Monthly Archives: September 2020

‘Dancing in my dreams: confronting the spectre of polio’ by Kerry Highley


2016, 177 p. plus notes

I admit that it might seem rather perverse to read about polio epidemics during our own coronavirus pandemic. But with the government’s attempt to highlight COVID infections amongst younger people as well as in older populations to highlight the seriousness of the situation, my mind has been turning recently to the polio epidemics of the past, and particularly the significance of age during a pandemic.

My father was the second child of the family, with a much older half-brother born to a previous marriage (as was too often the case, my grandfather’s first wife died in childbirth). Effectively brought up as a much-doted only child, my eight-year old father was sent to the family property up in Healesville to stay with his grandparents when the polio epidemic of 1937 struck, far from the contagion of the city. 


My father with his father (left), grandfather and mother at Healesville

Through Highley’s book Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio, I now know that the government tried to discourage parents from doing exactly this, no doubt fearful of spreading polio even further. The streets in 1937 were deserted, she writes, and the picture theatres empty. Schools were closed, and states rushed to close their borders, something that the Federal Minister for Health, Billy Hughes, declared was unconstitutional. (Federal politicians obviously don’t like to be reminded that state borders still exist.) I still shake my head in disbelief that I have seen the same thing in 2020.

But, in fact 1937 was not the most virulent polio epidemic that Australia has seen.  That distinction belongs to the early 1950s, when polio affected 32.30 in every 100,000 of population and affected states across Australia (compared with 14.10 in 1936-40, which mainly affected Victoria.) Nor was it necessarily infantile paralysis, as it was more formally known. The improvements in sanitation in the early twentieth century meant that very young infants, who seemed to be less severely affected, were less likely to catch it. Instead, older children from about 6 and up, teenagers and young adults contracted it. In European, industrialized countries, it changed from an endemic disease to an epidemic one, and one that affected middle class children and young adults, and not just ‘the poor’.

Epidemics prior to 1951 affected particular states, rather than the country as a whole. In 1904 it was Queensland and NSW; in 1908 Victoria; and then in New South Wales in 1931-2. During 1916 New York was afflicted with an epidemic that evoked many of the public health responses we have seen recently: six (!!) weeks quarantine of patients and contacts; food delivered to the front door, funerals held in private, schools closed, public meetings banned.  The public perception that there was a correlation between polio and dirt was challenged when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. That myth may have been crushed, but the perception that to be “crippled” (to use the terminology of the day) was a matter of shame continued for decades.

During (and after) the 1937 epidemic, there were two competing treatment regimes and much of Highley’s book describes the personalities, history and politics that affected the dominance of one regime over the other.  These clashes took place within a particular historical context.  The 1908 Medical Act established the dominance of the medical profession over the chemists, dentists, midwives, herbalists and homeopaths who had operated in the medical sphere previously.  Nurses, although trying to emphasize their professionalism through groups like the Australian Training Nurses Association,  were very much under the control of doctors and the British Medical Association in Australia organization was very powerful. Interestingly, due to the influence of Christian Scientists and chiropractors in the United States, this strict delineation was not a feature of the American medical scene. In Victoria, the ‘fever hospital’ (later Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital) opened in 1904, and in 1937 all polio cases were sent there.

The official response was headed by Dr. (later Dame) Jean Macnamara, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in the stellar year of 1922 (along with pediatrician Dr. Kate Campbell, hematologist Dr Lucy Bryce and medical scientist Dr (late Sir) Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet). She was appointed resident of the Children’s Hospital the following year, then became clinical assistant to the Children’s out-patients physician and entered private practice specializing in poliomyelitis in 1925. When a polio outbreak occurred that year, she began testing the use of immune serum in her patients and continued to do so even when other international results called its efficacy into question. (Another resonance today- serum is being tested for COVID as well.) Her method involved the splinting of children into a Thomas Splint – a flat, almost crucifix type structure-  for months if not years until the damaged nerves had recovered. Her preference for splinting also extended to treatment for knock-knees and postural problems. In Highley’s somewhat critical depiction, she took a rather utilitarian view of illness, with an emphasis on the economic costs of the ‘cripple’ who would need an invalid pension in the future.

