Monthly Archives: February 2022

‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent

2021, 413 p.

There’s often quite a wait between Hannah Kent books, but when they arrive, patience is rewarded. Both her earlier, well-acclaimed books Burial Rites and The Good People are historical fiction, both are exquisitely researched and both tease out the sense of being ‘different’ and alienated from other people. Her most recent book Devotion has these same qualities, although this time part of the book is set in 1830s South Australia, with a settler story that is more familiar to Australian readers than the settings of her earlier books.

The first part of the book is set in Kay, in Prussia amongst an Old Lutheran community. The creation of the Union Church by King William Frederick III, to which the community objected, had transformed this community of bible-led, devout people to become a community of Dissenters. Hanne’s father is an Elder in the church, and within the bounds of a strict, religious upbringing, Hanne feels awkward, ungainly and at odds with the other young girls who look forward to marriage and children within the church community. When a new family moves into the community, she is immediately drawn to Thea, a girl of her own age. Thea’s family had sold everything in the hope of being able to emigrate to avoid persecution, only to have the offer of emigration withdrawn, leaving them to start over again. When the offer of emigration to South Australia comes to the village of Kay, the congregation needs to decide if they will take the risk to sell everything too, unsure whether their passports will be denied at the last moment too.

The book, then, is set in three parts: Prussia in 1836, the ocean journey to South Australia in 1836 and South Australia in 1838 in a Hahndorf-like Lutheran agricultural village. The reviews that I have read of this book have been careful to avoid spoilers, and I shall too.

There have been criticisms that the book and its language is over-blown, but I just let myself be swept along with that. Others have chided the author for an overly-benign settler narrative but I have read several fictional and non-fiction tellings of early white settlements that are likewise marked with an early wariness and accommodation that was obliterated by later betrayal atrocities and massacres. (I’m thinking of That Deadman Dance; Dancing with Strangers). Others have criticized that the ‘goodies’ are too good and the ‘baddies’ are too bad. I didn’t care: there is something fable-like about the story, and archetypes go with the territory.

I just loved this book. It reminded me a 20th century film that you will no doubt recognize as soon as you reach half-way through the book, but infused with innocence and longing and a love for country. It has a striking cover too – no corsetted back-view of a woman here- that reflects the story beautifully. To be honest, I didn’t want the story to stop. I bet they’ll make a film of this one, too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 February 2021

History of Rome Podcast Episode 105 The Last Princeps sees an even younger Emperor – only 13- but Severus Alexander was the exception that proved the rule that a very young Emperor was usually a disaster. But it was the calm before the storm. His mother appointed a council of senators to advise him. He reigned for 13 years, the longest reign since Antoninus Pius. He re-established the Roman gods (although continued loyalty to El-Gabal probably influenced the Christian’s choice of December 25 as Christmas). But the Praetorians and his mother Julia Mamaea vied to influence him, and he could never stand up to his mother and grandmother. Episode 106 Barbarian at the Gate sees Severus Alexander having to cope with the rise of the Sassanids in the East under Ardashir I who played hard-ball. Severus Alexander had had to withdraw troops from the Danube regions to go over to Syria, and the Danubian legions were furious when Germanic tribes invaded, slaughtering their wives and children. From amongst the trooops came Maximinus Thrax, from Thrace, known as the first ‘Barbarian’ Emperor. He was declared emperor by his troops and he ordered the troops to kill all the Severans, including Severus Alexander and his family. He was only 26 years old, and for the next 50 years there would be a new emperor every two years, leaving the Empire almost at the point of extinction.

By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5,

Emperors of Rome Episode CXXXVII – Mother Knows Best (Severus Alexander I) sees the army, the people and his own grandmother swing their support behind his cousin, Severus Alexander. They brought Severus Alexander up very carefully, keeping him on a short leash so that he didn’t go rogue like Elagabalus did. He was about 14 when he became emperor, and he was advised by a group of senators (including the historian Cassius Dio himself). Episode CXXXVIII – Rise of the Sasanian Empire (Severus Alexander II) The Historia Augusta claims that Severus Alexander wanted to add Christ to his oratory of gods, and to build a temple to Christ but this is not historical. The Sasanians were an empire that rose out of the ashes of the Parthians in Iran, and they would be a leading regional power for the next 400 years. They called themselves The King of Kings, but we don’t really know a lot about them except that they caught the Roman army unawares. The troops demanded that Severus Alexander be there in person – no more shunting off the task of leading the troops to a general- now the emperor was expected to be there in person. Episode CXXXIX – A Fish in a Net (Severus Alexander III) Poor old Severus really is at the mercy of his historians. Herodian sees him as a namby-pamby, who cried as he left Rome as he went off to fight with 80-90,000 troops, and his mother. The army was itching for a fight, but Severus Alexander wasn’t. He divided his army into three: one segment in Armenia, another on the Tigris/Euphrates, and the third in Palmyria in Mesopotamia. He led this last group, and the Romans had to retreat after a humiliating retreat in winter, with many deaths on the march home. The Sasanians then went home, because they were a surge-force rather than a standing army. Rather dubiously, Severus Alexander held a triumph when he went home (it was certainly no victory). Episode CXL – A Ridiculous Waste of Time (Severus Alexander IV) No sooner had the eastern threat abated than the German tribes invaded to the north. It’s hard to know whether this invasion was a result of population pressure, or whether it was opportunistic. Severus Alexander didn’t want to fight here either, and offered to buy off the German troops- something that the troops couldn’t stomach. So they revolted and chose one of their own – a military man with the support of the troops. Severus Alexander and his mother were killed in his tent. Dr Caillan Davenport says that it’s hard to evaluate him, because he seems completed controlled by others. He was not bloodthirsty, he was deferential to the Senate and he built things. But he was not a successful leader in wartime, and he marked the end of the Severan dynasty which had lasted from 193-235 C.E.

