Monthly Archives: February 2019

Podcast: 2016 CBC Massey Lecture series Jennifer Welsh ‘The Return of History’

The Massey lectures seem to be the Canadian version of Australia’s Boyer Lectures. The speaker is given a wide scope when they are invited to talk about “whatever they want”. Jennifer Welsh, as a political scientist, chose to speak of The Return of History.  She is referencing Francis Fukuyama’s bold declaration in 1989 of ‘The End of History’ and his book, as she says, is the “dancing partner” to her lectures.  Each lecture is conducted in a different Canadian city, taking her across the country over the series.

Jennifer Welsh is Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute in Florence (Italy) and a Fellow of Somerville College, University of Oxford. From 2013 until 2016, she was the Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect.






In the first lecture “We Were Wrong“, she points out that liberal democracy  has had an uneven trajectory, starting with the French Revolution and American War of Independence, with little of the inevitability of success that Fukuyama suggested. Before WWI, she says, there were only ten democracies; they doubled post-WWI but decreased again in the 1930s when the very idea of liberal democracy was questioned. By 1941, there were only nine again and the world looked to be on the edge of “a new dark age” as Churchill put it. The numbers of democracies quadrupled in the 1960s with decolonization and by the late 1980s, when Fukuyama made his bold claim of the “end of history”, half of the world’s population could be said to be living under democracies. However, from the viewpoint of 2016 (and this viewpoint has been oft-repeated since, and indeed intensified), democracy is in trouble. She sees that the world is divided into two groups: a  liberal democratic core on the one hand, and on the other a large portion of the world “where the sun of history still shines”. They are separated by a gulf of incomprehension. She cautions us to recognize that liberal democracy was not inevitable. Indeed, she argues, history is back with a vengeance.





In the second lecture ‘The Return of Barbarism’ she argues that while history is returning, it is with a modern twist, exemplified by the IS’ use of swords to behead, similar to in medieval times,  and the twenty-first century use social media to distribute that same beheading. ISIS, she suggests, is a product of 21st century interventions in the Middle East, and its spread is rooted in the failure of the Arab Spring.   We have seen such things before. She draws parallels between the influx of foreign fighter to ISIS with the bolstering of Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War, and she reminds us that some of the siege footage coming out of  Madaya in Syria evokes the Siege of Leningrad during WWII.



“The Return of Mass Flight”, the third lecture, examines the question of refugees. She points out that in 2015, there were 65 million forcibly displaced people, the highest number in history. One in 113 people was either a refugee, asylum seeker or forcibly displaced.  She goes through the development of the UNHCR (which was expected to last only three years) and the creation of the Refugee Convention, and asks ‘What is so different about today’? She points to four things: first, that it is quantitatively different; second, Europe’s response of fences and walls; third, the multiple motivations for immigration and fourth, the reliance on new technology exemplified by images of refugees with smart phones, which tends to undercut our idea of what a refugee should look like.



‘The Return of the Cold War’, Lecture 4, starts off with the Ukrainian Revolution of 22 February 2014 – something that felt momentous at the time, but soon began following a familiar trajectory. At the time of her lectures (2016), events in Syria, the emphasis on power supply through gas lines, and the revival of espionage all seemed to be following an old story too. However, she sees at least three differences between the original Cold War and current events. First, we do not see now the deep ideological challenges that underpinned the Cold War in the 1940s and 50s. Second, the original Cold War was global in scope, whereas now it is in the geo-political realms. Third, the status of both the USSR and US is different.  Still, as she warns, it would be possible to get back to Cold War status again, and both sides need to look at their own actions if we’re to avoid that. Instead – and here’s her ‘history but with a twist’ theme coming through again- what we are seeing now is a modern hybrid of ‘sovereign democracy’ where elections are used to delineate the lines of power, and appeals to nationalism insulate the government from outside influences e.g. migration and foreign interference.  She draws parallels between the Allied triumphalism at the end of WWI, and the smugness of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.


In the fifth and final lecture, ‘The Return of Inequality’, she says that she’s going to return to the local. Actually, each of the other lectures has an intermission where she speaks to someone local from the city in which the lecture is delivered (e.g. someone of Japanese heritage who was interned during WWII, a director of a refugee centre etc). In spite of her intention to ‘go local’, she directs a lot of attention to the United States, and the increase of inequality world wide. She notes that in this 21st century ‘Gilded Age’ (and she references the original Gilded Age), inequality is bad for society and bad for the economy, it can easily morph into inequality of opportunity, and it has the potential to turn into political power and political influence.  She notes that democracy has always been self-correcting and that it has always been anxious.  Francis Fukuyama, whose ‘End of History’ thesis sparked her response in this lecture series is still optimistic, but she is more ‘Chicken Little’ than he is.

