I have a rather ambivalent attitude towards short stories, and I find them very hard to review beyond merely summarizing them. Finally, after many decades, I have worked out that I enjoy them most when I read just one story at a sitting, no matter how brief, and leave it to percolate overnight until moving on to the next one. They are also very good for late-night reading when you’re too tired to read anything that involves memorizing actions or characters beyond that one act of reading.
However, I do like Debra Adelaide’s short stories. Flipping through the book beside me now, I can recognize and remember nearly each story on reading a paragraph or two (my test of whether a story has ‘stuck’ or not). The stories are arranged into three parts on the basis of whether they are narrated in first, second or third person, and the final story ‘Zebra’ is more novella than short-story at 121 pages.
First Part starts with ‘Dismembering’ where we see a woman who has a vivid dream that she and her ex-husband dismembered a corpse which they buried in her back garden. She is so un-nerved by the dream that she begins divesting herself of all the possessions that she had brought to her second marriage in what seems to be a steady mental unravelling. ‘Welcome to Country’ sees another form of cleaning-out as a woman, in a near-future Australia, begins gathering together her now-absent son’s belongings from the 1990s to take to ‘Country’, a fenced off, separate outback community where a mean-spirited government holds those claiming ‘sovereignty’ or refusing to conform, in perpetual detention. ‘A Fine Day’ a woman visits her friend Alex, who is trying to get his ex-wife to return to him. His ex-wife Helen, doesn’t want to be found despite her own loneliness. The story has a very Chekhovian ending.
The Second Part starts with ‘Festive Food for the Whole Family’ which I very much enjoyed, given that I was reading it just before Christmas. Given in the form of advice, like a magazine article, it talks about how the successful Christmas host will prepare food to meet all the dietary requirements of demanding guests. Meanwhile, her husband is becoming increasingly familiar with his sister-in-law and so the carving knife comes in handy. ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart’ is a description of the “leaden numbing pain” that sets your body in turmoil and makes even the slightest job, like shopping, an ordeal. ‘Migraine for Beginners’ is obviously written by someone who has experienced migraines (although, for me, my migraines are more of the Hildegarde von Bingen variety- see below). ‘The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise’ is set in an offshore refugee ‘facility’ which is certainly notParadise, where a young boy establishes a barber shop as a way of filling in time until he can move to the mainland.
The Third section starts with a lovely story ‘Carry Your Heart’ where a woman meets a man in a bookshop- what book lover could not respond to a romance in a bookshop? In ‘I am at Home Now’ Debra Adelaide writes from the perspective of Mrs Phillips, who cared for Bennelong, when he travelled to England with another indigenous man Yemmerrawanne in 1792 with Governor Phillip. ‘No Hot Drinks in the Ward’ takes us to the children’s cancer ward of a hospital, where a mother with a sick child has been tossed into a world she never wanted to be part of. ‘Nourishment’ carries on this theme, where a wife is visiting her husband in hospital, where he is fasting before surgery. In ‘The Recovery Position’ Cate is an ex-soldier, now conducting workplace training in First Aid classes. Teaching CPR triggers her memory of returning to Tarin Kowt with Trooper Brad Innes in a helicopter. ‘Wipe Away Your Tears’ starts in a plane over Istanbul as a couple visit Gallipoli. Her husband, Harry, is searching for the grave of his great-grandfather but he has not properly mourned his brother Johnny, who had died in a car accident.
‘Zebra’ is by far the longest story in the book. Set in the Lodge in Canberra, there is a female P.M. who reminds us just a little of Julia Gillard. She is unmarried, calm, unhurried and she finds herself drawn to the beauty of the gardens around the lodge where she discovers that her neighbour, Kerr, has been surreptitiously shifting the fence. Somehow she manages to float above all the political turmoil, and she finds a still point in the gift of a zebra which arrives unsolicited at the Lodge. She is lonely, and attracted to her staffer, but is fearful of being spurned. It is all a bit fey and implausible, and but then again…look at Gladys. Who would have thought that romance could haunt the corridors of power?
So, all in all, a strong selection of stories that I felt perfectly happy to pick up each night. I think that ‘Zebra’ will remain in my mind because it was so strange, and I may think of ‘Festive Food for the Whole Family’ next Christmas (and send up a silent prayer of thanks that my own Christmases are much more pleasant occasions.)
Rating: who knows. I can never rate collections of short stories.
I’ve been catching public transport to travel down onto the Mornington Peninsula and so I have had hours and hours to listen to podcasts! Many, many hours. Add to that long walks along the beach, and I’ve listened my ears off!
Emperors of Rome My, there’s a lot of episodes about Septimius Severus. Obviously Dr Caillan Davenport (Roman History, Macquarie University) is a bit of a fan. He calls him ‘Septimius’ so I’ll go with that in this summary. Anyway, in Episode LXXXVI – Ascent to Greatness, However Steep and Dangerous Septimius goes off to fight the second Parthian war, which he wins, enabling him to add that to his very long name. In 10 years, he only spends 6 months in Rome. As part of his rewriting history to make him part of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, Septimius renames his son Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and at the age of nine gives him the title of Augustus and makes him co-emperor. He also marries Marcus Aurelius Antoninus off to his right hand man Plautianus’ daughter Plautilla but they hated each other.
Episode LXXXVII – Severan Stories I takes an ‘episodes’ approach. Act I – A hair of the beard looks at Plautianus and his rise to prominence as Septimius’ close advisor. But the family hated him, and when his downfall came at the hands (though not the sword) of Antoninus, they cut off a hair from his beard. Act II – Princes who adore you looks at Septimius’ sons Antoninus and Geta. Antoninus was definitely the favourite, and being only 9 months older than Geta, that must have really rankled. Act III – Cordially detested. Septimius had a close relationship with his wife Julia Domna, and the empire respected her as the mother of the dynasty. She is remembered as having a keen political mind and being a patron of thinkers, but there were always rumours about her (as was the case with most Roman empresses).
Episode LXXXVIII – Severan Stories II continues the ‘episodes’ approach. Act I – If you build it they will come talks about Septimius Severus’ building programs. There had been a fire at the end of Commodus’ reign, so rebuilding was in order. He rebuilt the Pantheon, and also took advantage of the opportunity to put his names (many names) and accomplishments onto buildings everywhere. Act II – The superfluous senators of Septimius Severus looks at how he thinned out the ranks of senators and got rid of perceived threats throughout his reign. Act III – I beg of no man looks at dissatisfaction amongst the people of Rome and the rise of Bulla the Brigand, who seemed to be a bit of a Robin Hood character.
Episode LXXXIX – A Man the World Could Not Hold sees Septimius head 25000 trooops over to Brittania, an island that had never completely been under Roman control. Perhaps he wanted a last victory, or maybe he wanted to toughen up his sons, or perhaps he wanted to prove that he still had ‘it’ even though Bulla the Brigand had been so hard to control. He won (a rather diffident victory) so he could add that name too. He told his feuding sons to live in harmony, look after the army, and pay no attention to anyone else. They did two out of three. Summing up his reign, Dr Caillan Davenport thinks that it’s unfortunate for Severus that he wasn’t included under the ‘Five Good Emperors’ label because he thinks that he was a good emperor, even though he gained power under messy circumstances.