The competing treatment was pioneered by Sister Elizabeth Kenny,  a nurse – not a doctor- from Townsville. Instead of waiting for the inflammation to subside, the Kenny treatment involved hot flannels for the pain (something that Macnamara’s treatment did not prioritize) and early massage and manipulation of the muscles. As Highley points out, Kenny was in many ways her own worst enemy. She was evasive about her own background, which did not include general nursing training, and it  was her experience during WWI that qualified her to call herself ‘Sister’. She was adamant in distancing herself from what might be construed as ‘quack’ medicine, which meant that she did not ally herself with the increasingly-accepted discipline of physiotherapy, which probably would have been to her advantage. Not part of the medical establishment Kenny herself was pugnacious and often alienated people who could have assisted her. Her methods were more accepted in America, where the medical establishment did not have the same stranglehold, and in New Zealand. Although some of her methods were integrated into Australian treatment, the Kenny-dedicated clinics dwindled, and ‘Kenny-like’ treatments diluted the significance of early intervention.

So much was not known about polio at the time: how it was transmitted, its effect on the body, the prognosis for an individual. Just as today, there was a frantic race to find a vaccine against polio, and the tragic mis-steps in this process bring a note of caution to our current world-wide race to find a COVID vaccine.

But the focus of this book is very much on the individual, and his or her  experience of polio. She traces through the diagnosis and early crisis of the disease, the responses of child and adult patients to this rupture in their lives, the differing experiences under the Macnamara and Kenny treatment regime, the long period of rehabilitation and family and societal responses in the years and decades afterwards. The text has liberal quotations of oral testimony, drawn from a variety of sources, and you never forget that you are reading about people. It is engagingly written, with equal attention to personality, politics and science.

And no, it wasn’t depressing reading during a pandemic.  It was oddly reassuring to read that communities had been frightened by a disease that was unknown, and that the current measures of quarantine, isolation and, yes, border closures are not some 21st century draconian infringement on our liberties or a conspiracy dreamed up on the edges of the internet. It was interesting to see two women competing within the medical sphere, and the power dynamics at play. There were mis-steps and misapprehensions, but knowledge of polio as a disease gradually expanded. The book captures attitudes towards illness and disability that are best left in the past.  The story of the polio vaccine and its tragic failures prompted by haste carry a warning (I’m speaking to you, Trump), but eventually confirm the importance of vaccination and rigorous testing. I’m glad that I read this book.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: read online through State Library of Victoria.

I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

I hear with my little ear: 9th-16th September

Heather Cox Richardson Her History and Politics Chat of 8th September asked: why are the Republicans so good at breaking things down and explaining them simply and the Democrats so poor? She partially agreed. She then explored the question of “Is democracy good? Why is democracy good?”, coming to much the same conclusion as Churchill “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”. She also looked at campaign funding (which she has covered previously) and noted that Trump started his 2020 campaign almost as soon as he was sworn in. This means that for the past four years, he has been able to hold rallies with selected audience, and more importantly, have his legal bills paid.

Her History of the Republican Party of 20th August looked at Ronald Reagan, and the rise of ‘western’ tropes (e.g. RR dressing up as a cowboy, prairie dresses, even Star Wars as a modern version). The Movement Conservatives were still active. Reagan was all over the shop in terms of tax cuts and spending.

The Real Story. Each night, I am stunned by the number of new cases in India. The commentators in India’s COVID-19 Challenge all came from fairly entrenched positions e.g. the BJP commentator had nothing but praise for Modi’s government; one of the women brought everything back to Modi’s decision to lay the foundation stone for a new temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque, destroyed by Hindu mobs in 1992. Still, all rather sobering.

America, Are You Listening? In this episode, The surprising story of how Donald Trump took on the NRA, Matt Bevan looks at Trump’s relationship with the NRA. Surprisingly (especially for a Republican President), Trump initially stood up to the NRA and for a moment it seemed that the stars were aligning to end the madness of America’s ‘sacred’ relationship with guns: an unconventional President, a willing House, public revulsion at mass shootings, and the NRA in internal disarray. But somehow, and for some reason, all that seems to have gone away.

Dan Snow’s History Hit Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages looks at the practice of making a pilgrimage within England – a rather flexible activity it seems, as you could pay someone to do it for you, just thinking about it counted as actually doing it and Saints Days could be shifted around to take advantage of better weather. The podcast features Dr. Sheila Sweetinberg.

And while we’re talking about religious things, Stealing from the Saracens: Islam and European Architecture looks at the Muslim (and particularly Syrian) architecture brought back by merchants, pilgrims and crusaders to the Holy City, and it was incorporated into what we see as the quintessentially European ‘gothic’. The interviewee, Diana Darke, comments on the expungement of Syrian influence in the mosque at Cordoba, something that I noticed too. Although I think that it is too strong, and that the Christian additions are mere excrescences.

