Monthly Archives: February 2020

‘Kathleen O’Connor of Paris’ by Amanda Curtin


2018, 320 p.

Look again at the title: that little preposition ‘of‘ is important. Artist Kathleen O’Connor was born in New Zealand; her family lived in Western Australia; she lived in Perth and Fremantle herself in old age, but she always saw herself as being “of” Paris. Paris was her artistic and spiritual home, and she was bound there by networks of friends and connections.  Drusilla Modjeska may have written about the sacrifice demanded of women artists in the 20th century in Stravinsky’s Lunch, but Kathleen O’Connor lived her artistic life very much on her own terms.

West Australian- based Amanda Curtin had written about Kathleen O’Connor previously. In 2011, the short story  ‘Paris bled into the Indian Ocean’ was published in a collection of Curtin’s  work. It was based on the legend that Kathleen O’Connor had returned to Australia in 1948, and enraged by the duty she had to pay to bring her own paintings back into the country, threw many of them into the ocean.  In the way that art does, this story and its evocative title spawned an art exhibition in 2014, where artist Jo Darvall responded with her own series of watery images.

As part of her research, Curtin was struck by photographs of Kathleen O’Connor taken at the age of 90 in 1967, where she glares defiantly at the photographer, her hair covered by a stylish scarf, just as the photograph on the front cover shows her in the 1920s.   Reading through a collection of letters to O’Connor held in the Battye Library in Perth, Curtin’s eye is drawn to a rather patronizing letter addressed to her, as a 36 year old woman resident in Europe, by John Winthrop Hackett, a highly respectable patriarch of Perth society,  “…what a brave girl you are to attempt to carve out you own destiny this way”.  Curtin snatches his put-down and brandishes it as an accolade, dubbing O’Connor  “Bravegirl”, a sobriquet she continues to deploy  throughout the book.

While she certainly broke with convention in remaining in Europe unchaperoned and making her own way in the Parisian art-scene, “Bravegirl” was facilitated by her family connections, even though it may not have seemed that way at times. She was the daughter of C. Y. O’Connor, the engineer who is best known for bringing water to the Western Australian Goldfields (fictionalized by Robert Drewe in The Drowner.) The Goldfields Pipeline was strongly criticized, probably prompting O’Connor’s suicide, but  the remaining O’Connor family stayed in Perth, and while not wealthy, did have entree into well-known families.  Compensation for C.Y. O’Connor’s death that the family received from the government helped to support Kathleen during her many years overseas.  However, she worked damned hard too, as seen in the huge number of paintings created during her career, now spread in private and public collections, and often re-named. The list of known exhibitions during Kathleen’s lifetime highlights her visibility, and she has been featured in a number of prominent exhibitions since her death.  And – I have to admit-  I had never heard of her.

Biographers often work hard to capture their subject’s childhood, but old age is often dismissed. Curtin has not baulked at following O’Connor’s life through to the end.O’Connor’s heart and identity might have been in Paris, but she spent many years as an older and increasingly frail woman in Western Australia.  ‘Bravegirl’ continued to paint, and while her world became smaller, she continued her interest in the art world.

The book is replete with pictures, including a series of colour illustrations in the middle of the volume.  I particularly liked the way that the works were located close to where they were discussed in the text, and she numbered the illustrations for easy reference. I was surprised by the muddied, ochred tones of her work, which to me speak more of a smoke-filled room in Europe, rather than any Australian connection.

Interestingly, the 733 footnotes at the back of the book are not divided by chapter – a rather curious approach that I have not seen used elsewhere. The footnotes reflect the deep research that Curtin has undertaken, spanning personal papers, newspapers, memoirs oral histories and interviews, as well as the secondary sources she has used to inform the context she provides so richly.

It’s not easy to know how to classify this book. My library shelves it with the Biographies, but it spills out of that category.  Curtin the author is very much present, and she often struggles again her fiction-writer sensibility, reminding herself that this is not fiction, and warning herself that she is embroidering and imagining. (It doesn’t stop her doing it, though). As with Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, this is a fiction writer wading through the waters of historical research.  Interlaced with her own reflections is  another rather oblique (and to my mind, unnecessary) set of reflections, set in the present day, as Curtin returns to Australia after farewelling a dying friend, probably the Debi to whom the book is dedicated.

