Monthly Archives: June 2019

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9 – 16 June 2019

BBC Outlook  Born the Wrong Colour So I had to Die. A young South African girl is adopted and grows up in the UK. Sneaking around her mother’s room, she find the truth of her birth and what her birth mother was prepared to do to cover the shame of having a mixed-race child in Apartheid-era South Africa. Very good

New Books in History.. Amy Murrell Taylor’s “Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camp” is really cleaning up the awards, and the interviewer here is obviously a big fan. During the Civil War – when the outcome was still uncertain- slave workers took their families into the encampments of Union soldiers. Many of the men were sent to fight with the Union, while the women and children lived in often makeshift quarters in the encampment. However, there were differences between their experiences, and this book traces through different camps and how these slave women and children (not yet Emancipated) were received. You don’t have to have read the book, or even have a very good understanding of the Civil War- I found it really interesting.  It’s a shame that the book is so expensive (even the e-book is $32.00!)  and I’m not likely to find it in a library in Australia. You can find the interview here.

The History Listen (ABC) Waterloo Bay: that word “massacre”. At the small farming and surfing town of Elliston, on the remote west coast of South Australia, a memorial has been erected to the massacre of indigenous people that occurred in 1849. The use of the word “massacre” on the memorial has split the community.

Who Runs This Place (ABC). This four-part series presented by Richard Aedy started today. In this first episode The Triangle, he looks at the roles of Prime Minister, the Prime Ministers Office, the public service and the security agencies.

Rear Vision (ABC). I’ve had these two podcasts on my phone for ages, and finally got round to listening them. They’re a pair, one (Brexit, British Labour and Jeremy Corbyn) dealing with Brexit and the Labour Party, and the other The Conservative Party and Brexit exploring the Conservative Party’s introduction and fraught relationship with Europe . They take a long-term historical view of the relationship between these political parties and the EEC and EU. There was a lot that I either never knew or had forgotten (a distinction which is becoming harder to be sure about these days). For example, did you know that Britain’s first referendum was over whether to stay in the EEC during the 1970s? These podcasts might be three months old, but they’re still very relevant. What a right stuff-up.


‘An Aboriginal Son’ by Gordon Matthews


1996, 230 p.

There are spoilers in this review

In his short disclaimer about” changed names to protect identity etc.” at the start of this book, Gordon Matthews writes:

This book was an act of catharsis. I wrote it to make peace with myself.

The motivations for writing a memoir are many and varied, and I suspect that ‘catharsis’ is quite a common one. However, I’m not sure that all catharsis needs to be put into print. I closed this book feeling complicit and somewhat sullied, and I wondered why Gordon Matthews published this book.

At one level, I can understand it. Identity, or the search for it, is one of the touchstones of modern life. In Australia,  there is heightened awareness of the Stolen Generations of indigenous children after years of Royal Commissions. In this book, with the small black and white photograph on the back cover of a cheeky, curly-haired boy who certainly looks aboriginal, we think that we are reading the story of an adopted child who learns later in life that he is part of the Stolen Generation. But that’s not what happens (and here’s the spoiler, so look away now!). Adopted by a middle-class white family; teased by his private school ‘friends’ who call him ‘Abo’; conscious always of his difference, he is encouraged by an Aboriginal Liaison Officer to apply for a university scholarship and eventually gains a designated position as Australia’s first indigenous diplomat. Then he finds out the truth: that his father is Sri Lankan, not Aboriginal, and his whole identity falls apart. Although his Aboriginality was not a deliberate hoax, he knows that he cannot continue to claim an indigenous identity that he does not hold.

I was slightly surprised by his telling of how he came to embrace  and be embraced in what he thought was his own Aboriginality.  It seems at one remove from the broader Aboriginal community, seeming to be based mainly within the university and bureaucracy. Is this because he is in Canberra, perhaps? I’m not sure quite when the actions in this book took place, and maybe things have changed. As I understand it, indigenous identity involves both family connections and genetics (rather ironic given how ‘blood’ ratios have historically been used as such a weapon) and acceptance by the community. It is only near the end of the book, when he has admitted that he is not indigenous, that his relationships with the community come into sharper focus.

