Monthly Archives: November 2021

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 October 2021

The History of Rome Podcast. Episode 64- Smite my Womb sees Claudius dead and Nero moving smoothly into his position, aided mightily by the hand of his mother Agrippina. He was only 16 years old, had no experience whatsoever, and was really into the ‘entertainment industry’- something very much frowned upon by the patricians who had the time to sit around writing histories of the Roman Empire. He had his mother on one side, and his advisor Seneca (the Stoic philosopher) on the other. He decided to sideline his mother by sending her away, and when she seemed to be supporting his younger brother Brittanicus (son of Claudius and the adulteress Messalina) and later another cousin, she over-played her hand. Nero organized several unsuccessful attempts at matricide, and in the end sent an assassin to kill her, later claiming that it was a suicide. Her dying words were said to be ‘Smite my womb”. Thanks and goodbye, Mother. Episode 65- Burn it to the Ground turns to foreign policy between 58 and 63 AD, when both the Parthians and the tribes in Britain decided to take advantage of this newly-minted emperor and test him out. The Parthian conflict started over Armenia, while in Britain Boudica was fired up by the denial of her inheritance of the Icini tribal throne that had been left to her by her husband. She was flogged and her daughters raped by the Romans. She gathered huge numbers, and they engaged in a scorched-earth policy, burning down Londinium. Her troops massively outnumbered the Romans, but the Romans were always good at battle on an open field. The defeated Boudica drank poison and died. Episode 66 -666 I wonder if he planned for this episode to deal with the question: Was Nero the Anti-Christ? Nero was married to Claudia Octavia, but he started an affair with Poppaea, which didn’t go down well with the people. He divorced Octavia on grounds of infertility, and the populace started demanding that he bring Octavia back, instead of going off with Poppaea. So he had Octavia killed, and staged it as a suicide. Nero was extravagant, and surrounded himself with yes-men who encouraged his indulgence. His reputation was so poor that when the Great Fire broke out, there were rumours that he set it himself as a land-clearing exercise to build a new temple. However, Tacitus says that Nero wasn’t even in Rome when the fire began. He blamed the Christians, who were Capital O ‘others’, and they hated him too – and maybe this leads to the reference to the Anti-Christ 666 (which makes the name Nero if you sprinkle some numerology jiggery-pockery over it). A conspiracy led by Piso was mounted against him, but he was betrayed and Nero embarked on a series of treason trials, which eventually led to him being declared an enemy of the state. In Episode 67- What an Artist the World is Losing we finally bid farewell to Nero, who became increasingly unhinged. His wife Poppaea died, either in childbirth, or because he kicked her to death. Nice. Plunged into sorrow, he had her embalmed and kept her beside him. In 66 AD the Zealot-led Great Revolt broke out in Judaea, leading Nero to appoint Vespasian to crush the uprising. Governors started rebelling against him, largely on the basis of his tax policies. The Senate eventually declared him a public enemy and warned that he would be beaten to death if he was found. So he suicided instead, or maybe he got his private secretary to do it. Either way, he was dead, at the age of 30, having ruled for 14 years. This brings us to the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In Episode 68- Three Emperors, Mike Duncan explores the question of where legitimacy was to come from, if there were no more Julio-Claudians left. Mostly it came from the Governors, who were powerful in their own right, but had all been equally subject to the Emperor. In this episode he introduces three of the four emperors who ruled in 69AD (the fourth one was Vespasian, introduced in the last episode). First there was Galba (June 68- January 69AD), who became emperor with the support of the Praetorian Guard. He had been governor of Aquitania, Upper Germany and Africa, and most recently Hispania. He was old, frugal, hated bribery and was a disciplinarian. The second was Otho, only 5 years older than Nero, who was convinced that Galba would adopt him, and that when Galba died (he was old, after all), he would take his place. then there was Vitellius, a lazy and gluttonous governor, who was popular with the troops.

