Monthly Archives: November 2019

Movie: Yuli

I confess that I was mainly attracted to this film because it is in Spanish, rather than because it’s a ‘dancing’ film.  It’s the true story of Carlos Acosta, the famous Cuban dancer who has danced with the major (Western) dance companies of the world.  Born to a poor family in Havana, it was his father who drove his career when Carlos himself was a reluctant draftee into the world of dance. It’s a Cuban Billy Elliot in reverse. It is filmed in Havana, which surprised me a bit – perhaps the fact that it is not an American movie opened doors. Carlos Acosta plays himself as an adult, and the narrative is intercut with dance scenes that tell the story – beautifully.

But it is, after all, a dance movie so you more or less know the story before you even see it.  I see that Cinema Nova isn’t showing it any more, either. As it turns out, I saw it at its very last showing.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.

‘A River with a City Problem’ by Margaret Cook

River_City_Cook

2019, 198 p plus notes

As it happened, when I was in Brisbane earlier this year, we ambled along the Riverwalk floating walkway. Watching the ferries and catamarans plying the river, crossing the pedestrian bridges and feeling the sand under our toes on the man-made beach, we wondered “Why doesn’t Melbourne do more with its river?”  Then we passed a restaurant on the walkway that had a mark on its window (which I’ve highlighted here in red) to show the height of the 2011 flood.  You can gauge its height by the legs on the stools at the bottom of the window.

river

At first I thought “What resilience!” but after reading Margaret Cook’s book, I’m not so sure.  This restaurant would have been under water in 1893 and 1974 had it been there then, and it will be under water again when the floods inevitably return. This dogged determination to keep rebuilding is exactly what Cook means when she says that the Brisbane River is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.

White settlers, like the indigenous people who were here before them, are always drawn to fresh water sources. They should have listened to the Turrbal and Jagera people whose Dreamtime stories tell how the river was created by Moodagurra, with an emphasis on the rain and cloud that allowed him to wriggle to form the sinuous river. Of course, they didn’t listen to anyone. Early development took place on the floodplain, subjected to regular floods, but riverfront continued to be viewed as prime land.

Until 1893, that is, when the floodwaters surged onto the floodplains, where homes, wool sheds warehouses and industries had been located. Thirty-five people drowned. The solution? Why, build a dam, of course!….and this has been the approach in Brisbane ever since. There was a hiatus between 1893 and 1974, when drought was often more of a problem than flood, but inevitably the floods came again, and the Somerset dam was found lacking. And so, the solution? Why, build another dam – this time, the Wivenhoe, which was designed to be a dual-purpose dam that would maintain a water supply for Brisbane in times of drought, but also prevent Brisbane and Ipswich from flooding during heavy rains.  A shorter hiatus this time, between 1974 and 2011, then inevitably the floods came after days and days of rain. This time, the ubiquity of smart phones meant that the flood was captured in all of its swirling, turbid power, and rank, stinking aftermath.

This book tells the story of the three major floods – 1893, 1974 and 2011 – from ecological, geographical and human perspectives. More importantly, though, it looks at the failure of policy as successive governments of both persuasions lacked the courage to say ‘enough!’ and prevent development on the floodplain. In the aftermath of a crisis, there’s a proud defiance in claiming that” we will rebuild” but often it defeats good sense.

But the Queensland governments were even more egregious than other Australian governments, in their dogged pursuit of growth and development at all costs. It’s not just Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s white shoe brigade here; it’s Clem Jones the Labor Mayor of Brisbane, and a succession of Premiers of both persuasions who consistently looked to technology instead of asking the harder question “Should we even be building here?” When other governments were looking at floodplain planning, especially in the light of global climate change, Queensland governments went through the motions, leaving loopholes that were (of course!) exploited, and tip-toeing around developers and their investments.

By the time the 2011 floods came, even though the water level itself was lower than earlier floods, the financial implications were disastrous because of the encouragement of higher-density development on the floodplain. She discusses the role of Newscorp media after this flood, most particularly the Australian, in attacking the science behind the decision to release dam water to save the dam, and blaming individuals rather than opening up a broader analysis of the systems that had led to such disastrous results.

The book had its origins in a PhD thesis, which is a remarkably hard genre to shrug off when writing for a more general audience.  This is most obvious in the chapter ‘Flood Management with Hindsight’, which examines the decision to release flood water during the 2011 floods. There are lots of acronyms in this chapter, and I rued the lack of a glossary of abbreviations. I also regretted, as a general reader not local to Brisbane, the lack of a more detailed map of the Brisbane River within the city of Brisbane. There is a map that shows the Brisbane River Catchment more broadly, but when mentioning suburbs and city landmarks, the names meant little to me without a map.

