Monthly Archives: November 2021

AHA conference Day 1: 30 November 2021

In the midst of the COVID lockdown, what I really craved was a conference. With a plenary. With a keynote. With panels. With papers and questions afterwards. With muffins for morning tea. With club sandwiches for lunch. With stewed coffee that smells better than it tastes. With a name tag or lanyard. I was even toying with the idea of attending the Australian Historical Association conference in New South Wales until the last outbreak, at which point it just seemed too hard to plan a month ahead to cross a state border. But when the AHA announced that it was moving the whole thing online, I thought ‘why not?’

The conference actually started on Monday night with Shino Konishi from the University of Western Australia who is leading an ARC project on Indigenous biography, in collaboration with the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Her Keynote address, which was referenced several times in the session this morning, reflected the ‘Unfinished Business’ theme of the conference with her paper ‘The Unfinished Business of Aboriginal History’. But I missed it.

The Plenary Panel ‘Unfinished Business: First Nations Provocation’ featured Megan Davis (who has been heavily involved in the Uluru Statement and has recently published an article in The Monthly) and Crystal McKinnon. Megan’s presentation looked at the flaws in the reconciliation process and the progress of ‘Voice Treaty Truth’, with various states (e.g. Victoria) moving ahead of the Federal Government. Crystal’s paper took a recent case of two young Indigenous boys who drowned while being pursued by police. She picked up the historical overtones of ‘pursuit’ and its purpose in not just arrest, but in instilling terror. The session finished by talking about the historian as activist, and whether there should be an accountability structure for historians too, given the real harm they can cause.

Then there was a break for a funeral service, which speaks much of Stuart Macintyre’s importance to Australian history generally. There were really good tributes from Frank Bongiorno as a Labour historian and Anna Clark, speaking as a former PhD candidate; his running partner; a number of overseas colleagues via video and his daughter speaking for the family. It might seem strange to suspend a conference for a funeral, but in this case it really underlined his stature in the field, his fearlessness in being ‘political’ and his love of words, books and history, shared by all participants at the conference.

Back to the 11.15- 12.30 session. I attended the War stream, where Bart Ziino spoke on soldiers’ attitudes during the conscription debates in ‘Recasting the soldiers’ vote on conscription: new perspectives on an old issue’. Until recently historians have relied on the observations of Keith Murdoch, who was unnerved by the strong feeling against conscription amongst soldiers on the Western Front, and the Australian government did not give a detailed breakdown of the voting patterns. However, using Trove, it is possible to read soldiers’ letters home to their families, which were often passed on to the newspapers and reprinted, and sources from the Mitchell Library that have been transcribed. These sources suggest that there was reluctance to compel other men to fight, but at the same time, disdain for those who did not – a reflection of the complexity that was to mark veteran politics after the war. The second speaker was Alanna Dargan in ‘Anzac as a Political Pawn: The Commemoration of the Centenary of WWI in the Australian Parliament’. She used the techniques of corpus linguistics to analyze the 131 parliamentary motion speeches that were delivered in the Australian Parliament to mark the centenary of Gallipoli. Speeches by Abbott and Shorten in particular reinforced the ongoing political value of Anzac as a key facet of Australian national identity. Abbott referenced memory and the importance of not forgetting; Shorten emphasized family connections. Abbott’s speech saw commemoration as part of being Australian, now and in the future, and highlighted the role of Sir John Monash, who was being commemorated through the Sir John Monash centre at Villers-Bretonneux, an expensive museum and interpretation centre that is not without controversy,

Lunch time! I even bought a vegetarian wrap down at the coffee shop! I am clearly not a food photographer.

From 1.00 to 2.15 I sat in on the Australian Womens History Network stream, ‘Remembering 20th century women’s activism’. Natasha Walker‘s paper ‘Agency and Activism: the Transnational Network of the Feminist Press’ examined women’s agency and activism within a selection of feminist newspapers, from the United States of America (The Woman’s Journal), the United Kingdom (Common Cause),New Zealand (White Ribbon, temperance), and Australia (Woman Voter) between 1910 and 1914. Of course, in some of these countries, women already had the vote, but they all emphasized that citizenship was more than just suffrage. There was an interest in naturalization and its disadvantages for women who lost their own citizenship after marriage, as they took on the citizenship of their husband, even if he died. The newspapers were sympathetic to differing degrees to the suffragettes, but in their Letters to the Editor columns can be detected different attitudes towards the ethics of political violence. Sharon Crozier-De Rosa (‘Memory-Keepers: Women Activists’ Strategies to Preserve their History’) examined NSW activist Ruby Rich, active from the 1920s onwards, who was encouraged by Harold White from the National Library of Australia in 1961 to contribute to an archive of women’s activism, and to encourage other women to do the same. By International Women’s Year, the archive still had not eventuated, and the National Library was no longer interested. And in the 1980s, Jean Arnot wrote to the NLA, attaching Harold White’s letter to Ruby Rich, but still her attempt to imagine an archival future was unfulfilled. Catherine Dewhirst examined six Italian-Australia women who were interned or otherwise came to the notice of the authorities in ‘Subversive, Radical and Deviant: Italian-Australian Women during World War II’. Denounced by anonymous informants, they were accused of having fascist sympathies, or ‘utter disregard for National Security Regulations’ by not registering as an alien, or by disobeying blackout instructions. However, there was unease generally about interning women for fear of retaliation against Australian women overseas.