Episode LXXXI – Livy I was driving, and this was the next podcast to come up so I listened, even though it has nothing to do with emperors. It features Professor Ronald Ridley (Honorary,Historical and Philosophical studies, University of Melbourne) who is a big fan of the historian Livy, who wrote an extensive and exhaustive history, spanning 142 books. The books were published in groups of 5, 10 or 15 and so ending at 142 is strange, unless he was making a statement that the death of Augustus was an end point. Any collection of 142 books is too big for a private library, so they were summarized. They have located only the first quarter. Ridley admires him for being the first historian, from which all other historians have drawn.
History Hit In the UK they have a 100 year privacy provision on their census (I’m not sure what the situation is here in Australia). The digitized census records were released late last year and are available through Findmypast. (Hmm. A private company). 1921 Census: Revealed features Audrey Collins, from The National Archives, and Myko Clelland, from Findmypast. It was the first census after WWI and there won’t be another release for 30 years because the 1931 Census was lost in a fire and the 1941 Census was never taken.
Travels Through Time As well as listening to podcasts about Rome, I write a feature for the Heidelberg Historical Society’s newsletter that looks at what was happening in Heidelberg one hundred years earlier. So I’m interested in the 1920s and looking for books about the decade. 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Year features Nick Rennison who has recently released 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Year where he goes through the year of 1922 month by month, taking a world history approach. His three scenes from 1922 were the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the assassination of the Weimar Republic politician Walter Rathernau and the trial of Hollywood comedian ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle for the murder of young starlet Virginia Rappe.
History Extra PodcastThe Demerara Slave Uprising is advertised as being about a ‘little known’ uprising, but I actually am familiar with it because ‘my’ Judge Willis was one of the judges of the Court of Civil and Criminal Justice in British Guiana (i.e. Demerara) in 1831, eight years after the 1823 uprising. It had been strongly put down, but the tiny white minority had been unnerved by this uprising of enslaved people who vastly outnumbered them. The interview featured Thomas Harding, the author of White Debt: The Demerara Uprising and Britain’s Legacy of Slavery. He writes ‘narrative non-fiction’ but he acknowledges the assistance of Caribbean historians and seems to have stayed fairly close to the court records, diaries and correspondence.
This Union: A Sea Between Us (BBC) I enjoyed the series on Scotland, and so here I launched into Northern Ireland. This series had less of a historical emphasis, focussing mainly on current events since the Good Friday Agreement, from a Loyalist perspective. In Episode 1 Andrea Catherwood returns to her homeland in Northern Ireland, and interviews 19 year old Joel Keys who wasn’t even born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. He spoke of the Loyalists sense of grievance since Brexit in particular, and the links between the paramilitaries and the drug trade. He explains his ambitions for a career in politics and determination to help his community tackle its social problems while retaining its British identity. Episode 2 starts at a Unionist march, where the men are wearing balaclavas again, evoking the sectarian Troubles of the 20th century. Many felt betrayed when Boris shifted the goalposts on Brexit, leading to the re-emergence of Loyalist violence. Episode 3 looks at the political instability in recent times, with a succession of leaders in both the DUP and the UUP. Unionists are no longer the majority in Northern Ireland, and many feel betrayed by Boris Johnson and the Sea Border. Young people are more concerned about rights (e.g. gay marriage) and many former Unionist are now agnostic about Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. They are the ‘middle’ who can only be swayed by moderates, not hardliners.
This Union: The Ghost Kingdoms of England. This four part series features Ian Hislop. I was a bit out of my depth because I didn’t have a very clear understanding of exactly where they were talking about. Episode 1: East Anglia- Sutton Who starts in Colchester, a Roman stronghold which the arriving Angles and Saxons chose to leave alone. He points out that the lights didn’t just go out when the Romans left in 409-410 A.D.- that the Romans are “us”. He then goes on to talk about Sutton Hoo, uncovered just before WW2. We still don’t really know what it is: is it the burial of one of the earliest of the great Kings of the Anglo-Saxon period in East Anglia’s golden age? Episode 2: Northumbria- The Great Divide focuses on the Venerable Bede who wrote about Northumbria in the early 8th century. The Humber was the dividing line. He also interviews the writer Bernard Cornwall, who wrote The Last Kingdom. Episode 3: Mercia- Where is Mercia? Good question- apparently it’s what’s known as the Midlands. The great Mercian Kings had European ambitions but were subsumed and written out by the story of Alfred the Great. Episode 4: Wessex: The Only Way is Wessex ends up with Alfred the Great. They started off after the other kingdoms, but in the end they dominated not only by the legend of Alfred, but also Thomas Hardy’s novels. This whole series was a bit beyond my limited geography and Anglo-Saxon history.
Heather Cox Richardson I haven’t listened to Heather Cox Richardson in ages, and now that the anniversary of 6 January has passed, I thought I might look to see what she had to say about the anniversary. What she gave was a really good lecture about Why does Democracy Matter? Nothing new, but really worth listening to. If you haven’t listened to her before, this is a good potted version.
Almost as satisfying as a ‘big house’ novel is a ‘big hotel’ novel, and we find one here in Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was arrested on account of his noble background, complete with country estates, duels, troikas and sleighs. Normally such a man would be executed, but because of a revolutionary poem attributed to him, he was instead sentenced to house arrest at his residence at the Hotel Metropole, in the centre of Moscow.
He was rather unceremoniously bumped from his luxurious third-floor suite to a small room on the sixth floor in a scene reminiscent of Sara Crewe’s sudden change of circumstances in A Little Princess (a childhood favourite of mine). In what had become a series of scaling-downs, he chose his favourite pieces of furniture, personal luggage and books to shift upstairs with him, only to find himself suffocating in his own belongings until he discovered a hidden disused room which he could turn into a study. That was not all he discovered. Through his acquaintance with Nina, a young girl who often stayed at the Metropole, he became familiar with the hallways and basement rooms of the hotel, accessed through a small master key that Nina had somehow procured. Nina grew up, while Alexander stayed confined within the hotel, passing the days through a routine of frequenting, eating and drinking at the various restaurants and services provided through the hotel – the seamstress, the barber, the bar, the concierge’s desk. When Nina returned as an adult, with her small daughter Sofia in tow, she begged Alexander to look after the child while she followed her husband to Siberia, where he had been exiled. Of course, she did not return and Alexander, as a middle aged single man, became Sofia’s surrogate father as she joined him in his exile in the centre of Moscow.
The narrative unfolds chronologically, and the history of twentieth-century Russia is a background hum as Stalin accrues more power, famine ravages the country, World War ensues and then Russia and America settle into Cold War hostility. These events of course have an effect on the hotel, as informants are planted within the staff and individual fortunes rise and fall, but it is a muted effect. The hotel had been a luxury destination prior to the Revolution, and as new men find themselves moving into positions of power and influence, they are happy to avail themselves of the faded splendour of the hotel, just as the powerful, but now fallen, men had done before them.
Alexander remained remarkably tranquil in the face of these very reduced circumstances. He still had access to money, and the breadth of mind that a wealthy and cultured background had brought him, and so his life continued on much as it had before, except within the walls of the hotel. The staff of the hotel remained much the same as well. Alexander himself became one of the staff although the deference remained. Montaigne’s essays were a bulky nuisance in his small rooms, but he seems to imbibe a sense of equanimity from them that allows him to float above the changes occurring outside.
The book is told in the voice of an observant, dry omniscient third-person narrator. I found myself laughing out loud in places, and the book is suffused with a 19th-century sepia, redolent of wax and cigar smoke. I enjoyed it very much, and when the pace picked up considerably at the end, I felt satisfied that the author had created a self-contained, almost fairy-tale world of basically good people where good is rewarded in the end.