I enjoyed this lecture series.  It was a bit frustrating that I couldn’t download them, so I only listened to them at home through wifi (although I could have paid for them on I-tunes). Still, what a wonderful thing that a lecture series can be accessed months, nay years! after it is delivered, on the other side of the world no less!


‘The Hand of Fatima’ by Ildefonso Falcones


2010, 887 pages – yes, 887 pages. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Oooffgghh!! That was a long read! I was about to write that I rarely read big chunky historical fiction books but on reflection, that’s not true. I loved Kristin Lavransdatter, I eagerly await the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and I really enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. Perhaps it’s that I often read trilogies and suchlike as they are released, several years apart. But I read this book all in one gulp.

I heard about it from a guide who took me on a historic walk in Cordoba last year, and I very much enjoyed reading about places that I had been in Granada, Seville and of course Cordoba.

It is set in 1564, long after the reconquest of Spain by the Christian Kings. However, as we see all too often in the midst of the sectarian wars that still afflict us, mere conquest is not enough to expunge the beliefs, stories and world view of a conquered people. The Islamic Morisco people in 16th century Spain are defeated, but restive, and uprisings erupt across Al Andalus, put down violently with massacres and enslavement on both sides.

Hernando is the son of an Arab woman and the Christian priest who raped her.  His stepfather despises him, and he kidnaps Hernando’s one love, Fatima, and takes and mistreats her as a second wife to spite him. He is shunned by the Christians who educate him into their beliefs, and he secretly visits Hamid, an old teacher who educates him into the Islamic beliefs. These two streams of belief, which he can call on when he needs to, mean that he is distrusted by both sides as he moves between the two cultures.

It is his facility with both Christianity and Islamic that drives him to a project to unite the two faiths through the figure of Mary, who is revered by both traditions. I found this part rather tedious and I’m not sure that it was really necessary to the story. But overall, it is a rather driven narrative, which barely takes a breath. Just when you think that things are about to be resolved, yet another twist occurs…and hence the nearly 900 pages.

I hadn’t heard of this book, which is written by a best-selling author. I was surprised for a moment to find that Lisa at ANZLitLovers had read it (until I remembered just how widely she reads) and her review is much more detailed than mine. I wasn’t even sure if it was written by a male or female author, but after reading the sex scenes with too much throbbing manhood for my liking, I decided that the author must be a man. I was not wrong.

To have the book recommended by a Spanish speaker, keen to show the beauties of her cities, is no small thing. It complicates the easy historical concepts of ‘conquest’ and ‘reconquest’, and I very much enjoyed the descriptions. When I was told about the book, I was reassured that I’d be able to find it in translation which is just as well. I doubt that I’ll live long enough to translate a book of nearly 900 pages in Spanish!


‘Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre’ ed. by Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan


167 p. & notes, 2018

The name should have been a give-away. “Myall” was an old term for “aboriginal” and it was to be expected that any outback station called “Myall Creek” would have – or used to have- a noticeable indigenous presence. Late in the afternoon of Sunday 10 June 1838, eleven armed stockmen, most of whom were expired or convict labourers, rode into Henry Danger’s Myall Creek station near Invernell in north-east New South Wales. Henry Dangar himself was absent; as were the overseer and senior stockmen. The stockmen dismounted and entered a hut where they brought out about thirty Wirrayaraay old people, women and children who had sought refuge there on hearing the stockmen ride in. They led them out, tied with a leather strap, and took them away. Shots rang out; then the stockmen rode away. They returned the next day to burn twenty-eight bodies.

It was an appalling crime, and we know about it because the perpetrators actually faced court, and seven white men were hanged. The massacre itself was not exceptional: massacres had occurred prior to Myall Creek, and they continued afterwards. But the case was marked with controversy,  both from observers appalled by it, and squatters and settlers outraged by its legal consequences. It was the last time in the nineteenth century  that  white perpetrators of frontier massacres were convicted and hanged.

In 2000 a permanent memorial was erected at Myall Creek. Eight years later the Myall Creek Massacre and Memorial Site were added to the National Heritage List. This book, comprising a number of essays by both indigenous and non-indigenous authors, was published for the 180th anniversary. The academic historians represented here – Lyndall Ryan, Jane Lydon, Anna Johnston and John Maynard –  are all well-respected within the academy. The earlier chapters focus on the massacre event itself.  The final three chapters focus on Myall Creek within the songlines and trading networks of indigenous groups the length of the east coast of Australia and tease out issues of memorialization and reconciliation. The book evokes the harshness of distance and the impunity it confers in Warwick Thornton’s film Sweet Country, even though that was set in a different place some eighty years later.