I attended the rather-sparsely attended Religious stream between 3.00 and 4.15 p.m (although attendance – or the lack thereof- is less obvious on Zoom). Katharine Massam looked at the involvement of women in Catholic social action and religious teaching in the mid 1960s in ‘Good, that will be all of them: the unfinished business of women and religion’. Many women were involved in the National Catholic Girls Movement (or Young Christian Workers), and when they moved into teaching, they introduced new forms of religious education based on experience and the ‘everyday Jesus’. Brenton Griffin spoke about Mormons in Australia in ‘Permanent Outsiders? Two Controversies Involving Mormons in Australia, a century apart’. The first Mormon missionary arrived in Victor Harbour SA in 1840, and the first congregation began in 1844 in Wellington NSW but the Mormons generally did not find Australia a fertile conversion ground. He compared two riots- the first in Adelaide 1913 where Mormons were accused of seducing Australian women to emigrate to Utah, and the second a recent riot in Mt Druitt involving the One Four rap group, where the members had met each other at a Mormon church. It is hard to tease out class, racial, and religious overtones. In ‘Reassessing Russell and Beamish’ Matthew Grubits revisited a dispute in 1847 between the Tractarian bishop of Sydney Bishop Broughton, and two Irish deacons Francis Cusack Russell and Peter Teulon Beamish. This has been seen as a theological dispute, played out through the newspapers, but Grubits argued that it was more about employment conditions and leadership, and that Russell and Beamish went on to have successful theological careers once they left Sydney for Melbourne.

The final session for the day was the Keynote: ‘The unfinished business of reproductive justice: histories & futures of abortion in the age of decriminalization’ by Catherine Kevin. When I was young, Adelaide was the place where young pregnant girls went for abortions, with more liberal abortion laws than elsewhere in Australia. However, over time, South Australia became one of the last to decriminalize abortion and to remove it from the Crimes Consolidation Act. Activism to decriminalize was sparked off in 2013 with an abortion flash mob #EndTheStigma, and the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition lobbied to remove many of the features of the earlier ground-breaking legislation that stipulated gestational limits, geographical requirements, a two-doctor law and provision only through a hospital. The legislation was passed on 3 March 2021, however only with amendments that reflect some of the old arguments against abortion- the trope of the incompetent backyard abortionist, the ‘silent scream’ of the Right to Life, the perception that women are ‘coerced’ into having an abortion, and that selfish untrustworthy women use abortion as contraception. They are still waiting for the regulations to bring the changes into effect – and it seems to be taking quite a while.

Zooming history: “I don’t hold a hose, mate”: Power and sentiment in the Australian Federation

I bet more Australians today know the names of the Premiers of the different states of Australia than at any other time in our history. COVID has brought Federation into clear view- even if its in terms of failure of unity and co-operation. Western Australia’s Mark McGowan might be seen as the “State Daddy”, but Western Australia has always had an uneasy relationship with the Eastern states. In this lecture, Carolyn Holbrook goes through the history of calls for WA succession, co-operation (or the lack thereof) during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919, and Menzies’ seizing of the 50th anniversary of Federation for a good bout of nation building with “Jubilee Week”. She comes to the conclusion that Federalism is a pretty good way of deciding who should hold the hose, and that squabbles aside, it’s functioning as it was designed. And really- who could go past a title like this?