Outlook (BBC) In Sewing to Protest in a Chilean Prison Camp, London-based Jimena Pardo visited a display of handcrafts created by Chilean prisoners in Pinochet’s prison camps. It gave her the courage to ask her mother, Cristina about her own prison experience- something that she had never spoken about before. This is Cristina’s story, when as a medical student and mother of a young baby, she and her husband were swept up in a raid and imprisoned. (There’s a really good video about the imprisonments and the exhibition here, in English)

Rough Translation (NPR) American Surrogate 30 months later picks up on a program from 2017 where an American woman agrees to act as a surrogate for a Chinese couple. The American woman, who hoped to have a friendship with the couple when they returned to China with their baby, was stunned when the Chinese woman said that she would not tell their child of the surrogacy arrangement. This catches up with them 3 years after the birth, which had been more difficult than they anticipated because of eclampsia .

‘City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest’ by Sophie Cunningham

2019, 224 p.

As might be guessed from the full title City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest this book of essays ties together a number of disparate topics: trees, the natural world, human heedlessness, loving and dying. Each of the essays, many of which have been published elsewhere previously, is prefaced by a pencil sketch of a particular tree- the Coast Live Oak in America, the Giant Sequoia, the Ginkgo, Eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig, Coolibah etc. Then follows a short piece of writing about the tree, sometimes interwoven with personal reflection or historical anecdote. A more substantial essay then ensues, not necessarily closely related to the shorter preface.

So why trees? Sophie Cunningham has been photographing trees on her Instagram account for some time. The act of walking past a tree, stopping to photograph it, and to in effect ‘curate’ it as part of a collection means that she looks at trees closely. The trees are rooted in different countries- most particularly North America and Australia- reflecting Cunningham’s own journeyings between these two countries. So too the essays which combine personal reflection, and non-fictional writing. As one might expect from an author who has lived in America for a few years, there is a strong American focus, while at the same time, having written the Melbourne volume of New South Books series on Australian capital cities, the book is replete with stories of Melbourne and its history.

So there has been a concerted attempt to create a unity out of these disparate elements through the ‘sketch/small essay/big essay’ structure of the book. The essays themselves are very discursive, like jumping from one branch to another in a huge tree. This seemed particularly true of the earlier essays, particularly ‘The Fall’ and ‘Staying with the Trouble’, which ricocheted from one idea to the other. I don’t know whether I became more accustomed to her writing, or whether this digressive writing was reined in by the later stories. Call me a stickler for a narrative thread, but I preferred the more disciplined ones.

Given the effort that had gone into crafting an identity for this set of essays as a entity, I was startled and disconcerted by the inclusion of a chapter from a previous book Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy. I was reading this as an e-book, and perhaps if it had been a print version I might have been alert to the ‘additional advertising’ nature of this final chapter. As it was, the sense of ’rounding off’ that came in her final chapter, Mountain Ash, was ruptured. A poor choice, I thought, on someone’s part.

I always find it difficult to review short stories and books of essays. Despite the care in creating an overarching structure for these essays, I did find them particularly – and at time, too – discursive within themselves. The ache for the environment comes through strongly, but in many ways I preferred the more intimate human stories.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’ by Shashi Tharoor


2017, 261 p. plus notes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time dabbling around in 19th century Colonial Office papers, albeit only between 1825 and 1848. The correspondence files to and from the colonies in the British Public Records Office are bound in huge volumes, arranged alphabetically by colony for each year, in fading brown (previously black) copperplate writing, with fascinating little side notes scribbled in the margins from various Colonial Office officials at different levels of the hierarchy. But you won’t find the Indian correspondence in these volumes: instead, it was dealt with and bound completely separate from the other Colonial Office mail. Within the Colonial Office bureaucracy, there was an ‘Indian’ track and an ‘Other Empire’ track, and never the twain did meet. It struck me as strange at the time, but I can understand it a little better after reading Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire. Although there was a template to all British-colony interaction, in India the expropriation and British-centredness of policy outstripped that of other colonies, and no doubt it suited the Colonial Office for that particular corporate approach and memory to remain corralled away from other colonial exploits.

This book had its genesis in a 2015 debate at the Oxford Union on the proposition that ‘Britain Owes Reparations to her Former Colonies’. Tharoor, speaking on the affirmative side, argued that – yes, reparations were owed- but given the impossibility of calculating them and the passage of time, they should be set at one pound per year for each year of British colonization. His arguments during the debate, he thought, needed little repetition, but when his contribution to the debate went viral, he realized that indeed, many people were not aware of the deliberately rapacious colonial policy that underpinned Britain’s treatment of India.

“Ah, but we gave India its railways, its facility with English, its bureaucracy, its parliamentary and legal system, tea and cricket!” those nostalgic for Britain’s Greatness – including historians Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James – protest. One by one, Tharoor unpicks these claims, although conceding the tea and cricket.