If you’re not familiar with the Myall Creek massacre, you will be by the time you finish this book, which gives a clear account of the event and the men involved. I did know about it – my own Judge Willis was bobbing around in the background as one of the members of the NSW Supreme Court, but I have been guilty of the “failure of imagination” that Paul Keating spoke of in his Redfern Speech.  This book shows that it was all there: unarmed, defenseless, frightened old women and children; white onlookers too intimidated to intervene; wide distances adding a sense of menace, and averted eyes that cloaked these stockmen with the arrogance of impunity.

In Chapter 1 Lyndall Ryan focuses on Henry Dangar, the absentee owner of the Myall Creek station, who chose not to support his employees who reported the crime. In Chapter 2, Patsy Withycombe points out that the ringleader, John Fleming, was the only one of the eleven stockmen who was not a serving or former convict, and he escaped punishment altogether, protected by local squatters. In Chapter 3, Jane Lydon places the international and humanitarian response within the anti-slavery context of the 1830s, focussing particularly on the widely circulated engraving of the prologue to the massacre titled ‘Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts’ by ‘Phiz’, better known for his illustrations of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Chapter 4 looks at the more local response where Anna Johnston examines Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ published in December 1838 and later put to music by Isaac Nathan in 1842. In Chapter 5 Lyndall Ryan asks of the massacre “Was it typical of the time?”. Building on her work on the Massacre Map, she points out that it was. All the perpetrators had been involved in other massacres. It was not unusual for incidents to take place in daylight, or be led by a settler. It was not unusual to tie the victims together and lead them to the site where they would be slaughtered, or burn their bodies afterwards. Such atrocities have their own sickening rhythm and recurrences.  Chapter 5, which has multiple authors, links the Myall Creek massacre with another massacre at the Wonomo waterhole, and argues that trade networks and songlines made it possible for different aboriginal groups along the eastern coast of Australia to be forewarned of the struggle which would soon extend to their area too. Chapter 6 ‘Myall Creek Memories’ is a reflection by John Maynard on being asked to give the commemorative address- the first by a non-indigenous historian – in 2015. Chapter 8 co-written by Jessica Neath and Brook Andrew is a compilation of interviews with advisors, architects, academics and scholars of cultural memory, over the question of how Myall Creek should be memorialized (if, indeed it should be) and its relation with other memory-sites related the Holocaust and Genocide. The book is framed by a prologue by Sue Blacklock and John Brown who worked on a reconciliation and covenant relationship between the Uniting Church and ATSI people in 1992. It closes with Mark Tedeschi’s QC’s address delivered in 2017, both as Chief Crown Prosecutor for NSW and the author of his own more legally-oriented account of the massacre and its legal aftermath.

This is an excellent book. The chapters are engagingly written, and if the chapter by Jessica Neath was perhaps a bit tedious in its format, it raised some interesting questions. It makes me wonder: will I live long enough for Australians and their governments to have the maturity and humility to look at the white settler past, and actually do something about an honest recognition and reconciliation that must come one day?


I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.

Movie: Colette


(From a few weeks back)

It’s a pity that Keira Knightly was case as Colette in this movie. She’s too well-known and I was consciously aware of that throughout most of this movie, except for one striking scene where she becomes very angry. Dominic West was very good, and disappeared better into the character. I must confess to never having read any of her work, and really knew little about her. Still, an interesting take on celebrity and marketing in the literary world of a century ago.

My rating: 3.5 stars

I’m off……again


Did I mention to you that I’m off again? This time to Buenos Aires, Colombia and the Atacama Desert in Chile.

You can follow my adventures – and this time I hope that this rather edgy trip doesn’t have any adventures to speak of – at my other travel blog

I rather foolishly promised that I would write the first sentence of each entry in Spanish, so apologies to those who don’t read Spanish, and even deeper apologies to those who do!

‘Saltwater’ by Cathy McLennan


2016, 314 p

If you go by the cover of this book, with its subtitle “An Epic Fight for Justice in the Tropics”, you’re going to be disappointed. There is a trial in this book, but you won’t have heard of it. It’s just one of what I suspect is an ongoing succession of trials of young aboriginal men, whose lives seemed almost doomed to incarceration by their background of alcoholism, illiteracy and aimlessness. It’s not an ‘epic’ fight for justice, and there’s certainly no victory here.

The book is a memoir written by Magistrate Cathy McLennan, who looks back some twenty years to her first graduate job with the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, when she was aged just 22. She is not of indigenous heritage herself, and although brought up on nearby Magnetic Island, she felt largely overwhelmed working with this indigenous organization. Other non-indigenous barristers came and went, and despite her youth, she was very much thrown in at the deep end. The clerical and administrative staff were indigenous, and she relied on the guidance of aboriginal women working in a liaison capacity.  The male indigenous administrator of the organization was less supportive.