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 November 2021

The History of Rome Podcast Episode 74: Friends I Have Wasted a Day looks at the two-year reign of Titus. He had been groomed for the role by his father and so there was a smooth transition between emperors. Initially there were fears that he would be like Nero, but instead he came to the role as a mature soldier and experienced administrator. The destruction of Pompeii and another fire in Rome occurred during his reign in A.D.80, but he proved himself to be a good and generous leader. He officially opened the Flavian Ampitheatre (which we now know as the Colosseum) with 100 days of games. During his reign, governor Agricola tried his best to Romanize Britain. But Titus was carried off by an infection (at least it wasn’t murder this time). Episode 75 The Forgotten Son introduces Domitian, whom I had never heard of, who was Titus’ brother, who took over after Titus’ untimely death. Definitely suffering from Second-Son Syndrome, there was no expectation that he would ever be emperor, and he was consciously discouraged from gathering administrative and military experience by his father, who blithely assumed that Titus would reign for decades. Once emperor, he decided that he would model himself on Augustus, but he did not share Augustus’ strategy of making the Senate feel that they were in charge (even if it was not true). Episode 76: Mock Triumphs. Domitian set about revaluing the currency (because he said it reflected badly on the Empire having a devalued currency) and tried to revitalize Augustus’ legislation about morals, bringing about the return of the Lex Julia forbidding adultery etc. The elites hated him, but he had the support of the common soldier, whose wages he increased by 1/3. He threw a fairly questionable triumph for himself after a campaign against the Chatti, but oversaw the worst defeat since the Teutoburg Forest against the Dacians. He brought Agricola (whose name Mike Duncan has learned to pronounce) back from Britain, and followed Augustus’ policy of not expanding the frontier. His focus on frontier defense brought charges of cowardice and his treaty with the Dacians was seen as a humiliation. This isn’t going to end well.

Wikimedia. St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell priory

Travels Through Time takes us back to the year 1540 with The Dissolution of the Monasteries, with historian James Clark spruiking his recent book The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History. 1540 is at the end of the four-year process, but he chose 1540 because it was also the year that Henry married both Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, and Thomas Cromwell the Untouchable finally fell. He points out that monasteries were not the remote, forbidding places that we imagine today: instead, they were everywhere like Tesco supermarkets, and often were the town. He starts in Easter 1540 with the monks at Canterbury Cathedral waiting around, uncertain what was to happen to them. Episode 2 is in May 1540 at Clerkenwell Priory, the headquarters of the medieval order of the Knights of St John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. The shock of the closure caused the collapse and death of the Grand Prior of the Order, William Weston, the last man to be buried as a monk in England. Episode 3 is Newgate gaol in August 1540 where Thomas Epsam, a monk of Westminster Abbey, was taken from his cell and publicly stripped of his monk’s habit.

Australia vs the Climate (The Guardian) It seemed hopeful there for a minute. Part 3: Paris and the fall sees Australia signing up for 1.5 degrees. At last. And then we have ScoMo and his lump of coal….and we all know how this is going to end. When you listen to these podcasts one after the other, you realize just how intransigent Australia has been.

The History Listen (ABC) It’s the 150th anniversary of the Art Gallery of New South Wales this year. Although it’s getting a new expansion, for many years it was dark and dingy, with the Board very much looking after the interests of themselves and their friends. The building that we think of as the Art Gallery was built in the 1890s. 150 years at the Art Gallery of NSW looks at the building, the Board, and the directors but it touches only lightly on the controversy over the construction of the new gallery.

Boyer Lectures (ABC) John Bell from the Bell Shakespeare Company is giving the Boyer Lectures this year. The first lecture Soul of the Age – Life lessons from Shakespeare with John Bell is mainly an introductory lecture and a bit disappointing. He draws links between the characters depicted in Shakespeare’s plays and current political players (to the detriment of the current politicians)

The Documentary (BBC) I had forgotten about ‘Climategate’ in 2009 where the University of East Anglia was hacked and emails talking about “the trick” were publicized world wide. I’d forgotten, too, that 2009 was when the Copenhagen COP was held, generally viewed as being a backwards step in terms of response to climate change. This episode The Hack That Changed the World goes back to investigate whether the Russians were behind it, or whether it was a sole actor associated with various climate-change-sceptical blogs.

Vale Stuart Macintyre

Many tributes are flowing for the historian Stuart Macintyre. He was a prolific historian, both as author of his own volumes and as a collaborator with other historians. His best known works are probably The Oxford History of Australia, Volume 4, 1901–1942: The Succeeding Age (1986), A Concise History of Australia (2016, 4th edition) and Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s (2015). The second volume of his history of the Communist Party The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning is scheduled to be published early next year, coming 23 years after the first volume The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia From Origins to Illegality (1999). As a co-writer and editor, he was a historian of historians, as in A History for a Nation: Ernest Scott and the Making of Australian History (1994) and The Discovery of Australian History 1890-1939 (1995) which I reviewed here. He was keenly aware of the discipline of history and the uses to which it has been put, as in The Historian’s Conscience (2004) and The History Wars (2003) which he wrote with Anna Clark.

