Monthly Archives: July 2019

Essay: ‘The Long Road to Uluru’ by Megan Davis

I enjoy reading essays and articles, and so I’ve decided to write about them on my blog. Apart from the fact that they interest me, one of my criteria for selection is that they are available online or through a State Library library card.

NAIDOC week took place this month, with the theme ‘Voice, Treaty Truth’. This essay by Cobble Cobble woman, Megan Davis,  first appeared in the Griffith Review 60 ‘First Things First’  in April 2018 and it has been recently unlocked on the Griffith Review website in celebration of NAIDOC 2019. In the essay titled  The Long Road to Uluru: Walking together- truth before justice, she goes back to 1999 to describe the last twenty years of fumbling towards substantive and symbolic recognition. She is well placed to write this essay: she is Professor of Law at UNSW and an independent expert on the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She was also heavily involved in the Referendum Council that produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which this year’s NAIDOC slogan echoes.

It seems odd to read now of Rudd’s 2008  “2020 Summit” and realize that we’ve almost reached 2020 already. Not long after that summit, Rudd was presented with The Yolngu and Bininj Leaders Statement of Intent which in many ways foreshadowed the Uluru Statement some ten years later.

The old tactic of Delay by Report has been well exercised over the past 35 years:

Australia has amassed many reports on the exigency of structural reforms for Indigenous peoples, including a 1983 Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, a 1988 Constitutional Commission, the post-Mabo Social Justice Package of 1992–95, the 1998 Constitutional Convention, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000 and the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2003, as well as a 2008 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

In mid-2010 Gillard convened the Expert Panel with representation of a diverse cross-section of Australians and direct representation of all sides of parliament, charged with “leading a broad national consultation and community engagement program to seek the views of a wide spectrum of the community.” After handing up its report, the outgoing Gillard government generously funded the ‘Recognize’ campaign. This might have made white Australians feel better, but neither the Expert Panel Report or the Recognize Campaign had widespread support amongst indigenous Australians. Five years later the Referendum Council was formed, this time with a remit to give Aboriginal people a voice.

This article makes clear the differences between the Expert Panel and the Referendum Council which followed it December 2015 in terms of indigenous participation and findings. It explains how the Regional Dialogues were organized, what happened on the three days of the twelve dialogues held in different locations, and what the priorities were that emerged from these dialogues.  One of the strongest themes that came from the activities planned on the first day was the importance of ‘truth’ and making the indigenous story known to all Australians. Davis refers in particular to the Final Report of the Referendum Council, most especially the section ‘Our Story’ which starts on p. 16 of the text (p.24 of the PDF document)

The Final Report is interesting reading. Appendix D is  Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s essay ‘Rom Watungu: The Law of the Land’ from The Monthly July 2016.  As a shot across the bow on the part of conservative forces, Appendix E is Referendum Council member Amanda Vanstone’s ‘Qualifying Statement’ which has been echoed in recent commentary on Ken Wyatt’s referendum proposal.

I feel a little embarrassed to say that I hadn’t realized the nuances of ‘recognition’ and I had no real idea of how the Uluru Statement came to be written. This essay highlights that the Uluru Statement shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because it was foreshadowed many times when indigenous people were consulted in a meaningful way. It’s a rather depressing thought, although this essay is more optimistic than I am that we will ever to move past the fear and denial that has stymied action in the past.


‘The Vagabond Papers’ by John Stanley James



1969, 256 p.

John Stanley James (1843-1896) , a.k.a ‘Julian Thomas’ and ‘The Vagabond’ was a journalist, originally of Staffordshire England, who ended up in Australia and the New Hebrides. His most famous articles were written in Melbourne in the 1860s through to the 1880s, where he worked under-cover in what we would now call immersive journalism, which was published in a number of newspapers, most notably the Argus. I hadn’t heard of him, and neither had Jill Giese who featured him in her The Maddest Place on Earth (see my review here) but he has been on historians’  and journalists’ radars for some years. He has even been inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame!

The version I read of this book was published in 1969 with an introduction by historian Michael Cannon. It has been recently republished by Monash University Press, with the original 1969 Cannon introduction supplemented by additional essays by Robert W. Flippen and Willa McDonald. I had heard podcasts of their presentations to the RHSV (see my review here), so having heard about their discoveries about James’ life, I felt comfortable enough with the older edition where Cannon signposts the very absences that Flippen and McDonald were to fill.



The chapters in this book are taken from his newspaper articles that deal with Melbourne and Sydney only,  illustrated by sketches from Punch, The Australasian Sketcher and the Illustrated Australian News. They have been arranged in six parts, reflecting their content.

In Part 1 ‘Down and Out’, James visits the places where the indigent gathered, often working ‘under-cover’. He pretends to be an outpatient at the Melbourne Hospital, where it takes him four attempts to be attended. He visits the police court (as Helen Garner was to do 140 years later) and visits the refuges and services offered. He compares the lodging houses in Melbourne and Sydney,  and writes about the Waifs and Strays of Sydney where his writing evokes Charles Dickens. He eats at a Sixpenny Restaurant and goes to the Melbourne General Cemetery to witness pauper funerals.