History Extra Podcast It’s funny how you can read or learn about something at one stage in your life and it evinces lukewarm interest, then decades later you are fascinated by it. Perhaps the rise of the extreme-right across the world today that made Vichy France: Everything You Wanted to Know so fascinating. This is a question and answer session with Professor Shannon Fogg who wrote The Politics of Everyday Life in Vichy France: Foreigners , Undesirables , and Strangers in 2009. Good basic questions like Where was Vichy? Why Vichy? Did the arrangements with the Nazis also apply to the colonies? What was everyday life like? At the end, she talks about the way that Marshall Petain has been embraced by the right.

‘The Shortest History of Democracy’ by John Keane

2022, 240 p.

I must confess that this book would not have held much interest for me twenty years ago. But, although at the time I scoffed at Francis Fukuyama’s hubristic claim for ‘the end of history’, I would never have predicted that within thirty years we would see UK and US clutching at clowns, the rise of strong men across the globe and the bald-faced subversion and rejection of what had appeared to be stable democracies. I’m now more conscious of the contingency of democracy, and quite frankly, more fearful for its future. Suddenly, for me, this book is urgent reading.

Part of Black Inc’s ‘Shortest History’ series, this book is just what is claims to be- both short and a history- and although the last section took me from scepticism to despair, it does end with a claim for a radical democracy that can, perhaps, be “wisdom of global value”. This is a history that emphasizes change and contingency, upheavals and setbacks. As Keane notes in his introduction, “Democracy has no built-in guarantees of survival” (p. 6).

The structure of the book is foreshadowed by a very useful ‘Democracy’s Timeline’, where events drawn from across the globe flesh out the book’s three parts: The Age of Assembly Democracy; The Age of Electoral Democracy and The Age of Monitory Democracy. He starts off the book by debunking the misconception that democracy started in Ancient Greece. This idea, he says, was a 19th-century conceit, promulgated by people like George Grote, the English banker-scholar-politician who co-founded University College in London. Instead he looks back 2000 years earlier to early assemblies in Syria-Mesopotamia in 2500BCE, which were seen as an earthly imitation of the assemblies of the gods in a conflict-riven universe. The caravan routes spread the idea of assemblies to India by 1500 BCE, then on to the Myceneans and Phoenicians, taking root among the 200 Greek-speaking citizen states throughout the Mediterranean quite separately from its development in Athens by 507BCE. Not all these assemblies survived, falling victim to conquest, conspiracy or tyranny: threats that have always faced democracy. Although current day fans of direct democracy hark back to Athenian Greece, it too had a degree of deputation. There was a council of 500, for which every (male, free) citizen was eligible for a year’s service, and it in turn had a smaller group of 50 senators for day-to-day administration. As is often the way, those who were satisfied by assembly democracy rarely wrote about it, while the sources are replete with the criticisms of aristocrats with the leisure to write, who saw it as a form of mob rule. The depiction of ‘democracy’ as female that we see to this day in statues and demonstrations could have been a dig at the ‘female trickery’ of democracy. The dalliance of democracy and armed force proved fatal for Athens as a form of ‘democide’ – the self-destruction of democracy- that remains possible and indeed, is playing out, across the world today.

The narrative then jumps ahead 800 years to Electoral Democracy, landing in the 6th century CE with the birth of Islam where the practice of appointing wakil to handle distant legal, religious and commercial matters was customary. After Faroe Island and Icelandic assemblies in 930CE, there is a shift in the 12th century CE to the Atlantic region, starting with the birth of parliamentary assemblies in Northern Spain as a way for King Alfonso IX to gain the support of the nobles, bishops and money citizens to evict the Muslims. The timeline moves on to the Swiss cantons, the Magna Carta, and the British colonies in Virginia, the French Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, secret ballots and female suffrage. While this progression is noted, Keane does not dwell on any of them at length. Instead, he notes that representative democracy was seen as a territorial imperative in a large empire, and it was a way of keeping leadership on a leash. Most importantly, unlike assembly democracy, representative democracy recognized that social disagreements and conflicts were legitimate. “The people” was not a homogeneous body, and there was no longer an attempt to reach the ‘consensus’ of Athenian assembly democracy. There was always anxiety about ‘mob rule’ and universal suffrage, but this had abated by the early decades of the 20th century. Between World War I and II there was talk of ‘international democracy’ but this collapsed under the weight of war, influenza and the collapse of all continental empires. After 1918, hardly any European countries were blessed with governments that lasted longer than twelve months. Electoral democracy was destroyed by ‘purple tyranny’ (i.e. monarchs rolling back universal suffrage), military dictatorship and totalitarianism.