On the 19th January 1928, the SS Sierra drew into Circular Quay. On board were seventeen members of the Colored Idea, an all-black Jazz revue comprising dancers, comedians, vocalists and musicians. On the dock, there was a placard advertising them erected by the Tivoli Theatre and, on deck, technicians from Radio 2FC strung microphones to broadcast the Sonny Clay Orchestra as they played ‘Australian Stomp’. As the members of the Sonny Clay Orchestra made their way onto the street, they were photographed by the waiting press, the editor of a popular film magazine, and a group of young female jazz fans. But on 31 March 1928, the Colored Idea were back at Circular Quay on the SS Sierra. There were press photographers this time too, and two dozen or so ‘smartly dressed’ young women, some ‘coloured’ and some White. This time the Colored Idea were deported, overseen by a number of customs officers who were under instructions to intervene should ‘difficulty’ arise. It didn’t. Several of the jazzmen lined up on the ship’s deck rail, tossed streamers and called to the well-wishes on the dock. Then they were gone.
Harlem Nights is the story of the Sydney and Melbourne legs of the Colored Idea’s Australian tour, but it is much more than that. It is the story of the international rise of African-American jazz; White Australia and what Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have called ‘The Global Colour Line’; anxieties over the rise of the ‘girl’; media and celebrity; right-wing politics, and police corruption.
The book is divided into 12 parts, each comprising 3-5 short chapters. This would ordinarily make a rather choppy history, but in this case a peppy first paragraph of each chapter breathes interest back into the narrative, making it a very approachable and accessible read. There are black-and-white images throughout the text, many of which are drawn from newspaper accounts, emphasizing that much of the action took place in the public realm, although the real power was obscured.
Part 1 ‘Tijuana Nights in Phoenix and Los Angeles’ takes place in America and focuses on Sonny Clay, the leader and business manager of the Colored Idea. His family was originally from Texas, but he grew up in Arizona. As racial tensions mounted there, he shuttled to and fro across the Mexican border, playing with his jazz band in Tijuana where the dancers acclaimed their hot jazz and raw rhythms (p.18). He joined ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton’s band, then arrived in Los Angeles in early 1922. He poached players from The Black and Tan orchestra to join his Eccentric Harmony Six. He played the ‘colored jazz bandleader’ in dozens of films as part of what Black observers at the time called ‘Negro vogue’, an affection for what ‘chic’ White people imagined was ‘Negro’. (p. 30) By 1925, in yet another iteration, his band was now Sonny Clay’s Rhythm Demons, with a regular 7.00 p.m slot at Radio KFl, playing at the Plantation Cafe.
Sonny Clay’s life embodied the liminal slippages of Jazz Age America. By the mid 1920s, he had more money and influence than respectable Black citizens felt he deserved; wore sharper suits and mixed with more powerful people than White unions could stomach and played much with more rhythm than melody, enticing a public to dance with more freedom than grace. This was not racial advancement in the steady, diligent, God-fearing sense of the word, but it was impressive, extravagant and spectacular.
Part II ‘In California with Harry Muller’ introduces us to Harry Muller, the West Coast theatre agent for JC Williamson company, scouring California’s vaudeville theatres for acts to bring across to Tivoli Theatre venues in Australia. The Australian moving picture industry in 1925 was a small but highly lucrative market, but live vaudeville acts and dance contests could supplement the short-comings of celluloid jazz. The ‘idea’ format involved a short, sharp burst of live entertainment, usually before the celluloid feature. There had been Black American performers in Australia before: the Georgia Minstrels had come to Sydney in 1877, the Fisk Jubilee Singers travelled throughout Australia in the 1880s, Jack Johnson had fought in the boxing ring. Comedians, jubilee singers and dance troupes toured Australia, but not dance band musicians. This was largely because of opposition from the Musicians’ Union of Australia, but a variety theatre act fell outside the jurisdiction of the musician’s union. In organizing the tour, Harry Muller was careful to fudge the difference between ‘coloured theatrical artists’ and ‘musicians’, but as he sailed into Sydney Cove with Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea, he did not explain these nuances, or the increasingly rigid White Australia policy to Sonny Clay or his band members.
Part III ‘Rattlin’ Fine Sydney’ introduces Gayne Dexter, who was there on the dock at Sydney waiting for them. The editor of the film industry magazine Everyones, he publicized the arrival of the Colored Idea on the “Jazz Ship”. Twice daily, he travelled to the Tivoli’s flagship theatre in Haymarket to hear Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra as part of the ‘idea’ format. Through his magazine he promoted a modernity that was anaethema to ‘highbrow’ cultural bodies or those who only accepted ‘Negro’ jazz if it drew on ‘minstrel’ tropes. The musicians performed 2 shows daily, six days a week which was a comparative vacation compared to their schedules in American entertainment houses. They had apartments in Kings Cross, close to Woolloomooloo, where a cluster of Aboriginal families and ‘coloured Britishers’ lived. The tabloid newspapers reported ‘warmth’ and ‘affection’ between the dance band musicians and a few ‘coloured women’. In her chapter ‘American Boomerang’ O’Connell tries to identify these ‘coloured women’ but has not been able to do so. Besides, the attention of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch was not on the ‘coloured women’ but more concerned about the visiting jazzmen consorting with White women.
This plays out in Part IV ‘Views of Commonwealth Policy’. Major Longfield Lloyd was head of the NSW division of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, military hero from Gallipoli, a friend of former prime minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes and prosecutor of the war against the ‘Communists’ on the waterfront. In February 1928 he penned a confidential report into the ‘Negro Orchestra’ after monitoring their Darlinghurst Road flat. It was written in the atmosphere of a crusade against the ‘Black Menace’, headed by Ezra Norton, the owner of Truth newspaper, a national network of scandal-mongering tabloids. When the Colored Idea opened on 20th February at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre, Major Lloyd encouraged his Victorian counterpart to continue investigation into the band. Lloyd’s report was handed on to General Thomas Blamey, another former military commander and now Victoria’s commissioner of police.
Part V ‘The Making of Modern Melbourne’ shifts its attention to Melbourne. The Green Mill Dance Hall, managed by Tom Carlyon, was on the banks of the Yarra River at the southern end of Princes Bridge. By day it was a roller-skating rink and velodrome but by night it featured dance marathons and the Film Star Quest, a beauty pageant and nationwide search for a ‘girl’ with motion picture possibilities. Carlyon engaged the Colored Idea for a week at the end of the Tivoli Run, arousing the hostility of the Musician Union’s federal secretary Cecil Trevelyan.
Trevalyan’s involvement is explored further in Part VI ‘Keeping Orchestras British’. A man of shady background, he was strongly patriotic, seeing the Australian nation and the British Empire as indivisible, and White Australia as a blueprint for maintaining a culture of ‘Britishness’. He was hostile to all American players, both White and Black, possibly as a response to what he perceived as the shoddy treatment of the Australian Commonwealth Band by the American Musician Union. He had the support of former PM and now disgrunted backbencher Billy Hughes, with whom he met on 15 March.
