Monthly Archives: May 2018

‘Chinese Market Gardens in Australia and NZ: Gardens of Prosperity’ by Joanna Boileau

boileau

2017, 327 p.

Most Victorian country towns and suburbs that had access to a river with a floodplain  tended, at one stage or another, to have a Chinese market garden.  Not just in Victoria either-  there were Chinese market gardens right along the eastern coast of Australia, in Western Australia too, and in New Zealand. They’re largely forgotten now, as most had disappeared by World War II.  However, for about 50 years between about 1880 and 1930 the Chinese market gardens fulfilled an important role in providing fresh vegetables to urban markets.

Joanna Boileau’s book takes a transnational approach, locating these gardeners not just in sites across Australia and New Zealand, but back in China as well. The majority of Chinese immigrants to Australia and the Pacific from the mid19th century onwards came from a restricted area of Southern China, the Pearl River Delta region of Guandong Province.  There, a highly developed agricultural economy had reached the limits of its cultivable land in 1850, leading to mass emigration where single men travelled overseas to earn money to send home to their families. They had little capital, and indeed indebted themselves to family and labour agents in order to make the journey, but they took with them their labour and agricultural skills.

In Australia, the dominance of large scale pastoralism and agriculture for export or mixed farming meant that small scale, intensive market gardening as the sole source of income was considered of low status.  This opened up an economic niche that Chinese labourers filled, lured by the gold rush, but aware of the high prices for vegetables.  They also started up businesses in laundries and furniture making, but discriminatory legislation introduced in Victoria to curtail Chinese business opportunities left them few options other than market gardening and restaurants.

The gardens were run by profit-sharing syndicates of almost exclusively single men. They tended to live beside the gardens in small sheds in poor conditions, where they were often robbed. With time, these syndicates integrated the various occupations involved in food supply: gardening, hawking, running fruit and vegetable stores, and the wholesale fruit and vegetable distribution network.  Between 1910-1920 in Victoria, they attained a virtual monopoly of the business at the time.

But they worked hard. The Chinese market garden was highly labour intensive.  The soil was prepared, straight furrows were dug, seedlings were transplanted from their own seeds, they were watered by bucket over the shoulders two rows at a time, hoed, harvested, and prepared for sale. They were manured with fermented human excrement and urine, that was collected in large stone urns. This technique was admired by some, and abhorred by others.  Unlike European market gardeners, who tended to plant whole paddocks with the one crop, they mixed together different vegetables with differing harvesting times.  They dealt with plants individually, rather than as a bulk crop. Their intent was to have a steady supply of produce, cropped and earning monetary return as soon as possible.

However,  the number of Chinese market gardens began declining after 1910 and by WWII most of them had disappeared. With the enforcement of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, there was not a steady influx of new generations, and so the existing market gardeners became older and older. New Italian, Greek and Maltese arrivals were moving into market gardening from the 1920s and 1930s e.g. at Werribee in Victoria, and landowners now subdivided their land instead of leasing it for market gardening.

I suspect that this book has probably emerged from a PhD thesis, with its rather theoretical opening chapter that deals with diaspora, technology transfer, material culture studies and transnationalism. The book covers the eastern states of Australia, and New Zealand, so it really provides a good survey of Chinese market gardening. I found her account of the relationship between Chinese and Maori gardeners fascinating, and it marked a real difference between Australia and New Zealand in terms of the relationship between indigenous people and the Chinese.  Despite the broad scope of its analysis, she also identified individual market gardeners by name, something that the housewives on their back doorstep could do too, because of their familiarity with these men who called weekly with their vegetables.  The subject matter of this book may be rather specialized, but it reads very easily and really fleshes out with individuals a stereotype that has largely disappeared.

Sourced from: State Library of Victoria e-book (did you know that you can borrow them at home?)

Read because: We’re including Chinese Market Gardens in an upcoming display at Heidelberg Historical Society

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I’ve added this book to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980-2017’ by Barry Hill

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2018, 488p.

This is a big book and it took a long time to read.  ‘Big’ because it’s pushing 500 pages in length, and ‘big’ because it spans  37 years – a whole career.  But it wasn’t just the size that made it such a drawn-out reading experience.  It’s also because the essays are dense with ideas, and I found myself only able to read one at a time.  They were mentally chewy and I wanted to let each one sit for a while.