History Lab. History Lab is a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Public History linked with UTS, and radio producers so, as you might expect, there’s no dodgy sound here (which is a relief, I must admit. COVID has not been kind to history podcast production values because recordings of Zoom talks sound pretty woeful). They are not prolific, but their podcasts are really well produced. Season 4 The Last Outlaws looks at the story of Jimmy and Joe Governor, who were fictionalized (to his later regret) in Tom Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. In Episode 1, the lead researcher and law professor Katherine Biber connects with Aunty Loretta Parsley, the great-granddaughter of Jimmy Governor to get a fuller, family-based perspective on the events that led to Jimmy and Joe’s crimes. In Episode 2, Jimmy and Joe are proclaimed outlaws but -rather surprisingly really- Jimmy is not killed (despite being proclaimed an outlaw), faces trial and is sentenced to death. His case becomes a lightning rod for how justice is to be dispensed in newly federated Australia. While awaiting sentence, Jimmy’s demeanour and behaviour is documented in the prison keepers’ diary (a log, really). Episode 3 follows up on Joe Governor, who was shot and killed near Singleton. He had been declared an outlaw, and the Wilkinson brothers, who shot him, were not charged. Photos were taken of Joe’s body at the inquest held at the Caledonian Hotel (a common place to hold inquests), and the photos were not removed until 2019. As for the ancestral remains that were removed for study, it’s not really clear whether they are still held somewhere or whether they are lost. They were sent to the University of Sydney and who knows where from there.

Australia vs. the Climate Leading up to Glasgow, I’m listening to this Guardian series on Australia’s policy on climate change. Episode 1: Kyoto looks at the Kyoto COP and the backroom negotiations that led to Australia committing to increasing our emissions, and the ‘Australia clause’ that allowed us to count land-clearing that had already occurred. Then, after all that, Howard didn’t ratify it anyway. We are assholes, and shamefully, the Morrison/Joyce government is still claiming the free kick when boasting that we are “meeting and beating” our Kyoto targets.

Because of Anita Finishing off this podcast series, Episode 3: The Conversation features a conversation over Skype between Professor Anita Hill and Dr Christine Blasey Ford, who testified against Brett Kavanaugh when he was nominated for the US Supreme Court. There’s a lot of mutual admiration going on here, but you can hear how vulnerable Ford still is. Hill (I think) raises the point that there are few other occasions when people say “I believe you” when you tell them something, and what the unspoken part of that sentence is. Episode 4: The Movement looks at where we have come since Anita Hill’s testimony. Now there are 143 women in the Senate; Joe Biden called Anita Hill to apologize to her (as he should). But men’s reputations are still being protected, over women who were harmed (they don’t call them ‘victims’, but rather ‘women who were harmed’).

Stuff the British Stole (ABC) This is now in its second series but I’m going back to catch up on Series 1, of which I had only listened to the Gweagal shield episode. So, back to the beginning, the very first episode A Tiger and a Scream looks at Tipu’s Tiger (sometimes spelled Tippoo) a life-size wooden figure of a tiger eating an East India Company soldier, with a handle you can turn to play music. As the producer, Marc Funnell discovers, the figure is a big ‘F**k You’ to the British, created for Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore who was at that time fighting the British. The Tiger was looted and taken back to various British museums before ending up at the V&A where it has been restored, complete with the organ. Shashi Tharoor, author and Indian MP, who wrote Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India is one of those who feel that the Tiger should be repatriated to India.

Here’s a video of the rather weird organ inside the Tiger

Episode 2: Blood Art tells the story of the Benin Bronzes, plundered from the Nigerian kingdom of Benin (as distinct from the country of Benin today). In 1898 the Oba of Benin warned the British vice consul general James Robert Phillips and a large entourage of over 200 not to enter the city because rituals were being conducted, but they entered anyway. Only two Europeans survived the resulting massacre. In retaliation, a punitive expedition was mounted that sacked and destroyed Benin City. The artwork was looted, with an eye to selling them to fund the expedition. The British Library contains a large quantity of the bronzes, and has resisted returning them. This episode also tells the story of two policemen, formerly stationed at Kensington Palace, who felt that the Bronzes should be returned and set up a website to highlight the issue. They were approached by a man from Oxford, who had two of them brought home by his father. Together they sought to return them to the Oba of Benin, without the then-President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, claiming the glory.

