Monthly Archives: August 2018

I Hear With My Little Ear: Podcasts 23/8 – 30/8

I’ve taken to walking from home to the museum in Heidelberg on Mondays, and to and from the library in Watsonia for Spanish on Wednesdays.  Plenty of time to listen to podcasts! This week I listened to:

In Our Time (Stitcher)  The Salem Witch Trials . Featuring Susan Castillo Street (King’s College London); Simon Middleton at the (University of Sheffield); Marion Gibson (University of Exeter). Gives an interesting economic perspective on why Salem Village generated these trials, as distinct from Salem Town. And the girls were only 11 and 9 ! Quite a different view to ‘The Crucible’!

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC Listen). I love listening to Matt Bevan on RN Breakfast each morning as he does a round-up of local and international news (that’s why I get up at 6.45 a.m.- I wait until his segment is finished before I get out of bed). Ever since Trump was elected, he’s been fascinated by events in America and now he has his own podcast that goes right back to the beginning. This week, episode 15 ‘Felix Sater: Criminal, informant, developer, spy.

The History Listen (ABC Listen). Not as good as Hindsight, but still a good listen. This week I listened to the four-part series Gone Mallee, a flat, marginal area in north-west Victoria. My favourite episode, dealing with a small town population 7,  was #3 The Mantung Yearbook

Rear Vision (ABC Listen). This week Radio National are featuring Australia’s relationship with China, and this program Modern China and the Legacy of the Opium Wars looks at the Opium Wars, and their lingering effects on how China views its own history and future.

Duolingo Podcast These podcasts are about 2/3 English and 1/3 Spanish, slow enough for me to understand straight off. You could follow it even if you didn’t speak Spanish, and there’s a transcript on the website.Episode 10, Los guerrilleros is about a journalist who meets with the FARC guerillas in their jungle camp.

News In Slow Spanish. A paid program that has a weekly round-up of news and commentary. I listened to Episode #492 dated 16th August. It dealt with the tensions between Turkey and the US; the World Rankings study where Melbourne slipped to second after Vienna; a study about the strategies to get someone to respond to your message on dating sites, and a snail race in England.

Movie: Summer 1993

 

This film, set in Catalonia and directed by Carla Simon, is autobiographical, telling the story of six-year old Frida whose mother has died. She is sent to live with her uncle and his wife and young daughter in the countryside, even though she is very close to a single aunt who remains in the city.  The young actress Laia Artigas is excellent, capturing both the deep sadness and passivity of a young bereaved child, and the joy of just being alive and feeling loved. The film is very much taken from the child’s point of view, and yet you can so easily empathize with the uncle’s wife who has most of the care of her husband’s niece; with the aunt who loves Frida so much, and with the grandparents who are now so distant. The movie is in Catalan with subtitles, and it’s a very quiet film where things move very slowly, with a sense of impending danger.  The sadness at the end snuck up on me -just as it did the characters in the film- and I found myself crying again when telling my husband about it.

My rating: 4.5/5

‘The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia’ by Christina Twomey

twomey

2018, 320 p

Over the last few years, there has been a steady flow of books by historians written to counter the tidal wave of WWI centenary ‘celebration’. The ANZAC legend, which has been contentious for some decades, has been given a good working-over, and there will probably be further retrospectives once the various centenaries are over.

But although it’s not yet possible to know how and if opinion about the ANZACs will be resolved, there are some other questions about the relationships between the Australian military overseas and broader society ‘at home’ where the tide of opinion has already swung.  In her book The Battle Within,  Christina Twomey focuses on the WWII  prisoners-of-war, particularly those imprisoned by the Japanese, and traces through the changes in society’s reception and recognition of them. Unlike the WWI re-evaluation still under way, the trajectory of opinion about POWs can already be discerned and has probably settled, although who knows what a centenary in 2039-45 will bring. Her title The Battle Within is a neat one. Not only did individual POWs have their own own internal battle, but there was a public-relations and repatriation battle among POWs themselves too.

