Monthly Archives: May 2019

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 May 2019

the-vagabond-papersRoyal Historical Society of Victoria. After reading Jill Giese’s The Maddest Place on Earth, I’ve become rather fascinated by the Vagabond, the alias for John Stanley James who also went by the name Julian Thomas.  The RHSV has a podcasts page with a list of recorded lectures over the last ten years or so. They’re taken direct from the lecture, so there are no bells and whistles here, but they’re a good way of catching up on things you might have missed – or as in the case of The Vagabond, of catching up on things that you didn’t know you were going to be interested in. In September 2016 RHSV hosted two speakers who contributed essays to the republished Vagabond Papers in 2016, supplementing the essay by Michael Cannon in the original 1969 edition. Robert Flippen, from Virginia, speaks about John Stanley James’ life in Virginia- a really engaging if somewhat evangelical talk. Willa McDonald, a lecturer in media from Macquarie University, talks about James’ career in New Caledonia, where he travelled as a journalist after his career faltered in Australia after such initial success. She speaks of him as a journalist, particularly in view of the immersive journalism that we’re used to today. The sound quality isn’t great- I found McDonald in particular a little hard to hear- but it’s all fascinating.

Russia if you’re listening (ABC). Oddly enough, I can’t find this program on the ABC website, but I can through the ABCListen app. Anyway, in episode 5 on 18 April he talked about Julian Assange, suggesting that Mueller would have a particular interest in him and his connections with Russia, and in episode 6 on 25th April, he talks about Trump’s lawyer and Mueller’s star witness Don McGahn- someone who’s been in the news a bit recently. Episode 7 looks at Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire and his contacts with Paul Manafort. The podcasts seem to be easing off on the excessive sound embellishments, which is good.

TV series: I Know Who You Are

For the past few weeks I’ve been transfixed by a 16-part drama on SBS On Demand called “I Know Who You Are”, or in Spanish “Sé Quién Eres”. A law lecturer is found bloodied and dishevelled on a country road, claiming to have amnesia. It then transpires that the blood of his missing niece is found in his car, but he claims no memory of what had happened to either him or his niece.  There is a whole shoal of red herrings in this series, and everyone is horrible. Women, in particular, have very strong roles in the series, and all the characters are unforgettable.  My Spanish class was split over the ending, but I found it satisfactory. Spanish, with English subtitles and well worth spending the time on.

https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/program/i-know-who-you-are

Banyule homestead. A good resolution?

I fervently hope that this article is true and that this saga can be put aside for the next thirty years.

https://www.realestate.com.au/news/banyule-homestead-to-be-restored-and-lived-in-after-offmarket-sale/?rsf=syn:news:nca:hs:socref&fbclid=IwAR0CQxjxd33xpzkdfzYD_r8bgFAAB_eCNjnTwbKEuMdqx2MSmEzCvDhtOFs

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24- 30 April 2019

BBC World Outlook When I can’t sleep, I listen to BBC World. It repeats the news every half-hour and the accents of the presenters are very soothing. I’m usually vaguely interested in the stories, and if I’m interested enough, I look them up the next day. But last night, the program ‘How Did This Diver Cheat Death?” had me wide awake, almost unable to breathe for the tension. A diver in the North Sea, fixing oil drilling equipment on the sea bed, becomes entangled in the equipment. If the claustrophobia and darkness of Thai Cave rescue made you want to curl up inside (as it did for me), then this program will have the same effect. So perhaps listen to it at 2.00 in the afternoon, instead of 2.00 in the morning.