British Museum. Alan

Six degrees of separation: from ‘What are you going through?’ by Sigrid Nunez to….

First Saturday. Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest involves Kate choosing a book title, then you linking the details and your reviews of six books which spring to mind. It is a rare month when I have read her starting book and this month is no exception. She chose What are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, which apparently deals with two friends and an assisted death.

Well, I haven’t read this book by Sigrid Nunez but I have read another of hers, which sounds remarkably similar in theme to Kate’s starting book. I then embark on a succession of books about suicide and death, so it’s a gloomy string of titles this time. You may not be in the mood for such unrelieved sadness.

Sigrid Nunez’s earlier book The Friend (2018) is constructed as a series of short paragraphs, addressed to an unnamed male friend who had recently committed suicide. These paragraphs have been written by a similarly unnamed female narrator who teaches creative writing at a university. The paragraphs to her friend are spoken in the second person “you”.

Another suicide is announced in the opening pages of historian Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary (1999), the story of Janse, the Dutch-speaking notary in Albany, who commits suicide in the late 17th century, a number of years after the English have taken possession of New Amsterdam. The book is written in two halves, the first a conversational present-tense narrative of Janse’s life and death, and the second an extended form of footnotes which I described as “the historian with her hard-hat on”.

Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love (2010) tells us from the first pages that the author’s grandparents committed suicide together in 1991. The book examines their last day in detail, interspersed with a family history drawn together from the accounts of relatives and her grandparents’ surviving friends.

A Good Day to Die (1998) by Lisa Birnie is about death too, but involves a series of cases and interviews from McCulloch House, a palliative care centre attached to Monash Medical Centre, where Birnie was writer-in-residence. In a way, this does sound a little like Nunez’s What are you going through, but as I haven’t read it, I’m not sure. Written some 20 years before assisted dying legislation was passed in different states in Australia, I wonder how she would feel now.

A young writer, who died too soon is Georgia Blain and her amazing book The Museum of Words (2017). Dying with brain cancer, with a glioblastoma the size of a golf ball, she writes of the experience of her illness, threaded by perverse coincidence with the illnesses of her mentor, friend and human rights activist Rosie Scott, who was dying with exactly the same condition, and her mother who was dying with Alzheimers. This book is in many ways a love letter to all three of these women, to the act of writing, and in her final paragraph, an assertion of gratitude for life itself.

Finally, I feel I need a book with a more uplifting title at least. Dymphna Cusack’s Say No to Death (1951) is set in post-WWII Australia where a young woman, Jan, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, then an incurable disease. This is in the time before Medibank/Medicare, when much of the health spending was being directed towards returned soldiers, and when the discrepancy between private and public health treatment was stark. The book is dated, and is best read as social history, but I must say that it has stayed with me long after I read it.

What a depressing chain. What’s next month’s starting book? Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I just read the Wikipedia summary: it sounds similarly gloomy. I’ll have to work hard to think of more uplifting links.

‘China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering’ by David Brophy

2021, 230 p. plus notes

I don’t know what to think about China. I read Peter Hartcher and I see all those meticulously drilled soldiers parading in Tienanmen Square, and I feel very, very apprehensive. Then I read Hugh White or listen to Bob Carr or Paul Keating (albeit with increasing scepticism) and I think that we’re over-reacting. It seems that commentators on China have backed themselves into a particular position, and you almost know what they’re going to say before they start. And yet these commentators do not always come from the traditional left/right field. Clive Hamilton, for example, who is such a strong advocate for the environment and sustainability, is one of the most trenchant critics of China.