It is the POWs of the Japanese who most starkly captured the Australian imagination on their return after the war. Cameras captured their skeletal frames and their 36% death rate was much higher than WWI POWs (9%) or those who had been taken prisoner in Europe during WWII (3%).  Donald Trump’s 2015 jibe at John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”) goes to the ambivalence about the reception of the returning POW back in 1945. Even though it was broadly recognized that the Australian forces in Asia had surrendered as a consequence of decisions made by British and Dutch commanders, there was still an internalized and tacit suspicion that POWs were ‘second-class’ soldiers.  As prisoners, they were removed from the masculine arena of aggression and valour; they were unable to protect the women who were taken prisoner too, and worse still, they were humiliated by being taken captive by Asian forces. WWII propaganda had depicted the Japanese as small, short sighted, simian and Asian (p. 27).  To be treat as a ‘white coolie’ triggered resonances of slavery and indentured Indian and Chinese labour.

Twomey’s book has four sections. In Part I she examines official attitudes to Prisoners of War; in Part II she looks to the former-POWs themselves as they tried to rebuild their lives and take up marriages. Part III ‘Coming to Terms with Asia’ looks at post-war Australian relations with Japan and Asia in general, and Part IV ‘The battle resolved’ traces changes in official and public perceptions of the POW experience.

The authorities were determined not to make a special case of the POWs, as distinct from other soldiers and the post-war campaign for a subsistence allowance for each day of captivity failed. Nor did medical understanding following the war help their cause. After WWI, governments and psychiatrists had largely abandoned ‘shell-shock’ as a way of understanding the psychiatric casualties of war, instead defining it as ‘neurosis’ that arose among people predisposed to mental illness through existing weakness, imprisonment or not.  If pre-existing mental weakness did not exist, then medical problems were explained as tropical bacterial and intestinal illnesses.

In this, POWs were not served well by those other POWs from the officer corps who had the ear of government, who strongly resisted the idea of ‘barbed wire disease’.  This class aspect comes through strongly. The death rate of 37% in ‘other ranks’ of POWs of the Japanese dropped to close to 10% among  officers, many of whom spent their war years separated from other prisoners. Through pre-existing networks and dynamics of education, opportunity and wealth, it was men of the officer class who were appointed as the spokesmen of POWs and served as their representatives on different consultative bodies.  Some of the most prominent, e.g. Ted Fisher from the Council of the 8th Division, were dismissive of ‘sob stuff’.

The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was established by Prime Minister Menzies in October 1950, after the failure of the campaign for subsistence payments. It was open to former POWs from both the Pacific and European theatres of the Second World War.  The Repatriation Department held the line that POWs were not to be treated as a ‘class apart’ from other ex-service personnel, but there was constant pressure from ex-service organizations and parliamentarians to take some action towards former POWs. The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was more like a charity than a government service, with rigorous vetting of applicants and no avenue of appeal.  The board of the fund, which oversaw its distribution, comprised two senior public servants and three former POWs, all from the officer class.

The letters of application to this fund forms the archival basis of Twomey’s book, most particularly in Part II.   In the absence of  POW repatriation files  (which are not yet available), the application letters to the fund provide her with an available and valuable resource that reflects both how the POWs conceptualized their needs, and the board’s concern for respectability and determination not to be ‘taken in’ by spurious claims. As she notes,

The applicants to the fund were, by and large, from the ‘other ranks’: men of limited education who often had menial jobs and sometimes lives blighted by alcoholism, depression, marriage breakdown or loneliness. Yet many of them took the opportunity, in shaky handwriting or in bold, capital letters, to make known their views about the treatment meted out to former prisoners, their family troubles and their struggles to rehabilitate. (p.xvi)

The ex-POW board representatives were from the officer class, and their class perspective  came through in the rejections and restrictions imposed by the board when administering the fund.

A similar bifurcation, with some class and education overtones, emerged in the decades after the war when some former POWs publicly supported the need for reconciliation with Japan. In some cases, this was for political reasons, especially amongst those from the ex-officer cohort who were politically aligned with conservative parties, when the fear of Chinese communism meant that alliances had to be formed with the Japanese as a way of countering the sweep of communism. Other considerations were economic, especially in the 1970s and 1980s in Queensland with Japanese-oriented tourist developments and with the mooted Multi-Function Polis in Adelaide, where the Japanese were seen as a lucrative market.  Other POWs acted out of spiritual or conscientious motives. However, this only served to throw into relief those POWs who did not feel this way, and who could not forget, much less forgive. This characterization of the POW as bitter and back-ward looking remnant became a trope for exploring Australia’s xenophobic past.