His third phase, Monitory Democracy dates from about 1945. In the wake of political catastrophe, war, dictatorship and totalitarianism, there was a realization that the fetish of elections and majority rule had to be broken, and a new commitment to democracy was understood as the protection of citizens from coercion, a celebration of diversity, a decrease in social inequality as well as free and fair elections. The crowning glory of the 1940s was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By ‘monitory democracy’, he means

a form of democracy defined by the rapid growth of many new kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinizing mechanism: ‘guide dog’, ‘watchdog’ and ‘barking dog’ institutions…Within and outside states, independent and toothy watchdog bodies have begun to reshape the landscapes of power. By keeping corporations and elected governments, parties and politicians permanently on their toes, the new watchtowers question abuses of power, force governments and businesses to modify their agendas- and sometimes smother them in public disgrace.

p. 161, 162

The growth of monitory democracy was not inevitable. Despite Nelson Mandela, Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny Speech,’ JFK’s Ich bin ein Berliner declaration, there were often setbacks. By the 1970s 1/3 of the worlds 32 functioning multiparty democracies that had existed in 1958 had become some kind of dictatorship (p.147).

Communication has always been fundamental to democracies. Assembly-based democracies relied on oral communication and messages by foot or by donkey. Electoral democracy required print, and indeed fell into crisis during the advent of early mass broadcasting media like radio. Fundamental to monitory democracy is the role of the multi-media as a way for citizens to track and resist the structures of power. Indeed, he asks, if the digital media ecosystem somehow collapsed, would monitory democracy survive? (personally, I doubt it).

At this point, drawing to the end of the book, he looks around at the health of democracy today. At first he strikes a rather optimistic pose. Even though we know about the manipulation of data, the distortions of algorithms, state surveillance and “other decadent trends”, he says, equally striking is the way that decadence, and the use of armed force breeds stiff public resistance. Environmental action has given the earth a voice again.

Democracy is redefined to mean a way of life that renders power publicly accountable through elected and unelected representative institutions in which humans and their biosphere are given equal footing

p. 181

At this point I found myself raising a skeptical eyebrow. Had the author not seen the kneecapping of climate action at COPs, most recently last year? What about January 6 in America? What about the blatant gerrymandering and attack on voter rights in US? What about the shadowy power of lobbyists? What about the rise of ‘sovereign citizen’ marches throughout the world? Had he not seen these things?

Ah yes- he had, as he goes on to talk about the fears for the fate of global democracy, the shift to executive rule and the use of gag orders and leak investigations, the appointment of heads of US government departments without legislative approval by Trump and the extended lockdowns enforced by governments during COVID. He notes the decline in commitment to democracy amongst younger generations. In India, the majority of citizens (53%) say that they would support military rule; in Latin America only 24% of people are happy with how democracy is working in their countries. New despotic regimes are arising in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, United Arab Emirates, Iran and China:

A new type of strong-armed state led by tough-minded rulers skilled in the arts of manipulating and meddling with people’s lives, marshalling their support and winning their conformity…They are masters of ‘phantom democracy’. They do all they can to camouflage the violence they use on those who refuse to conform. Using a combination of slick means, including calibrated coercion masked by balaclavas, disappearances and back-room torture, they manage to win the loyalty of sections of the middle classes, workers and the poor. They labour to nurture their willing subjects’ docility. Voluntary servitude is their thing. And they travel in packs. The new despotisms, led by a newly confident China, are skilled at navigating multilateral institutions to win business partners and do military deals well beyond the borders of the states they rule.

p. 189,190

So, he asks, what then are we to do? Should we just give in? He notes that it is not possible to retrieve and breath life into past justifications of democracy like Christianity, nationality, protection of private property and utilitarianism. Democracy doesn’t always bring peace (look at Israel) or “economic growth”.

Instead, he says, we need to reimagine democracy as the guardian of plurality, freed from the dictates of arrogant, predatory power (p. 195). We need to keep the problem of “abusive power” central to how we think about democracy. (Although at this point, I start thinking about vaccine mandates and those upside-down red Australian flags. Are there circumstances where coercion is justified? Where does the ‘sovereign citizen’ leave society?) But an emphasis on “abusive power”, he argues, is the shape-shifting power of democracy:

Thinking of democracy as a shape-shifting way of protecting humans and their biosphere against the corrupting effects of unaccountable power reveals its radical potential: the defiant insistence that people’s lives are never fixed, that all things, human and non-human are built on the shifting sands of space-time, and that no person or group, no matter how much power they hold, can be trusted permanently, in any context, to govern the lives of others…democracy shows us that no man or woman is perfect enough to rule unaccountably over their fellows, or the fragile lands and seas in which they dwell. Is that not wisdom of global value?

p. 197, p. 201

I must confess that, despite wanting to hold on to the optimism of his closing paragraph, I am still fearful, and am becoming increasingly so as I see COVID-related protests spreading around the world, drawing to themselves both conspiracy theorists and people who are deeply concerned about the over-reach of abusive power. I am grateful for another way of thinking about democracy, albeit an idealistic one, because I find myself backed up against a wall. In this book Keane takes a very long view, going back much further than Athenian democracy, and his three-part frame of analysis is useful for discussing democracy without getting bogged down in detail. The book is engagingly written, it even has illustrations, and it scoots along at pace. If one of the advantages of reading “the shortest history” of a concept is a brisk, informed analysis (as distinct from re-telling) and introducing a new way of scaffolding one’s thinking, then this one is well worth reading.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Review copy from Black Inc.

‘The Believer: Encounters with love, death & faith’ by Sarah Krasnostein

2021, 342 p

Sarah Krasnostein’s breakthrough book The Trauma Cleaner, the biography of the late Sandra Pankhurst was such a compelling telling of such a complex personality that it is Sandra, and not Sarah, who remains in my memory. But looking back on my own review, Krasnostein was obviously present in the narrative, something that I bridled against when I read it. In this most recent book of six different explorations on the nature of belief, I was very much aware of Krasnostein as journalist in what could, in a different configuration, be a series of six in-depth, long-form essays. Each one of them on its own merits is interesting, but I did find myself wishing that there was more integration and more of an overarching argument in the book. In the preface, Krasnostein writes:

You’re about to read six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable. Their combination is the seventh note.


