Monthly Archives: July 2018

‘Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation 1920-1990’ by Janet McCalman

Journeyings

1993, 301p. & notes

This book opens with the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle Street St. Kilda to Cotham Rd Kew on the first day of school, 1934. The tram wends its way “along the spine of Melbourne’s middle-class heartland”, with an ebb and flow of private school students who peel off as they pass the major private schools in Melbourne. Being 1934, these are the children of WWI parents and unless they have scholarships, their parents are paying for their private school education during the Depression.

The No. 69 tram in February 1934 is the opening chapter and linchpin of Janet McCalman’s book,  which explores both the antecedents and consequences of that daily commute.  Starting in the years 1850-1919, her second chapter titled ‘Inheritances’ examines the social and economic origins of what was to become the Melbourne middle class of the 1930s, starting with the ‘Seekers and Saints’ who emigrated between 1850-1870 and embedded themselves as ‘The Greedy and the Good’ between 1879-1890. Chapter 3, ‘The Lessons of Innocence 1920-1939’ explores the inter-war years in which these young school children catch their tram in 1934, oblivious to the second ‘war to end all wars’ that faced them.

McCalman then follows through with this generation, examining their war-time experience in Chapter 4 ‘Coming of Age 1939-1945’ and their post-war family and work lives in ‘The Trials of Experience 1946-1966.’ Her chapter ‘Mid-Life Crisis 1967-1975’ captures the mid-career mindset of her middle-class informants in the midst of the world-wide disruption of 1968 and the political ferment of the ascension and dismissal of the Labor Party in Australia. Her final chapter ‘The Age of Wisdom 1976-1990’ takes her right up to the ‘Journeyings’ survey conducted in 1990 amongst the former students (pre 1950) of four private schools  that were passed by the No 69 tram.

I must declare my own colours here. Even though in 1934 my father lived one block down from Glenferrie Rd, along which the No 69 tram rattled (i.e.the very years that McCalman uses in her opening image), I am proudly the product of a government school, as were my parents. I strongly oppose the social and educational distortions brought about by John Howard’s funding of private schools that no government seems to have the courage to dismantle. So I read this book with a jaundiced eye and certainly no sense of identification.

However , McCalman complicates my easy prejudices through her research. It is largely based on a 1990 survey that she conducted with Mark Peel that yielded 633 responses from pre-1950 school leavers from Scotch and Trinity, (both boys’ schools), Methodist Ladies College and Genazzano convent. There were 1235 surveys distributed, yielding a hefty 42% response rate. McCalman’s methodology combines prosopography,  survey responses, oral history interviews with 80 respondents, the judicious use of fiction and memoir, her own literature review, and statistics.

Although solidly middle-class, the financial and social backgrounds were more varied than I expected for this 1934 cohort, based on statistics drawn from Scotch senior students in 1934 and MLC students born in 1919 and 1920. Going to a private school did not guarantee a high education level:  43% of the Trinity 1919-20 boys cohort left without the Intermediate Certificate (i.e. Yr 10), while 65% of the MLC cohort left without their Intermediate.  In a rather anecdotal experiment, McCalman asked a group of retired senior teachers (who were themselves at secondary school in the 1930s and 1940s) to compare papers set for the external Intermediate, Leaving and Leaving Honours papers for 1935 and the examinations set for the  Higher School Certificate (superseded in 1992). Their consensus was that in 1935 the emphasis was on clean and accurate work, which penalized misspellings, grammatical flaws and arithmetical slips. French and German was much more difficult in the 1930s but “in most of the other humanities, the intellectual demands of the 1930s papers were lower than would be acceptable by the 1960s.” (p. 123).

As McCalman traces through this 1930s cohort, she contextualizes them within Australia’s history. Because these four schools were denominational, there is an emphasis on spirituality. I was well aware of the Split of 1955 and the influence of the Movement within the Catholic church, but completely unaware of progressive Catholic activism (which was featured recently in History Workshop). Long before History of the Emotions became a historical ‘turn’, she focuses on hearts, souls, masculinity and femininity, minds and manners.

