically and based largely on primary sources and a survey of secondary sources.

Dan Carlin is not a historian, but a broadcaster who loves history. He spends too much comparing people and events for my liking, and at times I felt as if the series was descending into trench-porn as he tried to capture the experience of fighting on the western front.  He cited frequently from primary sources from soldiers fighting on different sides, read in a harsh tone to distinguish it from his commentary.

So why did I persist for 23 hours? Well, he did a really good job particularly in the first episode on laying out the groundwork for the war that was to follow, drawing heavily on Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Even though he confessed his frustration at what he left out (even at 23 hours!), I thought that he did a good job of ranging across the different theatres of war, even picking up on the Australians and New Zealanders although his main focus is the western front. He does go on and on about things, but I didn’t mind that as my mind could go off on a little wander of its own, then I could refocus and catch up with what he was saying (indeed, by the time I tuned in again, he was often still making the same point!)  And although he does labour some ideas, at heart they’re often insightful, original and interesting points that he’s making.

Still, that’s enough military history for me for now.

‘Innocent Erendira and Other Stories’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


1972, 192 p.

Last year I did an online course about Macondo, the setting for many of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s stories and novels (see course details here).  Of course, I read all the stories in English, but I found the videos and transcripts in Spanish challenging and rewarding, and could revert to the English translations when it all became too hard. So, when I saw that Coursera were running a second course, I signed up.  It’s called Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Between Power, History and Love, and it looks at his work after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Once again, I’m reading the books in English but here’s an added degree of difficulty: there are no English subtitles or translation of the transcript.  I’m on my own!

The first week looks at the short story collection Innocent Erendira and other stories. As the lecturers explain, these short stories were written after the critical acclaim of Hundred Years and before the publication of The Autumn of the Patriarch, which marked a departure from his earlier work. The stories therefore have wisps of his earlier work, but apparently prefigure the books that he was to go on to write.

The volume starts with ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ about an angel arriving in a small village, where he is locked in the chicken-coop and becomes a sensation among the villagers.  It reminded me a little of Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, where the angel Xas bursts into a real-life setting.  ‘The Sea of Lost Time’ is also set in a village, where the smell of roses permeates a village which is indebted to an unscrupulous gringo. The smell of roses reminded me of the butterflies in One Hundred Years of Solitude.  In ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ a body washes ashore and the women of the village fall in love with it.  ‘Death Constant Beyond Love’ is about a dying senator who comes to a poverty-striken village and falls in love with a 19 year old. in ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ a ghostly ship, seen only in glimpses, sails into a village. Again, I was reminded of One Hundred Years, although it was a train that arrived in a village there.  ‘Blacaman the Good, Vendor of Miracles’ is a gruesome story about torture, where a trickster takes on a young boy as his sidekick.

The final story, which gives the collection its name, is ‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother’. Heartless indeed, this obese, manipulative grandmother prostitutes her granddaughter, chaining her to the bed to service lines of men.  It’s the longest story in the collection – more novella than short story, but it was too violent and distressing for me, I’m afraid.

Prostitution of children by parents arises in other stories here too, as in ‘Death Constant Before Love’ where a father gets his daughter to seduce the senator in order to gain a favor from him.  There are other themes that run across the stories too. Many of them make reference to the sea (‘The Handsomest Drowned Man’, ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghostly Ship’ and ‘The Sea of Lost Time’) and tricksters and shysters abound.  It’s a violent world.  There’s plenty of power being exercised here, by people who should be showing love.

Stylistically, the most striking story is ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ which has only one full stop: the one that finishes the story.  Marquez manages to progress the story well, using only commas.

So, all in all, a good collection of short stories, and the Coursera lectures are worth listening/watching too. Just don’t ask me to translate them!

A day trip to Kyneton

The sun was shining and we had no commitments. So we hopped into the Big Red Car and drove up to Kyneton, about ninety kilometres from Melbourne.  A former gold rush town, it still has many original buildings and the wide streets and verandahs of an Australian country town.  For many years it has been a favourite ‘Sunday drive’ destination with antique stores and restaurants.

Kyneton isn’t far from Hanging Rock, which is going to be the setting for a ‘Too Many Mirandas’ flashmob later in February.