I’m not convinced that ‘combination’ in itself is a story, as such. Certainly the structuring of the text is very deliberate. The book is divided into two parts. Part I ‘Below’ is fronted with a quote W.H.Auden’s ‘The Hard Question’: And ghosts must do again what gives them pain. Part II ‘Above’ has an etymological description of the word ‘chord’, as both noun and verb.

Each of these two parts has three stories, but they do not appear one after the other but the narrative cycles from one episode to the next between them in turn. Extracting them from the intertwined narrative, the first story, ‘The Death Doula’ traces the involvement of a buddhist death doula Annie Whitlocke who is caring for Katrina, a bayside 59-year old woman who is dying of cancer. The second story, ‘Paranormal’, is where Krasnostein interviews and accompanies people who are looking for paranormal activity, some by sensation, others like Dr Vladimir Dubaj by looking for empirical evidence of the paranormal. The third story in Part I is ‘In the Beginning’, where Krasnostein visits the Creation Museum in Kentucky , the brainchild of Ken Ham, a former high school teacher from Queensland. He is the founder and CEO of Answers In Genesis, a fundamentalist evangelical ministry which reads the bible literally (including the ‘young earth’ creation theory that the universe was created 6000 years ago). These three stories appear in a regularly alternating structure throughout the 165 pages of Part I.

Part II (‘Above’) has three intertwined stories too. ‘Halfway Home’ tells the story of Lynn in America, imprisoned for thirty-four and a half years – half of her life- for arranging for the murder of her ex-husband who sought custody of his child. ‘Theories of Flight’ tells of Victorian pilot Fred Valentich who reported a mysterious craft and lights above his plane before it disappeared somewhere close to Cape Otway in October 1978. His disappearance, along with the sighting by many people of another unidentified craft in Westall in 1966 and the Roswell incident in 1947 (US), is still discussed and trawled through by ufologists whose meetings and lectures Krasnostein attends. In ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’, Krasnostein meets a community of Conservative Mennonites at the Light of Truth fellowship in New York, speaking mainly with the women whose conservative fundamentalist Christianity is more family-based than that of the Creation Museum in Part I. The structuring of these chapters is not as regular as in Part I, possibly because there is an imbalance in the length of the stories.

The book finishes with a Coda, which gives an update on ‘The Death Doula’, ‘Half Way Home’ and ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. Interestingly, these stories were more centred on women, where her relationship with the ‘subjects’- is that the right word for her informants?- is closer.

Given that such care has been taken with the arrangement of this narrative, it behoves the reader to ask “does it work?” I don’t really know if much has been gained by this cutting and dicing, beyond what would have been achieved by a straight one-after-the-other narrative. At least in this book, the reader is provided with a table of contents, something sorely lacking in Michelle Tom’s even more disjointed Ten Thousand Aftershocks (my rather bad-tempered review here). It is possible to backtrack and find the earlier episodes if memory falters. I am nonplussed by the inclusion of ‘Half Way Home’, which is more a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, rather than a broader search for meaning. I found myself wondering if this story really belonged in a different book.

In her foreword, Krasnostein says that her book is about

certainty in the absence of knowledge; how the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the distance between the world as it is and as we’d like it to be can stunt or save us.


Of Jewish heritage herself, her impatience is most palpable in the two manifestations of Christian belief – the Creation Museum and the Mennonites – while she seems to be able to maintain a detached and still contingent scepticism for UFOs and the paranormal. She talks of ‘distance’, both psychological and objective, and it was this distance that attracted her to these stories in particular.

I didn’t set out to find these stories….In each case, I needed to understand them, these people I found unfathomable, holding fast to faith in ideas that went against the grain of more accepted realities. It may be accurate to say that I needed to get close to something, someone, that felt very far away. That I believed maybe I could.

One of the lies writers tell themselves is that all things should be understood.


I suspect that Krasnostein herself would admit that she has not been able to bridge this distance in each of these cases. Despite her involvement in the last days of Katrina’s life, the process and experience of death is still beyond her grasp, although she learns more about life from attending Katrina’s living-wake (i.e. Katrina herself attended, before she died) and the ceremony after her death. The religious believers remain beyond her understanding and sympathy; she is not sure about the UFOs or ghosts. She admits that she used to think of the world as a type of text, indexed and logically related, and “a faith that, if I could only ask the right questions, I could finally understand.”

To believe in the world as this type of text is to believe that all lives- regardless of whether they resolve happily- make sense. To have faith in context and causation. To insist that people for the most part are intelligibly coherent in the sense of being predictably inconsistent and that they are capable, within reasonable bounds of incredible insight and meaningful growth as they learn, painfully, to bend themselves around reality instead of expecting reality to miraculously bend itself around them.

To repeatedly believe this about people is, to borrow from Philip Roth, to be wrong. But at least it is also to be wrong about oneself. And what other choice do we have?


This is probably getting closer to my own belief about myself and the way the world works, and I’m not sure that it is as “wrong” as Roth proclaims. The title ‘The Believer’ could be applied to five of the six people she has interviewed and encountered here, but she and I alike question how much insight and growth some of them display, when the certainties are imposed from without rather than emerging from within. But the title could just as easily be applied to Krasnostein herself, as she tests out a ‘faith’ in human nature that Philip Roth (in all his typical bombast) declares to be wrong. And, as she says of this faith and the attempt to reach across distance, perhaps we have no other choice.