Part VII Petty Sessions takes us to Rowena Mansions in Nicholson Street East Melbourne. Ready to pounce was Constable Les Saker, part of the plainclothes squad handpicked by Police Commissioner General Thomas Blamey. He was a familiar face in Truth newspaper, and a reliable police source for its stories. The media needed its police sources, but they would dry up if the media turned its attention to police corruption which was rife in the ‘vice’ economy. For several nights, Constable Saker and a journalist from the Truth monitored movements in and out of the Rowena Mansions apartment. On a rainy Saturday night, they finally made their move on the upper floor apartment, arresting Edna Langdon ( a finalist in the Film Star Quest at the Green Mill), Nola Mackay, Ivy Day, Dorothy Davis and Dorothy McGowan. Another girl, Irene McCulloch escaped the raid on the downstairs flat by fleeing through the window. Both she and Ivy Davy (real name Dorothy Anderson) were likely to have been stool pigeons. The Rowena Mansions Five were bailed, and Sonny Clay (who was not present) was woken with the news that his bandsmen had openly associated with White female fans- thus dragging his name into the press pile-on.
Part VIII ‘Idle and Disorderly’ starts with the Eight Hour Day parade, with the Musicians’ Union Gift Band leading the procession. By the time the procession had crossed Princes Bridge, Tom Carlyon had cancelled the upcoming season of the Sonny Clay Orchestra at the Green Mill. On Tuesday 27 March, the Rowena Mansions girls appeared at Melbourne City Court, charged with vagrancy. They were defended by Nathaniel Sonenburg who was familiar with and suspicious of Constable Staker and Dunn’s police methods. Despite his distaste for the girls’ lifestyle, he proved that the evidence lacked substance, and that no cases of ‘indecency’ were committed. Nonetheless a wave of moral indignation arose in White Australia, which was obsessed by interracial sex involving White women and non-White men (a blind eye was turned to White men’s violence against Indigenous women).
Part IX ‘Unwritten Law’ sees Sonny Clay on the platform at Sydney Central Station defending his band against the aspersions levelled against them. It was a ‘frame up from start to finish’ he asserted; they had not broken any laws. Their only public support came from the two or three unidentified ‘coloured women’ from Sydney that they had met a few weeks earlier. He finished his impromptu press conference accusing the Musician’s Union of orchestrating the raid. As he moved up to the concourse of Central Station, he was greeted by several hundred White men. Cameras clicked, but only one protestor was photographed, a disheveled, toothless demonstrator. Otherwise they were faceless vigilantes. Who were these men? Who arranged for them to be there? Two senior figures had the resources to assemble a formidable force on call: Police Commissioner Thomas Blamey and Investigation Branch chief Major Longfield Lloyd. Irregular militia activity was becoming increasingly active against ‘coloured immigration’. But vigilantism was not necessary once the bureaucracy moved in. The following week, entertainment and sporting promoters received new procedures concerning the entry of ‘coloured theatrical performers or vaudeville artists’. Applications needed to be made in advance, with credentials testifying to the musician’s general good character: a character test that no ‘coloured musician’ would be able to pass.
How high up did this go? Part X ‘Purification Rites’ turns its attention to the Right Honourable William Morris Hughes. On 28 March, the day after the court case and on the same day that 200 faceless White men stood on the Central Station Concourse, he made an unscheduled appearance at the Nationalist Party’s annual conference. In words echoed in 2001 by John Howard, Hughes announced “This bit of earth belongs to us! It is for us to say who shall come in and who shall not come in!”. It was a stance that Hughes had been championing over in America during the preceding February on a speaking tour organized by the English Speaking Union (I heard O’Connell describing this segment in more detail at the recent AHA conference). This stance was not just at the level of Federal and international politics. Angela Booth, a moral purity crusader, had been on the magistrates bench at the trial of the Rowena Mansions Five. Some saw her as a wowser: others saw her as a modern woman versed in the latest scientific research into miscegenation and vice. The Argus deplored the actions of ‘white girls’ who ‘forget what is due to their racial origin’ (p. 269). The Bulletin called for more censorship; the YWCA launched a ‘Building up our Girls’ campaign, the National Council of Women renewed calls for more policewomen to patrol the streets, railway stations and dance halls. Meanwhile, the Rowena Mansions Five were subjected to further surveillance and oversight.
Part XI ‘On Their Way’ follows up on one of the five women, Edna Langdon, at a Broken Hill dance endurance competition, the 1930’s world wide craze featured in ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’. By this time the Sonny Clay orchestra was long gone.
Part XII ‘The Quarantine Blues ‘ traces through Sonny Clay’s career back in America, and the stifling of jazz music in Australia. The Australian government only welcomed Black acts that evoked the cotton fields and days of slavery (p. 301). White vigilantism increased, with the bombing of a West Melbourne boarding house where Italian migrants lived, bombing of the Greek Club and other attacks against Southern Europeans in Melbourne, Sydney and North Queensland. Music and dancing retreated into ‘old fogey’ dances. Meanwhile, overseas, Swing was recognized as the ‘musical fashion of the hour’ and Duke Ellington lionized over his 1933 tour of England. Not in Australia. Bookshops were closed; the Weinstraubs Syncopators, a dance and cabaret act from Weimar Germany were interned; Eugene Goosens was hounded from the country. Despite the Booker T club established in Sydney during WWII for Black GIs, the Musician’s Union prohibition on ‘coloured’ members and the government’s ‘character’ test remained. The Union did not revoke the ‘no coloured’ rule until 1954 and a wave of tours of Black performers followed. What had Australia missed out on in all that time?
As you can tell from this rather lengthy summary, this book ranges much further than just a group of musicians on a quay. It is a densely knitted weave of event and context, but written with a lightness of touch that belies the weight of its analysis and research. In her acknowledgements, she mentions John O’Brien’s expertise in screenwriting which “helped draw out the narrative”, and indeed it is her light tap on the accelerator at the start of each chapter that propels the narrative forward – so much so that I felt compelled to put a ‘spoiler’ warning on this post- something that I rarely do for a history text. At times she would start with an anecdote that seemed to be only oblique to the main story, but she would double back to stitch it into the main narrative. The text switches effortlessly between description and analysis, and the lengthy biography and detailed footnotes testify to the academic rigour underlying the narrative. It is excellent.
I had heard of the deportation of Sonny Clay’s orchestra previously: during my postgraduate sessions at La Trobe University, a fellow doctoral student – Kyla Cassells gave a paper on it. I’m aware of increasing interest in the New Guard and the White Army movements of the 1930s at the moment (probably reflecting current fears 100 years later). I’m no fan of Billy Hughes, and all I know of Thomas Blamey is his statue near Government House in Melbourne but I didn’t realize how ruthless and entrenched their conservatism was. It has certainly woken my interest in 1920s Australia, when so many political, spiritual, cultural, military and sexual movements contested against each other. This book tells us so much about those years. There is a strong throb of anger at the racism implicit in the White Australia Policy, but also a yearning regret for a modern, progressive Australia that was suffocated at birth with events like the deportation of Sonny Clay’s Colored Orchestra and the persecution of the ‘girls’ who dared to embrace the modernity offered by a new century.
Epistolary novels have gone in and out of fashion, but they have probably had a resurgence with the advent of email which facilitates a to-and-fro unheard of since the decline of two-deliveries-per-day mail services. I do find myself wondering, though, how many of these email correspondences will survive into the future as mailboxes get culled, email programs are superseded and internet providers change. As with photographs, we have so much digital ‘stuff’ but little of it is treasured and put aside for the future. Nonetheless, I find a rather guilty pleasure in reading epistolary novels – as if I am eavesdropping on a conversation or snooping through someone’s mail – although, of course, these novels are deliberate creations among fictional characters, intended to be read.