I have mixed feelings about this amalgam of genres. When I first started writing my PhD, we were encouraged by some- not all- of our supervisors and other academics to be adventurous in our writing, and to break out of the conventions of thesis-writing (advice I did not follow, by the way). I have always admired the writing of historians in the ‘Melbourne School’  (Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening and more recently within the same tradition Tom Griffiths) and their combination of rigour and reflection.  I loved the biographer Richard Holmes’ Sidetracks and Footsteps:Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,  but some 20 years on, I’m wondering if the reflections of the biographer/ biography combination is becoming a little worn.  I, like all other historians, understand and also have felt the tedium, the intensity and the exhilaration of archive work, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hang a book on, especially after so many other people have done so beforehand.

Nonetheless, I value this book highly for bringing Kathleen O’Connor to increased prominence. Even more, the writing and evocation of place and nuance of character in Curtin’s writing, tempts me to seek out her fictional work. There, she won’t have to resist imagination or constantly wrest her work from conjecture.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.


Movie: Cancion sin nombre (Song without a name)

This 2019 Peruvian film is set in the late 1980s, although the events it depicts occurred in 1981, when a Colombian/Peruvian child kidnapping scheme was uncovered, whereby children were bought or taken from impoverished women and sold to childless couples in the United States or Europe.  Appallingly, a similar trafficking ring was discovered in 2018,with links going right up to the top of the police ranks.

The film, shot in black and white, follows a 20 year old indigenous woman, Georgina, who sells potatoes in the market with her husband, and lives in a small shanty in a coastal town. Without the money to pay for antenatal care, she notes the address in the city of a clinic that offers free care. When she has her baby, it is whisked away for medical attention and she never sees it again.  This is the story of her search for her baby, and for justice.

The film has an other-worldly feel, as if it is a fable even though it is told in an urban setting. There is little contextualizing information, especially about the political situation and the rise of terrorism, and there is little conversation. Georgina and her husband are rendered completely impotent through their poverty and lack of documentation, and they have no way of negotiating a corrupt system until Georgina catches the attention of a journalist.

There is a rather unnecessary sub-plot about the journalist as well. The director Melina León was the daughter of the journalist who uncovered the original plot (although in different circumstances), so perhaps she wanted the give the journalist a more complex backstory. It felt rather gratuitous, and Georgina’s story was far more important.

It is a very sad and rather depressing movie, particularly the last scene.

My rating: 4/5 stars

Viewed at: Thornbury Picture House as part of the Filmoteca South American and Spanish film program.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 February 2020

Shooting the Past (ABC) An episode from Sept 2017 takes a picture of an ANZAC soldier sitting in an armchair, recuperating in a garden, with tents in the background. Then you look more closely and see that he has no hands, and possibly no leg either. In Shattered Anzacs(using the title of Marina Larsson’s excellent book), this episode features Curtis McGrath, a present-day veteran who lost his legs, and Prof. Peter Stanley from the Uni of NSW ADFA discussing the meaning of amputation in war and ‘reading’ the photograph.

History Hour (BBC). Another blast from the past- both the program and its content! This episode from March 3, 2019 Venezuela’s Oil Bonanzalooks at Venezuela when the times were good and the money from oil was flowing. There’s also a horrifying story about the airline incident when people were sucked out a hole in an aeroplane (don’t listen, daughter-in-law), and the origins of the swine flu in 2009 and Mexico’s response to it- rather sobering listening during the current Covid19 crisis.

Shaping Opinion.The very first episode of the Shaping Opinion podcast,  by Tim O’Brien, a Pittsburgh-based podcaster, from March 2018 described how O’Brien met his hero, Fred Rogers, the ‘Mister Rogers’ from the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, which I saw recently. Two years later on Feb 3 2020, after the film had been released, the program The Philosophy of Mister Rogers returned to Mr Rogers,  and Tim interviews Bill Isler, the real-life minder of Mr Rogers in the film.  If you enjoyed the film, you probably enjoy this episode.


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 February 2020

Shaping Opinion. A long and rather verbose episode about the rise of conservative AM radio in the United States in The Rise of Rush Limbaugh & Conservative Talk Radio .The interviewee, Brian Rosenwald has written a book “Talk Radio’s America: how an industry took over a political party that took over the United States.”. He emphasizes that radio is an industry first up, and that when the AM band was threatened by the superior quality of FM radio, it moved to conversation and talkback because it still sounded alright. The repeal of the Federal Communications Commissions’ Fairness Doctrine meant that radio stations didn’t have to provide ‘balance’ anymore, and conservative radio rated well : better than liberal programs. Liberal programs tended to have  a different sense of humour to conservative programs, and a liberal listenership was more likely to listen to podcasts etc.  This program was recorded after news had broken that Rush Limbaugh is dying of cancer, so they pull their punches a bit.