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24 -31 January 2022

History of Rome podcasts. Episode 104 Here Comes the Sun was music to my ears, when Mike Duncan started off by praising the role of grandmothers and mothers amongst the Roman emperors (although I must admit it was not always to the good). The Julias had been part of the now-dead Caracella’s court and they had networks to call on to bring Caracella’s cousin Antoninus out into open opposition with Macrinus. Antoninus was part of the Severan family, and since childhood he had acted as a priest to the sun God El-Gabal – hence his nickname Elagabalus, although during his reign he was known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. But it’s easier to call him Elagabalus, given how many Antoninus’s and Aurelius’s there were. Rumours abounded that he was actually Caracella’s illegitimate son instead of cousin, and thus he had the support of the troops. Macrinus tried to win the troops over, but his envoys kept getting converted to Elagabalus’ side. There are differing accounts among the sources, but either way Macrinus ended up dead. Elagabalus’ mother Julia Maesa, who had been plotting away in exile, was very influential because Elagabalus was only 14. She insisted that she be allowed to attend the Senate (first woman to do so). However, he was pretty scandalous, married four times including to a Vestal Virgin, was probably transgender and even his Nanna turned against him, and decided to promote her other grandson, Severus Alexander instead. The two cousins were made co-Consuls but in the end the Praetorian Guard turned against Elagabalus and assassinated him. The lesson? Don’t mess with Nanna.

Emperors of Rome Really, with Elagabalus championing the role of the Sun God in Rome, no podcaster could resist calling the episode ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and the Emperors of Rome podcast couldn’t either, with Episode CXXIII – Here Comes the Sun (Elagabalus I) Most of this episode is involved with the death of Macrinis, who fled when he realized that the tide was turning against him. He got quite some distance, but was killed nonetheless. Historians have generally been fairly hostile towards Macrinis. Cassius Dio admits that he had his strengths, but says that he deserved his fate because he was ‘only’ an equestrian. Episode CXXIV – The Lowest Depths of Foulness (Elagabalus II) Elagabalus took the scenic route back to Rome, taking more than a year. He sent the people of Rome his portrait though, so they would recognize him when he arrived. He was only 14 and wanted to consolidate his position in the East, and needed to appoint his own people to important positions. Once he arrived in Rome, he started executing senators. Of course, Nero and Caracella had done the same thing but he took it to a whole new level. Worse still, he insisted on keeping his role as a priest of the Sun God Ela-Gabel, and built a big temple to Ela Gabel called the Elagabalium and elevated Ela-Gabel over Jupiter. Episode CXXV – Call Me Not a Lord, for I Am a Lady (Elagabalus III). Good heavens, this was rather explicit in a giggly sort of way. Cassius Dio had provided a lot of detail about Elagabalus’ sexual perversions. He justified marrying a Vestal Virgin (actually, he married her twice) by saying that he was bringing together Ela-Gabel and the Roman goddess Vesta to make little god children. In the end, he had no children at all despite four or five marriages. He wanted to castrate himself, and had a desire for a ‘hole’ to be put into his body (a vagina?) Dr Caillan Davenport says that in teaching about Elagabalus to students of much the same age, he sees him as a troubled young man, rather than good or bad. No wonder his grandmother was worried about him.

Lord Louis Mountbatten. Source: Wikimedia

History Extra: I’m just about the last person on earth to watch The Crown. I’m up to the third series, with the Mountbatten plot. Did this really happen?? I went in search of a podcast to find out, but the closest that I could come up with was The Mountbattens: Success and Scandal. In this podcast, author Andrew Lownie discusses his book The Mountbattens: Their Lives & Loves, which looks at the relationship between Louis and Edwina Mountbatten. He gives Mountbatten a bare pass on India, saying that it was an impossible situation. The podcast didn’t really mention the Mountbatten plot, being more concerned with who was bonking whom. Although, he does mention that when some recent files concerned with Mountbatten and young boys became accessible, they mysteriously ‘disappeared’. As we have seen with the Palace Letters here in Australia, the Crown is quite active in protecting its archives.

‘Lapsed’ by Monica Dux

2021, 352 p.

It seems rather strange to think back on it now, but there was a time when I wanted to be a nun. Inspired by The Sound of Music and with absolutely no experience of nuns at all, I wasn’t even Catholic, and indeed the only Catholics I knew were a family who lived down the street from us. It’s strange to think back now about how the world was so firmly divided into Catholic and Protestant. That division just seems to have dissolved, and Monica Dux’s memoir Lapsed goes some way to explaining why.

Dux was brought up in a Catholic household, with a Protestant father who had promised as a condition of marriage, to bring up his children as Catholics. She went to church each Sunday with her mother and brother; she played Jesus in an Easter play; she made her first communion; she attended Catholic schools. She thought that she had emerged intact from her Catholicism after long years of disengagement until her daughter, (rather like me all those years back) declared that she wanted to be Catholic. Dux herself didn’t want to go back to Catholicism, but did she have the right to deny her daughter the free selection of a faith? This forced her to revisit her childhood Catholicism, to observe as an adult the pressures and influences of Catholicism, and to belatedly question the effect that the sectarian divide had had on her extended family and thus, indirectly, a whole other life that she could have lived.