The correspondence between Pamela and Chris happens by accident. At 11.10 on the night of her eldest son’s birthday Pamela sends an email to her ex-husband Christophe in Paris, full of guilt and regrets. Unsure of her husband’s email address, she sends it to ‘Chrisxwoods’ at both Hotmail and Gmail. The next day she receives an email from Chrisanthi Woods, from Schenectady, New York, telling her that she has the wrong email address and wishing her luck and hoping that things work out. The relationship starts off rather shyly and tentatively, but right from the start there is an information imbalance, with Pamela over-sharing: “Oh dear- I suppose I do pour out my heart to strangers”. Chris’ responses, however, are rather crisp and abrupt. Chris is older than Pamela, sixty-four years of age, working at SUNY in student enrolments. If characters in one book could invade other books, I had in mind Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge– a rather brusque, snippy woman largely oblivious to the effect that she has on other people.
Pamela, on the other hand, is 51 years old and works in a library. She has her three sons living with her, but the oldest, Raf (Raphael) is obviously angry and lashing out, while she tends to baby the youngest, Baps. She feels that she is lacking all authority with Raf and Claude (the middle son), who fight constantly. She complains about the children at length, until Chris snaps
For Christ’s sake, Pamela, why did you have children if you weren’t prepared to surrender? Everyone says people who don’t have children are selfish. I think it’s people having children for no good reason who are the selfish ones. I’m not sure we should keep emailing each other. My heart is banging so hard I feel like I’m having a heart attack. This isn’t good for me. Bye, Pamela
There is a three week cooling-off, but Pamela keeps going apologizing, complaining, over-sharing. Again, Chris baulks:
Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?
Chris later apologizes, recognizing that she had been “mean” and that Pamela caught her on a bad day. They call each other Plato and Socrates but I’m not sure that a great deal of learning is taking place. The correspondence starts again, still one-sided but Chris begins talking about her elderly mother’s plans to return to Greece, her attempts to help a Syrian family and her spurned offer of assistance to a friend. Chris seems to be an awkward and at times clumsy helper, with definite views on how things should be done but at times she cuts through Pamela’s wordiness with no-nonsense advice. It takes a long time until Chris divulges more of her own life.
Two middle-aged women, on different sides of the globe, with very different life experiences. Never catching sight of each other, never in each other’s space. There’s not a lot to work with here, but Johnson manages to develop characters who have an identity beyond the written word. It’s a curiously engaging book, despite little actually happening.The end, when it comes, was unexpected. Catching sight of the book the morning after I had finished it, I felt regretful that they had both moved beyond me.
Well, another year of podcasts. And just think- a few months down the track, I will have finished listening to my Roman podcasts!
History of Rome Podcast In the last episode, we left Commodus dead in the bath. In Episode 98- Purchasing Power we meet Pertinax, who was presented as a fait accompli to the Senate and a ‘safe pair of hands’ to repair the damage that Commodus had wrought. He was the son of a freedman (which the Senate wasn’t too happy about) and he served in lots of battles and was experienced as a governor of important provinces. He was a strong disciplinarian, but he found that he had to ‘buy off’ the Praetorian Guard to get them to support him. But he only coughed up half of what he promised, and he was confronted by 300 angry Praetorians who stabbed him. He had a short ‘reign’- only 86 days. So what next? Well, find a new emperor who won’t try to wriggle out of his bribes. And so, there was an auction to work out who would come up with the goods! Didius Julianis ‘won’ the auction but he only lasted 66 days. Even though Didius Julianis had been raised in the house of Marcus Aurelius’ mother, and fought in Germany, he always lacked legitimacy and the troops wouldn’t support him. Episode 99 What Evil Have I Done? was his plaintive cry as he was killed in the palace after Severus took control in 193CE which was known as the Year of Five Emperors. There weren’t actually five emperors – only three because Severus triumphed- but there were five contenders to be Emperor- all army men. In Episode 100 Black and White and Severus All Over we meet the other two: Pescennius Niger (who people really expected to take over) and Clodius Albinus. Niger was older than Severus and Albinus, and he was upwardly mobile. He had been Governor of Syria and was pretty laid back about it all. Too laid back really, because Severus was closer to Rome and declared himself emperor while Niger’s troops were still marching. Clodius Albinis was chosen by Severus as a ‘Caesar’ to co-rule with him. Albinis had the support of the troops in Brittania and Gaul. When Severus appointed his elder son Caracalla as his successor with the title of Caesar, civil war broke out. After a hard-fought battle, Albinis was defeated and killed himself (or maybe was killed). And so in Episode 101 And All Was of Little Value Severus embarked on his 18 year reign. His major concern was keeping the support of the army (who had put him in his position) and he wasn’t really interested in governing, which he left to his prefect Plautianus. It had been prophesied that there was a woman in the East who would marry a King, so he sought her out and found Julia Doman in Syria and married her. He invaded Parthia and Britain, but in his absence Plautianus became more unscrupulous and powerful. Severus’ sons Caracalla and Geta hated each other, and they stitched up Plautianus and had him executed. In Episode 102 The Common Enemy of Mankind sees Severus invading Brittania and reinforcing Hadrian’s Wall as part of ‘pacifying’ the Caledonians. But when the Caledonians adopted guerilla warfare instead of ‘proper’ war, he embarked on a genocidal campaign. After his death, he appointed his sons as co-heirs but they hated each other. They divided the palace in half so that they didn’t have to see each other, and were contemplating doing the same thing to the Empire, but Caracalla got in first and had Geta killed in front of his mother, who had planned a meeting to ‘reconcile’ them. Then came a huge purge, and another invasion of Parthia on the false excuse of a ‘peace’ marriage. My God. I knew none of this. No wonder it’s the ‘decline and fall’ of the Empire.
This Union: Two Kingdoms (BBC) This is a fairly recent (Sept 2021) three-part series about the relationship between Scotland and England. Episode 1 Creation of the Union goes through the Act of Union in 1717 as a way of solving the succession crisis after Queen Anne. Apparently the English weren’t too keen about it either because Scotland was pretty much bankrupt after the Darien disaster, an attempt to establish a Scots colony in Panama. (I’d never heard of it). Episode 2 Cementing the Union sees Scotland sharing in the post-WWII welfare state with its state-owned enterprises in heavy industry. But we know what Maggie Thatcher did with those, don’t we. With the discovery of North Sea oil, Scotland felt even more miffed. Episode 3 Crossroads sees the creation of the Scottish Parliament facilitated by Labour governments in both England and Scotland. But the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party saw Labour eclipsed in Scotland, and the push towards a referendum. Even though the referendum (which was subject to a strong scare campaign about the economy) voted against independence, Brexit has changed things, and most young people, who do not have the nostalgia for big state-owned industry, are strongly in favour of independence. And as they say, demography is destiny. I really enjoyed this series.
Big Ideas (ABC) I’ve just finished reading Kate Holden’s The Winter Road (review to come!) and this July 2021 interview with the author How a dispute over land clearing turned deadly gives you a good idea of what the book is about. But read the book, because this interview doesn’t do justice to Holden’s beautiful prose and thoughtful meditations on themes wider than the true crime aspects of her story.
Emperors of Rome I’m continuing on with the series of episodes about the empresses. Episode CLVIII – Plotina deals with Trajan’s wife, who came from the provinces just like her husband did. She had to share the ‘Augusta’ title with Trajan’s sister Marciana, and then when Marciana died, Marciana’s daughter was made an Augusta instead. So she was never the sole Augusta, even though she and Trajan worked well as a unit. She was very fond of Hadrian and championed him after Trajan’s death. She was in the public eye for a long time. The episode features Professor T. Corey Brennan (Classics, Rutgers University). Episode CLIX – Sabina features Professor Brennan as well. Sabina was a grand-niece of Trajan, so when she married Hadrian, she lent legitimacy to his reign. She travelled with Hadrian, who as we know, loved to travel around, which made her very visible, and there are many coins featuring her image.There is some scandal concerning her, but we don’t know much about it. There are negative anecdotes about her being morose and irritable, and she took steps to make sure that she didn’t get pregnant. Brennan suggests that she was forced into suicide, because Hadrian had a view to his successor that he didn’t want her to change if he predeceased her. She was friends with the court poet Julia Balbilla.