99% Invisible.   I never liked the song “Who Let the Dogs Out” and even hearing about it’s convoluted history doesn’t make me like it any better. Whomst Amongst Us Let the Dogs Out looks for the very first version of the song, tracing through the various people who have sung it, or something like it, for a range of purposes: as a feminist song (!)  a rap song and a High School football chant. Doesn’t mean that I like the song any better though.

Rear Vision (ABC) From October 2019, Franco’s body- the politics of the Spanish dictator’s remainsexamines the exhumation of Franco’s body from the mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen, a state memorial to those who fell in the Spanish Civil War. Many felt that it was inappropriate that Franco be interred there, and it was a policy of the Socialist Party and the matter spent many years in the courts. This podcast gives a good precís of the Spanish Civil War, and the issue of reconciliation (which is an ongoing and prickly question, still)

And from August 2019 How history can help shape the debate about an indigenous voice to Parliament probably doesn’t mean to be depressing, but it is. What a litany of false starts and broken promises.

Background Briefing (ABC) From 22 September 2019 Who is burning sacred objects in the outback has a surprising answer.  It’s indigenous people themselves, spurred on by a new wave of Pentecostal churches, some of which feature ‘pastors’ from Zimbabwe or Tonga.  Adds a whole new, disturbing layer to missionary zeal.

Soul Search (ABC) And while we’re on about Pentecostals, Soul Search has a program Pentecostalism in Australia.  Our Scotty is one of 650 million Pentecostals world wide- a number that is growing. Apparently the average Christian today is a 27 year old Brazilian Pentecostal woman. The program has interviews with Prof Mark Hutchinson from Alphacrusis College, a Pentecostal Theological College; Tanya Riches a life-long Hillside attendee and ‘lecturer in theology’ at Hillsong College and indigenous pastor William Dumas from Tweed Heads. Lots of Holy Spirit language here, and not much critical thinking.

Shooting the Past. The picture under discussion this time is of two ladies, looking as if they’ve just come from a CWA meeting or church, standing beside a mallee root still attached to the ground.  An other-worldly thing, the still-attached mallee root bears testimony to how much topsoil has been lost on this Mallee farm. Katie Holmes from La Trobe is one of the historians consulted- I have her (and others) book on the Mallee sitting here, waiting to go.  Flo and Bena and the Mallee Root gives an interesting potted history of land use in the Mallee.

Visiting the local neighbourhood mummy

How lucky am I to have an Egyptian mummy just up the road (sort of)? Up near La Trobe University, in the old Mont Park Terraces at Springthorpe, is the Australian Institute of Archaeology.  They moved there in 1999 after their home at the splendidly named Ancient Times House in Little Bourke Street was converted into student accommodation. Originally established in 1954  as a way of displaying the history and background of the Bible, the Institute of Archaeology collection includes antiquities from Egypt, Eastern Mediterranean, Levant and Mesopotamia.

Last night we went to hear Marica Mucic, Assistant Conservator at Grimwade Conservation Services, speak about the conservation of a mummy from the Australian Institute of Archaeology collection. They had acquired it in 1964 from Sotheby’s auctions in London , and with funding from the Copland Foundation, they have conserved it so that it can continue to be available for their education program.


Not much is known about the mummified child. It (gender unknown) is thought to be about 4 years of age. According to advice from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, the remains show signs of ‘severe trauma’, especially around the head and upper chest, but it is not clear whether this damage occurred prior to death, or in the period between burial and mummification. The presence of soil suggests that the child had been buried at some stage.

Marica emphasized that in their conservation activities, they were continually mindful that this was a human body, of a child who had once lived, and who had been treasured by someone. It was not common to mummify children, and the face mask over the skull appeared to have been cut down from a larger size mask, even though the other ‘cartonnage’ (who knew there was such a word) covering the rest of the body was an appropriate size.


The mummy had been ‘touched up’ at some stage since its arrival in Australia. Black and white photographs from the 1970s show that the painting of figures on the front had been redone, changing horizontal lines to vertical ones, and a nose had been placed on the face mask where the original had been damaged. It amazed me that there was no record of who had performed these ‘restorations’ or when they were performed.

As part of conserving the mummy, they had had to stabilize the wrappings, and fill the insect holes. Because the ‘new’ nose was causing damage to the facemask because it was too heavy, they decided to replace it with a lighter weight one. It was gilded with 23 carat gold leaf, but it was consciously decided that it should remain distinguishable as new work.  The alterations to the paintings were left as they were, as they now constitute part of the history of the mummy.