Some of the chapters are personal, revolving around her own suburban experience of 1960s Catholicism; others are more exploratory – unpacking, for example Jesus’ relationship with women in the bible and the role of Mary in Catholicism. Other chapters are angry, especially when revisiting the sexual abuse of children, something that causes Catholic families- including hers- to rethink some of the tragic trajectories of lives of siblings, cousins, and grandchildren, cruelled by such corrupt abuse of power. Her rejection of her Catholicism drifted from nonchalance and inertia to an active rejection, both personally and politically, fuelled by the Catholic churches’ own intervention into Capital P Politics, with the temperature turned up even higher by the Catholic Church’s own moral and legal failings. In many ways her uneasiness about her daughter’s sudden profession of faith caused her to peel back the layers of her own identity, highlighting that her Catholicism was (and to a certain extent, is) cultural rather than confessional. In rejecting her Catholicism, how could she disentangle it from memories, emotions, urges?

I enjoyed this book. As one might expect from a journalist who has a regular column in the Saturday Age, it is engagingly written with humour and insight. Despite its light touch, it has useful footnotes for specifically Catholic terminology and doctrine, and the endnotes reveal the research that lies behind the book, including journal articles interviews, newspaper articles and Vatican documents and Bible references. It is at its core a memoir of suburban Catholicism in an Australian 1960s society separated by the ravine of sectarianism. Even if it was not part of your own upbringing, there is much to recognize here.

I am drawn to books about searching for spiritual meaning but rather perversely, when an author proclaims that they have found it, I tend to reject them and their ‘solution’. I think that I am more attracted to the search than the destination, and I acknowledge that much of my spirituality (such as it is) revolves around capturing the cultural aspects of my former Anglicanism-but not my childhood flirtation with taking the veil!) , while standing on the firm ground of humanism, science, fact, beauty and optimism.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book

‘The Confident Years: Australia in the 1920s’ by Robert Murray

2020, 245 p.

One of the things that I do when I’m not reading, practising my Spanish or listening to podcasts about Rome, is work at my local Heidelberg Historical Society. Our newsletter, which is published every two months, has a feature called ‘A Hundred Years Ago’ which draws together items of local interest from the ‘Heidelberg News’ and, to a lesser extent, the major Melbourne newspapers through Trove. I’ve been writing this feature since 2015 so I’ve gone through the war, through the ‘Spanish’ flu, the commemoration of fallen soldiers and now I’m up to the 1920s. I’d like to know more. A local paper, by its nature, is full of quotidian events with a heavy emphasis on the civic and the worthy. Leaving aside the Bowling Club results and church socials, I’m finding myself interested in the emotional tenor of the times. With a title like ‘The Confident Years’, I was hoping that Robert Murray might unpack the mindset of the 1920s, but I found myself disappointed.

The book, reissued by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2020 (no doubt with this centenary in mind), was originally published in 1978. This new edition is, as the author admits in his preface

varies little from the original, published in 1978, but has been slightly abridged or amended

p. vii

There are the occasional mentions of Gough Whitlam or Donald Trump as points of comparison, but I suspect that much of the text and certainly the bibliography is unchanged, with not a single book or article published after 1978.

It started well. In the opening chapter, Murray writes:

The 1920s, the decade that followed the war, have gone down in legend as gay and glittering. Relative to the years that preceded and followed them, this was certainly so. From the perspective of the 1970s, Australia’s 1920s were straitlaced, drab, and crushed in a narrowness of vision and stridency of statement. Yet for all the smothering smugness, it was also a time when the spaciousness and order of the nineteenth century merged almost felicitously into the freedom and affluence of the twentieth.

They were above all confident years, when reasonable people could believe- with from the late-century perspective, a quaint dogmatism of certainty- in nation and leaders, in socialism or free enterprise capitalism, religion or atheism. A world war had been won; during it the socialist revolution had won Russia, but had later been overthrown by counter-revolution elsewhere in Europe. This was just enough experience of what the young century had to offer to drive the imagination. The long years had yet to come when the world would live for more than two decades with the shadow or reality of depression and more world war, when not only capitalism and socialism but the very millenia-tried bastion of the Christian belief itself would eventually crumble almost discredited before new generations to whom disillusion seemed merely the way of things.


This is what I was looking for in this book, but I found that most of the book involved politics with a capital P and the machinations of political operatives on all sides. After an introductory chapter ‘Fit for Heroes’, there follow four chapters dealing with the Nationalist, Labor and Country parties (Ch. 2 The Political World of Billy Hughes; Ch.3 Post-War Labor; Ch. 4 The Big Fella and Chapter 6 Bruce-Page Australia). Chapter 5 inserts an analysis of the Big Boys of the press (Ch. 5 Packer, Murdoch, Fairfax and Co – how depressing that they are still household names a hundred years later) and Ch. 8 After the Bulletin looks at literature and theatre both on stage and screen. Chapter 9 Workers and Bosses looks at the strike activity particularly in the last years of the decade, and Chapter 10 Countdown to Catastrophe ushers in the Depression of the 1930s.

In these chapters, Murray is careful to pay attention to State politics as well as Federal politics, and he introduces male politicians of all stripes with potted biographies. There is a lot of politics squashed in here, as events and crises unfold and pass by.

My favourite chapter was Chapter 7 The Golden Years, which came closest to what I was looking for in the book. There are more women in this chapter although it, too, reads a little like an almanac even to the point of finishing with ‘A Miscellany of Australia’s Twenties’ containing observations that didn’t fit anywhere else. In his preface, Murray mentioned that he interviewed people who were alive during the 1920s, and this chapter- although I enjoyed it most of the whole book- had a bit of the ‘oral-histories’ about it.