In Chapter 1 ‘The Looting of India’ he points out the financial rape of India’s economy through exorbitant taxation, manipulation of currency and the forced payment of pensions for Europeans who spent time in India before returning ‘home’ (a practice that settler colonies also had to comply with, although some Colonial Office appointees did remain in their adopted colonial home). The British government protected its own industries – the fabric industry, the steel and ship building industries – by insisting on the importation of  British manufacture by its colonies and using excises to decimate the Indian export industries. It wasn’t, he claims, that India “missed the bus” of industrialization: instead, it was thrown right under it.

Chapter 2 explores the question “Did the British give India political unity?” He argues that there had already been several empires that had united the landmass of India, and veering somewhat into speculation, that there was no reason why it could not have happened again without British interference. He points out that, unlike in the settler colonies, there was never any intention to give India self-government. The entire focus of the famed Indian Civil Service was British-focused, providing no route for Indian-born employees to progress, and forming a pool of eligible, bored British bachelors who were snared by the ‘fishing fleets’ of Englishwomen looking for European husbands with whom they would return to England after fulfilling their requisite period of luxurious exile.

Ch. 3 turns to ‘Democracy, the Press and Parliamentary System and the Rule of Law’ – those features that Niall Ferguson describes as Britain’s “gifts” to their colonies. Certainly, India adopted (blindly, Tharoor asserts) the British parliamentary system and form of democracy.  Certainly, there was a lively press in India, but it was subjected to far more scrutiny than the Anglo-Indian press which often promoted violence and prejudice. Certainly, India adopted the British ‘rule of law’ but this law took no heed of the existing traditional legal system (just as happened with indigenous law in Australia) and it was overwhelming used against Indians. He points out that India still has laws on its books, especially in regard to sexuality, that have since been repealed or abolished in Britain.

Chapter 4 ‘Divide Et Impera’ argues that it was the British was conceptualized and reified the idea that religion and caste divided India. Tharoor concedes that religion and caste certainly existed before the British arrived, but they were not the monoliths that Britain claimed and there was more interaction between them than Britain conceded. There had been intra-religious violence among religious and caste groups, but he suggests that this violence occurred at times of political crisis. During the grudgingly-conceded Independence and the disastrous Partition, Britain favoured Jinnah and the Muslim League, and Congress allowed itself to be imprisoned and sidelined.

Ch. 5 returns to ‘The Myth of the Enlightened Despot’. He points out that the Spanish Flu affected 1/3 of the population – 125 million cases- and caused 12.5 million deaths (out of the estimated 50 million world wide). During the Raj, there were famines in 1770,  1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. There have been no famines since Independence. British history remembers Peterloo (18 deaths 400-700 injuries) and the Boston Commons ‘massacres’ (5 deaths, 6 injuries) but these pale into insignificance against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre  where British troops fired on a crowd of Indian men, women and children in a confined space, killing at least 376 people and wounded 1137.

Ch 6 ‘The Remaining Case for Empire’ looks that those other Good Things that Britain is said to have gifted India: the railways (they were exorbitantly built for freight, but not people), language (yes, but the literacy rate was only 16% and it was certainly not intended to be a route to equality), tea – yes and cricket -yes.

In Chapter 7 ‘The (Im)balance Sheet’ Tharoor turns particularly to Niall Ferguson and to a lesser extent Lawrence James and other apologists for the British Empire, refuting their arguments and pointing out the moral consequences of colonial policies. He continues this into Ch 8 ‘The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism’ which deals with imperial amnesia (or even more chillingly, its resurrection as part of Brexit yearnings). Although not calling for financial reparations, he does look to Kohinoor Diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels collection.  He points out that colonialism, not just in India, has a long afterlife with arbitrary national divisions drawn on maps as in the Sykes-Picot carve up of the Middle East, spurious racial claims as with the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and the militarization of Pakistan.

Certainly, taken together this is a damning record. There was much that I had glimpsed from my studies of settler colonies, but had not really understood when drawn to its extremes in India. This is of course, a polemical book, following a single argument as fits its genesis in a debate, but it is well written, measured and draws on a lot of recent research. However, his excursions into speculative history unnerved me, and I wonder whether the current COVID tsunami in India, the increasing inflexibility and belligerence of  Narendra Modi’s BJP, and the prickliness on the Kashmir border support or challenge his argument.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 September 2020