Episode CLX – Faustina was the mother of Commodus and as the daughter of the previous Emperor, Faustina provided her husband, Marcus Aurelius, with a solid link to the imperial throne. She was eight when her father Antoninus became emperor, and at first she was engaged to Lucius Verras, but then the betrothal was changed to Marcus Aurelius. She and Marcus Aurelius had at least 14 children, of whom five daughters and Commodus survived. The sources aren’t very complementary about her, but perhaps that’s because they blame her for Commodus, suggesting that he might have been the product of adultery.
And then….back to the Emperors. Episode LXXXII – Pertinax follows much the same material as the ‘History of Rome’ above. Dr Caillan Davenport (Roman History, Macquarie University) points out that it is known as the Year of Five Emperors but there were actually only three (the other two claimed themselves to be Emperors but were not recognized as such beyond their troops). In Episode LXXXIII – Didius Julianus I still just can’t believe that the Praetorian Guard held an auction between the aspirants to role of emperor- an auction! Didius Julianus was 60 years old and an experienced governor and soldier, but when he turned up at the Senate with soldiers, people knew who had bought and paid for him. There were protests, but Didius killed the protestors. He tried to fortify Rome and even brought in the elephants to help him. By this time he was encircled by Severus, Albinus and Niger. The Senate had him killed. Episode LXXXIV – The African Emperor brings us Severus, born in Libya and known as the African emperor. He offered Albinus, whose support base was in Gaul, Spain and Brittania the junior rank of consul because he didn’t want him invading Rome too, forcing him to fight on three fronts. Severus arranged for big celebrations in Rome when he was proclaimed emperor. Episode LXXXV – Black and White looks at Severus’ early actions as emperor. It took him a year to defeat Niger, and afterwards he divided Syria in two in order that no other governor from the east could draw on 3 legions to threaten the emperor. He needed a foreign war so he provoked one with the Parthian vassals, although not Parthia itself. Then he indulged in some FAKE NEWS by proclaiming that Marcus Aurelius had adopted him, and that Commodus was his brother and demanding that Commodus should be deified (short memories here). Severus proclaimed his son his co-consul, which of course put Albinus (who was already co-consul) on the outer, so Severus turned on him too. Albinus was either forced to commit suicide or was trampled by a horse but either way, Albinus was out of the way too, leaving Severus the only emperor standing. He had the Senate ratify his spurious ‘sonship’ with Marcus Aurelius, and demanded that Commodus be deified, arguing that the Senator were just as bad as Commodus had been. Purges followed and by now he had got rid of all his enemies, and he raised the army pay by 50% or 100% to reward his friends.
Book It In (The Guardian) I quite enjoy Tony Birch’s stories and I enjoyed this interview with Paul Daley. Tony Birch on writing true characters in fiction discusses his childhood in 1960s Fitzroy and the nature of the relationship between off-the-books businesses (SP bookies, pawn shops, bars etc) and the police. He talks about the rock-like strength of the women in his childhood, the masculine violence that surrounded him, and the way that if the characters are right in fiction, the politics comes through anyway. In relation to non-indigenous writers creating indigenous characters, he argues that if they do so, they need to take responsibility and defend what they are doing. Aboriginal people need to own their stories, and white writers need to own their own stories of colonialism. He speaks about Gary Foley, who has never been represented in the Schwartz empire, and his contribution to politics and community.
Very clever title, this one. There are two ‘brilliant boys’ in this book. One is only seven years old, and one afternoon in 1937 he disappears into a badly-fenced trench from which he is dragged, lifeless, some time later. The youngest child of a family of Polish emigrants, Maxie Chester was his mother’s ‘brilliant boy’. The other is ‘Doc’ Evatt: prize-winning student, lawyer, judge, attorney-general, leader of the Opposition for the Labor Party, and President of the United Nations General Assembly. In this book, Gideon Haigh brings the two together in an analysis of the court case Chester v the Council of the Municipality of Waverley (1939) where Evatt issued a poignantly written dissenting judgement that revealed his humanity and erudition. This book is the story of this case, interwoven into a biography of Evatt himself.
So what was so significant about this case? It was a High Court case which had been escalated as part of an appeal against the original findings, not so much about the facts of the drowning, but over whether the council’s duty of care extended to Maxie Chester’s mother Golda as well. As Haigh points out,
Dissents, a minority opinion at odds with the majority view of an appellate court, are a judicial tradition with roots 400 years deep. They are partly an artefact of legal individualism- the freelance life of the Bar instills habits of working alone… the Supreme Court has reserved an honoured place for its ‘Great Dissenters’ and their great dissents…
Dissents fall, broadly, into two categories: the kind written simply as an opinion that turns out not to be shared by colleagues, and the kind self-consciously composed to stand on its own…Evatt’s in Chester fits unapologetically into the later category
Evatt’s dissent was six times the length of the average judgment of the 1930s. He writes clearly – almost journalistically- setting out the about the trench, the children playing in the streets, young Maxie, his mother. When you read his dissent against the judgments of the other judges, they seem particularly brusque and abstract. Evatt, on the other hand, imagined himself into the situation, and called upon the Lost Child trope that has run so deep in Australian culture. He quoted from literature, not Shakespeare or Ruskin but from Australian literature, in the form of Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life, bringing Golda Chester’s suffering “into the range of normal human Australian responses” (p.281). His prose
with its long sentences and sometimes complex constructions, never scintillates, but it is muscular, rigorous, pungent. Through the patina of judicial restraint, a fine fury can be felt…If the concepts are occasionally abstruse, Evatt’s reasoning is seldom obscure. He finds ways at each point to relate them to everyday understandings…It is the use of literature, of course, that affords the judgment such accessibility and reach. It is possible, in fact, to read Evatt’s judgement in Chester not just as dissenting a major view in this case, but dissenting a majority view of judicial writing and legal thinking casting only backwards and sideways. Law insisting that harm required lesions and lacerations ignored the march of science. Law incapable of acknowledging something so fundamental as maternal love was at odds with the humanity it purported to serve.
I’m not sure if, taken over the whole length of Evatt’s life, the Chester case was the most important one on which he ruled. Nor am I sure that it is a particularly significant case in Australian law. But in a way, that is not important. Haigh is a writer, more than he is a judicial biographer or historian, and he hangs his broader professional and political biography on the Chester case as part of shaping the narrative, as a creative act in re-reading and re-presenting a man’s life.
Like others of a progressive leaning, I was appalled by Donald Trump’s bare-faced stacking of the U.S. Supreme Court with conservative judges. But I have to admit that Evatt’s appointment to the Australian High Court was a prime example of stacking as well. Evatt was a politician, a High Court judge, a politician and then a judge again as Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court, ping-ponging between politics and the judiciary to an extent that I’m not aware of occurring today. Indeed, had it occurred before Evatt either? I’m not sure.