Three fitting obituaries by Janet McCalman, Brian Aarons and Tim Rowse are reproduced on Open Labour’s page:

‘Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal’ by Charif Majdalani

2021, 173 p

Translated by Ruth Diver

Thanks to social media and CCT cameras, some visions are seared in our minds. Two boys in a shopping centre leading a little two year old away. A young woman tottering on high heels along the shop fronts in an inner-city suburb, unaware that on turning the corner she will be killed. A plane smacking into a building and that slow collapse of a skyscaper that even now you can’t quite believe. And the smudge of smoke from a port-side fire that explodes into a huge, thumping jolt that pulses out so violently that, even just watching it, you feel a punch in your chest. That last one was the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on the dock at Beirut on 4 August 2020. As you open this small volume, you know that this is where the book is going to end up but its author, academic Charif Majdalani does not.

The English language version starts with a very useful preface ‘Lebanon: the lessons of complexity’ which provides a potted history of Lebanon over 9 pages. The nation of Lebanon, as distinct from the mountainous regions in the eastern Mediterranean, was created in the territorial carve-up that followed WWI. France secured the mandate over Lebanon, to the relief of the Christians who preferred France to Britain, and its borders were drawn to encompass as many Christians as possible, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. In obtaining independence in 1945, the Christian and Muslim communities defined themselves as a negative: not Western but not Arab either. Between 1945 and 1975 it was a democracy and liberal economy based on ‘confessionalism’, whereby all government posts were allocated approximately equally between religious communities. Fear of militarization of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon led to civil war from 1975 to 1990. The period following the war, known as the second Lebanese republic, is divided into two eras. The first, from 1990 to 2005 was dominated by Syria and its ruling class. The war chiefs-turned-political leaders seized control of the government and public sector and developed a system of governance based entirely on clientelistic mafia principles. In 2005 the Sunni Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated by the Syrians with the help of Hezbollah. The Syrians were forced to withdraw, but former allies stayed in power and formed new alliances, perpetuating the same clientelism and corruption as under the occupation. This led to the collapse of the economy in 2020- and that leads us to this book.

The diary entries start on 1 July 2020, with the author running from one bank to the other. Both he and his wife are employed, they have two children, and he has plans to buy a block of land -a hobby farm almost- out in the countryside, where he grew up. Their friends are professionals, and they continue to have dinner parties with long after-dinner conversations. They visit the nearby suburb of Gemmayze, in the old district, which has been gentrified with artists, hotels and restaurants. But it’s all falling apart.

Gemmayze in March 2019. You can select for English subtitles

Things break down all the time – the washing machine, the air conditioning units, the drinking water dispenser – echoing the dysfunction outside the walls of his home. Inflation makes a mockery of income and expenditure, there are power blackouts. He notes the return of the mosquito coil, and its distinctive smell, because the insect repellents plugged into power points are useless when there is no electricity. Businesses close, familiar shopkeepers and bank employees are laid off, never to return.

It feels like a bereavement, a muffled, almost muted bereavement, repetitive, exhausting.


His diary entries are interspersed with short explanatory chapters, which expand on the information given in the preface about corruption, protest, the piles of rubbish. The presence of COVID and the refugee influx are mere background details. Still the book inches closer to the explosion that we know is going to happen. When it comes, as Chapter 51, it has just five words

This afternoon, the rag-and-bone trader

p. 125

He cannot pick up his writing again until 10 August, and when he re-reads those words, it seems like a different time. It’s then that he goes back and fills in the details: his initial thought that the blast was an earthquake, the chaos in the hospitals, the blood. He can only write in lists, without a full stop:

Reina is in intensive care, criticially injured, Jad has a few superficial wounds, but no longer a house, Omar is injured, Karim had left the office before the explosion happened, and so had his employees, which is just as well because she went into the party headquarters’ kitchen at the moment of the explosion….


And the stories, just snippets:

And also this: he was lifted up and thrown against the TV, the couch flew up into the air and fell on top of her, I walked through the streets like a sleepwalker before I realized that everyone around me was injured, she was sitting on the stairs covered in blood, but I had no idea what to do to help her…

p. 138

And the figures:

In five seconds: two hundred dead, one hundred and fifty missing, six thousand injured, nine thousand buildings damaged, two hundred thousand homes destroyed, as well as hundreds of historic or heritage buildings and four hospitals, ten thousand retail stores, workshops, stalls, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, pubs, all reduced to rubble, scores of art galleries and studios belonging to painters, sculptors, stylists, designers, architects all swept away. In five seconds.