I like her discussion of fiction and history in her preface:

…because this is a group biography, a collection of stories of actual lives, it needs to unfold in the way real lives do- which is that none of us knows what lies ahead. Perhaps one of the most important functions of fiction is to permit us to escape that existential plight – it is a rehearsal for life; in writing history, however, we need to feel life’s dreadful unpredictability, its untidiness, its ordinariness, its splendours. Art is under our control; history, like life, is not. And yet history is but our reconstructions, is but an artefact of the mind, conceived of differently by all of us, and differently by all of us at different times in our lives… We are incorrigibly historical beings; our inner histories of ourselves- private history- constitute our ever-evolving sense of identity- we are our own stories. But in constructing histories – whether private or public-  we are torn between what we would like the story to be and what the evidence insists that it really is. The novelist enjoys a licence; the historian a responsibility (p.viii)

Before writing Journeyings, McCalman had received acclaim for Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 which used a similar methodology in the working-class (although now gentrified) inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  I have read Struggletown, but did not record my response to it at the time. The two books work well as a pair. Journeyings also complements Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which is cited often.

By the final chapter (1976-1990) her informants were mature retirees, with a remarkably low divorce rate and generally (but not exclusively) politically conservative.  Perhaps it was my government-school-streak coming out here, but I found myself bridling at the smug moral superiority that came through many of their responses, the noblesse oblige and the disavowal of ‘old school tie’ networks when there was clear statistical evidence of its significance in ‘elite’ circles.  What was McCalman going to do with this? Did she feel the same way as I do?

I think she did. Citing Sir Robert Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People’ speech and Judith Brett’s analysis of it, McCalman writes:

Children who are educated apart behind high walls can find it difficult in later life to become at one with those on the other side. Children who are told endlessly by their parents and teachers that they are fortunate, privileged, special, inheritors and examples of excellence, will find it difficult to be good democrats.  Even if they are imbued with a sense of service and care ‘for those less fortunate than themselves’, they can still find it difficult to feel simply as fellow Australians.  (p.301)

This is an excellent book. It’s beautifully written, it is nuanced and yet broad. The No. 69 trope works so well.

And look at this: the Public Education Campaign has just released a video that answers back to that last chapter, too.

Sourced from: my very own bookshelves, where it has sat patiently for decades.

My rating: 9/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have recorded this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

Website: Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

There has been a recent updating of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities’ website Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

Take the time to read the Introduction to the website. Here the researchers explain that their criteria of a ‘massacre’ arises” from the indiscriminate killing of six or more undefended people”.  Six people, they explain, from a hearth group of twenty leaves those remaining vulnerable to attack, with a diminished ability to hunt, reproduce or carry out ceremonial obligations.

It is still a work in progress, with information from Western Australia and after 1930 yet to be added.

Movie: The Bookshop

I think that all keen readers have a secret fantasy to own a bookshop, don’t they? (Until they think about the economics of the book industry, the presence of e-books and the competition of supermarkets, that is.)  So, like the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a feel-good movie for booklovers.  Bill Nighy plays his usual gruff but loveable older man (who becomes more attractive the older he and I both become) and Emily Mortimer plays a sweet, wounded thing who doesn’t deserve such bastardry. The foreshadowing is clunky and so the ending is thoroughly predictable.  But it’s a pleasant little thing, that makes you feel like popping into a bookshop to buy a book on the way home.

My rating: 3 stars.

‘The Museum of Words’ by Georgia Blain

blain_museumofwords

2017, 176 p.

Packing up an elderly parent’s house is hard. You are sorting, packing, throwing all those familiar markers of a life, acknowledging that they are worth nothing and yet knowing that they were treasured. You feel sad and guilty.

In her book ‘The Museum of Words’, Georgia Blain tells of packing up her mother’s house for sale. Her mother, author and journalist Anne Deveson, was still alive, but in care and oblivious to the practical financial arrangements that were being made around her.  The personal stuff had been largely cleared away, and the  house was being prepared for the open inspection, that odd state where a house has to be curated to look lived in , but not too lived in. In Anne’s study, there was a corkboard left on the wall, stripped bare when they were repainting. Georgia hastily found a pile of photos in a cupboard and began to decorate the board.  Dogs, grandchildren, holiday photos, children’s photos, Georgia pinned them up. “I felt as if I was creating a museum of happiness” she told her daughter and husband.(p.48)

Blain has called this last book ‘The Museum of Words’, and in reading it you can’t help but think that this is Blain’s own act of pinning up her life. Dying with brain cancer, with a glioblastoma the size of a golf ball, she writes of the experience of her illness, threaded by perverse coincidence with the illnesses of her mentor, friend and human rights activist Rosie Scott, who was dying with exactly the same condition, and her mother who was dying with Alzheimers.  She writes of herself as daughter to Anne and in turn, as mother to her daughter Odette. Men do not play a large part in the story. This book is in many ways a love letter to all three of these women, to the act of writing, and in her final paragraph, an assertion of gratitude for life itself.