Secure and happy enough with his adopted parents, it is his search for racial identity in particular that impels his search to find his birth parents. He is curious about them, but not as individuals in their own right, but as the key to his racial understanding of himself. He eventually finds them in America. After giving him up for adoption, they married and went on to have other children. Gordon finds  not only both parents grieving their relinquished first child, but also blood siblings who have been completely unaware of his existence.

The relationship with his birth mother was tense, despite his parents’ joy at finding him and embracing him as part of their family. Contact between him and his family cooled. His birth parents did not want him to publish this book, and it was at this point that I felt I wanted to drop the book from my hands. This was such a fragile relationship, and he was asserting his right over his own story at the risk, I suspect, of alienating and losing this new family that he had found on the way to discovering his racial identity. Pigheaded? Self-sabotaging? Selfish?

The book raises complex questions about identity, race and family. There is a distance in the telling, both at an emotional level and in the slightly stilted language. Whatever he might have been as a diplomat, Matthews is not a ‘natural’ writer.

I can find nothing on the internet about what happened next to Gordon Matthews, or his family.  The silence is a little unnerving. I have no idea how the publication of this book was received by his family at the time, and I wonder if, more than 20 years later, he would say that it was worth it. I guess I will never know.

My rating: 7

Sourced from: Council of Adult Education. It was the June book for my bookgroup.


Article: Artists in Society 1850-1880

I enjoy reading essays and articles and so I’ve decided to briefly review them here. My criteria for selection is that they are available online, either freely or through membership of one of our State Libraries (in my case, the State Library of Victoria). Membership of a State Library is free, and it often gives you access to online journals that you would not otherwise have. Not the most recent edition, admittedly, but free nonetheless.

Caroline Clemente ‘Artists in Society: a Melbourne circle 1850s- 1880s’ Art Bulletin of Victoria, 30,  (2014) freely available online here.

The focus of this article is on three colonial artists whose works can be found in the NGV’s collection of colonial period art: Edward La Trobe Bateman (1815-97), Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-95) and Georgiana McCrae (1804-90). Although the works discussed in this article were all created during the period 1850-1880s, the networks and family/friendship connections between the artists reach back into 1840s Port Phillip.  The Howitt family are the linch-pin here as the centre of cultured Port Phillip society, in their large house at No 1 Collins Street and  at Barragunda, their retreat at Cape Schank. [See a photograph of their Collins Street residence here in 1868, showing the presence of large residences and gardens in what is now the centre of the city.]

At the same time, the links between these artists and their works and the cultural influences in the metropole are clear.  Bateman‘s work featured at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition held in Melbourne in 2015 and Louisa Anne Meredith’s books and illustrations attracted attention in London as part of the empire’s fascination with the flora and fauna of ‘the colonies’.  Even Georgiana McCrae, whose professional life was largely stifled by her emigration to Port Phillip,  was trained by some of the best masters in England and, thankfully, continued her work within her family circle even though it was deemed unseemly for her to work commercially.

This article takes each of the three artists in turn, highlighting the links between them. As the closing sentence of this essay notes:

This circle of friends and artists thus provides a unique insight and testifies to the breadth and vigour of the cultural life of early Melbourne.



I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 June

Russia if you’re listening (ABC).  ‘The Night at the Wine Rooms’ is the final episode of the series, this time featuring our very own Dolly Downer . This series seemed to run out of puff a little after the Mueller Report, but the new series sounds good – talking about Russia’s attempts to shape political reality over the last decade, not just the last few years. I’m not sure when it starts again.