Barry Hill has hovered on the edge of my consciousness without ever really breaking through.  I was aware that he won plaudits for Broken Song, his biography of Ted Strehlow, and I’ve been vaguely aware of him through the Australian Book Review.  Looking through the long list of publications at the beginning of the book, he’s been writing novels and poems since the 1970s. However, I haven’t read any of them.

I like reading essays, largely because they allow me to meet the author half-way: to sit in on a conversation, if you like.   The essays that I enjoyed most in this collection were where he wrote as a son, writing about his father – an old union man and peace activist-   in ‘Letter to My Father’; or about his mother in ‘Brecht’s Song’.

But many of other essays were more cerebral than emotional.  After an excellent introduction by Tom Griffiths, the book is divided into four parts: Close to Bones; Inland; Naked Art Making, and Reason and Lovelessness, from which the collection takes its name.  Part II (Inland) can be fairly easily characterized as being explorations of  colonialism, with reviews and commentaries on W. E. H. Stanner, Greg Dening and elaborations on his own work on Ted Strehlow.  He has really enticed me into moving Broken Song up from ‘one day’ to ‘soon’ as far as my own reading is concerned. He really does not like Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines at all (I haven’t read that one, either).  In Part III (Naked Art Making) there are several essays on Lucien Freud, John Wolseley and the Australian artist Rod Moss whose work is on the front cover.   Parts I and IV are more diverse, several of them based on interviews with poets, writers and artists. In Part IV in particular there are steps of logic that seem to link the essays together.

But I must confess that for many of these essays, I felt left behind.  I hadn’t read the work or the author he was discussing, and on the few occasions when I had, I realized the richness of what I was missing.  (e.g. his essays on Greg Dening and Robert Manne;  his excellent essay about William Buckley who lived with the Port Phillip Wathaurong people after escaping from the convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803, his essay on George Orwell).  Reading through his essay on Ezra Pound, I asked my very-widely-and idiosyncratically-read  husband “Have you ever read any Ezra Pound?”.  He had  (of course), and then went on to talk about several of the things that Hill discussed. ” Well, have you heard of Rabindranth Tagore?” I asked him.  Again, yes he had, and again mentioned things that Hill had also covered. “YOU should be reading this book!” I told my husband, and I meant it. There’s a conversation going on here, but I’m not part of it.

Should that matter? I found myself thinking of Montesquieu of all people, and the beguiling ease with which he draws you into his conversation. I rarely felt that same ease with Hill’s essays, beyond the more personal ones about his own family.  Perhaps that’s because in many of these essays, he’s writing as a critic.  Summarizing the content of a work is not part of the role of the critic, and there’s an implicit assumption that the reader is familiar with the work under discussion.  That is the  reader that Hill is writing for; not someone on the outside looking in.  Several of the essays are reflections on interviews and conversations he has conducted with writers –  Christina Stead and Rai Gaita – underlining that he is part of their milieu.  As a poet, he writes about other poets – Fay Zwicky, Shonagon (the author of The Pillow Book)- and he shares in own poetry in several of the essay.

Given that these essays were written over thirty-five years, they have probably been selected to resonate with the 2018 political climate. ‘The Mood We’re In: circa Australia Day 2004’ was given as an Overland lecture, and it captures that strange era of Latham-esque politics.  He still rages over the Bush/Blair/Howard invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his feeling of impotence when protests across the world were futile permeates his essays ‘The Uses and Abuses of Humiliation’, ‘Poems that Kill’ and ‘Human Smoke, Bared Throats”.  There is not – mercifully- even a breath of Trump.  I suspect that he would find Trump almost beyond words.

This is not an easy book, written by “a truly learned man” as Tom Griffiths notes in his introduction. It demands intellectual chops and familiarity with an eclectic and erudite reading and artistic menu that strays far beyond my knowledge. I felt a bit intimidated by it, frankly.

Sourced from: a review copy from Monash University Publishing.

 

 

‘Body and Mind: Historical Essays in Honour of F. B. Smith’ ed Graeme Davison, Pat Jalland and Wilfred Prest

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2009, 240 p

What an unexpected delight! I borrowed this book when I was working on Catherine Helen Spence a few months back, because I wanted to read Susan Magarey’s chapter about Spence’s domestic life.  In addition to Margarey’s chapter,  I found a collection of fascinating essays written by academics who worked alongside or as graduate students of ANU historian Francis Barrymore (F.B) Smith, a historian of whom I’d largely been unaware, I thought.