The book is interspersed with photographs, which act as a way of telling when the words don’t come.  There are spaces on the page, which I didn’t recognize as quickly as I might have in an e-book instead of a printed edition

In the foreword, written by her husband Andrew after her death, and in Blain’s book itself, there are several references to the increasing difficulty with writing that Blain experienced.  You can sense that the flow is disrupted and that the sentences are perhaps less complex than they might otherwise have been. But most of all, I was left with my eyes brimming at the thought of her actually finishing the writing of this book and her decision as an author writing her own life to round it off and to write the final sentence before turning to the task of editing.  Too young, too soon, too much left unwritten.

Sourced from : YPRL e-book

My rating: too hard to rate.  In terms of emotional punch, though, 10/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have registered this review with the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Robber Bride’ by Margaret Atwood

robberbride

1993, 576 p.

Set in Toronto, this book was published in 1993. Three female friends, Tony (Antoinette), Charis and Roz are having lunch together when another woman enters the restaurant: Zenia, a mutual ‘friend’ who was supposed to have died several years earlier. Each of these women has her own history with Zenia, a charismatic woman who variously lied, cajoled, blackmailed and bullied her friends.  The title comes from a Grimm Brothers fairytale ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ where a young woman was threatened by her betrothed and his gang of men.  In an inversion of the fairytale, Zenia steals the husbands and partners of her friends.

After a too-long opening section which places the three women at the restaurant, the book then turns to each of the friends in turn. Tony is a military historian, a rare woman in a male-heavy academic field, who sees the world through her historical consciousness of memory, chance, inevitability and choice. Charis (formerly Karen) is a floaty-hippy type woman with a gruelling family background. Roz is a successful business woman whose own family background is shadowy.  Zenia finds her way into each woman’s vulnerability and uses it against them. While doing so, she engineers the break-up of their relationships with their men.

The real skill of this novel is Atwood’s full-blood rendering of each of these women in turn. In effect, it could be three books in one. They are all equally well-developed as characters, and their relationship with Zenia is plausible. The same cannot be said of Zenia, who remains enigmatic and depicted, in a rather over-wrought style, as the personification of evil. That’s the only truth about her: all the rest is lies and deception.

I was satisfied with neither the beginning nor ending of this book.  For the first fifty pages I kept thinking “Oh, just get on with it” and the ending was too quick and not entirely believable.  But the middle part – and that is where the crux of the book lies- is really well written.

It’s hard not to see this book in the context of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Cat’s Eye (1988), both of which also deal with women’s cruelty to other women, although the cruelty here is at an individual, personal level rather than social or institutional.  It raises good questions about how feminine aggression is manifested, and how other women respond to it. It’s interesting to consider how the story would differ if a man preyed on the wives of his male friends, and how they would respond to his perfidy.

Sourced from CAE bookgroup

My rating: 8/10

‘Basil Street Blues’ by Michael Holroyd

holroyd

1999, 306 p

I generally like reading  historians’ and biographers’ autobiographies.  Not that they are generally more intrinsically interesting than other peoples’ (in fact they’re usually not) but I like watching how, as writers, they turn their skills onto their own lives. I must confess that I’d never heard of Michael Holroyd, and haven’t read any of his biographies.  And I’ll also confess that had this not been a book group selection, I probably would have given up on it after the first fifty pages.

In fact, I was surprised that a professional and published biographer would allow the first chapters of his book to wallow around in genealogy, like an amateur family historian.  He made much of a short story written by Virginia Woolf that mentioned his ancestral family, but unless you had read the short story (which, only with the benefits of Google, I had) it really didn’t add much to his narrative.  For me, it was only once he himself walked into the story, rather than recounting earlier generations’ stories, that it became interesting. He is a good observer, but gives little of himself away.  I got to the end of the book and felt as if he had been deliberately deflecting attention away from himself.