Sunday Extra (ABC) I always enjoy Correspondents’ Report, which has now been folded into the Sunday Extra program. This half-hour program has about three reports by ABC journalists from around the world, reporting on small, not-newsworthy events that encapsulate the place where they are living. In ‘The Last Days of the Islamic State’ Adam Harvey reports from the refugee camp at Deir ez Zor, Syria, where the women and children attached to ISIS are gathered, asking/demanding to be sent back to their home countries. He talks about toilets, something that I had wondered about, seeing all those rows of white UNHCR tents, and wondering what the sanitation was like. Just make sure you’re not eating while you’re listening to it, though

Big Ideas (ABC) An interesting program called ‘A Tale of two buildings’ about two ‘iconic’ Australian buildings: the Sydney Opera House and Australian Parliament House. I can remember sailing into Sydney Harbour, all the way from Melbourne! in 1970. (I was with a neighbour’s family and the mother of the family had ear problems which made flying difficult). I can remember being fascinated by the Sydney Opera House, which was still a few years off opening, at a time when the biggest talking point was still the sheer expense of it all. Helen Pitt, the author of the book “The House” (about the Opera House) and Ric Thorp, the Australian face of the international design company Mitchell Giurgola Thorp, that designed Parliament House, speak about these two buildings.  Thorp has some strong words about the mooted mega-expansion of the Australian War Memorial, which, as he points out, is a memorial, not a museum.

Conversations. I’ve just finished reading Jill Giese’s excellent Maddest Place on Earth. She talks with Sarah Konowski about the book in the program ‘Undercover at the Asylum’. It’s such a wide-ranging interview, that you barely need to read the book, but you’d be short-changing yourself because it’s a damned good read. But if you can’t, then listen to this.

 

Spanish Film Festival: La Misma Sangre (Common Blood)

The adult children of a middle-aged couple are shocked when their mother dies mysteriously in the kitchen of their suburban home. The son-in-law suspects that the father has killed her, and the daughters are faced with the dilemma of supporting their surviving parent as the accusations mount up.  It’s described as a thriller, but I saw it more as a family drama, although the end was pretty graphic.

The movie is subtitled in English (even though the trailer is not), but the Spanish wasn’t too fast.

Spanish Film Festival: El Reino (The Realm)

Manual Lopez-Vidal is a politician who has been on the take for years, and it has funded his affluent, elite lifestyle. Now that he is about to be exposed, he is determined to bring everyone else down with him.  At first a political movie, it takes on the aspect of a thriller as incriminating flashdrives are sought, found and handed on, and the closing scenes on a television set reminded me a bit of ‘The Hour’ as the tension rises.

Just as well it’s subtitled- I could barely catch a thing.

‘The Maddest Place on Earth’ by Jill Giese

Giese_The-Maddest-Place-on-Earth

2018, 220 p.

In the Epilogue of this book, clinical psychologist and author Jill Giese  writes that she jumped at the rare opportunity of an Open Day at Willsmere, the site of the old Kew Asylum. A little girl asked in that unfettered way that children do, ” If they were all crazy, why did they build them such a nice place to live?” As Giese notes, the most (and increasingly) visible sign of mental illness today is people lying on the streets of Melbourne, wrapped in blankets, begging for small change. Interestingly, it was the urge to give mentally ill people a shelter – an asylum- from the homelessness and penury of living in a blanket, that led to the construction of first the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, and within six years, the construction of Kew Asylum, the first purpose-built asylum in Victoria. Both institutions – though plagued with overcrowding – were not established as the ‘Bedlam’-type places of horror that we might assume them to be.

KEWdraw

English: Engraving of the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum, Kew. Buildings of Yarra Bend Asylum are seen in the foreground. c 1880. Source: Wikipedia

Victoria had what was perceived to be the highest level of mental illness in the world, hence the title “The Maddest Place on Earth”. In fact, at one of the numerous Royal Commissions held into asylums in Victoria during the 19th century, it was predicted that by 2050 every inhabitant of Victoria would be mad. A number of reasons were put forward: our meat-rich diet, the climate, the effect of the Gold Rush, excessive masturbation (although why Victorians would be especially prone to this was not explained) and the success of the Salvation Army in turning people’s minds to God.  Perhaps a better explanation was the “imported insanity” that arose from families ‘back home’ shipping their mentally-ill family members off to the colonies to avoid the scandal of madness. The Gold Rush could have both attracted and elicited madness in men who threw in everything to travel to the other side of the world, with failure more likely than success.