Feel like joining them?  Here’s the video so that you can learn the dance. It looks like fun. But I think I’m more Miss Appleyard than Miranda or even Ethel.

There was a stonemason’s yard where they were operating a hand-operated crane to move some marble blocks.


One guy to turn the wheel, the other to position the stone


Fancy a headstone with a bit of Os-tray-iana on it?


It’s a very long standing business (a very little pun)


Putting one’s stonemasonry skills to work on the letterbox

The museum was open so of course we went in.  They’ve obviously had lots of financial support for the museum, which was housed in a former bank building with lots of land attached.  Their main exhibition in the front rooms in on loan from Tennis Australia, and features  lawn tennis objects, including a Teddy Tingling tennis dress.

In the grounds outside they had a very well-preserved timber slab hut. The original hut had been built around and encased in weatherboards, leaving the original hut in very good condition.  It was originally located on a local farm property but has since been shifted to the museum. The pig shed from the local market was shifted to the museum site too, and is now used to display agricultural equipment.


There was a Furphy water cart there, dating from 1920. I’d never noticed what looked like hieroglyphics on the tank end. Steve thought it looked like shorthand, and according to the ADB, that’s exactly what it is, apparently exhorting the reader to stay away from strong drink and stick to water instead.


They even have a bluestone structure that no-one really knows why it was built. They think it might be a pigeon loft because there are alcoves built into the walls which might be used for nesting, and steps leading down from the windows for young birds just learning to fly.  It had at various times been used as a morgue too, but no-one really knows.


Upstairs in the old bank building the rooms are still laid out as they would have been when it was used as the bank manager’s residence. All in all, well worth a visit although I wish that someone from the local historical society had been in attendance because the woman working there, while very welcoming and helpful, did not come from the area and her knowledge of Kyneton as a broader area was limited.

After museum-ing, it was time for lunch. How could we pass a bakery that had won so many prizes? Pies, vanilla slices- it just cleaned up the competition! I’m obviously not good at this taking-pictures-of-your-food thing because I’m sure the pie looked better before I started eating it. At least I took a photo of the very good vanilla slice before I hoed into it.


A final drive to the Botanic Gardens, where the National Trust heritage-listed trees were carefully listed in a useful pamphlet available as you go in the gate.  Then we headed for home, going past the school. In the local community newsletter it appears that the school site is about to be closed because a new school is opening up and there’s a movement afoot for the old school to be used for community purposes.  It’s a beautiful bluestone school, with a WWI memorial to fallen former scholars right in the playground where the kiddies play. But Kyneton has just so many historic buildings for community purposes and a limited, albeit active, population to use them.  Wait and see, I guess.


‘Zoffany’s daughter’ by Stephen Foster


2017, 138 p & notes

It must be all those Dickens and Trolloppe BBC miniseries. When you’re reading 19th century colonial letters and newspapers, you’re often engulfed with a sense of deja vu. You’ve seen these dilemmas before; the characters feel familiar- you can even picture the the actor who’s going to depict them when it comes to television…

Except that this feeling of deja vu is an illusion. The past is not just “us in funny clothes” as Greg Dening once said. (Readings/Writings p. 209)  If we’re trying to make sense of people’s actions in the past, there is a whole web of constraints and sensibilities that are largely invisible to us if we’re just relying on imagination and common-feeling. Especially when we’re writing as historians, rather than novelists.

The historian’s methodological self-discipline is exemplified by Stephen Foster’s book Zoffany’s Daughter. As a historian, he encountered a newspaper article from 1825 about the Horne custody case on the Isle of Guernsey.  As he tells it:

 The report seemed irrelevant to the research I was then pursuing – yet I paused, intrigued by a narrative that appeared at once remote and familiar. …Indeed, stories about child custody disputes today seem all too familiar(p.2)

And it is an arresting little story.  After their marriage breakdown, the Rev. Thomas Horne agreed to his wife taking custody of two of his daughters, and paid their maintenance. However, he later changed his mind and demanded the return of his daughters. Cecilia Horne (nee Zoffany – hence the title) hid her youngest daughter Laura and refused to reveal her whereabouts.  This is the story of the case.