There was a discussion over the choice of materials and approach in conservation, which can only draw on our best knowledge at the time. It was pointed out that some conservation materials are stable to 45 degrees, but 45 degree temperatures are no longer unknown (although the mummy itself is kept in cooler conditions). I wonder if it 60 years, this current work will be regarded the same way as the ‘touch-ups’ from earlier decades were – I would hope not.  At least now  there is documentation to attest to what was done, why, and by whom.

So, a fascinating talk and a glimpse of our local neighbourhood mummy.



‘The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World’ by Paul Morland


2019, 282 pages & notes

…demography is not an external factor, injected into a society from the outside and simply having a one-way impact; rather it emerges from society itself and is as much caused by its environment as it is shaped by it. Nonetheless causal links can be traced from demographic patterns in the way the world works and the way in which events unfold. And while the human tide does not determine the cause of history, it moulds it, and it seems clear in most cases that different demography would have led to a different outcome.  (p.236)

As is often the case when I have read a book that has influenced my thinking, it seems that all of a sudden there are examples and illustrations all around me. China’s population, which we were convinced was going to ‘swamp’ us, is suddenly in decline; the US reports the slowest population growth in a century; Tony Abbott warns of a Western extinction crisis; Dick Smith keeps publishing his overpopulation advertisements; and in my own little family I am absolutely revelling in the birth of four grandchildren in four years.

Paul Morland, Associate Research Fellow with the Dept of Politics at Birkbeck College UK, starts his book with England in the 1800s, as the industrial revolution is gathering steam (literally!). He argues that the rise in population and the industrial revolution were each reliant on and fed each other.  Both rose, then stabilized.  The rise in population resulted from a decrease in infant mortality and the increase in life expectancy, and the reduction in children that springs from education of girls.  Furthermore, this pattern has occurred and will continue to occur in societies across the world, albeit influenced by pro-natalist politicians, dictators, immigration and epidemics/natural disasters. This, in a nutshell, is his argument: that population growth eventually stabilizes, even in societies that threaten the West today with their demographic fecundity.  He likens it to a film that starts screening in a cinema at different sessions.  Even though you would see a different part of the film in each individual cinema, they all end the same way.

His book is divided into three parts. Part I is an introduction to Population and History. Population growth matters because it spurs economic growth, but it also makes it possible to wage war without fears of running out of replacement soldiers.  Part II focuses on Europe: first, the spread of the British Empire, second, the German and Russian Challenges particularly leading into WWI, third, the West since 1945 and finally, Russia and the Eastern Bloc since 1945.  Part III is titled ‘The Tide Goes Global: Beyond the Europeans’. Here he deals first with Japan, China and East Asia where the aging of the population can be seen again and again;  then the Middle East and North Africa, where populations are booming in the midst of  (and perhaps, in themselves, fomenting) instability; and a concluding section ‘Nothing New Under the Sun? Final frontiers and Future Vistas’. He identifies Sri Lanka as the ‘goldilocks country’ in terms of population – not too much, not too little  (I wonder if he factored the Tamil ‘outflow’ as part of this?)

He argues that the future will be ‘more grey, more green and less white’. It will be more grey, because the world’s median age will be 40 by 2100. An older world generally means a less-bellicose world (because societies with older populations tend to fight fewer wars), but it also means that there is a smaller cohort to provide the resources to care for an older population.  Green? He optimistically predicts that an increased population – because it will increase, before it stabilizes – will force technological change to meet ecological demands, in the same way that improved technological techniques have averted the Malthusian disaster that was predicted for so many years.  And finally, it will be less white as immigration, especially from the Middle East and Africa, will bring changes to formerly Anglosphere societies.

This is an amazingly broad book, sweeping right across with globe, with even Australia and New Zealand getting a look in. It combines statistics (which made my eyes glaze just a little) with human anecdotes (which brought me back to life again). I think, however, that he is too cavalier with his attitude towards the environment. There’s plenty about people, but he is almost silent about the planet on which they are living – and this is a bad oversight, and one that almost undercuts his whole argument.

That said, however, the book brings demography, which is often an unspoken force, into the spotlight. And once you’ve seen it, you see it everywhere.

My rating: 7.5 / 10    I am really troubled by his ignoring the environmental question

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


Essay: The great acceleration


Thomas Parker Electric Car 1880s. Source: Wikimedia

Jeff Sparrow.  The great acceleration.  Overland Issue 236 Spring 2019

I had no idea that there was an electric car industry in the early 20th century – did you? And that of the 4200 vehicles produced in the US by 1900, fewer than 1000 relied on internal combustion. The majority used either steam or electricity.

This essay looks back to the early response to those great disruptors, the first automobiles, and the way that people-power was pushed aside by the powerful automobile companies, which managed to blame pedestrians for being hit by cars!

This is a really interesting essay.