Smith, who was born in Hughesdale, was a history of British and Australian history: indeed, he believed that Australian history should be studied as part of the British world. His own publications straddled both British and Australian contexts on themes of political action,  freethought religion, medicine and public health. These interests can be seen in the chapters of this book, which arose from a festschrift by his former students and colleagues to which he reluctantly agreed.  He died in 2015 and one of his former students and one of the editors of this collection, Graeme Davison, wrote this obituary. Several of the essays allude to his grumpiness and scepticism but also to his enthusiasm and encouragement.  Without fail, each of the chapters testifies to his contribution to the intellectual development of the various authors.  And what a list of authors! At the back of the book are listed the PhD students he supervised including  among many others, Graeme Davison, David Walker, Janet McCalman, Susan Magarey (nee Eade), Joy Damousi, Frank Bongiorno, Michael Roberts, Craig Wilcox, Malcolm Wood, Janet Doust and Barbara Dawson, nearly all of whom I have read at some stage and many of whom have appeared in this blog.

So- what of the chapters? Graeme Davison’s chapter looks at James Kay, whom I didn’t recognize until I remembered  Kay-Shuttleworth  the public health reformer (who I must confess I thought were two separate people). His chapter ‘Sociology and Self-Knowledge’ combines an analysis of Kay’s reform work alongside his love interest in Helen Kennedy, the daughter of one of his most influential patrons.  It is followed by Michael Roberts’ chapter ‘Politics and Public Health in the Age of Palmerston’ which explores political action and reform and the role of research and philanthropy. I really enjoyed Alex Tyrell’s chapter ‘A ‘Cold Water Bubble’? The Mid-Nineteenth Century British Water Cure and its Adherents’ which examines hydropathy, the cold water treatment, and its relationship with mysticism, quackery, alternative medicine and public health. Joanna Burke, from Birkbeck College UCL, author of An Intimate History of Killing, presents ‘The Malingers’ Craft: Mind Over Body in Twentieth Century Britain and America’ which takes as its launching point Edward Casey, a young Cockney soldier who, once caught up in WWI, feigned mental illness to avoid battle. The chapter goes on to consider the development of  psychology during wartime.

Geoffrey Best moves to a more autobiographical approach in his chapter ‘Education, Empire and Class: Growing Up in a New London Suburb in the 1930s’, reflecting on his own childhood in Osterley, a ‘middle-classes’ suburb.  This chapter ends where the next one begins, when Pat Jalland complicates the ‘stiff-upper-lip’ response to the Blitz in her chapter ‘The Peoples War: Death in the Blitz’.  By taking several biographical accounts of the grief and emotional shut-down that followed the sustained bombing, she compares this with the present-day emotional response to public tragedy.

The chapters then shift geographically from Britain to Australia – or, as is made clear in Phillipa Mein Smith’s chapter Australasia – incorporating New Zealand and Australia.  Her chapter ‘Retracing Australia: The History of a British Idea’ roves across public health, military and trade in looking sideways between Australia and New Zealand. It seems a particularly relevant chapter given New Zealand’s only-slightly-tongue-in-cheek campaign to ensure that they are not dropped off the map, starring Prime Minister Jacinda Adern.

I just loved Janet McCalman’s chapter ‘To Die without Friends: Solitaries, Drifters and Failures in a New World Society’ which examined demographic and epidemiological data that arose from the charity files of the Lying In Hospital in Melbourne, tracing the health and life outcomes of babies born in straitened circumstances from 1857-1900 up to the end of the open period for death certificates in 1985. As she points out, the information provided in Victoria’s very detailed death certificates required the presence of an informant who knew the names and birthplaces of family members in the past. For men and women estranged from their families, or at the end of a life of marginality and mobility, it is likely that this information remained unknown. She also, in half a page, proposes a pithy analysis of the trajectory of the ‘underclass’ cohort from the gold rushes through to the 1950s.