The cause? A ship stopped over in Beirut in September 2013 with its 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate bound for Mozambique. On being found unseaworthy, the owner refused to pay port fees, repairs or the crew’s wages; the cargo was offloaded and stored in Hangar number 12. Right from the start, people know it is there; it is ‘memoed’ up and down the hierarchies of the bureaucracy and no-one does anything. But, he suggests, the cargo was not forgotten as the amount that exploded was less than appeared on the manifest. It was being used, probably from the first day, and probably for military purposes. He points the finger at Hezbollah, which controlled the port.

Which would explain the silence of the port authorities, who would have turned a blind eye out of fear, collusion or corruption.


The blast has affected everyone. His wife Nayla, a psychologist, tells him that she had woken up in the middle of the night, with a heavy weight on her chest, wondering if something had changed that she could no longer remember. In the morning she was relieved to hear that there was nothing more, nothing new. The government falls, but nothing changes.

I was listening to a radio program about Beirut last week, and the commentator mentioned that after the civil war, the corruption, the protests, power shortages, inflation, COVID, – the blast in August was just the last straw and that people had just given up. This book tries to end on an optimistic note, but it rings rather hollow.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Con subtítulos en español: This film is about me

Well, it had subtitles in Spanish because I put them there. The soundtrack was actually in German and English, even though it was directed by a Spanish director. I almost gave up after 10 minutes of looking close up – VERY close up!- at a woman with heavily mascaraed eyes and a slash of red lipstick, with a halo of blonde curls in what looked like a shawl. It’s strange that after all this time on Zoom, we are accustomed to staring at faces in a way that we probably would not do in real life, but nonetheless, staring at this woman felt very intrusive. She is in jail for murder, but she is also in her own rather ethereal performance of her own life. I’m glad that I stayed with it, but I’m also glad that it only went for an hour. Being in the presence of such a strong ego, so intimately, is confronting.

It was available through Instituto Cervantes for 48 hours.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 November 2021

Australia vs. the Climate. (The Guardian) Episode 2:Copenhagen takes us back to the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007. How excited I was! How disappointed I ended up being! This episode gives us a behind-the-scenes view of the maneuvering around the very disappointing Copenhagen COP. Kevin Rudd has much to say (in his typical Ruddesque way, highlighting his own importance) but other speak too, like Penny Wong, the Australian bureaucrat who attended, and the representative from Tuvalu. All crammed into a tiny room, not enough tickets, backroom meetings…and this is how our future is decided. Meanwhile, we have Abbott taking leadership of the Liberal Party, and the whole thing turned to custard.

By T8612 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

History of Rome Podcast Episode 70 Galba and Otho sees the Generals competing against each other for power in what was known as the Year of Four Emperors. Galba was the governor of Spain, and a very harsh general who, unlike other generals, did not believe in bribing his troops. His off-sider promised the troops that they would receive a bonus, but Galba withheld it, both on principle and also because he was miserly. He was already an old man when he was made Emperor, and Otho, the governor of Lusitania, assumed that he would be chosen as his successor. But when Galba chose Piso instead, Otho led an uprising. Galba and Piso were both beheaded, and their heads put on pikes and kicked around. Episode 71 Otho and Vitellius sees Otho having to face the ongoing unrest up on the Rhine, led by Vitellius. Vitellius was thinking of overthrowing Galba, but when he heard that Otho had already done so, he decided to turn against Otho instead. Eventually the two Roman armies faced each other. After suffering a defeat at Bedriacum in April, Otho committed suicide having served as Emperor for just three months. Episode 72 Vitellius and Vespasian. Meanwhile, Vespasian had been in Judea, where he took very seriously the prophesy that the King of the World would come from Judea (of course, Christians came to interpret this differently.) So he just bided his time, and more and more troops came over to his side, leaving the unpopular Vitellius too weak to fight him. Vitellius tried to resign, but his forces wouldn’t allow him. The battle for Rome ensued, and Vespasian’s troops triumphed. Vitellius was executed soon after. Episode 73 The Only Man who Improved looks at Vespasian, who was in effect the last man standing. He ended up being a better emperor than people thought. He was a good propagandist, emphasizing that he had brought Peace and Victory after years of civil war, and had a self-deprecating nature (quite different to those neurotic Julian-Claudians). He was happy to circulate the prophesy about the King of the World from Judea, and rumours that he could heal people. He certainly healed the treasury by overhauling the taxes, even taxing the urine that was used in manufacturing processes, until he was advised that it was a bad look to tax toilets. He demolished the incomplete Golden Palace that Nero had commenced and built the Colosseum on the site. He reorganized the upper class ranks, getting rid of the corrupt, whether they were his supporters or not. His son Titus put down the Judean Revolt, leading to the burning of the temple against Titus’ orders and the mass suicide pact at the Siege of Masada. Vespasian actually died of natural causes, which was unusual after the suicides and poisonings of his predecessors as emperor.