Giese tells the story of the Yarra Bend Asylum and the Kew Asylum but this is not your usual institutional history. Instead of taking a top-down approach, she uses  two main characters as the lens through which to view the asylum system in Victoria. Her first character, George Foley, was the son of an eminent artistic family in England. He suffered his first episode of mental illness while in art school, and suddenly “found himself” on a ship headed for Melbourne. He moved in and out of Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums, continuing to draw while incarcerated, and trying to hold together a precarious artistic existence when he was “outside”. The second character was journalist  Julian Thomas who, working under-cover as a ward attendant, wrote a series of columns for the Argus under the pen-name of “The Vagabond”.  He writes vividly and with humour, every bit the equal of a Mark Twain, or a nineteenth-century Louis Theroux.  Julian Thomas is well-known to historians of Australian (and particularly Victorian) history, but I hadn’t read his work before, and obviously Giese herself – a psychologist herself, rather than a historian-  was delighted to discover him for the first time.

Through George Foley, we catch a glimpse of the sharp edges of the itinerant artist’s life, even for a man clutching the slender thread of family reputation. At a time when there was no treatment for mental illness, he would be housed, fed and given meaningful work while in the asylum, only to flounder once he was released to his own resources again. He drew portraits of personnel within the asylum, including ‘The Vagabond’, who used a touched-up version of the portrait when he finally revealed his identity.  Through ‘The Vagabond’ we learn of meal-times with poorly cooked food, the dissonant music of the asylum band at the fortnightly balls held for inmates and staff, and the brutalizing effects of institutional life on the Kew Asylum attendants in particular.

Right from the establishment of Port Phillip, the presence of mentally ill people on the unmade streets of Melbourne was noted. Until the changes in asylum practice encouraged by the Quakers in the early 19th century in England, asylums had been dire places. Based on the new philosophy that asylums for the mentally ill should be built out of town, on hills in the fresh air, Yarra Bend quickly outgrew its construction in 1848 and was soon surrounded by a mosaic of cottages and even tents. The nearby Kew Asylum was opened in 1872 in a much grander E-shaped Italianate building,  Within five years Kew was the subject of a Royal Commission, which found overcrowding, disease and mistreatment. This was largely caused by a change in the criteria by which patients could be admitted to a ‘lunatic asylum’, which swelled the numbers of mentally ill patients with chronic patients with intellectual disabilities or dementia.  Despite the grandness of Kew Asylum, Yarra Bend stayed largely unchanged with its small cottage structure and more domestic, less institutionalized approach.  As Giese points out, Yarra Bend (despite its age and comparative neglect) came to be seen as the better model for dealing with mental illness with features like shelter, home-cooked food and meaningful, routinized work, that our mental health system could well emulate today.

Giese’s decision to use Foley and the Vagabond as her focus – one a patient, the other a staff member- is inspired. It would have been easy to have taken a patchwork approach, with small stories and vignettes stitched together into a fairly conventional institutional history, but for most of the book she avoids this methodology.  While she also traces through the career of Edward Paley, Inspector of Asylums, and recounts the numerous commissions of enquiry that, as too often happens today, masqueraded as action in themselves, she maintains her gaze on two individuals.  As a reader, you become invested in these two men. You read with a sinking heart of Foley’s struggle for mental stability and you see through the eyes of The Vagabond, in lengthy italized extracts from his columns.  Moreover, The Vagabond, too, has his secrets as Giese discovers at the end of the book.

This book won the Victorian Premier’s History Award for this book, and it fully deserves it. It is beautifully written, although perhaps a little fervent at times, and it is a deeply compassionate book. By foregrounding the long-term experience of George as patient, the Vagabond as attendant and journalist, and to a lesser extent Dr Paley as administrator, she gives a human face to mental illness as a lived experience. It’s a wonderful read.

My rating: 10/10.

Source: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing

AWW2019 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.