The presence of  images throughout the book, especially when discussing the three floods, breaks up the text. I liked that the pictures were placed within the text, instead of being corralled in the middle of the book as a set of plates – a decision probably made easier by the fact that they were black-and-white newspaper images, rather than colour photos.

By the end of the book, I was not at all confident that anything had been learned at all, and I don’t think that Cook is, either.  That line on the restaurant window showing the flood level that I spoke of earlier seems now to be more an act of hubris, than a mark of resilience.  For now.  Her conclusion, titled “The Floods Will Come Again” is a statement of fact, rather than a prognostication of doom. Perhaps then the political courage might be found to acknowledge that the city itself is the problem, rather than the river.  As the title says, it is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.

Source: review copy courtesy of the author

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

 

 

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 November 2019

RevolutionsPodcast.  After blowing up the Czar, the revolutionaries went into exile in Europe and began having theoretical arguments amongst themselves.  Episode 10.17 The Emancipation of Labour Group goes through the arguments mounted by different groups e.g. you had to allow industrialization so that the industrial proletariat could rise up like Marx predicted; or you had to rely on the peasants because Russia was different to other countries and hadn’t even embarked properly on feudalism; or – from Marx and Engels themselves- criticism that Marxism was being twisted out of its original meaning.

Letters of Love in World War II. Oh no- only one more episode after this. Episode 7: Bergen-Belsen: Sorrow and Shock, deals with late 1944 to mid 1945. The people of England are anticipating that the war will soon by over, but Cyril knows that it may take longer. Faced with ‘ordinary’ Germans, Cyril finds their instructions against fraternization to be very harsh, but Olga is more clear-sighted, especially in view of the news coming out from the concentration camps.

Shaping Opinion. (August 5 2019)  I’m on a bit of an Irish Famine thing at the moment, but I’m almost ready to leave it alone.  In The Famine that Changed Ireland and America podcaster Tim O’Brien interviews Christine Kinealy, the Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, an author, and a member of the Irish American Hall of Fame. She says much the same things: that it wasn’t that there wasn’t enough food but the problem of access and that the British Government was inexorably wedded to an ideology that made things worse. She also argues that even for those who emigrated to America, it wasn’t really until the 1960s with the election of President Kennedy that they felt American. She suggested that the prominence of the Irish Famine in the historiography is largely due to the Irish Peace Treaty and the Celtic Tiger economy of the 1990s which encouraged Irish people to look back at their history.

AirRace

Vickers- Vimy that Ross and Keith Smith flew between London and Darwin Source: Wikipedia

The History Listen (12/11/19)  I write a regular feature in our Heidelberg Historical Society newsletter about what happened in the Heidelberg district one hundred years ago. One hundred years ago, the Great Air Race between London and Darwin brought fame and celebrity to the winners, Ross and Keith Smith and two mechanics Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers. Their achievement is celebrated in The great air race, but unfortunately for me, the contribution of Cedric Ernest Howell from Heidelberg is only a footnote.  And if you want to find out more, you could join Heidelberg Historical Society for only $40.00 and have access through our newsletter to my pearls of wisdom every two months about Heidelberg 100 Years ago!!! (including a piece about Cedric Ernest Howell)

Movie: Locas Mujeres

Gabriela Mistral was the first and only Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Born in 1889, she was a poet, educator and ambassador.  I had actually heard of her: when I was in Santiago there was an exhibition about her in the library across the road, and then when I went to their cultural centre, I found that it was named after her.

But I think that Latin American audiences must know MUCH more about her, because this documentary about her relationship with her younger lover Doris Dana (who, when she was younger, was a dead ringer for Katherine Hepburn) was very light on details. Mainly it was about Doris Dana’s American niece, who ended up being the custodian of all Gabriela Mistral’s papers that had previously gone to Doris Dana. Doris intended sorting them out and publishing them but died before she did so…and there’s so much of the stuff that Doris Dana’s young niece may do the same thing.  So many boxes; so much paper!! As a documentary, film shots of opening boxes and shuffling through papers only gets you so far. Also there were crackly old tape recordings of Gabriela and Doris talking, once Gabriela was getting old and crotchetty.

Still, Steve and I had a good chat about celebrity, and muses, and translated poetry, even if the documentary itself was rather lacklustre and frankly, boring.  It was screened by Filmoteca, who present a Spanish and Latin American film every month through ACMI. It was in Spanish with English subtitles (unlike the trailer I have posted above).