Rear Vision (ABC) Did you know that the first ebook was created 50 years ago? EBooks: Winners and Losers looks at the changes that ebooks have brought to the publishing industry, with implications for booksellers and authors alike. I’m trying to stop cluttering my house with books, so I tend to borrow my paper-based books from libraries, knowing that at least the author will get a Lending Rights payment. However, I do buy ebooks when they are on special, or if no libraries hold the book I want to read.

History Workshop Podcast. I remember reading Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History (1973) when I did a Women’s History subject at La Trobe back in 1975. This History Workshop interview with her in Daring to Hope: Sheila Rowbotham and 1970s Womens Liberation is almost an “in the family” interview, as Rowbotham was herself one of the founders of History Workshop. Rowbotham has recently released the second volume of her autobiography, where she talks about feminist activism and the 1970s. It seems to me that leftist historians have written more about the 1960s and 1970s and been embraced as part of the leftist historiographical movement than historians of the right (I’m thinking here of E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm) and Australian feminists now writing the history of Australian feminism. Although probably I wouldn’t even be aware of memoirs and retrospectives by historians from the right.

‘A Trip to the Dominions: The Scientific Event that Changed Australia’ Ed: Lynette Russell

2021,150 p.

The international conference events industry has really been stripped bare by the COVID pandemic. I say ‘industry’ deliberately, because international conferences have very much become commercial events, leveraged and promoted by cities for tourism and reputational benefits far beyond any papers that might emerge from the conference itself. But this is perhaps not such a recent phenomenon as we might have thought.

This small collection of essays, edited by Lynette Russell looks at the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held in Australia in 1914. The ‘advance party’ for the conference arrived in Perth on 28 July 1914, the day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Talk about timing! Right up to the official opening of the conference on 14 August, there was a question mark over whether the conference would go ahead, but it was decided that it would, as long as it didn’t interfere with the war preparations of the Commonwealth.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831. It had always included the human sciences alongside geology, chemistry and the hard sciences, often included under headings of ‘Geology and Geography’ and ‘Biology’. By 1884, spurred by interest in archaeology and with links to humanitarian groups active on behalf of indigenous peoples in Australia and North America, a separate ‘Section H- Anthropology’ had been formed. When the BAAS organized its conference in Australia, it was concerned that it would have too much of an Australian focus, so it was decided to limit the number of Australian-themed topics to just 1/3 of all offerings – except for the Anthropology section. For anthropologists, the opportunity to travel to Australia and actually see ‘natives’, as distinct from reading about them from their armchair, or reading the untutored scribblings of local informants, was a real drawcard. Many took the opportunity – as you would – to extend their trip to the Antipodes for a bit longer to do some field research and catch up with old contacts.

The fairly new Australian Commonwealth Government made a hefty contribution to having this prestigious conference held in Australia. Over 155 scientists were fully funded by the Australian government, and they travelled on three ships especially contracted for this purpose (two of them were commandeered for war purposes after war was declared, making the return trip rather difficult). Another 200 scientists received subsidies and supported travel to the tune of 15,000 pounds (several million dollars in today’s terms). The conference participants visited Western Australia (where it started), South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. It had a prominent public focus. Five thousand people in total attended sessions, with two thousand of these in Melbourne alone. Melbourne, as the then-capital, played a particularly significant role with a number of scientific organizations, and many interested citizens, mostly -although not all- drawn from the wealthier suburbs, attended the lectures out of genuine interest.

I have gleaned most of this information from Lynette Russell’s opening chapter, ” A ‘Young and Vigorous Outpost of Empire'” where she emphasizes the unfortunate coincidence of timing with World War I and the significance of the conference for the newly federated nation. As an ‘anthropological historian’ she was the recipient of a fellowship undertaken with Oxford University, where the archives of the BAAS are housed at the Bodleian Libraries, with 200 linear metres of shelved material. A small seminar was held at the Royal Anthropological Institution, where these papers were workshopped.