This is the only book that I have found that focusses on the 1920s in Australia beyond those ‘So You Were Born in 1925’ type books in newsagents. In terms of capturing a mindset, I gained much more from Deirdre O’Connor’s Harlem Nights, and perhaps I am going to have to look at individual chapters in books about other themes that are less tied to a chronological period (e.g. Janet McCalman’s Journeyings; or Kirsten Otto’s Capital, both of which I have read previously) or fiction -especially newspaper fiction- of the time. I found myself wondering about my own time, a hundred years later, and whether a book about our 21st century ‘Twenties’ that focussed on Australian politics, technology and culture would capture what it is to live now. It would have to include those things of course, but they would not be sufficient. Perhaps I need to send Hugh Mackay back in a time machine to 1920 to measure the emotional climate for me.

Sourced from: State Library of Victoria as an e-book.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 January 2022

The Forum (BBC) In some of my Roman history podcast listening, there was mention of someone called Boo-dicker. I’d never heard Boadicea’s name pronounced Boudica (Boo-dicker) and it took me a while to work out who they were talking about. Boudica, warrior queen features Professors Richard Hingley and Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Dr. Jane Webster. Boudica was the wife of the leader of the Iceni people. When he was killed in around 60AD and her daughters (and probably she, too) were raped, Boudica, driven by Roman brutality, led a rebellion against the Roman army and marched on London. The Romans were completely unprepared for the uprising, and even though she was defeated, she has gone down in history. She was ‘recovered’ in Elizabethan England, where parallels were drawn between these two female red-headed leaders, and again in Victorian imperial times (although if they thought about it, she was a guerilla insurgent, not the Victorian imperialists’ favourite person). The Suffragettes adopted her too.

How It Happened (Axios) In the midst of COVID and Black Lives Matter, the Abraham Accords seem to have fallen from view. In this two-part series Trump’s Big Deal, Jonathan Swan talks with Axios Middle East correspondent Barak Ravid about how seemingly out of thin air, all of a sudden Arab countries decided that they wanted to have treaties with Israel. I didn’t trust it then, and I don’t trust it now. In Trump’s Big Deal Part I: May Your House Be Destroyed, we learn how Donald Trump, through his son-in-law Jarrod Kushner, wanted to “deal” to make the West Bank an international meeting place. After moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and siding with the extreme right-wingers of both the Republicans and Israeli politics, Trump was blindsided by Netanyahu’s annexation of the West Bank announced at a public meeting. In Trump’s Big Deal Part II: From Secret Alliance to the Abraham Accords sees how these accords were leveraged to stop Netanyahu from annexing the West Bank, thus scuppering forever a two-state solution. Apparently there were always links between Arab states and Israel, and this has just formalized them. I can’t see this ending well.

Rough Translation (NPR) It was appropriate that I listen to May We Have This Dance, given that I had just finished reading Deirdre O’Connor’s Harlem Nights, about the introduction of Jazz into Australia through Black American bands during the 1930s. This program is about Lindy Hop, which originated in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s and has since gained a following across the world, with large communities in Sweden and South Korea. It’s now being reclaimed by Black communities in the United States.

History of Rome podcast. I’m getting there- this is episode 103 out of 189. Maybe I’ll finish this in 2022! Episode 103 The Equestrian looks at Caracella (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), who Mike Duncan sees as being as bad as they come, but only an extension of his father’s behaviour. Caracella was a nick-name, just as Caligula was a nick-name, and it actually means ‘Cloak’. No one called him Caracella in front of him. In order to increase the tax base, he extended citizenship to every free man in the empire (except women and slaves of course). An oracle in North Africa prophesied that the praetorian prefect Macrinus would wear the purple, so in Caracella’s mind it was a matter of ‘kill or be killed’. It’s not really certain how the assassination of Macrinus occurred (except that he had stopped for a piss on the side of the road) and was stabbed. Macrinus, who took over never actually set foot in Rome. He heard that the Severins were plotting to overthrow him, and so he really should have killed the whole family (if he was a proper Roman) but he just exiled them instead. Big mistake. Caracella’s aunt Julia Maesa started championing her grandsons Elagabalus and Severus Alexander.