99% Invisible. When I went to Spain quite recently, I was told and read that the Spanish Civil War was still a topic best avoided. This episode, Valley of the Fallen, talks about the memorial constructed by Franco, using prisoner labour, which he envisaged as a huge monument to honor the achievements of “our crusade,” and the “heroic sacrifices of our victory.”  It was only when Spain’s allies in the Cold War became uneasy about the size and divisiveness of the memorial that Franco announced that it would be for all the fallen. But once again, being Franco, ordered that bodies be exhumed from mass graves  and taken to The Valley of the Fallen for reburial. Many of these bodies were of his enemies, and they were disinterred and thrown together in a way that they could not be identified. When he was buried there, it became a site of pilgrimage for fascists. I had heard that he had been exhumed last year and shifted elsewhere. I hadn’t heard that many of the families of his victims are trying to get the other bodies exhumed and identified. Post-Franco Spain had agreed to forget about the crimes in a ‘Pacto del Olvido’ – a pact of forgetting- that silenced any memory of the past. But some things cannot, and should not, be forgotten.  The website has a transcript with videos (in fact, it’s probably better than the podcast).

Heather Cox Richardson. Her History and Politics Chat of 18th August started off by looking at De Joy and his removal of the sorting boxes. She then moved briefly to Trump’s convention trick of ‘pardoning’ Susan B. Anthony. The major part of her chat this week is about the republican-lead Senate report into Russian interference in the last election- something that made my eyes goggle, and which seemed to disappear completely afterwards (as no doubt the Republicans intended by releasing it during the Democratic convention). I think she must be tired because this was a bit disjointed, although I think that she was also being very careful about what she said.

Her chat of 25 August was interrupted by a storm! In the fifteen minutes that she recorded,  she responded to a question over whether it was unusual that the Republican National Convention had not released a policy platform but just recycled the 2016 one. Yes, it was unusual she said. She noted that there are three groups within the Republican party: Trump supporters, anti-Trumpers and a group with four letter names who oppose government action of any sort- Rand, Cruz and I can’t remember the others (and neither can she).  And then BANG! The power went off.

The following 1 September she talked about Social Security and Unemployment Insurance and whether Trump really would get rid of the payroll tax through which these programs are funded (as distinct from deferring it, which he has already done). Yes, he would,  because that would be consistent with the ideological position that many in the Republican party, if not Trump himself, endorse.  She was then asked why Donna Hylton, author, criminal justice activist and convicted for 25 years for second-degree murder and kidnapping, appeared at the Democratic Convention. Her answer- because she had done her time, and this is what rehabilitation looks like.

Her History of the Republican Party of 13 August is the one I have been waiting for: when the Republican party switched from the big-government, New Deal party to the individualistic, evangelical party that it is today.  This Southern Strategy took place between 1964 and the 1980s. She intended getting to Reagan, but instead ending up spending the whole session on Nixon. An interesting take on Watergate: Nixon had actively undermined LBJ’s peace talks in Vietnam, and Nixon was terrified that the Pentagon Papers would reveal this (they didn’t – they didn’t go up that far). And that was why he needed the ‘plumbers’ to find the dirt on Daniel Ellsberg and the Democrats in the Watergate building.

The Real Story (BBC) This program frightened the bejesus out of me. Why is QAnon going global looks at the the QAnon conspiracy theory that Mr Trump is leading a top-secret campaign to dismantle a global network of Satan worshipping cannibal paedophiles led by billionaires, celebrities and Democrats. It’s spreading in US, Europe and Latin America, right from President Trump through to evangelical churches. Really scary.

The Navalny ‘poisoning’ puts inverted commas around the word ‘poisoning ‘ as there is debate amongst these commentators about whether he was poisoned, and whether Putin was behind it. Yevgenia Albats (Russian investigative journalist), Sir Tony Brenton (former British Ambassador to Russia), Mary Dejevsky (former Times correspondent to Moscow), Vladimir Milov (opposition politian, Navalny adviser) and Sergei Markov (former member of the Duma from President Putin’s United Russia party) barely agree on a single proposition in this podcast.

America if You’re Listening (ABC) Russia If You’re Listening is back with a new name! This time Matt Bevan looks at the four year presidency of Donald Trump, starting off with What a hurricane taught Trump about being President. Trump handled hurricanes in Florida and Texas well but once it came to Puerto Rico….What did he learn? That when things are going badly, lie.

‘Berta Isla’ by Javier Marías


2017, 532 p.  Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


I’m not really into spy novels, but Berta Isla turns the spy novel on its head, because it’s not really about the spy at all. Instead, it’s about the people he (or she) leaves behind as another operation begins, another identity is adopted  and other deceptions are woven.

Tomás Nevison is Anglo-Spanish, and has a very good ear for languages and mimicry. While over in Oxford, he is ‘approached’ by a tutor who sounds him out about working ‘for the good of the Realm’. He shows little interest. He has his long-term girlfriend, and later wife, Berta Isla waiting for him in Madrid, and it has been just assumed that they will end up together, even though they both lose their virginity to someone else. But when Tomás finds himself accused of a crime he says he did not commit- charged by none other than Inspector Morse, no less!- he finds himself entrapped into working with MI6 after all.