As several of the papers in this volume emphasize, anthropologists at the time were operating under the stance of ‘salvage ethnography’ – the idea that ‘real Aborigines’ were about to die out, and that cultural change as a result of colonialism was invariably equated with cultural loss, culminating in an impoverished, corrupted and inauthentic culture. In Chapter 2 Ian J. McNiven explores the idea of ‘salvage ethnography’ more fully, where he describes the visit of Alfred Haddon and his daughter Kathleen to the Torres Strait immediately after attending the BAAS conference in Australia. Alfred was a Reader in Ethnology at Cambridge, a position he took up in 1909, and Kathleen, aged 26, was a Demonstrator in Zoology at the same university. Kathleen was a keen photographer. It was a six-week Papuan expedition, where Alfred returned to meet Maino, whom he had described as an ‘old friend’, who had been senior cultural consultant during previous expeditions in 1888 and 1898. When Maino was not able to explain the use of old shrines, Haddon attributed it to the ‘vanishing past’ trope that he had warned his professional and academic colleagues against. Although his approach to anthropology was seen to be rigid and outdated, ironically it was the observations and writings of anthropologists working in the ‘salvage ethnography’ tradition that formed the foundations of land and sea native title determinations in recent decades. The chapter closes with a lengthy extract from Haddon’s paper ‘The Decorative Art of Papua’.

The title of Chapter 3 “A Diary in the Loose Sense of the Term” is a play on the title of ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski’s diary called A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, published in 1967 by his second wife. In fact, Austrian-born Malinowski was one of the participants in this conference and was detained when war was declared, but he was released with the assistance of a fellow anthropologist and allowed to carry out the research in the Trobriand Islands that established his career. But the diary in this chapter was written by Henry Balfour, the first curator of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. And he had none of the self-reflection or emotional angst of Malinowski’s diary. Instead, it was always intended to be a souvenir, filled with inserts, drawings and cuttings – a bit like a scrapbook. In fact, it’s not very interesting at all. There is a page of ‘cartoonlets’ from the Western Mail commenting on the war, but it was only kept because there were portraits of some prominent BAAS delegates on the back. His encounters with the Noongar people of Western Australia involved them hauling their car out of a ditch when it got bogged; in Lake Alexandrina (South Australia) he enjoyed a show of boomerang-throwing, lunch at the hotel, and a corrobborrie [sic]. He went for a trip with local Melbourne collectors, including Alfred Stephen Kenyon (who lived in my own suburb of Heidelberg), and his diary occasionally mentioned objects that he collected or bought, although it’s not clear whether they were private purchases, or acquisitions for the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Jane Lydon contributed Chapter 4 “Taming the Territory: William Baldwin Spencer and Elsie Masson”. Baldwin Spencer is best known today as a building at Melbourne University, but he was actually the foundation chair of biology. He was one of the main architects for the conference itself, but in the years preceding the conference he had been appointed Special Commissioner and Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. During his year of service in 1912 he travelled throughout the Territory and submitted a report in 1913 which emphasized the ‘child like’ and primitive nature of the indigenous people there. A couple of years later, Elsie Masson (who went on to marry Bronislaw Malinowski) published An Untamed Territory, an account of a year spent as an au pair companion and nanny with the inaugural Northern Territory Administrator John Gilruth and his family in Darwin. The Masson and Spencer families were friends and neighbours on campus. She visited many of the places that Spencer had visited before her. Her book shared many of the racial views expressed by Spencer and his circle, but she gave it “a distinctively romantic, humorous, stereotypical inflection to her circle’s views, facilitating their reception by a popular audience” (p. 101) Her book concludes with the trial of nine Aboriginal men for the murder of a white trepanger, Jim Campbell. Although she satirizes the cultural misunderstandings during the trial, she also expressed sympathy for the Indigenous prisoners and the unfairness of the ‘justice’ system in which they found themselves enmeshed. She took photographs of the accused men’s wives and children, and the trepanning enterprise in which the murder took place.

The final chapter ‘The Notes and Queries, Gestures toward a Settler History’ is written by Leigh Boucher. In her introduction, Lynette Russell warned that “At first blush Boucher’s essay may not seem to obviously sit in its collection…” (p. 23). She’s right. However, ‘Notes and Queries’ was a questionnaire published in 1841 which was distributed to colonial informants to fill in and return to the BAAS in London. There were 89 questions dealing with

physical characteristics, language, individual and family life, buildings and monuments, works of art, government and laws, geography and statistics, social relations and religion (Queries Respecting the Human Race Address to Travellers and Others, 1841)

p. 125

The Queries were distributed to the British Museum, the Royal Geographical Society, Scientific Bodies, missionaries and travellers, and were reprinted in colonial newspapers across the empire. However, it seems that not many completed questionnaires found their way back to the learned gentlemen in London, because travellers and commentators preferred to write their own volumes about their travels and observations. Other colonial observers, like Daniel Bunce, used the thinking in Notes and Queries to inform their own investigations.

So why is a discussion of an 1841 questionnaire included in this collection of essays? Well, the questionnaire was periodically reviewed until 1951, and indeed practising anthropologists in the 1970s could still remember the questionnaire being used in classrooms to introduce them to taxonomies of anthropological thought. Each of those anthropologists in Section H at the BAAS conference in 1914 would have been steeped in the thinking of Notes and Queries.