So what changed?  Opposition to the Vietnam War undermined the national mythology of Anzac and questioned Australia’s role in Asian wars. In the 1980s and 1990s a wave of prisoner diaries and memoirs was published, most particularly Arneil’s One Man’s War which was an instant success, praised by left-wing historians as a means by which to complicate the “jingoes and militarists” (p. 219) whom they believed had come to dominate Anzac Day.  In 1980 the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognized post-traumatic stress disorder, and new understandings of trauma replaced the older view of a pre-existing mental weakness. In 1984 the ABC Radio National documentary P.OW. Australians under Nippon was published as a book and has been repeated as recently as February 2017 (listen here).  As Twomey notes:

In this confluence of events, POWs emerged as historical figures capable of expressing contemporary tensions about war, identity, race and region. By the 1970s the POW story could pull in many directions at one: as a metaphor to express ongoing anxiety about the potential for domination by Asia, as evidence that forgiveness and racial tolerance were possible, and as a reflection of outdated attitudes towards racial difference. As a victim of war’s terror, ultimately the POW was perfectly placed to revive interest, in a non-belligerent way, in the military history of a country that had, but for a short period, been particularly attached to war as an essential element of its national story. (p. 215)

I very much enjoyed this book.  It is well written and engaging, and refreshingly clean of military ra-ra. She makes good use of her resources in bringing former POWs to life, while acknowledging the class and political influences that affected their treatment by both bureaucracies and the public at large.  She starts and finishes her book with a personal reflection on the Thai-Burma railway, which has come to epitomize the place of the POWs of Japan in the Australian memory of WWII.  It’s a powerful image:

Just as a visitor to Hellfire Pass can pick out the railway line by glimpsing the sleepers beneath the gravel, as a historian I have dug deep in the archive to reveal the foundations of the POW story in Australian culture. It is tempting to see the current veneration of former POWs as running along clean iron rails, from the past to the present.  This book suggests that the sidings were many, that the tracks were buckled and warped, and that the burden of this difficult journey fell most heavily on the people with the least social, cultural and economic resources to carry it. (p.xviii)

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

[An update: My attention was taken by the recent decision to award the Commendation for Gallantry Award for POWs who were killed escaping or after capture. As Monteath noted in his book Captured Lives on internment in Australia, to seek to escape was seen to be a legitimate act of an imprisoned soldier. Nonetheless, it has taken 75 years for them to be recognized. And is there still an implicit question-mark over those who did not escape? The tension remains.]

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have added this book to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Banyule Homestead- another victory

Banyule Homestead (a)_PeterCrone

Excellent news! VCAT today upheld Banyule Council’s refusal to grant a permit for a function centre at Banyule Homestead in Heidelberg.  The VCAT decision highlighted the significance of Banyule Homestead and the many problems with parking, noise etc. engendered by the operation of a function centre in a quiet neighbourhood area.  The neighbours really took the running on presenting a well-founded, disciplined campaign, and the Council support was staunch. They are certainly to be congratulated.

‘Are You Somebody?’ by Nuala O’Faolain

O'faolain

1998 edition, 356 pages

A few years back this book was on the bestseller list week after week.  I remember at the time picking it up, seeing the blurb from Frank McCourt, then putting it down again. Although I had been transfixed by McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, I didn’t feel that I needed to read another Irish Misery Memoir. And so, some twenty or so years later, I came to Are You Somebody? as a bookgroup selection. And yes, there’s the feckless father, the despondent mother, the poverty, the pregnancies and the power of the Catholic Church – just as I anticipated there would be-  but there’s so much more. I just loved this book.

The subtitle of some editions of this book calls it an ‘accidental memoir’. Even though Nuala O’Faolain was very well known in Ireland, especially for her newspaper columns, I suspect I’m not alone in saying that I had never heard of her here in Australia.  But for her readers in Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the relationship between a newspaper columnist and his/her readers is a strange one. There is a veneer of companionship and familiarity but it is all controlled on the author’s side. As a reader, you feel as if you know them, but you don’t.  And an editorial reshuffle or lost contract can sever the connection forever.