Haigh highlights Evatt’s precocity and brilliance, and his involvement in the progressive cultural life in Australia at the time. As a progressive lawyer, he admired H.B.Higgins and was part of the literary network that had the Vance and Nettie Palmer (Higgins’ niece) at its heart. His artistic interests led him to the Heide network and to become the champion of modernist art, pointedly in opposition to his political foe Robert Menzies. He was a historian, although his philosophy of history appears particularly bombastic and rigid to me, loftily pronouncing that lawyers had a unique faculty for pronouncing on history, being ‘skilled in the actual science of legal investigations’ (p. 176.). He wrote on William Bligh in Rum Rebellion and also of the Royal Prerogative, the subject of his PhD thesis that led to his nickname ‘Doc’ and which was expounded in his 1936 book The King and His Dominion Governors. Some forty years later an erstwhile legal colleague, by then knighted as Sir John Kerr, was to pore over it in 1977 when weighing up options to dismiss the Whitlam government. Evatt’s intellect was broad ranging and intense, isolating him from many of his more quotidian Labor Party colleagues but also empowering him to circulate at the highest judicial and political levels when he visited the United States. As Haigh notes, he was egotistical, self-interested and ambitious, as well as imbued with a life-long sense of social justice, not just as a principle but as something to be enacted, with him playing a part himself in the formation of liberal and human policies.
There’s a lot of law in this book, and Haigh does wander at times into tangentially-related cases as part of painting a picture of how the law grappled with issues of negligence, trauma and technological change. As part of a High Court bench and as puisne judge, Evatt was just one member of different triads of judges hearing appeal cases. As in many judicial bureaucracies, there were jealousies and rivalries in a competitive milieu of sharp intellects and long-game ambitions.
There’s a lot of politics too: the chronological fortunes of the Labor Party at national and state level, the clash of political personas, the historical significance of cases in which he participated (as in the defence of Egon Kisch) the interpersonal snarling politics of judges amongst themselves and the opening up of international politics post WWII with the creation of the United Nations.
Haigh walks around his subject, viewing him from multiple perspectives: student, husband, father, legal practitioner, politician, international diplomat, historian and public intellectual. As a work of biography, it is masterful in cracking the humanity in the Chester case – both the poignancy of Maxie’s death and the humanity of Evatt’s response to it – and using that case as the fulcrum on which Haigh balances other perspectives of a public life. Haigh has not written this as a history, even though history is woven throughout it, and I found myself ruing the absence of an index – something that I think undersells Haigh’s work and the diligence of the reader.
I’ve read my share of judicial biography, and this book stands apart in the roundedness of its approach. It acknowledges Evatt’s flawed genius and locates the man and his work within the political and judicial currents running at the time. It’s very good.
The Ancients (History Hit) Well, it’s heading up to Christmas, so how about a podcast about King Herod? This episode features Holy Land archaeologist Dr Jodi Magness who, as you might expect, takes a rather archaeological approach. However, there’s not much in written sources to go on anyway- just that mention in Matthew alone (not the other gospels) and Josephus, who was born thirty years after Herod died. Herod was half-Jewish through his father (not his mother) and his family had been forcibly converted. There is no evidence that the Massacre of the Innocents ever occurred and it is not recorded elsewhere, although Herod was ruthless with his brothers-in-law and sons and executed them for fear that they would challenge him. He was a great builder in the Roman tradition. He built Caesarea (where they found a whole lot of artefacts recently) and built his own mausoleum at Herodium. It was uncovered in 2007 Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who had been working on the site for forty years, although there is now doubt whether Herod himself is buried there. (Actually, I read elsewhere that this excavation is contested by the Palestinian National Authority). Herod tried by bolster his Jewish legitimacy by rebuilding the Temple, and by placing Herodium close to Bethlehem, in the hope that he could share some of King David’s glory.
Democracy Sausage In this final episode for 2021, The second (and possibly last) Annual Democracy Sausage Awards Mark Kenny is joined by historians Frank Bongiorno and Chris Wallace, and fellow ANU researcher Marija Taflaga. The episode is not a very good demonstration of democracy at work, because Mark Kenny seems to have kept the agenda a secret, and everyone is too easily swayed by everyone else so that they reach a rather predictable consensus. They discuss the biggest backflip (Morrison on EVs), the most effective political leader (Matt Canavan), the maddest thing in Trump’s America (6th January attack on the Capitol) and the most hopeful development (the rise of Independents).
History of Rome Episode 97 The Fall of Hercules. What’s Hercules doing here? you may wonder. Well, it was just one of the delusions of grandeur that Commodus indulged in, and he ordered statues of himself to be made decked out in a lion’s skin, carrying a club. There were two assassination attempts against Commodus and finally the second one was successful, carried out in his bath by his wrestling partner Narcissus after his lover’s attempt to poison him failed. Mike Duncan goes into more detail about Commodus’ predilection for gladiatorial contest – something really low-class and particularly bloodthirsty when he was involved, not against fellow gladiators (whose surrender he accepted) but against exotic animals and disabled people. And so just as Nero wrecked the Julio-Claudian dynasty; Domitian wrecked the Flavian dynasty; and now Commodus drove the Antonine dynasty straight into the wall.
Emperors of Rome Episode LXXVII Such was the End of Commodus reinforces the almost inevitability of Commodus’ assassination what with the ongoing perverse bloodbath in the colloseum and endless purges of the senate. No wonder they got him in the end, and that was the end of the Antonines.
This is the last of Dr Rhiannon Evans’ podcasts on the Emperors chronologically, because the series is moving chronologically out of her area of expertise. So she’s handing the Emperor part over to Dr Caillan Davenport from Macquarie University, while she goes back with some social history.
So, faced with a little hiatus, I backtracked to listen to Episode CLIII – Livia (with Sian Phillips) because I’m just about finished watching I, Claudius. This is a reply of episode XXV (from 2016), followed by an all new interview with Sian Phillips who played Livia in The BBC’s ‘I Claudius’ in 1976. Dr Evans is quite fond of Livia, despite the calumnies that the author of I, Claudius mounts against her. It was interesting to hear Sian Phillips speak of I, Claudius as “a play”. The episodes were filmed consecutively, each taking about 3 weeks.
Then all of a sudden I found myself in a series about the Empresses of Rome. I thought that I´d follow it through until I catch up with whoever comes after Commodus. I backtracked a bit to Episode CLII The Roman Empress where Dr Rhiannon Evans spoke generally about the role of the Empress in the Roman Empire. Basically, if her husband had a failed reign, then she would be blamed. Women were more attached to their father’s family than their husbands, and so they would be pushing their own family’s interests. Their most important qualities were chastity, fidelity, fecundity and being dutiful. Divorce was very easy.
Which leads of course to Messelina, who according to Tacitus, Pliny and Juvenal (and hence Robert Graves in I, Claudius) was neither chaste, loyal nor dutiful. In Episode CLIV – Messalina Dr Evans notes that all the sources are hostile, and she doesn’t really believe that Messelina did everything she was accused of. However, even if the facts are exaggerated, it is obviously code for highly inappropriate behaviour. Sex workers were the lowest of the low, and for Messelina to want to be a sex worker would be incomprehensible (and if you have seen I, Claudius, the number of men is 25). And Robert Graves, as Dr Evans points out, wanted to rehabilitate the reputation of Claudius, and what better way than to traduce Messelina.
