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!

Movie: Wonder

Dad thought I’d probably enjoy this. Then he thought again.  As someone with a cleft lip and palate, I’ve had my own share of stares and cruelties as a child.  I’ve also felt the pain of being the parent of an affected child.  Perhaps it might be too close to the bone? he wondered.

He need not have feared.  I was not uplifted.  I was not cast down. My main response to this movie was nausea at its unrelenting saccharine-ness.

The little boy who starred in the movie does not have Treacher-Collins syndrome. His appearance was created through prosthetics and makeup. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I acknowledge that it would be an exceptional child who could both act and live a life of being stared at and shunned.  I don’t know if anyone would want to play in a kid’s head that way.

On the other hand, there’s something inauthentic about a movie with the message of “you are beautiful no matter what” and “be kind” choosing a non-affected child to pretend to have Treacher-Collins.  Something a little too easy about being able to wipe off the prosthetic and then go on to the next movie.  I’m uneasy about it.

‘Australian Ways of Death’ by Pat Jalland


2002,  328 p & notes

This might seem a really perverse book for me to have read recently. My father died a fortnight ago, and I began reading it while he was gravely ill.

You’ll note from the title of this book Australian Ways of Death: A Social and Cultural History 1840-1918 that Jalland finishes her book at the end of WWI. In the epilogue she explains why she made 1918 the cut-off point. Most obviously, the death and disappearances of so many soldiers overseas in WWI, with their bodies  buried on the other side of the world (if found at all), forced a change in the way people mourned. Information was incomplete and delayed, and there was no physical grave nearby to be visited.  But she also points to the present-day medicalisation and denial of death that has emerged since 1918.  The influence of Christian churches declined; there was a change in the meaning of death as life expectancy rose with a shift from infancy to old age as the most probable time of death; the medicalization of death meant that the death of a patient represented ‘failure’, and the physical act of caring was relocated from women relatives to hospitals and nursing homes. (p.327)

So why read this book now? I felt with Dad’s death that we were reverting to an older, more traditional way of facing death. First, after several bouts of bypass surgery and an inoperative stent over a period of thirty-five years, Dad was dying with heart and renal failure – a slow, inexorable death for which there was no magical surgical or medical cure, just as was the case during the 19th century.  Second, we chose to help Dad die at home, not in hospital. Even though we had a hospital bed, carers and nurses attending him and twice-weekly visits from a wonderful GP, they were walk-on, walk-off players. The more common scene was just us, day and night, in the lounge room where Dad decided he’d prefer to be, with a bag of prescription drugs to be sure, but more importantly face-washers, ice chips and glasses of water. And so, I sought out this book, out of curiosity and fellow-feeling, and probably as an attempt to intellectualize what we were experiencing these last few weeks.

Prior to the publication of this book, Pat Jalland had written about death and the Victorian family, most particularly in Britain. In this book, she looks for continuities but also differences between the Australian and British experience.

Part I examines immigrant deaths at sea, both of children and of adults. Her time frame extends beyond the mass immigration of the 1840s and the gold rush, into journeys made later in the century. Chapter 1 ‘The Terror of a Watery Grave’ explores the experience of losing a child while on-board ship, which was all too common, and which was often dealt with expeditiously and without formal ceremony. That did not mean, however, that the parents did not grieve: they did, from the ‘poshest’ cabins through to the meanest steerage berth. Chapter 2 ‘Faith, Fever and Consumption’ took up the experience of on-board death amongst adult passengers, who rarely had the opportunity to have the ‘good death’ that nineteenth-century people sought, even though the ‘sea air’ and Australian climate was thought to be restorative.  Because the journey was such a huge life-event, taking people far from their families, there is a cache of correspondence that Jalland can draw on that represents a range of families of differing economic status.