And thus Tomás is launched into a strange half-world where he leaves his wife, Berta, and their children for years at a time. At first believing that he is away on business, Berta soon starts to suspect that Tomás’ other life is more shadowy than she could have imagined, especially when she comes into contact with other equally mysterious characters. She is unable to reach him: he reappears without warning, and leaves just as abruptly. Meanwhile, time goes on. Franco dies, the Northern Ireland Troubles rage, the Iron Lady has her Falklands Island victory, the Berlin Wall falls – and Berta waits.

And waits. And waits.  This is a long book – 532 pages- and I would estimate that half of it is just waiting. It’s a self-consciously literary work, with many references to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It is told sometimes in the third person, and sometimes from Berta’s first person perspective. Yet, the narrative voice is very much the same – a  prolix, long-winded, introspective voice, where the self is constantly watching and monitoring, and where thought is much the same as the spoken word.

Its wordiness is not just in the content. The sentences are lengthy and labyrinthine, and strangely flat. By the end of the book, you are almost inured to the wordiness, which seems to just clang now, without meaning, not unlike Tomás and Berta’s lives.

I did find myself wondering half way through this book when and whether anything was going to happen. It probably could have been cut by half, without any loss of effect.  I saw the ending ahead of time, although I was unprepared for the hollowness that I felt – and that no doubt Marías intended  – when I finally got there.

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 August

History Hour (BBC) This magazine-like show has about four or five stories told by people who were this. In The Siege at Ruby Ridge, it tells of the 1992 anti-government siege that has become a touchstone for the Far Right in the US. Also, a woman who grew up as a ‘family friend’ of Saddam Hussein, the invention of the asthma puffer, the appalling story of forced syphilis experiments in Guatemala  and the exhumation and reburial of King Richard III.

Heather Cox Richardson Her History and Politics chat of 11 August answered several questions: why don’t they just STOP Trump? (her answer- they should have, using the impeachment mechanism but the Senate stopped it); the role of Vice President (to attract votes from segments other than those to which the President appeals); yes, the Democrats did start the KKK and yes, the Republicans did champion a 90% tax rate under Eisenhower – but neither of these policy positions are held by the parties today; and the big switch between the policies of the Republican and Democratic parties that started under Nixon – I mean, how perverse it is that the REPUBLICANS support Confederate statues?

Her History of the Republican Party (Part 10?) of 7 August looks at Joe Macarthy and his attack on Eisenhower, and later the army, and the rise of William F. Buckley and Movement Conservatism. At first it made little inroads until the passing of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, when particularly – but not exclusively – southern white Americans crystalized their resistance to their taxes going to poor, black people. She talks about Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful contest of the US election of 1964, which was supported by the Dixicrat Strom Thurmond, Phyllis Schlafly and Ronald Reagan. How about Goldwater’s acceptance speech when nominated republican candidate in 1964: “ I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. ” Apparently LBJ heard it, and rang Bill Moyers (who then worked in the White House) and commented that this was a whole new ideology, and that nothing would be the same again.

Dan Snow’s History Hit. Anne Applebaum, who has recently released Twilight of Democracy is interviewed in the episode How Democracy Dies. Her book is about how intellectual and educated elites in Britain (think Boris, Corbyn), America (think Trump), Hungary, Poland and Turkey after ‘winning’ in a democracy, have then turned against it. Actually, the book sounds really good.

For something completely different, How and Why History: The Spread of Christianity features Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London. She covers from Paul up to approximately the 13th century. I knew, but it hadn’t sunk in that Christianity started in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the language was Greek. Or that the Visigoths ,the Ostrogoths and Vandals were Arian Christians (and not Trinitarians). Nor did I realize that Christianity spread from Ireland into Northern Europe. So much I don’t know.

The Documentary (BBC) Hugh Sykes: Reporting from the Frontlines is an interview with BBC radio journalist Hugh Sykes, talking about his long career. With a childhood in Iran (when it was still Persia), he has spent a lot of time in areas of conflict, but doesn’t see himself as a war journalist. He is not a believer in the put-the-journalist-in-the-story school of journalism, and allows the listener to do the emoting, instead of doing it for them. Very good.

August in Minsk is a compilation of pieces recorded by on-the-ground journalist Ilya Kuzniatsou during August as the people of Belarus challenge the spurious victory of Alexander Lukashenko in the last election. People are brave: I don’t think that I would have this much courage.  Interesting how music is playing a part in resistance: choirs, sax players etc.