Agrippina gets two episodes, featuring Dr Emma Southon (Historian and author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore).Episode CLV – Agrippina, Wife of Claudius points out that Agrippina was linked to four emperors: she was Augustus’ grand-daughter, Germanicus’ daughter, Claudius’ wife and Nero’s mother. Dr Southon has a fairly negative view of Claudius, arguing that Agrippina was a strong leader in her own right, fierce in her protection of her family, and it was she who made Claudius look good. This all fell apart in Episode CLVI – Agrippina, Mother of Nero when Nero ascended to power after the death of Claudius, in which Dr Southon accepts Agrippina played an active part. Her first mistake was to bring back the philosopher and advisor Seneca, who rewarded her patronage by advising Nero to sideline her. Nero knew that Agrippina was popular, so he couldn’t just kill her off. So it had to look like an accident: her roof fell in, the boat she was travelling in collapsed and when all else failed he accused her of treason and she ended up stabbed. Interestingly, Agrippina actually wrote her own autobiography (so Claudius wasn’t the only family historian) but only two segments remain. Overall, Dr Southon sees Agrippina as an agent of stability, and argues that Claudius wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did without her.
Domitia was princess of the Julio-Claudians, and ended up married to the tyrant Domitian. Episode CLVII – Domitia features Dr Trudie Fraser (Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne). It’s a hard act to follow Messelina and Agrippina, and Domitia mainly kept her head down, after having experienced many purges and deaths. Dr Fraser rejects the hypothesis that Domitia was involved in Domitian’s assassination, arguing that it would have been too dangerous for her. The written sources are largely silent about her, and we are reliant on coins and portraits. Nonetheless, these show us the way that the Emperor wanted the Empress to be portrayed, which is an interesting perspective.
Twenty Thousand Hertz. The Gift is an old 2017 episode from Twenty Thousand Hertz that was featured by this week’s ‘History This Week’. Now- pay attention because you’ll need this one day in a trivia quiz- “The horse eats no cucumber salad”. These were reportedly the first words transmitted through electronic reproduction by Johann Philipp Reis in 1861 some thirteen years before Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. On Christmas Eve 1906 morse code operators were warned to get ready to take a message, and over the airwaves came the sound of ‘O Holy Night’ through Reginald Fessenden’s work on radio broadcasting. But the emphasis of this program is on Amar Bose – yes, he of the Bose speakers- whose father emigrated to America from India, and who worked at MIT on a range of sound technologies. He was frustrated by the business practice of buying up (but not using) patents and the short-termism of many companies. So he developed his own company and gifted it to MIT so that it can maintain its emphasis on research and development. This podcast is supported by Bose, and despite the presenter’s claims to the contrary, it does come over as one long advertisement for Bose but it’s still a good story.
Travels Through Time In this episode, Journey into Deep London: Tom Chivers 62AD author Tom Chivers, who wrote London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City takes a psycho-geological approach to London (which has been studied many,many times before). He chooses 62 AD as ‘his’ year, but it’s all a bit arbitrary because his book is far more about geology, and its effect on development, rather than human actions in recorded history. His three episodes were: a walk along the river Walbrook; a walk through the marshy wetlands of the “Westminster Delta” and the burial and later discovery of Harper Road Woman, a Romano-Brit whose skeleton was dug up in Southwark. I live on the other side of the world, so I was not familiar with many of the places he talks about, but a Londoner would really enjoy this, I think.
Sweet Bobby. The Guardian chose this as their top podcast for 2021. Sweet Bobby is a six-part true crime podcast about Kirat, a successful marketer and DJ who embarks on a relationship with Bobby, the brother of a former boyfriend of a cousin. Within the London Sikh community, everyone knows everyone and she has a tumultuous relationship with Bobby, only to find that she is the victim of a ‘catfishing’ scam. This was very drawn out- I could have read it much faster- but it was good for listening while on a very l-o-n-g trip to the Mornington Peninsula by public transport.
I don’t really know what I expected from this book, a follow-up from Morton’s very successful One Hundred Years of Dirt, which I reviewed here. After all, not many of us have a very interesting ‘what-happened-next’ story that can be told while it is unfolding around us. He couldn’t just rewrite the last book, and, as he admits:
I’ve written about my family before, in my debut book One Hundred Years of Dirt, but spent so much energy focused on everyone else’s trauma that I never noticed my own.
In this book, he picks up on his trauma, formally diagnosed in early 2019, but manifested through a five year mental breakdown, in spite of multiple attempts and strategies to save his sanity. In those five years, he came to understand that his meltdowns were triggered when his close, straight, male friends established a relationship with a woman. Then his complex PTSD would emerge, a trauma that he traced to being left on a remote pastoral property as a child, while his father embarked on an affair with the governess. That little boy, watching, shut down and became an absence, and under stress the adult Rick Morton would shut down too.
It always happens the same way. The moment I find out my friend is seeing someone it is as if the world goes blurry. I can feel myself leave my own body. There is ringing in my ears and a sensation that has no equal in daily life but what I can only describe as 100,000 ants marching up from my feet along the length of my nervous system, nesting in my chest. It is the most agonizing type of fear where death itself feels imminent….Trauma is not a memory. It is a Broadway production of the first hurt, a leg-kicking, show-stopping conflagration of the mind and body that needs no remembering. It is the thing. Each and every time.
However, in the midst of his flailing during 2015, the year when he lost his grip, his closest (female) friend hugged him and apologized for never telling him that she loved him. He started telling other people that he loved them too and it was “as if the colour had begun to run back into my world from the top of the frame, pooling at the bottom around the moss-covered rocks on one of my infrequent bush walks. “(p.11)
It was not, of course, a cure but a “renaissance of tiny joy” (p.12) but it did give him permission to do the work required to get better. This book is a series of essays on this work, each chapter named with a single concept: Touch, The Self, Forgiveness, Animals, Beauty, Masculinity, Loneliness, Kindness, Dysfunction, Doubt, Next, Beginnings. As with One Hundred Years of Dirt, there are times when he writes ‘journalistically’ with the dispassion of the intellect, and in the next paragraph divulges an intimate event or observation. His choice of topics could be schmaltzy and twee, or patronizing, but there is enough self-deprecation to bring his lofty pronouncements back to earth and to stop the book sliding into a self-help manual.
I will admit that this book isn’t what I expected it to be. It’s far more gentle and human than that. Having said that, though, I don’t know that there’s much more to be mined from this genre, and I doubt if he would want to anyway. It’s not a final destination; it’s just steps along the way. Not ‘cured’ – how pretentious and premature that would be- but ‘better’.
How naive we were, thinking that once 2020 came to an end, the year of COVID would be over. We only have to look back to the ‘Spanish’ flu to see that epidemics can spiral around the world again and again. This ANU Annual Lecture is presented by Anthea Hyslop who lectured in History at ANU from 1989 until her retirement in 2009. She observes that there is quite a bit of written material about the ‘Spanish’ flu- Richard Collier wrote a global history in 1974 based on a questionnaire which included the Australian experience, and there was an oral history project on the Flu epidemic in 1980. From these questionnaires and interviews we learn that at first people conflated bubonic plague and pneumonic influenza. I’d always wondered about the ‘vaccination’ that was spoken of at the time. There was a ‘vaccine’ but it didn’t really affect the influenza, but it did help to avoid secondary infection. It came in A and B doses, with the second dose stronger than the first, and CSL produced 3 million doses. There was also the inhalorium or “a course of whiffs” which was supposed to prevent transmission. Once people contracted the influenza, they treated it with APC (terrible stuff- I was given it when I had tonsillitis as a child), proprietary medicines or onions. Schools and public resorts were closed, but factory work continued, so there was no lockdown. And what happened in the end? Well, it just petered out after about a year. We’re still waiting.