So who is David Brophy, and why should I listen to him over anyone else? He is a historian of modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, and he wrote his PhD on Uyghur nationalism, and wrote Uyghur Nation. Increasingly he has found himself called upon to comment on current events in China, and was himself involved in demonstrations in support of Hong Kong at the University of Sydney in August 2019. Although I would by no means instantly give credibility to a historian over any other commentator, a historian is probably a little more likely to take a view longer than the last election, and has no party policy to conform with.

In China Panic, Brophy starts by identifing the different players in the China Commentary field. He points out that security agencies have led the way in Australia proclaiming itself ‘the canary in the coal mine’ regarding China’s rise. ASIO has taken on an increasingly public role, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also talked up the risks. He notes that ASPI receives sponsorship from arms companies, and has received grants from Canberra and the US State Department. (p. 13). Then there are the parliamentary self-styled bipartisan Wolverines- Andrew Hastie, Eric Abetz, Kimberley Kitching (ALP), Raff Ciccone (ALP), James Patterson among others. Commentators more often found on the ‘left’ like Richard Denniss and Clive Hamilton,urge Australia to take a stronger role. Brophy points out that Fairfax Media and the ABC, in particular through ‘Four Corners’, have been major conduits for security warnings in relation to China.

But then there is Hugh White, who argues that as America’s pre-eminence wanes, Australia should accommodate China’s rise. The former secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson warns that ‘national-security cowboys’ are endangering Australia’s interests. Angus Houston, chief of the ADF 2005-2011 maintains that China is a partner, not an enemy. (p. 15). The Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS continues to champion continued trade growth. Twiggy Forrest and the Minerals Council represent business that is keen to maintain trade links.

The book has eight chapters, which are topped-and-tailed with an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are: 1. China and the World 2. The US-China Rivalry Today 3. Influencing the Region 4. Interfering with Democracy 5. Cold-War Campus 6. Human Rights and Xinjian 7.The Battle for Hong Kong 8. Sovereignty, Values and Racism.

As you can see, this is a very current list. One of the dangers of writing a book so close to current situations is that events that have occurred subsequent to publication can change the trajectory of the argument. For example, the AUKUS agreement sees Australia very much throwing its hat into America’s ring, with all of the implications for our own sovereignty, all the while proclaiming that “it’s not about any one country!!” (as if).

So where does Brophy locate himself? As a historian of Uyghur nationalism he is, as you might expect, critical of Chinese policies in Xinjiang. As one of the convenors of the ‘Let’s Talk about Hong Kong’ Chinese-language forum at the University of Sydney, he is committed to providing a platform for debate and exchange amongst Chinese citizens in Australia themselves. However, he points out that Australia and America (in particular) hold China to international standards that they themselves hypocritically sidestep when it suits their purposes. In matters of undue political influence or academic freedom in Australia, he notes that curbs and oversight of these matters for all countries, not just China, would be of benefit to Australia’s democracy. He argues that the move to the Right in contemporary responses to China in Australia’s politics will only provoke a similarly nationalistic response from China. He suggests that instead, we need to live up to our profession of universal values (p. 20) and to strengthen our own democracy.

He concludes:

We need something very different. Not a politics that shies away from necessary criticism of China: that has no future in Australia. But we do need to remove today’s national-security lens and replace it with a more genuinely critical one. On that basis, Australia’s new consciousness of China as a global actor can still point to important truths about China itself, the global system of which it is a part and the deficiencies of Australian democracy…. We need an alternative that combines a vision of a better China with a vision of a better Australia.