Part II “Life in Prison’ draws on his four-week undercover assignment at Pentridge Prison, where he works in the different divisions of the jail. In  Part III ‘Middle Class Morality’ he turns his attention to the churches including fashionable Scots Church in Collins Street, under Rev Charles Strong (who later formed the Australian Church), the suburban parish church of South Yarra and the bazaar at St Luke’s Church Emerald Hill. He turns a jaundiced eye to ‘Sabbath Breaking’ in Sydney at the theatres and bars.

Part IV ‘Cold Charity’ takes him to the Immigrants Home, the Benevolent Asylum, the Sailors Home, a Ragged School and fostering-houses for neglected children.  He picks up on this theme in Part VI ‘The Demi-Monde’, where he goes to the Magdalen Asylum at Abbotsford (now an artistic and cultural centre), and a Protestant Female Refuge in Carlton.  In Part V ‘Manly Sports’ he describes a football match and boxing rounds.

He often sets up oppositions within these chapters, where he compares organizations of different sectarian and social hues.  His language is often racist, with particular disdain shown for Jews and Chinese. It is disconcerting to hear his praise of the Magdalen Asylum, given what we now know about them, but his writing is very much of its time. In spite of this, his humanity, concern for the ‘underdog’ and his scorn for hypocrisy and cant shines through.

It was only when the end of the book was approaching that I realized that I hadn’t read the one thing that I had borrowed the book for- his expose of conditions in the Kew and Yarra Bend asylums. They are not included, and so I had to turn to the original newspaper sources instead through our wonderful Trove. It was interesting reading them in their newspaper format instead of the reader-friendly reproduction of his articles in book-form in ‘The Vagabond Papers’. (If you’re looking for them, they are in the Argus No I 22 July 1876; No. II 29 July 1876; No. III 5 August 1876; No. IV 12 August 1876; No. V 19 August 1876; No VI 26 August 1876). It made me realize how unaccustomed I am  to reading long-form journalism, especially with such small font and narrow columns.

I’m really pleased that I have met ‘The Vagabond’. He was years ahead of his time in his journalism, which is vivid and engaging, giving a good (if colourful) picture of Melbourne and Sydney from the bottom-up.  And what a fascinating personality, full of contradictions!




‘The Shape of the Ruins’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez


2018 (English translation, originally 2015), 505 p.

When I learned that there was a new Juan Gabriel Vásquez book available, I made sure to put a hold on it as soon as it became available at the library. I had really enjoyed The Sound of Things Falling and looked forward to this new book. But I must confess that for about the first 100 pages I felt disappointed. Was this even a different book? I wondered. Many of the same elements were in both books: the tone of the narrator, who becomes obsessed with a murder at the same time as his partner is undergoing a health crisis; the fictionalization of a real-life event, and the sticky web of crime and conspiracy in Colombia. Is Vásquez only capable of writing the same book over and over?  That question still lingers, even though I was soon won over by the author’s smooth writing (no doubt ably assisted by an excellent translation).

The narrator is Juan Gabriel Vásquez himself, so already the lines between fiction and memoir are blurred. He becomes drawn into his friend Doctor Benevidas’ obsession with the (real life) murder of Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaítan on April 9, 1948, an obsession that was almost handed down from father to son. Vásquez learns that his friend is not the only one obsessed: so too is Carlos Carballo, a former student of Dr Benevidas’ father, who conflates this assassination with other historical assassinations including J. F. Kennedy and the 1914 assassination of Liberal leader General Rafael Uribe Uribe. So there is this whirlpool of assassinations and conspiracy theories, investigated to the point of madness by amateur historian/detectives. Vásquez finds himself drawn into this whirlpool, while at the same time distancing himself from the conspiratorial world-view that propels it.

The book unfolds almost like those Russian dolls, starting off with one assassination, which is then likened to another, and then another.  There are stories within stories, each subtly but recognizably different from the other. The historical detail is rich, as I found when I googled to supplement my sketchy knowledge of Colombian history. This is not a bad way to have your history delivered, but Vásquez plays tricks too. He inserts completely fictional artefacts into the story, and makes references to his own fictional characters in his earlier books, as well as referencing other Latin American writers like Borges and, in a factual sense, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are photographs in the text, like a W.G. Sebald text, and the book is permeated with that same elegiac Sebaldian tone. It feels baggy and discursive, but it is always controlled.

So after playing with your head for 500 pages and making you feel as if you are stuck in one long Oliver Stone documentary, where does Vásquez leave you? The line between fiction and truth is blurred for him, as well as for you:

There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random life events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners… where the cause of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows (p. 496)…it would no longer be the fictional characters of that novel who would occupy my solitude, but a true story that showed me at every step how little I had understood until this moment of my country’s past, which laughed in my face, as if making me feel the pettiness of my narrative resources before the disorder of what had happened so many years ago. It would no longer be the conflicts of characters who depended on my will, but my attempts to understand truly and for ever, what ..had [been] revealed over the course of several encounters that were now blending in my memory (p. 501)

This is a complex read, but a compelling one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for 2019.  I’m frustrated that it is so similar to his earlier book, and yet I can’t help feeling that this similarity is completely intentional – that it is all part of a bigger vision. And so, when his next book comes out, I’ll be rushing to read that too.