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 November 2019

peterlooThe Documentary (BBC) 14/08/19 Another podcast that has been hanging round on my phone for ages, Peterloo: The massacre that changed Britain commemorates the 200th anniversary of this repression of popular dissent in 1819.  It tells the story of the massacre, also commemorated in the recent Mike Leigh film, and interviews descendants of people who participated in the protest.

Empires of History Podcast Well, I’ve finished my U3A class on the Ottoman Empire, and this podcast is still back in the 14th century, and they seem to stop completely in June 2019. S Episode 9  The Thunderbolt Turns to Europe has Sultan Bayezid going into Anatolia. Episode 10, which is in two parts is called A Crusade Dies at Nicopolis, and it goes through Sultan Beyezid’s battle with the European Crusaders, headed by King Sisimund of Hungary. This sure is blood-thirsty history- on both sides.

The History Listen (ABC) In War Recipes (5/11/19) the theme of food amongst starving prisoners is explored, through recipe books compiled clandestinely by prisoners. One is a metal-bound recipe book compiled by POW Ron Foster in Borneo as a ‘dream cookbook’ to share with his family when he returned home; the second was a communal cookbook compiled by women at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

Rear Vision (ABC) The Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. In The Making and Breaking of the Berlin Wall (10/11/19) I was fascinated to learn that only about 2km of the wall still stands, and that it now has to have heritage protection!

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC) Gee I like this program. Episode 3 How To Spin A War (4/11/19) is about Russia’s invasion of both Ukraine and the Crimea and its success in muddying the waters so much that in the end you really aren’t quite sure what happened.

 

‘Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939’ by Jill Roe

Roe_theosophy

1986, 388 P.

20190823_150525A couple of months back, I went with my Unitarian fellowship to a retreat near Springbrook in south-east Queensland, owned by the Queensland Theosophical Society. Curious about theosophy and wondering if it has any parallels with Unitarianism, I decided to read Jill Roe’s book Beyond Belief. (Thank you for asking: no, Unitarianism  is completely different in terms of philosophy although maybe it does have similarities in terms of public profile). Roe herself was not a Theosophist, so this book is no ‘insider story’ – in fact, it is written with a dry, dispassionate but not hostile air of curiosity. And curious the history of Theosophy in Australia certainly is, but given its attraction to politicians, judges and some academics in the first decades of the 20th century, it can’t be discounted either.

Blavatsky.010

Mme. Blavatsky, Wikimedia Commons

Roe’s book covers the years 1879-1939. Its starting point is 1879 when the Theosophical Society, an international organization, enrolled its first Australian member.

Established in  America in 1875 and eventually based in India, with the so-called psychic Mme Helena Blavatsky as its founder, people joined the central Society as individuals rather than joining a local satellite.  When Mme. Blavatsky was pronounced a fraud for manipulating her seances, she fled to Europe and never returned to India,  and the Theosophical Society continued on without her.

Between 1891-1894 Theosophy gained an effective foothold in Australia with small groups established in various states. Success was mixed. Melbourne, with its solid network of liberals and secularists might have seemed a fertile ground for Theosophy: think Alfred Deakin, Henry Bourne Higgins, Vida Goldstein etc. However, in Melbourne the experimental spiritual space was already occupied by Charles Strong’s Australian Church, the Melbourne Unitarian Church and the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists.  Sydney was a more fractious place, with either hardline churches or frankly ‘nutters’ (have things changed?) and a “freer market for heterodoxy”. The surprising thing to me was that Brisbane became a stronghold for Theosophy (evidenced perhaps by the continuing presence of the retreat I visited in Springbrook?), and it attracted professional and commercial people like judges, doctors, lawyers etc.

Annie_Besant,_LoC

Annie Besant, Wikimedia Commons

The real international “catch” for Theosophy world-wide was the recruitment of Annie Besant (did you know that it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘pleasant’?), already well-known for her activism on contraception and championing the cause of the British Match-Girls. (I’m still haunted by a picture I saw in primary school fifty years ago of a girl my then-age, suffering phossy jaw).  She visited Australia quite often in her role as President of the Theosophical Society and was well received as an excellent public speaker. There was a personal connection too: her daughter had married English journalist Ernest Scott, who ended up the first Professor of History at Melbourne University. He had eschewed both Theosophy and his double-barrelled surname Besant-Scott by the time he received his university appointment , and the marriage had broken up.