Staw_angelofdeathConversations (ABC) Richard Fidler’s interview The ‘Angel of Death’ of Sydney’s Underworld with historian Leigh Straw is a good one. She has specialized in Sydney true-crime in the late 19th-early 20th century, and her most recent book is about  The ‘Angel of Death’ underworld figure Dulcie Markham, whose lovers kept dying.


BBC World – Outlook The Amateur Sleuth and the Lost Babies. Another middle-of-the-night program, this time about amateur historian Catherine Corless who uncovered the truth about the Mothers and Babies home in Tuam, Ireland, where hundreds of children disappeared without trace and where a septic tank in the back yard revealed many human remains. There has since been an enquiry and apology.

In Bed With an Assassin tells the story of Jason P. Howell, a photographer who specialized in conflict zones, who falls in love with a Colombian woman. He gradually realized that she was deeply involved with the paramilitary forces. He has to readjust his moral compass in his response to what he learns about her activities.

99% Invisible The Tunnel is about a tunnel built underneath the Mexican border, connecting the small Mexican town of Agua Prieta and Douglas Arizona on the other side. Sophisticated in its construction, it was used for smuggling drugs and was a prototype for other such tunnels built by the Sinaloa Cartel crossing the border. (Actually, the website link is so informative that you don’t really need to listen to the podcast!)

Movie: Peterloo

I was rather disappointed in this film. It felt like a clunky, poorly-written stage show, with  buffoonish parodies of the villains. It was a very wordy film, probably because much of the speechifying was taken from the orations at the time and, as one of the characters says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”.  Many of the working-class characters felt like parodies- as if they were in a Monty Python movie.

However, it wasn’t all bad. The approach towards the protesters was more nuanced, picking up on the differences of political strategy and levels of education, and the tension leading up to the Peterloo massacre was well held. It was odd that there was no explanation of the fall-out from the massacre – perhaps because only 18 died? – and the consequences were political in terms of more repression, which doesn’t fit well into a “what happened next” paragraph?

I think I just expected more from a director of Mike Leigh’s stature.

My rating: 3/5

‘Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self’ by Claire Tomalin


2002, 380 P plus notes

There are some biographies where you think that there’s no point in anyone else even picking up their pen to write another one. Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys falls into that category.  This isn’t the first time I have read this book, because I read it in 2005- certainly long enough to have forgotten much of the details. That was before I had been to London myself, and before I had started my own academic work in biography. I very much enjoyed it in 2005 and enjoyed it even more fourteen years later.

I think that I first became aware of Samuel Pepys in a school reader, where his eyewitness report of the Great Fire of London was reproduced. I’d always associated him more with the events that he wrote about (the fire, the plague etc) rather than as a person in his own right. But as Claire Tomalin points out, perhaps his most striking and original achievement was to see himself, his actions and his motivations, as a topic in themselves. One of the most opaque things over time and culture is to sense how people saw themselves, especially when such a question was so often overlaid with religious language. In Pepys we have a man holding himself up to his own scrutiny, laughing at himself, and at times writing what he knew could be used against him politically.

Pepys’ diaries covered only nine of his seventy years. It’s not really clear why he started writing them, but it was a very deliberate act when he purchased a notebook and carefully ruled up each page – all 280 of them- and drew 20-30 evenly spaced lines on which to write. He wrote in shorthand, with some proper nouns written in English, and breaking into pidgin Spanish when he wanted to describe some of his (all too frequent) amatory adventures.

Although Pepys’ diaries of course provide the richest source for Tomalin’s work (and indeed, the work of any Pepys scholar), this biography devotes about 1/3 of its length to the 1660-1669 period of the diaries. The other 2/3 deals with his life before beginning the diaries, and then after the diaries. This seems a judicious weighting, and one which placed the journals, important though they are, into the context of his whole life.

The book starts with a lengthy list of ‘who’s who’ which I found myself turning to frequently. As Tomalin highlights, when Pepys was starting out on his career, contacts were everything in making it possible for this son of a tailor to end up as a high-level civil servant and Member of Parliament. Even though I’m not in the habit of taking my history from Academy Award winning films, the recent film The Favourite exemplified the trails of patronage that could bring distant cousins into orbits far beyond their expectations.