Then there’s Magarey’s excellent chapter on ‘The Private Life of  Catherine Helen Spence 1825-1910’ which had drawn me to the book in the first place, followed by the only chapter that actually speaks about F.B. Smith as a historian.  Written by military historian Peter Edwards, ‘A Tangle of Decency and Folly, Courage and Chicanery but above All, Waste’: The Case of Agent Orange and Australia’s Vietnam Veterans’ describes Smith’s own work as a historian in contributing a chapter to the official history of the Vietnam War. Smith reviewed the evidence arising from various commissions and enquiries into the effect of Agent Orange and, despite his own sympathies and convictions about war, concluded that Agent Orange was not the cause of veterans’ suffering – a conclusion, reached also by others, but completely imbued with politics.

And it was reading this last chapter that I remembered that I had read F. B. Smith after all. Last year I read his small booklet on the conscription debates in 1916 and 1917. It was barely more than a pamphlet, aimed at school students (in fact, I’m sure that I used it back in 1972 when I did HSC) but it combined policy, political and moral questions succinctly.  Ah- so it was that F. B. Smith!

Looking back at these various chapters, each self-contained and accessible, written by top-notch historians, they are all a reflection of Smith’s own work and influence. They also demonstrate the ripple effect of research: that others pick up one academic’s ideas and interests and make them their own, adding to and deepening the conversation and taking it forward.

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Movie: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Somehow or other this book slipped past me, even though I now find that lots of people have read it.  It’s a satisfying little love story, nicely self-contained, with a strong feel-good factor. I must confess that I knew nothing about Guerney’s World War II history. And what book-lover couldn’t enjoy a film about other people who love books?

My rating: 3.5 stars

‘Long Bay’ by Eleanor Limprecht

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2015, 309 p.

I’m such a hypocrite. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!” I say, when I’m spinning up some dross into narrative gold. But “Fidelity!” I demand when I’m reading an imagined biography – not necessarily fidelity to the facts, mind you,  but faithfulness to the time, dialogue and worldview of the characters.

In this case, Eleanor Limprecht has allowed the facts to get in the way of a damned good story by very conscientiously citing verbatim a letter from the Long Bay Women’s Reformatory as the frontispiece to her book.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but once I reached that point in the narrative, the suspense that she had sustained so well about her character’s fate broke down and I wished that I hadn’t read the frontispiece.  But other than this, I think that Limprecht has pulled off the feat of combining research into a real character with a fictionalized narrative that is true to the evidence.

Rebecca Sinclair, as you can tell from the title and front cover, ended up an inmate of the Long Bay Women’s prison. She had a hard childhood and adolescence, working as an outworker seamstress alongside her mother in the inner suburbs of Sydney in the 1880s. Largely to escape this straitened life, she married Don, who is largely under the control of his mother, and is a liar and wastrel.  In Limprecht’s telling, it is largely because of Don’s influence that Rebecca ended up in jail. I’ll leave her to explain how and why.

The story is told in the present tense, a tense which (as I have said often before) I find uncomfortable to read (and even though I’m using it myself as I write this!) There are some infelicities in the dialogue which at times sounds too late 20th century, but by tethering her book in authentic legal documents, she doesn’t stray too far.  Her depiction of Rebecca Sinclair is fleshed-out and human, and if at times the research bones become apparent, Limprecht’s character is convincing enough to stay in your mind after you’ve finished the book.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

I have included this for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018.

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‘Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad’ by Asne Seierstad

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Translated from Norwegian by Sean Kinsella 2018, 448 p.

In October 2013 two sisters, Ayan (aged 19) and Leila Juma (aged 16) left Oslo, where they had lived since 2000 after being accepted as refugees from Somalia. They were on their way to Syria, where they joined jihad by becoming the wives and mothers of IS fighters. In the afterword of this book ‘The Basis of the Book’, Norwegian investigative journalist Asne Seierstad writes that her most important question about the radicalization of these Somali-Norwegian sisters was “How could this happen?”(p. 437)   Further, “Is this merely to do with them, or does it also have something to do with us?”  She lays out the information, but as she admits, she doesn’t really answer her own question:

I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings.  It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Where did it start? What were the underlying reasons? When could they have taken different choices?…Why did they become more interested in life after death than this life? (p.441)

To my mind, their radicalism began when a group of Somali mothers paid for a Koranic teacher to provide extra-curricular Koranic classes for their children. The mothers, who were themselves marooned in Norwegian society, felt that their children were becoming swamped by their Norwegian schooling and friendship groups, to the detriment of their Muslim background.  The girls were further radicalized by what in Christian circles would be called an evangelical campus program.  They became more devout – something that their parents neither encouraged nor discouraged at first – and gradually grew more supercilious, judgmental and independent. In planning their trip to Syria, Ayan took advantage of credit cards and bought up mobile phones and plans on credit that she then onsold, with no intention of ever making payments for either. Social media amplified and solidified their radicalism.