Six degrees of separation: From Rodham to….

Well, another book that I haven’t read to start off this month’s Six Degrees of Separation. For the rules of the game, see here. On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

The first book is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham. I don’t know anything about this book except that it’s a fictionalized story of Hilary Clinton. Of course, Hilary never got to be President, but someone who did get to be Prime Minister was Julia Gillard which leads me to…

The Gillard Project (2015) was written by her speechwriter, Michael Cooney. I really intended to read Julia Gillard’s own autobiography – which I even purchased and even now is still sitting in its paper bag unopened- but I picked this up while waiting for books to be delivered at the State Library. It’s interesting that Julia Gillard is best known for her misogyny speech (“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man”) which was delivered off the cuff, and not written by a speechwriter at all.

One of the best known recent prime ministerial speechwriters is Don Watson, whose Recollections of a Bleeding Heart I loved, but did not review in this blog. However, Don Watson was originally a historian and Caledonia Australis was a very early book, first published in 1984 and republished in 1997 and 2009. It is about the Scots emigration to Australia, starting back with the Highland Clearances, then hones in on Angus Macmillan, the so-called ‘Father’ of Gippsland. Although lionized as a ‘pioneer’ in times gone past, Angus Macmillan bears a more ambiguous reputation today – and indeed, his statue was recently targeted as part of the Black Lives Matter Campaign (although it still stands – for now).

Don Watson wrote about Gippsland, to the east of Melbourne, but Margaret Kiddle wrote about the Western Districts in her Men of Yesterday, which was written in 1961. It’s a rather unfashionable and blinkered book today, with its blithe dismissal of the dispossession of the indigenous people on the lands that her forebears “took up”. But it is beautifully written, and I wish that I had blogged about it in more detail (and in fact, I’ve included it in a Six Degrees previously, so it certainly made an impression).

Clang! Here I go off onto a digression. “Yesterday” surely evokes the Beatles, rousing all my baby boomer enthusiasms. Looking Through You: Rare and Unseen Photographs from the Beatles Book Archive is a collection of photographs of the Fab Four taken by photographer Leslie Bryce. They were originally published in a small A5 booklet format called The Beatles Monthly Book. They’re beautifully clear photographs, many of which I hadn’t seen before.

The Beatles came from Liverpool of course, and Liverpool is one of the settings in Peter Behren’s The Law of Dreams (2006), which awarded the Canadian Governor-Generals Literary Award for Fiction. It reminded me of a Canadian version of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, because both books are written about one of the author’s forebears and their journey to a British settler colony. In this case young Fergus, orphaned by the Irish Potato Famine, ends up in Liverpool working on railway construction, before heading for America.

And here I’m feeling very smug at ending up with Barak Obama’s Dreams from My Father (1995), which of course leads me right back to where I began with the American presidency (although, of course, Obama actually won). A beautifully written book, penned years before the Presidency, which makes you miss him even more and despair at what replaced him.

‘The Passage of the Damned’ by Elsbeth Hardie


2019 335p.


At a time when we’re all locked in our houses because of coronavirus, it seemed apposite to read about other people who had also been locked down. I had been sent this book for review an embarrassingly long time ago, and so I settled down with it, expecting to read about a convict transport ship bearing mainly women passengers bound for New South Wales. I was surprised to end up in a completely different continent, with many of its female convict passengers integrating into a Spanish-speaking community, in many cases leaving their convict history far behind. It’s quite a rattling tale, and one with which I was not familiar.

The convict ship Lady Shore set sail from Portsmouth on 22 April 1797 with 66 female prisoners, 2 male prisoners, 40-something ship’s officers and some 70-odd members of the New South Wales Corps, some of whom were accompanied by their wives and children (the sources give differing numbers). It never made it to Sydney. On 1 August the ship was seized by mutineers, largely drawn from amongst the French, German and Spaniard prisoners of war who had been conscripted against their will into the New South Wales Corps.  One wonders why the British government ever thought that this would be a good idea. With the rallying cry “Vive La Republique!” they took control of the ship near the Brazilian coast, supplemented by other disaffected Irish and English members of the NSW Corps. The captain, chief mate and one of the mutineers were killed. A longboat, containing 29 people including officers, soldiers and some sailors, wives and children, was set adrift from the commandeered ship, reaching shore at San Pedro Rio Grand the next afternoon.  They gradually made their way to Rio de Janeiro, and in many cases, back to London where the mutiny was reported to the government.