I usually give a book a ‘rating’ but I feel at a loss here. I read the book precisely because I don’t know what to think, and I have no way of evaluating his material or mounting counter-arguments. But he says that the question is too important to leave to specialists. Instead,

…to get out of the rut into which Australia’s China debate has settled, we need to recentre it on the interests that ordinary people in Australia and across Asia share in both combating oppression and resisting warmongering.

p. 21

One of the more reassuring programs on China that I have seen recently was on Foreign Correspondent (yes, it’s on the ABC). Called China’s Future, it focussed on three young people who had rejected the expectations of their society, and the hopes of their parents, to choose a different future. One was a transgender young person involved in ‘Voguing’, a dance culture that started in New York in the 1980s queer scene. Another was a woman who had given up her career to return to organic farming in her home village, much to the disappointment of her mother. The third had been an editor with a renowned publishing house, but threw it in to become a shopkeeper with a small corner shop in the hutongs. While I wonder how they will fare in Xi Jinping’s increasingly interventionist society, there was something very human and relatable in their parents’ bewilderment at their children’s choices, set against their determination not to lose their relationship by rejecting them. Love, a future, safety, peace – things that ‘ordinary people’ crave. Perhaps this isn’t a bad place to start.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China’ by Simon Winchester

2009, 336 p.

I must confess that I had never heard of ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, a 24-volume (and counting) series described by its publisher, Cambridge University Press, as “one of the most remarkable works of scholarship in the twentieth century”. Nor had I heard of Joseph Needham, its original author. When I saw the title of this book Bomb, Book and Compass, I immediately thought of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and expected that I would be reading a history of Chinese invention and technology. Joseph Needham, I assumed, would be a missionary/explorer type, perhaps from the 1840s after the Opium Wars, when China was opened up to British trade. But I was wrong on many counts. This is a biography of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge biochemist, who arrived in China in 1943 (100 years after I expected!) and began the research that led to this huge multi-volume work on China which is still continuing, even after his death.

Born in 1900, Joseph Needham was already established as a biochemist and academic at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge when three Chinese postgraduate students arrived at the university in 1936. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, became his lover and through his fascination with the Chinese language and writing, he was chosen to be a director of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in Chongquing. This organisation, with its aim to provide practical academic support to Chinese universities during the Sino-Japanese War, gave him the opportunity to travel around central China to remote areas, collecting books and materials and exposing him to the history of invention and technological development in China which had been largely ignored by the Western World. On returning to Cambridge, he embarked on writing a book which expanded into a ten-year seven volume project, that ended up occupying him for the next six decades.

Tall, handsome, driven and charismatic, Needham also enjoyed nudism, morris-dancing and a radical form of Anglicanism at Thaxted parish church. That was not all that was radical about him. His wife, Dorothy, a fellow bio-chemist and his mistress Lu Gwei-Djen lived just a few doors from each other in a congenial relationship. Winchester seems rather sceptical that this relationship was warmly embraced by all three protagonists, but I suspect that this is his own morality at work here, and not necessarily that of Joseph, Dorothy and Lu Gwei-Djen. The arrangement seemed to be open knowledge.

Not only was Needham imbued with a very healthy ego (flattered no doubt by the women with whom he flirted throughout his life) but he also was observant and curious. He plunged headlong into learning Chinese, devising his own rigorous and methodical way of learning a difficult language. On watching a Chinese gardener grafting a plum tree on his first day in China, he recalled that an American missionary had confidently claimed that botany was wholly unknown to the Chinese. This, he realized was one of hundreds of techniques that the Western world discounted:

Needham felt he needed to write his new book largely to overcome ignorance like this and to purge the western world of prejudices against the Chinese that were based on such a wholesale lack of knowledge and understanding. Should a book ever be published, then observations like this, and the scores of others he now knew he would make…would be sure to be included….Everything he was about to see- how a Chinese farmer plowed, how a Chinese bridge was built, how iron was smelted in China, what pills a Chinese doctor handed out, which kinds of kites were to be found in a Chinese playground, what a Chinese siege cannon looked like, how a dam, a haystack, or a harness was built in China- was useful to him….The Chinese, he kept discovering again and again, had the longest imaginable history of invention, creation and the generation of new ideas.

p. 66-67

Certainly China gave Needham the experiences and practical examples to develop his project, but this was not a one-way street. He perused markets and purchased books and documents, and sent home a steady stream of documentation -some rare, some freely available- in diplomatic bags. Once he had returned home, he was the recipient of other material, sent to him from a supporter in China. He was aware that some of this material was sold out of desperation, and there is an element of safe-keeping, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. But part of me wonders whether this is not another form of Western culture-stripping, and whether any of it has been the subject of repatriation demands.