Nonetheless, the tenuous connection between this essay and the others in the volume has prompted me to think about the construction of a book of papers on a theme like this. I really don’t know where I would have put this essay. Chronologically, it occurs well before the conference, but putting it at the start would deflect the reader’s attention from the conference itself which is, after all, the theme of the book. Yet putting it at the end leaves it dangling, not so much as an afterthought as an aside.

I’m a little sorry, too, that Russell herself didn’t come back with an afterword to pick up on the subtitle of the book: ‘The Scientific Event that Changed Australia’. She does address this in her introductory chapter, pointing out that a chair of anthropology was established at the University of Sydney. An Advisory Council of Science and Industry was established in 1916, and Kangaroo Island was proclaimed a government reserve to protect the fast disappearing native fauna. However, these observations about the changes that occurred in Australia as a result of the conference probably would have made more sense after reading the papers, rather than before.

Nonetheless, I found this an interesting little volume, although it is probably aimed at a niche audience. I had not heard of this conference before, and it casts a light on the scholarly mindset that underpinned the early writing about indigenous society, very much from a London-based perspective.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Because Lynette Russell is the editor, and because she has really taken the running in publicizing this book, I am including it on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

Con subtítulos en español: Violeta no coge el ascensor (2020)

It’s always a bit of a problem when you’re watching a movie that is referencing a movie you haven’t seen. This recent Spanish film is a remake of ‘Hannah Takes the Stairs’ a mumblecore film that starred Greta Gerwig. Actually, looking at the English trailer for ‘Hannah Takes the Stairs’, the two are very similar.

Nothing much happens in this film, set during summer in Spain, when a young girl is an intern at a publishing house. She shares an office with two men, both of whom are in love with her. Which is she going to choose?

‘This Much is True’ by Miriam Margolyes

2021, 448 p.

As our most recent lockdown dragged on, each day I looked more like Miriam Margolyes. When I caught sight of my bird’s nest hair, or ample bosom in a mirror, I would think “Oh Jesus, I’m Miriam…” Now, I enjoy watching Miriam Margolyes, but I don’t necessarily want to look like her. But physical similarity and a fondness aside, I really wish that I had not read this book.

“I’m quite sure you picked up this book hoping I’d make you laugh” she says in her opening pages, but I must say that I was largely disappointed in this regard. A wry smile occasionally, but no laughter. The book sounds like her, and you can almost hear her well-enunciated, fruity tones pontificating from on high, but on the page the words are just flat and self-conscious.

It’s pretty much a straight celebrity biography, starting off with childhood, moving through the phases of a career, riddled through with name-dropping. As she explains, it was written during lockdown, and it does have the feel of revisiting the past. I know that as one gets older, more and more of the people of your past drop away, but this had the feel of a long tribute to this dear friend, and that dear friend, and the other dear friend too. I found it more interesting once she reached her present day, where she explained her current politics, her attitude towards her Jewishness and Zionism, and her response to aging and bodily changes.

She was the only child of doting Jewish parents, who made sacrifices for her and encouraged her. Her mother, in particular, born in the lower middle class, was acutely conscious of class, pushing her daughter to meet the ‘best people’. She started her career on radio, doing voiceovers for advertisements and acting in that rather British institution, the radio play. I must admit that I was unaware of just how many stage, radio film and television programs she has acted in – just check out her Wikipedia entry.

There’s lots of saccharine praise, but she also dishes the dirt as well. She is scathing of the male members of the Footlights Club in Cambridge, especially those who went on to form Monty Python. When she doesn’t like someone, she says so. In the interests of telling all that she knows, she famously ‘outed’ her therapist over her role in Jacqueline du Pre’s death.

When I was contemplating reading this book, I checked out GoodReads. Many of the comments expressed thin-lipped disapproval of her obsession with ‘sucking-off’ men, even though she has openly acknowledged her lesbianism. Her relationship with her partner Heather is written with sensitivity and respect, and one of her lasting regrets is that she ‘came out’ to her mother. This revelation, she fears,led to her mother’s sudden death. I had vowed that I wouldn’t be so censorious and judgmental about the ‘sucking-off’ but there’s just too much for me. A wicked glee in being ‘naughty’ has its use-by date, and eighty years of age is well past it. It just felt a bit pathetic, and left with me with disturbing visual images of her. Especially when I looked in the mirror at myself. Thank heavens the lockdown is over, I have had my hair cut, and I look like me again.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: I actually bought it, full price, as an e-book.