Once in Syria, they gloated about their access to free housing, electricity and food, appropriated from the infidels who fled or succumbed to the IS influx. They refused to return with their father when he finally located them, and they embraced the communal, cloistered life of an IS wife and mother.  Their father Sadiq, charged by his wife Sara with bringing them back, felt that he had failed; his wife returned to Somalia to give her younger sons the Islamic education and culture that she felt her now-estranged daughters had lacked, and their brother Ismael, who maintained sporadic online contact with his sisters, rejected Islam completely, largely in response to their actions. The two girls broke their family, even though they claimed at first to have acted in order to save it from judgment.

As Seierstad explains at the start of the book, it is a “documentary account” drawn from a variety of sources. It is told as a narrative, switching its focus from one character to another in a largely chronological account. In her final chapter, she explains in more detail how she compiled this “documentary account” which is rather more than just written words. Instead, it is supplemented with interviews, most importantly with their father Sadiq, but also with other people who knew the girls and the family.

It is only at the end of the book that she reveals just how fundamental Sadiq was to the writing of the book.  We have read much of the narrative through Sadiq’s eyes, where as well as distraught father we also come to see him as a fantasist, liar and man who flirted with the idea of criminality as a way of getting the money to ‘rescue’ (i.e. kidnap) his daughters who did not want to return to Norway.  She reports all these things, but does not comment. In hindsight, I find her uncritical acceptance of Sadiq’s narrative in the main text problematic.  It was only when I checked back in my reading journal that I found that I had read Seierstad’s earlier book ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ (before I started this blog) where I was likewise conflicted about Seierstad’s readiness to accede to her narrator’s viewpoint without challenging it or interrogating its effect on the story she is telling.

That said, I found the book compelling.  I feel that I have a better understanding of Syria, and its tumultuous last decade.  It had the page-turning drive of a thriller, and I found myself squirrelling away opportunities to read, just to find out what happened. I alternated between gratitude to Norway for its generosity in picking up the pieces of this shattered family, and resentment at the Juma family’s exploitation of that same generosity.  It has both made things clearer, but complicated them as well.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5

Reading challenge: A Norwegian book in translation!

 

Movie: The Post

[Actually, I saw this film two months ago and forgot to post this review.  I often refer back to this blog when I can’t remember whether I’ve seen a film or not, so here goes…a review of a film that’s no longer screening]

This movie has both the big heavy hitters: Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks who of course make acting look so simple that it barely seems as if they are acting. Having said that, I didn’t recognize Tom Hanks at first, so he was playing someone other than Tom Hanks.  It is, of course, the story of Katharine Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, the forerunner to Watergate (to my shame, I wasn’t completely sure that they were two separate events).

The Smithsonian Mag has an interesting article about the authenticity of the film. They point out that Graham wasn’t quite as innocent and untried as the film suggests, because she had been running the paper for eight years previously.  They also point out that Graham was strongly involved in the decision to publish the Watergate papers too, even though she is almost expunged completely in All the President’s Men.

The film is produced by Steven Spielberg, who can be relied on to over-egg the pudding and he does it here too, with music so intrusive and such a wave of feel-good-ness at the end that it almost felt like a parody.

I found myself wondering whether it had been written post-Trump, as so many of the themes (freedom of the press, influence of the government, women) are so relevant right this minute. Apparently, the Smithsonian Mag article claims, the film rights were sold a week before the 2016 election.

The film underlines the importance of the press – a paid, professional, independent press. It made me feel a little smug and self-righteous but also proud that I continue to subscribe to several newspapers (even though I have a love-hate relationship with them all at one stage or another.)  I also feel a little frisson of pride that the Unitarian Universalist publishing arm, Beacon Press, was involved in the very risky act of publishing the first full edition of the Papers. You can read more about it here.