So what was his plan for all this material? The original proposal, reprinted in Bomb, Book and Compass, was for a book addressed to

all educated people whether themselves scientists or not, who are interested in the history of science, scientific thought and technology, in relation to the general history of civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe

p. 171

He identified his question early:

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM. What exactly did the Chinese contribute in the various historical periods to the development of Science, Scientific Thought and Technology? Why did their science always remain empirical and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia? It is suggested that, apart from numerous theoretical and psychological factors which demand attention, the concrete factors which moulded asiatic civilisation differently from that of Europe are: a) geographical b) hydrological c) social d) economic

p. 171

I think that it’s important to remember that Needham was a biochemist, not a historian. The way that he went about answering his question, I believe, reflects this. He decided initially to make a historical list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea that had been first conceived and made in China. It took him five years. They were, as Winchester notes, “all about detail. They were assembled with a painstaking concern for even the smallest facts of Chinese life.”

The larger question, since dubbed “The Needham Question” was not answered in his own work. As Winchester notes:

Joseph Needham never fully worked out the answers. Perhaps it was because he was too close to the topic, seeing many trees but not enough forest. And though he makes an attempt at offering some answers in his final volume, he never seems fully convinced of his own arguments and never fully explains his reasons. It has been left to others to take up the challenge in his place.

p. 260

The initial volumes received acclaim even though there were many who, resentful of his discipline-hopping, willed them to fail. His work was seen by many as an eccentric folly, but this view was tempered once they became the jewel in the Cambridge University Press catalogue.

In many ways, the initial volumes salvaged his reputation, which had plummetted in the early 1950s. His interest and language skills may have snagged him the position with the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in the first place, but he was now widely acknowledged as a China Expert. In 1952 he led an International Commission delegated by the World Peace Council to investigate the alleged use of chemical warfare by the US during the Korean War. A committed Socialist throughout his life, and a supporter of the Communist Party, he confirmed the Chinese claim that they had been the targets of American bacteriological weapons. The response of the Establishment was swift. He was declared persona non grata in the United States, his academic position became more tenuous, and the senior members of his college at Cambridge froze him out. He was excoriated in the press, denounced in Parliament and shunned by many.

His reputation was rehabilitated largely on the strength of Science and Civilisation in China, and he continued to champion left-wing causes. Even though he was dismayed by the drabness and conformity in Mao’s China when he visited in 1952, he does not seem to have gone through the same crisis of the soul that many left-wing supporters of the Russian Communist Party suffered when news of Stalin’s activities reached the West.

Simon Winchester is a master story-teller, and it comes through in this book. It is as if Winchester has walked around Joseph Needham, describing him from different perspectives: as an academic, as a sexual being, as a political activist, as a researcher. The maps are right where you need them, and they show you just want you want to know. The text is interspersed with photographs of Joseph Needham, which help you to fix him in your mind’s eye. However, I was a little alarmed at Winchester’s blithe acceptance that the Chinese ‘discovered’ Australia, mentioned in passing and without reference to Gavin Menzies, whom I am assuming Winchester is citing. Without footnotes – beyond his quirky asides at the bottom of some pages – the reader needs to put her trust in Winchester alone, something which never sits well with me.

However, both Needham and Winchester were prescient in asking about China’s historical role, and Winchester’s contribution to a better knowledge of it- especially since China is now so prominent in Australians’ sense of security. I found this book fascinating, exposing me to a person and his research that were completely unknown to me. A prolific popular historian/journalist Winchester, is obviously drawn to men who devote their lives to a passion – e.g. James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary in The Surgeon of Crowthorne and William Smith in The Map that Changed the World. Joseph Needham was one such man, and I’m glad that Winchester introduced him to me.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups. I read this with my face-to-face bookgroup.