What he did capture brilliantly, however, was the decline of a formerly upper-middle (if not upper class) family, complete with all the eccentricity and  emotional aridity of that type of upper-middle British reserve.

However I have since somewhat revised my lukewarm opinion of the book as biography once I realized that it is actually part of a trilogy (somehow the idea of a three-book autobiography seems rather pretentious). I had been rather bemused by his frequent quotations from his own novel, but now I learn that the novel had been unpublished, on account of his father’s opposition to publication ( so his quotation was a form of publication by stealth, perhaps?) It would seem that the other volumes are more forthcoming on an emotional level, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to follow up on them, or his other published biographies.

Source: CAE

Read because:  CAE bookgroup selections

My rating: 7

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Rediscovered: the Aboriginal names for ten Melbourne suburbs — Home – The Conversation

Melbourne in 1846: a view from Collingwood. T. E. Prout. State Library of VictoriaTen previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek). These names were in a cache of…

via Rediscovered: the Aboriginal names for ten Melbourne suburbs — Home – The Conversation

A fascinating article about Woiwurrung names for some Melbourne suburbs and locations, as recorded by William Howitt, and the difficulties in interpreting the transcriptions of early linguists, surveyors, settlers and anthropologists.

Exhibition: Colony (NGV)

colony

NGV Ian Potter, Federation Square, closes 15 July.

I had decided that it was too late to blog about this exhibition, as it closes on 15 July. However, I notice that the Monthly is publicizing its review of it today, so I’ll jump in right at the end.

The exhibition is in two parts. The first, on the ground floor, displays documents, paintings and artefacts relating to British colonization in Australia.  The second, located upstairs, features contemporary indigenous artists’ responses to that colonization, both over 200 years ago and in an ongoing sense.

It seemed strange that it should be an art gallery that displayed the ground floor exhibition, and it was not clear whether articles were included for their artistic or historic merit. In many ways, the display would have been better placed within a museum. It took me some time to work out the order of the exhibition. It was only when I happened to look up, right at the roof level (probably 3 metres up) that there was a sign indicating that the display was grouped by colony (i.e. Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Queensland etc),  arranged chronologically by date of colonization. This is just one example of the way that the mounting of this exhibition annoyed me, and detracted from my enjoyment.  Whole panels of works arranged along a large wall had only one small sign, to the extreme right or left, and you had to go back and count to figure out which work you were interested in.  For objects in glass cases, the placement of lighting above the cases rendered the the contents completely invisible. The mechanics of an exhibition should be invisible, but that was certainly not the case here.

Even though I am fascinated by historical documents and artefacts, I far preferred the art exhibition upstairs, which was much more straightforward in its intent. They were thoughtful, provocative works that spoke to the material downstairs.  The exhibition is worth seeing, but for the upstairs gallery, not the confused display downstairs.

Serenading Adela: the short movie!

You might remember that in January of 2018 I was involved in a street opera ‘Serenading Adela’, which commemorated the centenary of Adela Pankhurst’s imprisonment in Pentridge Prison, and the night when women marched to the prison to ‘serenade’ her with socialist and anti-conscription songs.  A full video of the performance will be made, and this short promotional film has been released to attract potential funders.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find me, although occasionally I can be glimpsed.  Anyway, enjoy the performance…. it was great fun.

‘The Place for a Village: how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne’ by Gary Presland

presland

2009, 233p plus appendices

“This will be the place for a village!” John Batman wrote in his journal after he sailed up the Yarra River in June 1835 (whenever he wrote it – you never know with John Batman). But what was it that made him decided that THIS would be the place, instead of THAT? Gary Presland argues that it was the geology of Melbourne, and its effect on river courses and soil quality that led him to that decision.  In this book Presland adopts the rather old-fashioned practice of natural history, an omnibus 19th century term that encompassed geology, meteorology, botany and zoology, to recapture the lost landscapes of Melbourne.  Just as the adage goes about everything old becoming new again, natural history closely approximates environmental history, a ‘big’ history,  and one which is prominent at the moment.