This book was intended to be a collection of her newspaper columns. She was asked to write an autobiographical introduction, but it grew beyond that.  In the ‘extended’ edition I read, roughly half of the resulting book is her introduction, followed by an ‘afterword’ reflecting on the response to the publication of the first edition, and the rest is her columns, arranged by theme.

This book really suffered for the lack of a good glossary or footnotes. As an Irish ‘personality’, writer and academic, she is enmeshed in Irish literary society and she name-drops liberally. As she becomes increasingly enchanted with the recovery of the Irish language, she also cites phrases and sentences that are not translated.  I didn’t ever lose the sense that I was reading about a different culture in a different country, (which, transposed, means that Irish readers would be strongly affirmed in their sense that this was their story). I had to google many of the references to then-current events in the newspaper columns. Of course, written almost 20 years ago, events have moved on, most particularly with the recent referendum on abortion, and the rise and fall (and recovery again?) of the Celtic Tiger economy.

Nuala was one of nine living children; her father was a gossip columnist who anglicized his name to ‘Terry O’Sullivan’. He was serially unfaithful and often absent. Her mother was an alcoholic and money was tight. Nuala escaped this life through education and the jobs that became available through the opening up of media opportunities, but underlying all this was her assumption that she would marry and have children. She never did. She had a string of liaisons, often with married men, and looking back at her life acknowledges that had she had a child when she was younger, she would have been a poor mother.  It shocked her to realize that she was inadvertently repeating her mother’s own self-destructiveness.

I found it somewhat difficult to get into her memoir. It is very well and artistically written, at a far more abstract level than her newspaper columns, and while it moves chronologically, there is a fair bit of movement back and forth in the early chapters. But by the middle of the book, and particularly at the end of her introduction and through her ‘afterword’, there was a shift. I felt stripped bare by her candour. This is a middle-aged woman, looking back without sentiment, at her choices, her body, her relationships, her sense of self. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so honest.

I’m not alone in thinking that. As she explains in her ‘afterword’ she was deluged with responses – probably many from other middle-aged women like me. This raw directness is even more apparent in an interview she gave just a few weeks before she died, after receiving a diagnosis of cancer that gave her mere weeks to live.  The interview comes with trigger warnings, as it certainly needed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so articulate, so bleak, so honest, from someone so close to death.  It is one of the most searing interviews I have ever heard: absolutely unforgettable.

I loved this book. I am of the right age and the right demographic to love it, I suppose. Perhaps it’s just as well that it took me twenty years to find it.  It will be right up there for my best reads of 2018.

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup read

My rating: 10/10

Movie: The Wife

 

Glenn Close is absolutely brilliant in this film as the wife of a Nobel-Prize winning writer. He is receiving plaudits for his body of literature while she, as a once-aspiring writer, has been at his side. She glowers with barely-repressed anger and disdain at her philandering, egotistical husband, and while the film is a bit predictable, it’s a pleasure to watch Close’s performance. The overwhelmingly-female audience with whom I watched it groaned and audibly hissed at times. The casting of the young and older wife character was sensitive,and it was not hard to accept that the older actress was playing the same character as the younger one.  Glenn Close herself was beautiful and complex.  Loved it.

My rating: 5/5

Movie: Mary Shelley

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and so there’s been quite a bit about both the book and its author around this year.  This film, directed by Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour looks at Mary Shelley as daughter, sister and partner as well as writer. I liked the way that it emphasized the importance of Shelley’s impoverished father William Godwin and mother Mary Wollstonecraft as intellectuals, although their radicalism was downplayed. The film finishes on rather a high note with the publication of the second edition, although it could have extended even further where the loss and poverty of Shelley’s life became even more tragic.  However, while mentally cheering inside, I don’t know that I actually buy the suggestion that the book was written as Shelley’s jab at the two monstrous men in her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron (who is particularly creepy in the this film.) Elle Fanning is luminous, and it’s beautifully staged.

My rating: 3.5 stars (of 5)