As Foster suggests in an epigraph “Most of this story is true.  So far as I know, none of it is false. Much of it is fiction”.  He’s right- if you counted up the pages, much of the book is turned over to the invented journal of Cecilia’s older daughter,  Clementina, who was not part of the court case because her father, after some consideration, allowed her to stay with her mother.  There was a Clementina Horne, but there was no journal. These pages are pure Foster, but as a historian, he operates within the constraints of those invisible sensibilities and the factual parameters of the time.

“Remote and familiar” is how the story appeared to him, and “remote and familiar” is the balance that a historian needs to keep. It’s a balance that Foster explores in reflective chapters that are interspersed throughout this book. In this regard, Foster is very much a present narrator. He strolls onto the stage in these reflective chapters in the first person to discuss various elements of the historiographical challenge.  These are discussed more as discursive, personal, writerly challenges, rather than academic ones. The nature of gossip and its influence on the written record, for example, makes no mention of Kirsten McKenzies’ Scandal in the Colonies, a highly pertinent resource. In his chapter ‘On history and pictures’ he discusses the attempts to find a likeness of Cecilia Zoffany within his self-portraits and portraits of his family.  His chapters ‘On the history of child custody’ and ‘On the rule of law’ explain the colonial law about divorce and custody in operation at the time, and the distinctiveness of Guernsey law.  Methodologically, the most important chapter is ‘On small history’ where he defends the use of microhistory to illuminate a broader picture, pointing to the well-known examples of Ginsburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (neither of which I have read, I must confess) and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s excellent Montaillou (which  I have read).

One of the things that Foster does very well was to capture the differences between Guernsey law and society, and the English context which we think we know through Trollope and Dickens.  The French influence was deep-seated, and anti-Catholicism was more nuanced. On the other hand, I don’t know whether Foster gave enough emphasis on the rarity of a situation where a father would grant not only custody but maintenance as well to his estranged wife.  Fathers – or their extended family – kept the children if they wanted them, full stop. Foster acknowledges that the court case split the small Guernsey community, but I think that his sympathies are rather too strongly with the mother, Cecilia.  However, he has the humility to leave judgments about the significance of the case, its lessons (if any) for modern custody cases and the effect on the child to the reader.  Perhaps this is the 21st writer speaking, rather than the historian.

This is a self-published volume, which is an interesting choice by an academic historian, although Foster has also published with Pier9 (a Murdoch company).  Certainly his thanks extend to other well-known historians (Michael McKernan, Alan Atkinson) and the blurb from Ann Curthoys, the author of Is History Fiction? is well-chosen.  I was delighted to find full colour plates interspersed throughout the text, capturing well the Guernsey location at the time, and emphasizing Mrs Cecilia Horne’s connection with her painter father Johan Zoffany.

I was also really pleased to find that the notes at the back made clear the sources and documentary basis of his work as a historian in the book.  I’m sometimes uneasy, I must admit, with ‘creative non-fiction’ and the blurring of lines between history and fiction.  I appreciated Foster’s straightforwardness about what was invented, and what was not.  For me, it’s only when the author has signalled their awareness of the distinction, that I can really relax. And relax I did, with this book, and I was genuinely interested to find out what happened in the end, and satisfied with the fidelity of the ending.

Source: review copy courtesy of the author

My rating: 8.5


Museo Italiano, Carlton


In January we had a day off from caring for Dad. It was a stinking hot day (41 degrees) and coming out of the air-conditioned comfort of Cinema Nova, we weren’t quite ready to head home yet but didn’t want to relinquish our undercover car park. What could we do? Then I remembered the Museo Italiana at the CoAsIt building in Faraday Street, which I’d promised myself I’d visit one day.  Was it open? Yes! open Tuesday to Saturday.  Was it air-conditioned? Yes! Beautifully!

It’s a good little museum, documenting the Italian migrant experience right back to convict days and the gold rush, but focussing on post-war migration.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Carlton was known as the Italian part of Melbourne, a small remnant of which remains in Lygon Street today.  The displays are professionally mounted, and there’s good use of music and video.

And if you need any further encouragement- it’s free!