Meanwhile, the mutineers and their cargo of female convicts set sail for Montevideo. Because France had defeated Spain during 1794 as part of the Revolutionary Wars, the mutineers felt (correctly) that they would receive the protection of the Spanish government, and they were eventually released, and even financially benefited from taking the ship as a prize of war. One of the ringleaders finally faced British justice and was hanged for the murder of Captain Willcox when he was apprehended some time later. There was little British concern about the female convicts, many of whom converted to Catholicism and blended into Buenos Aires society.

The author, Elsbeth Hardie is a journalist in New Zealand. Before writing this book, she had written another non-fiction book The Girl Who Stole Stockings, based on the life of her maternal ancestor, Susannah Noon, who was sentenced to transportation for the theft of stockings when she was twelve years old. Although this 1794 journey of the Lady Shore carried female convicts, they play a minor role in this book- as, indeed, they did in the eventual outcome of the mutiny.

The book is written as a chronological narrative history, divided up by subheadings but not into separate chapters. While this does drive the action forward, there is little shaping of an argument as such. The author describes the drawn-out nature of imprisonment prior to embarkation on a convict transport ship, and gives a good picture of the New South Wales Corp ‘enlistment’ which verged on impressment during the Napoleonic Wars, when any half-decent soldier was deployed in fighting rather than guarding convicts on the other side of the world.  I did find myself transfixed by the ‘what next?’ nature of the first part of the book, especially during the mutiny and the immediate aftermath. It was much written about at the time, by both participants and in the newspapers, and Hardie balances competing (and somewhat self-serving) narratives to give a detailed account of events.

The narrative splinters somewhat when it comes to tracing the outcomes for the women convicts. Here Hardie relies- with appropriate acknowledgement- on the work of Argentinian scholar Joseph M. Massini Ezcurra in the 1950s, whose work was taken up by Juan M. Méndez Avellanada writing from the 1980s and whose book Las Convictas de la Lady Shore was published in English in 2008. When the female prisoners arrived, they were located in a Bethlemite convent called La Residencia in Buenos Aires. From there, they found work as servants in Buenos Aires families, married, and disappeared into respectability or – in relatively few cases – moved into prostitution and petty crime. Most converted to Catholicism, either through conviction or as a survival mechanism, and blended into society. Their names in the records were often rendered into their Spanish translation e.g. Susannah King became Susana Rey; Lucy Whitehouse became Lucia Blanco. Sometimes their names were written phonetically; other women reverted to their maiden names or adopted another names. At this point, the genealogical detail of the hunt tends to swamp the narrative.

The discussion of sources appears, rather strangely, at the end of the book. This could be the author’s way of bringing the story into the 20th and 21st century.  Texts and sources continued to appear as recently as 2012, when Sotheby’s sold the diary of Thomas Millard, the ship’s carpenter, which was purchased by a private buyer and has disappeared since. It was a strange way to finish the book, and I felt that it cried out for a concluding chapter, drawing out the major themes and rounding off the story.

I found myself likening this book to Cassandra Pybus’ Truganini (my review here), not in terms of content, but in its avoidance of secondary literature and sidestepping of academic work that would have added so much to this book. In this case, I don’t know whether it is because Hardie has a journalist, rather than historian, background or whether, as in Pybus’ case, it is a more deliberate authorial choice. In her descriptions of the prison system and the women’s crimes, I found myself thinking back to E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters (my review here) which explains the ‘mission creep’ of the Black Act in the protection of property and the distortions it created in sentencing decisions and leading to so many commutations of life sentences to transportation. Greg Dening did such an excellent job in talking about naval discipline, leadership,character and mutiny in Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, which I would have loved to have seen Hardie draw on when discussing the rather pusillanimous (and young) Ensign William Minchin of the NSW Corps. And what would Kirsten McKenzie, one of my favorite historians and author of Scandal in the Colonies and A Swindler’s Progress (my review here) done with Major James Semple, imposter extraordinaire and one of her most robust characters and informants? In Semple’s life (or rather, lives), and in the lives of the women convicts, Hardie gives us multiple examples of the slipperiness of identity in colonial port cities that McKenzie explores so well.

Nonetheless, I am again wishing for a different book, rather than the one I have in my hands.  By her focus on one example, Hardie draws a vivid picture of global politics as it played out on the high seas during the Revolutionary Wars. She captures well the coerced nature of life in the NSW Corps, and highlights the elisions between role of prisoner, guard, sailor and soldier. Far from a lonely ship sailing off onto the high seas, she paints a picture of a network of ships, criss-crossing the globe and circulating different ports, not unlike those maps of flight paths in the back of the airline magazine when we used to be able to fly. Particularly the first half of her book is engrossing narrative history, and I must admit that I  have not often had to put ‘Spoiler Alert’ at the start of a review of a history!

Sourced from: review copy from Australian Scholarly Press.