My rating: 9.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.



I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 July

Who Runs This Place (ABC) Part IV The People looks at people power- quite a relief after all this depressing nefarious network stuff in the earlier episodes. Richard Aedy looks at the distrust of politicians worldwide. He points out that Macron was seen to have betrayed the movement that put him in power (and hence the yellow jackets) whereas Trump is governing completely for the movement that voted for him (and he hopes will do so again). The program looks at unions, social media (Get Up and Advance Australia) and indigenous politics, most particularly through the Uluru Statement. He finishes by observing that this was the only episode in which they were able to achieve gender equity, which goes to show who really does run this place.

13minutes13 Minutes to the Moon (BBC)  Website here. I wasn’t intending to get caught up in the 50th anniversary celebrations, but after a doco and a film, I decided to listen to this twelve-part production. It’s excellent. Episode 1 contextualizes Kennedy’s decision to go for this very visible project (did you know that he was considering, as an alternative, a big desalination project to solve the problem of water shortage?), Episode 2 emphasizes the youth of the people involved (average age of 26, many straight from university). Episode 3 focuses on that weird-looking, gold-wrapped Eagle module, and Episode 4 deals with the crash of Apollo 1, and its effect on the project.  Episode 5 is a fascinating look at the role of the computer in the moon landing- this one is really well done.

Heart and Soul (BBC) This episode A Spiritual Awareness from Space is narrated by a former astronaut and discusses the ‘overview effect’ of seeing earth from Space. As this episode points out, and demonstrates in itself, you interpret things from your pre-existing perspective, with either a more scientific/abstract or religious emphasis. I found myself bristling against the more orthodox ‘religious’ interpretations of the experience in space.

‘Four Soldiers’ by Hubert Mingarelli


2018 (English translation), 155 p. Translated from Italian by Sam Taylor.

I must confess that I borrowed this book solely because of Hilary Mantel’s blurb ‘A small miracle’ on the front cover. I’m not so sure about the ‘miraculousness’ of the book, but it certainly is small at only 155 pages and could probably be better described as a novella than a novel.

It is set in 1919 in the Russian Civil War. As winter sets in, the Red Army commanders break up their regiment, turning them out into the winter landscape to fend for themselves until the weather improves and the fighting commences again. Four soldiers – Benia, Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra – set off with their tent (a rather poor defence against the ravages of winter) and establish a camp near a lake. Here they live day-by-day, a quiet self-contained peaceful existence in the midst of war, with the prospect of returning to battle hanging over them.

Benia, the narrator, is closest to Pavel, with whom he often walks at night when Pavel is disturbed by nightmares. Kyabine is a large, not very bright Ukrainian, whom they brought along soley for his brute strength in a harsh environment. The title is a misnomer, because there are in fact five soldiers when they are joined by Kouzma Evdokim, a young peasant recruit. He says that he is going to write their story in his notebook, and they are anxious that his words capture the truth of their experience.

The story is very simply told, with short sentences. The translation feels very clean and precise. The chapters last only a couple of pages, almost like a film script. Very little happens, even though the narrative is infused with a sense of dread.  Its simplicity and precariousness makes it a more memorable read than it would be otherwise.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


Movie: Apollo 11

I had no real intention of getting swept up in the 50th anniversary until I caught the final part of SBS’ three part documentary Chasing the Moon (available on SBSOnDemand). Then, reading the magazine part of the Age a week late, as is my wont, I read Stephanie Bunbury’s review of Apollo 11. “Let’s go see this!” I said. And so we did.

This documentary covers the nine days of the lunar launch, using only contemporary sources. There are no talking heads, and no analysis. The footage comprises material sourced from other countries (because NASA had taped over its own records of the moon landings) and a huge unprocessed collection of large-format 70 millimetre film that had been sitting in cold storage.  There was also a huge cache of 11,000 hours of audio recordings taken from the headsets of mission personnel.

It starts with excerpts of Kennedy’s 1962 promise to put a man on the moon, and it shows people gathering with their campervans and sunglasses to watch the launch. Once Saturn is launched, the action moves to inside the control room and the lunar module. There is no explanation – you just watch it happen, and even though we all know how it ended, I found myself holding my breath as the various stages unfolded.

It is a visual experience, and having seen it, I decided to listen to BBC’s 13 Minutes to the Moon, which is a completely aural experience. I have two regrets: first, I think I would have enjoyed the movie even more had I listened to the podcasts first, and second I wish I had seen it at IMAX.

Movie: An Unexpected Love (El Amor Menos Pensado)

Very much an over-60s film, this Argentian movie looks at a long-term marriage that breaks up after the only son leaves home. Like all good comedies, it has a bit of an edge to it, as these middle aged characters negotiate Tindr, Instagram and the complexities of pulling apart two lives that have become integrated after years of marriage.  I guess you’d call it a rom-com, which is not my normal fare, but I really enjoyed it.

Spanish with English subtitles

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.