‘The Year Everything Changed: 2001’ by Philippa McGuinness

mcguiness

2018, 321 P

The genesis for this book rested in a festschrift [i.e. a collection of papers to honour a scholar] held in 2014 for a recently-retired historian from ANU. The author, publisher Phillipa McGuiness was there because she had published several of the historian’s books. At the same festchrift were a group of historians who had worked alongside the historian on the Fairfax publication Australians: A Historical Library. This series, released to celebrate the bicentenary of European settlement, took a ‘slice’ approach at fifty-year intervals: 1788, 1838, 1888, 1938 and 1939 onwards. Her mind wandered (as minds are wont to do on such occasions) to consider other books that had been published with a chronological year as the title: 1492, 1915, 1968 etc.  The year ‘2001’ popped into her head- a year whose September 11 date is seared into the consciousness of anyone who is fifteen or older- and she began listing the things that happened during that year: 9/11, Afghanistan, Tampa etc.  Her mind turned to the people who she could commission to write such a book. Then with a jolt, she remembered that 2001 was the year that she buried her baby son, Daniel. She decided to write the book herself.

And so this book is part-analysis, and part-memoir.  As she writes in the preface:

My intention is to tell the story of a year. Part of includes my story, with no presumption that it represents a universal truth. Do I really want to make myself a subject in a general history, I asked myself? But I would feel dishonest were I to write a history of 2001 without mentioning my personal tragedy. …I’m no dispassionate observer analysing, assembling and asserting, unencumbered by emotion all the while. I’m no scholar able to eschew the personal and the vernacular, committed to interrogating the existing peer-reviewed literature and little more. (p. 6)

She acknowledges that 2001 is ‘history’, but it’s contemporary history.  I’m not sure that this book qualifies as ‘contemporary history’, although I don’t know for myself where I draw the line between analysis and commentary and ‘history’ as such.  I think that too much of the book is written from the viewpoint 2018 for it to qualify as ‘history’.  Nonetheless, looking at her lengthy list of acknowledgements at the back of the book, it is clear that she has spoken or shared her writing with many well-known Australian historians, many of whose books I have reviewed on this blog: Bain Attwood, Anna Clark, Stephen Foster, Tom Griffiths, Carolyn Holbrook, Robert Manne, Mark McKenna, Henry Reynolds, Zora Simic, Frank Bongiorno and, thanked most fulsomely, Stuart Macintyre.  There’s a wide range of other public intellectuals, writers and public figures as well ranging from Larissa Behrendt, Meredith Burgmann, through to Tom Frame, John Howard, Gerard Windsor and Bernadette Brennan among many others.

The book is arranged chronologically by month, with each month devoted to a particular theme. This is, of course, somewhat as an artifice because events do not restrict themselves to one month only, although often there is often a peak incident (most especially 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan) that crystallize a particular date.

She starts January with the centenary of Federation in January 2001, while noting the inauguration of George W. Bush on the other side of the world.

Her February chapter is titled ‘More icons, myths, legends and heroes than you can poke a stick at’ which starts with the death of Sir Donald Bradman in February 2001, touches on Nicole Kidman and her divorce and ends with the Australian Achievers presentation. This presentation, conducted as part of the Centenary of Federation brought out a list of ‘achievers’  and a discussion of Captain Cook and Ned Kelly.

March ‘Connecting you now’ brings the rise of Google, which made its first profit in 2001, Apple and Wikipedia. This chapter was thematic in nature, with no specific links to the March chapter to which she attached it.

‘A right to rights’ is the April chapter, loosely linked to the inaugural edition of Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s ‘In Denial’ about the stolen generations. It moves to same-sex marriage, which became legal in the Netherlands on 1 April 2001.

May’s theme is ‘Holy Shit’ which explores the role of the Catholic Church in society and in relation to child abuse, then moves onto religion in America and the connection between islamism and terrorism. The chapter starts with George Pell who became Archbishop of Sydney in May 2001.

The month of June is ‘Free money’ which, again, is a broad topic not tied to any one month. She examines the collapse of Ansett and Enron, the rise of Amazon and the rise of global inequality.

July ‘Demography is destiny’ likewise doesn’t have a particular chronological reference point – indeed the Census night that she identifies in the opening paragraph occurred on 7 August 2001. Here the personal enters into her story as she, her husband and toddler daughter shifted to Singapore, where unlike multicultural Australia, identity is viewed through the lens of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. As a white Australian, she was Other.  A rather disjointed chapter, it moves onto AIDS before returning to the question of whether demography is destiny.

At this point, the connection between chronology and themes becomes sharper. The month of August  examines ‘A boat called Tampa’ and its political implication. Drawing heavily on David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book Dark Victory and Peter Mares’ Borderline: Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers she revisits Tampa (and after 17 years, the details have become fuzzy) and its political fallout.

September is, of course, 9/11 where again a recounting of the events is valuable. There are things that I don’t think I ever did know – for example, that a flight attendant on Flight 11 which smashed into the North Tower was in phone contact for twenty-three minutes before the plane crashed. She then moves to Bush’s political response immediately following the tragedy, drawing frequently on Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (written in 2006 and making me pause about whether indeed history can indeed be written within just years of a event).

‘Afghanistian, America and the Alliance’ are the theme of October, where Australia followed America’s lead. In particular she examines Howard’s actions immediately following 9/11 and so, just as the ill-fated military campaign itself, 9/11 and Afghanistan are intertwined in this chapter.

In November, elections occurred in a whole long roll-call of countries, including Australia and the USA (she lists all 73 of them). She pauses to mention East Timor, Italy, Israel and Nepal, but focuses on Australia and Howard’s unlikely victory. Now resident in Singapore herself, she closes the chapter looking at the Singaporean election.

And in the December chapter, her own life comes to the fore with ‘Death and birth’, a chapter still rather too raw for me, as she loses her son in a foreign country.

In her conclusion ‘What happened next happened’ she returns to take stock “not of my tiny life in the world, but of the world itself”. She turns to the confident title of her book (The Year Everything Changed) and questions whether, indeed, everything did change in 2001.  It’s a wide ranging chapter, written very much from 2018 rather than 2001. [Interestingly, when I looked for the book cover image to put on this page, there were two other ‘year’ books that claimed to be the ‘Year Everything Changed’, Fred Kaplan’s 1959 and Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969]

I enjoyed this book and its interweaving of the personal and the political. It is very much a mainstream left-leaning analysis (think The Monthly or Saturday Paper) I read it more as commentary than history, and I think that its 2018 presentism will  render it outdated within a few years.  Nonetheless, for now, it’s a good read that ranges across a huge amount of territory in an engaging way.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

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

2 responses to “‘The Year Everything Changed: 2001’ by Philippa McGuinness

  1. I know 9/11 was a shock to Americans (Welcome to the real world!) but I’m not sure it’s the year everything changed for the world in general. I’d be more likely to nominate the year of the GFC.

    • I think that 9/11 provided a visual electric shock (who can forget the sight of the plane and the buildings?) but as she showed in her own chapters, there are no strictly demarcated beginnings or endings of events. And you may very well be right about the GFC, although it too has slippery edges.

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