By looking for a “lost landscape” Presland goes back even further than the 40,000+ years of indigenous activity in Melbourne.  As books like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth make clear, indigenous people both responded to but also manipulated the environment so that early settlers did not see a virgin landscape, even though they may have perceived it that way at the time.  Both indigenous people and the white settlers who supplanted them have had to operate within features that were laid down millions of years ago through the geological formations that have shaped Melbourne’s topography.  But, in order to draw in other features like climate, weather, flora and fauna, he has selected 1800 as his nominal Year Zero, as he integrates  written and painted historical information and remnant vegetation data to reconstruct Melbourne’s lost landscape. By choosing a date close to European arrival (1802 for the Port Phillip bay area), he captures the conditions that both indigenous and European people had to contend with.

This book is essentially a reconstruction. The shape and nature of the original landscape of Melbourne, as well as the wide range of natural resources they contained, were a fundamental part of the Aboriginal world. They formed not only the physical context where people lived, but also supplied the very means by which Aboriginal society flourished. The arrival of Europeans placed different demands on those resources but also imposed different influences. The same nature that had sustained a rich Aboriginal society, determined the location of European settlement, even if later it needed to be massively altered to better accommodate the ongoing demands of that settlement. p.14,  15

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, which is by far the longest, reconstructs Melbourne’s natural history in five chapters: Ch 1: The Shape of Melbourne’s Landscapes, Ch,2: The nature of Melbourne’s climate; Ch. 3 Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands; Ch.4 Pre-European vegetation of Melbourne; Ch. 5 Pre-European Animal Life of Melbourne.

Chapter One contains two geological maps of Melbourne, and I found myself turning to them often throughout the book. Presland gives a thorough, if somewhat technical, account of the geological formation of Melbourne over millions of years. He then moves across Melbourne’s landscape by geological formation, but also roughly from east to west: The Nillumbik terrain, the older volcanics, the Brighton coastal plain, the lava plain and the areas of Quaternary deposit.  You do need to know your Melbourne suburbs for this chapter to make sense.

Chapter Two looks particularly at rainfall patterns across Melbourne and the disparity between the east and west, factors which of course have implications for vegetation and fauna distributions. The chapter also contains historical information about the collection of weather data.

Chapter Three, Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands was my favourite chapter in the book.  Again, Presland moves from east to west in his analysis, and again assumes a degree of familiarity with Melbourne, but I found it fascinating to read of streams and waterways (some even without names) that have either dried out or been subsumed completely under drains and roadways.  It was this chapter that made me feel closest to a “lost” landscape- as if it was still here, but invisible.

Chapters Four and Five that deal with vegetation and animal life I found less engaging. They tended to read like a long list. Chapter Four follows the geological features of Chapter one, while Chapter Five is divided into categories like mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes etc.

In Part Two of the book, Presland calls “The Influence of Nature on Culture”. For me, this was the hub of the book, and I was a little disappointed that it was only thirty-one pages in length. He starts this section by talking about why and how he came to undertake this book. He then moves on to consider the Aboriginal connection to the Port Phillip area, then returns to the question I asked at the start – Why THIS place for a village? He highlights the significance of the Falls, and European efforts in shaping the Yarra. He then moves to briefly consider future development.  The book closes with a methodology chapter and lists of indicative vegetation in different types of woodland, and fish in the Yarra River.

This book was based on his PhD, which comes as no surprise although he has subverted the usual PhD structure (introduction, methodology, data, analysis). I’m not sure that this reorganization is completely successful. Although it does keep the most technical information at the back of the book, away from a general reader, the narrative itself is fairly technical and abstracting, despite its adoption of “we” language.  Chapters Four and Five are too “list-y”, with little overarching argument.  I wished that Presland had stepped onto the stage himself earlier, instead of waiting until Part II and page 197 to do so.  I found myself wondering what a writer like Tom Griffiths would do with this material.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this book, most particularly Chapters One and Three. The book was published by Museum Victoria and it is replete with beautiful coloured plates right throughout the text. It’s always satisfying to read a book that shifts you in your perception somewhat, and Chapters One and Three did that for me.  The blurb on the back says that “Gary Presland will literally change your view of Melbourne”, and I think that’s true.

Sourced from: my own bookshelves