In Part II, ‘The Good Christian Death’, she explores the transmission of ideals of ‘the good death’ from Europe to Australia. She notes that it survived strongly over two generations from the 1830s through to the 1880s.  She follows  Hilary Carey’s suggestion that during the last decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, religious indifference increased among the working classes and intellectuals began to question their faith. She argues that the ‘good Christian death’ was experienced differently by Roman Catholics and Protestants. Protestants emphasized a more individualistic death, dependent on family support, where Catholics relied more on rituals dispensed through the priesthood, and thus somewhat removed from family responsibility.  She notes that deathbed scenes from the 1870s onwards, as described in condolence letters and correspondence to those at ‘home’, moved away from a pious concern with the spiritual state of the sufferer, to a desire that the patient die without pain. A ‘good’ death early in the century was a spiritual one; by the end of the century it was a painless one.  She notes that although funerals like Burke and Wills’ extravaganza consciously set out to emulate a British funeral like that of Wellington’s, there was discomfort both with the expense and extravagance on the one hand, and embarrassment at shoddiness of the colonial attempt on the other.   Strangely, amongst the clergy, there was more emphasis on hell in Australian theology than British theology, despite attempts by Unitarians and liberal Anglicans to abolish or at least moderate the terrors of the doctrine. Tombstones were derivative of the graveyards of Great Britain and Europe, but there was greater emphasis on ‘In Memorium’ advertisements in the newspapers.  Keepsakes, hair remembrances and photographs were popular, especially as they could be conveyed physically across the ocean.

Most of this section draws on the writings of middle-class, educated correspondents, and Jallard pauses to examine two particular examples of masculine middle-class memorialization: that of Herbert Brookes for his first wife Jennie.  Even though he later went on to re-marry Ivy Deakin, the daughter of Alfred Deakin, throughout his life he visited Jennie’s grave twice a year.  The other case study was Dr John Springthorpe, whose memorial tomb I wrote about here.  I found it interesting that both these intellectual men, who mourned so deeply and openly, were associated with (although not adherents to) Rev Charles Strong’s Australian Church – in fact, Jennie was Strong’s daughter.

Part III shifts gear, and looks at ‘Death and Destitution’.  Part II had been drawn from the correspondence and writings of middle-class families, but here Jalland turns to the statistical reports and records of ‘benevolent’ asylums, where the individual voice is rarely heard. Although by the 1870s reforms in Britain were gradually changing the nature of the workhouse from a punitive institution to a form of general hospital . This did not occur until decades later in Australia.  Jalland compares the major institutions in different states, noting that conditions were better in Adelaide and Melbourne Asylums. In Tasmania, there was a particular stigma attached to the convict stain, and many sick and dying paupers were ex-convicts. She devotes a whole chapter to benevolent asylums in New South Wales, where a number of government inquiries called on inmates as witnesses, eliciting changes to key institutions in the early 20th century.

In Part IV, Jalland examines death in the bush and in the Great War. Although the literature and artwork of the 1890s sentimentalized the bush burial, or emphasized the heroic deaths of explorers and bushrangers, it was more common for men to die of accidents, illness and – quite frankly- stupidity.  The harsh environment made elaborate rituals impossible and inappropriate. There was respect for the dead, and a stoic acceptance of its inevitability. There were wakes- often “noisy and exuberant masculine affairs” (p. 259). Aboriginal deaths at the hands of settlers were silenced, and many old bushmen, often ex-convicts, died lonely and destitute deaths.  Lost children captured the public imagination, but more commonly women died in childbirth, and children often died after birth or through illness.

In the epilogue, Jalland links the stoic, pragmatic attitude towards bush funerals with the death of mates in the trenches during WWI.  For those at home, there were no graves to visit, and death permeated the community. Churches became more feminized, especially in Protestant churches, and some turned to spiritualism.  As in Part II, Jalland turns again to the example of middle-class, intellectualized masculine grief at WWI loss through the example of John Roberts, who kept detailed scrapbooks about his son and Justice Henry Bourne Higgins who suffered silently.  These men were not religious, and their response marked the increased secularization of death in the twentieth century.  Jalland explored this further in her later book Changing Ways of Death in twentieth-century Australia: war, medicine and the funeral business.

This was a strange book to read at a strange time.  I much preferred the chapters where she cited letters and case studies, rather than the demographic and statistical chapters.  I really liked the way that she approached the question of 19th century death from so many aspects: middle class/ working class; male/female; Catholic/Protestant; Urban/Rural; English/Australian. Other writers have since picked up where she left off (for example, Tanya Evans on benevolent asylums, or Bart Ziino on war graves).  But there is real human interest here,  with a common humanity, even though practices may have been different.  At a difficult time I found it interesting and oddly comforting.


I’ve read this book as part of the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge.

Strange things from the box of photos No. 3

This certificate was awarded to my mother when she was in Grade Six.  It’s hard to imagine Grade Six girls (because I’m sure that it was only girls) being taught baby-wrangling at school today.  No doubt these 1930s girls would have been expected to help their mothers.

And her 77% result? Well, I guess that’s 3/4 of a baby.  It was obviously enough.