One of her earliest cases involved four young men charged with the murder of a white grog-runner. She was initially convinced of their innocence, and feels blocked by the local police.  The police, however, are not one-dimensional.  Called out to meet with a group of aboriginal people drinking in the park, she was horrified that a very young baby was lying on glass-strewn dirt. Brought right up against the dilemma of child protection vs. fear of another stolen generation, she realized that, in this situation, the police wee just as conflicted as she is.

Running alongside her involvement in this case was her ongoing contact with Olivia, to whom the book is dedicated, an 11 year old the size of a 5 year old, who was continually being locked up for robbery, and was sexually abused repeatedly. Olivia was failed at every turn: by her alcoholic mother, by child services who could do no more than come up with ‘a plan’, and by the ‘justice’ system that was content to shunt her off to Palm Island, where Olivia was even more abused than she was in Townsville.  McLennan bridles against failure at all levels that condemns indigenous children to incarceration. She could see the problem: she had no answers.  Now, twenty years later and as a magistrate, I find myself wondering if she has found a way for the system, that she is now part of, to do better.

The book is written in the present tense, and the prose is fairly pedestrian. She certainly raises many questions, and even if the book is not as “compelling” as its blurb suggests, it does add texture and complexity to a tragic and seemingly intractable situation.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.


I hear with my little ear: podcasts to 31 Jan 2019

I usually listen to podcasts while I’m walking down to the Heidelberg Historical Society museum on a Monday and/or Thursday, or when walking to Watsonia Library for a Spanish conversation class. (Nearly) everything stops in Australia during the first weeks of January, so I’m only just gradually picking up my usual routine again. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to:

News in Slow Spanish Latino  I listen to this in bites of three stories at a time which is about as much Spanish as I can cope with in one session. Episode #293  had an interesting commentary about the Mexican film ‘Roma’, which has been recognized in several industry awards, and slated for others. Apparently when Netflix showed it in Spain, they subtitled it – even though it’s in Spanish! Not the hard-of-hearing type subtitles, but the hard-copy foreign language ones. Unsurprisingly, this caused quite a bit of offence in Latin America. [Having said this, I often feel that I need subtitles for films from Scotland] To add to the transgression, they used ‘Mother’ instead of ‘Mum’ (rough translation), and substituted the name of a Mexican lolly with a Spanish one. There was such controversy, that Netflix dropped the subtitles.

Rough Translation.  War Poems is an absolutely fantastic episode about two translators working in Afghanistan as the United States flailed around in its policy on engagement with the Afghani population. But it’s about more than this. It had me crying in the train, then telling a total stranger about it. It’s really good.

Presidential. Abraham Lincoln: His hand and his pen. I borrowed ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ from the library, but didn’t get round to reading this. I had downloaded it to listen to before I read the book because I really know nothing about Abraham Lincoln. I do now. It’s about Lincoln’s love of language in his own writing and in his oratory.

History Hub. While I was on an Abraham Lincoln kick, I also listened to the five- part ‘  series ‘Abraham Lincoln: The Life and Death of a Statesman‘, presented by Brian Schoen.

In Our Time. I must say that Melvyn Bragg is becoming more and more curmudgeonly the older he gets, particularly with women guests I think.  I listened to an interesting podcast about the 12th Century Renaissance, when the Crusades brought Arabic learning to Europe and universities began to be established. In the episode on Anna Akhmotova, I just wanted to give Melvyn a good hard kick.

Caliphate. I know that I’m probably the last person in the world to tune into Caliphate, but I’ve finally started listening to this series about how ISIS recruits and exploits its followers. Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism for The New York Times, is the main presenter in this NPR-y-sounding podcast. I’ve listened to the first two and a half episodes.

Duolingo podcasts Episode 18: La testigo (the witness) is about a young Argentinian girl who inadvertently witnesses the Argentinian dictatorship during the 1970s. If you don’t understand Spanish, you’ll still be able to follow the story, and there’s a transcript as well.

Earshot (ABCRN) Related to the Duolingo podcast was this week’s Earshot program Argentina’s stolen generation, about the ongoing discovery, 40 years later, of the children affected in different ways by the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina in the 1970s, both as children of the ‘disappeared’ and as children of the perpetrators.

99% Invisible. I haven’t seen ‘The Green Book’ film yet, but this podcast called The Green Book Redux is about the original Green Book and how and why it came to be written. It finishes with an excerpt from ‘The Memory Palace’, another podcast I must check out.