What struck me particularly on this second reading, and particularly in days when watching the so-far unsuccessful attempts at political change in Venezuela, is just how dangerous it is when a country undertakes a huge political change. I’m not talking about elections, which in our case are just variations on the same, but the big political about-faces. Pepys experienced a number of such changes, at an uncomfortably close quarter to royal power, but without the means or patronage to have any influence at all on events. He saw the execution of Charles I; he supported Oliver Cromwell when he was a young man; he managed to switch to Charles II in time; he escaped suspicion (just) after the Popish plots; and he acquiesced when William took the throne. The people he aligned himself with survived, and so he did too.

Although the book is largely chronologically arranged into 3 parts (Part I pre-diaries; Part II 1660-1669 diary entries; Part III 1670-1703), its chapters are thematic as well e.g. work, marriage, science. She does not cite at length from the journals themselves, choosing to comment on them instead of reproducing them.

At times Pepys seems like us: at other times, not. His infidelities and what now reads like rank sexual harassment are uncomfortable reading; his domestic violence to his wife and servants is not endearing. But I found myself laughing when his enraged wife threatened his manhood with red-hot fire tools when she found out about his affair with the maid, and his own awareness of his hypocrisy, failings and weakness keeps him human.  Tomalin has given us a fully rounded man, and I just can’t imagine anyone else doing it better.

By the way, the first time I read this book, I was fascinated by the Pepys Diary page, which is still going. Each day an entry from the diaries is posted in full and people, who have a wealth of information about Pepys and London, annotate the entries.  Another site which I’ve enjoyed, although it’s aimed at children is an interactive site

My rating: 9.5/10  This is biography at its best

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 26-31 May 2019

Background Briefing: The sexual abuse scandal nobody’s talking about.  Putting someone you love into aged care is such a hard thing for everyone. The current commission into aged care and this Background Briefing program must make it even harder. The sexual abuse in this program is not from other patients but from the ‘carers’ in a system where providers seem to have all the clout. Carers are not registered, and there’s no mandatory reporting. What a terrifying situation to be in for people in aged care who realize what is happening.


Eustace Hamilton Miles Source: Wikimedia

Arts and Ideas (BBC) Healthy Eating Edwardian Style. This program tells the story of Eustace Hamilton Miles, an Olympian  real tennis player (yes, real [royal] tennis was an Olympic sport in 1908 only) who promoted many different fad diets over his career. He started a vegetarian restaurant in Charing Cross, (even though he eschewed the term ‘vegetarian’), which became notorious for its links with the suffragettes, who regularly ate their. Although his restaurants and health food stores prospered during WWI, his ideas went out of fashion and he died leaving only 175 pounds. His ideas were at their most popular in the first two decades of the 20th century, a time when sleeping in the fresh air on a verandah was very popular.

New Books in History  This is pretty hard-core history which assumes that one is on top of all the historiographical debates that surround the book being featured. In this case, it was Jeremy Black’s The World at War 1914-1945.  My word, what a productive historian Jeremy Black is, with 100 titles to his name – five in 2019 so far: no wonder he’s known as “the most prolific historical scholar of our age”. Anyway, he snipes at other historians, refutes the idea that the first and second world wars replicated each other, and argues that the Germans started it. This episode, steeped in military history, is very bloke-y and combative and this article, from the centre-right Standpoint magazine, tells more about this historian I’d never heard of.  This is not entertainment-light by any means, and I think you’d have to be interested in military and world history to really enjoy this.

Conversations (ABC)  Felafel and Fatherhood a rather lacklustre conversation with John Birmingham  who wrote He Died with a Felafel in his Hand (which I’ve never read) and has recently released On Father, one of those small ‘On…’ books. Not one of the better interviews.