Now, for me as a non-Theosophist, this all gets pretty weird. Not only the clairvoyance, but also a belief in Lemuria- an Atlantis-like mega-continent encompassing the Himalayas, Madagascar, Tasmania, Greenland and Siberia before sinking into the sea because of volcanic activity. Then there’s the onward evolutionary cycle of rise and fall of dominant civilizations, with the Aryan world in decay, waiting for the sixth cycle which would be presaged by the arrival of the Coming Christ, the World Teacher. There was the connection with Co-Masonry;  the esoteric offshoot ‘The Order of the Star in the East’; and the takeover of the Old Catholic Church, renamed the Liberal Catholic Church complete with Bishops, mitres and ‘mysteries’.

Then there was the World Teacher himself, whom the Theosophical Society identified as Jiddu Krishnamurti born around 1895 in India and adopted by Annie Besant and fellow Theosophist Charles Leadbeater (no relation to the possum). Expectations of the arrival of the messiah reached their zenith in the 1920s, which was also the high point of Theosophy in Australia. The Star Ampitheatre was built on prime harbourside Balmoral Beach in Sydney for the World Teacher “when he comes” (see image here), but not for Jesus walking through Sydney Heads as the legend goes.  The land cost £7000 and the ampitheatre building itself cost £20,000.  It was demolished in 1951.

During the heady 1920s Theosophy was strongest in Sydney (despite schism) and prominent real estate was purchased in all the capital cities.  It owned and controlled 2GB (home of Alan Jones -HUH!). It moved into education, particularly kindergarten education, with a later offshoot into Anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner education. It encouraged art (particularly the Arts and Crafts movement) and dance (especially eurhythmics). Despite claims to being ‘progressive’, it was a rather straitened progressivism by today’s standards: vegetarian, teetotal, dislike of ‘luxury’, anti-vaccination, proponents of ‘racial hygiene’ and attracted to some of  Mussolini’s ideas.

By the 1930s Theosophy was in decline, and has remained that way. Anthroposophy attracted many of its leading lights; the World Teacher Krishnamurti rejected Theosophy himself and went off in a different spiritual direction; the Society lost 2GB and people drifted into other religions or apathy. It had become an anachronism. Theosophy is, as Roe says “best understood as an alternative religious position dating from the age of imperialism. The ground it stood was undermined by the crises of the early twentieth century” (p. 378)

Quite apart from my curiosity about this esoteric (and in my opinion eccentric) philosophy, the book highlights three interesting themes.  First- here is a church where the major figures are women (Mme Blavatsky and Annie Besant) although, as Roe points out, women only held 1/3 of the officebearing positions in the organization.  Second, this is an imperial endeavour, with India at its heart. The frequent communications and visits between Australia (particularly Brisbane) and India are a different way of looking at empire, largely ignoring the metropole. Finally, there are those rich intersections between Australian intellectual life in the early 20th century and Theosophy- a veritable Who’s Who of connections.

This book was published in 1986 as part of the NSW University Press ‘Modern History Series’. It has the look and feel of a typed manuscript or thesis, with very dense text and footnotes at the end of each chapter (as used to always be the case). Apparently Wakefield Press are crowd-sourcing for a revised edition edited by Marion Quartly  (I wonder how they’ll get around the problem that Wakefield already have another book under their imprint called ‘Beyond Belief’?)

This is an academic text, and it is more an institutional history than a bottom-up, personalized history.  However, in our increasingly rabid religious world, perhaps there will be a readership for this strange history which has so many intersections with early 20th century intellectual history. After all, in an interview with the Australian Humanities Review in 2004, Roe said

if you want to understand the norm, you should look at what isn’t the standard. It’s very illuminating to look at those who have taken a position to the edge, it casts a different light on what really is in general.

AWW2019I have read this book as part of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 November 2019

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC) Series 3 has started! This time Matt Bevan is looking at Putin’s strategy of destabilization in the west- how prescient, given that Ukraine now lies at the heart of the Democrat’s impeachment case.  In Episode 1 (21/10/19) , A Cold Wet Day in Salisbury Matt returns to the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skipral, the event that first drew his attention to Putin and his reach.  Episode 2 From Spymaster to President (28/10/19) looks at Putin’s need to always have an enemy against which to mobilize Russian society.

irish_famine

Source: Wikipedia

In Our Time I’ve just read a bookabout the Irish Famine, and so I finally got round to listening to this episode The Great Irish Famine, dated 4/4/19. Among other things, most of which were covered in the book by Enda Delaney that I read, they do discuss whether the Irish Famine constituted a genocide. One of the historians (they’re often hard to distinguish in this program) argued very strongly that it was not genocide because, despite the disdain for the Irish, there was no intent to kill them off. However, there was a strong determination to implement dramatic social change in Ireland as a way of solving what seemed the intractable problem of poverty.  Instead of seeing migration (especially to America) as a penalty, they argue that there would have been many, many more deaths without that escape valve.