Emperors of Rome Episode CXIII – Fratricidal Discord (Caracalla I) sees Severus dead in York and not one but two sons primed to take over. Well, Caracella was much better primed than Geta because he was the elder son. Caracella was ruthless in killing off his opposition by killing him personally with his own two hands in front of their mother. He claimed that Geta was a traitor and had his image expunged from images, coins and the public record. Episode CXIV – Mutilating Rome (Caracalla II) Now that Caracella was the sole emperor of the Roman empire he was able to act as he wished. The army liked him, but that’s about all. He embarked on lots of killing of family, although he didn’t get rid of all of his father’s advisors. The extension of citizenship throughout the empire increased the tax take and meant that Roman law became even more widespread. Instead of the citizen/non-citizen distinction, there was now ‘more honourable’ citizen and ‘more humble’ citizen, which played out in the types of punishments meted to them. The granting of widespread citizenship really rankled with many people. Episode CXV – Ausonian Beast (Caracalla III) sees Caracella travelling the provinces, wanting to be seen as a military leader in his own right. His mother, Julia Domna travelled with him, leading to rumours of incest. He forestalled conflict by paying off potential uprisings. He styled himself as a latter-day Alexander the Great, but he was very thin-skinned when the Alexandrians cracked jokes about him. Episode CXVI – Red Wedding (Caracalla IV)The Roman Empire had engaged in Parthian wars for generations, stretching back, off and on, to the days of Pompey the Great. It was a bit like Russia and the US Cold War- and now Caracella was going to have his shot at Parthia. There was a proposal that Caracella would marry a Parthian princess, but it was a trick- he actually had amassed 80-90,000 troops – and during the ceremony he ordered that the troops invade and kill everyone. Nice. Episode CXVII – Disgraced Human Nature (Caracalla V)The historian Edward Gibbon perhaps summed up Caracalla quite succinctly, when he used this phrase to describe his demise while answering a call of nature on the side of the road: “Such was the end of a monster whose life disgraced human nature, and whose reign accused the patience of the Romans.” Dr Caillan Davenport doesn’t think much of him either, designating him as one of the worst emperors, although he did leave buildings e.g. the Caracella Baths. But get this- you can actually get married at Caracella Hall at the Caracella Baths. Lots of nice red carpet. Ugh. Episode CXXII – Purple by Merit in steps Macrinus- the wrong position, the wrong class, the wrong man. Well, Caracella was killed having a slash (to put it colloquially)- but now what? The soldiers had murdered the emperor and they needed to replace him quick, so they looked to a man on the spot. Macrinus was proclaimed emperor on Severus’ birthday, hoping to portray continuity and he took the names of Severus. He needed to consolidate his empire, so he was happy to bring wars to a close and make peace payments. Macrinus embodied the tension between a hereditary system and the ‘best man’ argument. Heredity was to win out.

History Extra Podcast America’s Roaring Twenties: Everything you wanted to know. I’m on a bit of a 1920s kick at the moment. My grandmothers (who I never met) were young women during the 1920s and I’d like to understand the era better. This podcast, featuring American historian Sarah Churchwell, was a little too American for my liking- although she is careful to distinguish when she is talking about American, as distinct from British or European, experience. She points out that America only really experienced one year of war, which boosted its feelings of invincibility, and that the experience of the ‘roaring twenties’ depended on class and place. Nonetheless, the emphasis on youth, the presence of party generations (think Gatsby, or the Bright Young Things), invention and theatre did mark a real change from Victorian and Edwardian life.

Six degrees of separation: between ‘No-one is Talking about This’ and ….

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book for Six Degrees of Separation for February. This is a meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best where she chooses the starting book, and then you link six other books that trigger an association in some way and see where you end up. The starting book is Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This.

I haven’t read it, but I do know that it’s about communication over the internet, which made me think of Susan Johnston’s recent epistolary novel From Where I Fell (my review here). Two women, one in America and the other in Australia, begin communicating via email when an email is mis-addressed. The book is written entirely in email exchanges. The younger Australian correspondent is voluble and often heedless, whereas the older American is abrupt, snippy and just as heedless in her own way.

In fact, the older woman reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful Olive Kitteridge. Set in Maine, this is a series of linked short stories and Olive appears in each one of them- sometimes as the main character, sometimes just as a walk-on figure in the background. Olive is a large, acerbic, retired teacher who has lived in her small town for many years and taught mathematics to every young person in town. She’s brusque and clumsy, and you can see why her son has distanced himself from her and why people don’t really like her very much. (My review here). Really- the book cover is so inappropriate for this book.

Olive is an unusual name, and it’s even more unusual teamed with ‘Pink’. Olive Pink, as Julie Marcus shows us through in her biography The Indomitable Miss Pink, was both an anthropologist and a Northern Territory-based eccentric, although the latter has tended to overshadow the former in popular memory. She died in 1975. She is spoken of as a tall, erect woman, dressed in white, with a long skirt and parasol. Neighbours and little children remembered her derelict hut with its idiosyncratic ‘museum’ and a straggly garden where she grew flowers for sale. Pastoralists saw her, and her activities, as a threat to their leases. Arrernte and Warlpiri had their own stories of Olive Pink from the time that she lived amongst them in the 1930s and 1940s, learning their language and customs. This is a terrific biography, although it’s probably hard to track down. (My review here)

Another elderly ‘Miss’ is Judith Kratz, the main character in Andrea Bobotis’ The Last List of Miss Judith Kratz. Miss Kratz an elderly spinster, has been living in her family home all her life. It is 1989 and the quiet, if cluttered, domesticity of Judith and her African-American companion Olva is disturbed when Judith’s younger sister Rosemarie suddenly turns up. She had run away sixty years ago at the age of thirteen in 1929, just after her older brother Quincy, had been murdered. As the remaining matriarch of the Kratt family, Judith decides to compile an inventory of the objects within the family home, and these items trigger off memories from the past. Each chapter closes with an ever-growing list of objects, which have enhanced resonance for the reader after travelling with Judith back to the 1920s. (See my review here)

Miss Judith Kratz lived in South Carolina and the book is steeped in the culture and history of the American South. For me, the South is synonymous with Mississippi and so I follow comedian John Safran over there in Murder in Mississippi. As part of his documentary program Race Relations he cultivated a friendship with white supremacist, Richard Barrett, and found himself surprised that he actually liked him more than he thought he would. Safran’s nose for a good story twitched when he learned that Richard Barrett had been murdered by a young Afro-American teenager. And,so he took himself off to Mississippi to chase the story. The book reads rather like a podcast, and it was awarded the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime in 2014. (My review here).

Another murder, but this time in Georgia, is found in Nathan Harris’ The Sweetness of Water. Set immediately after the Civil War, Old Ox is a small town in Georgia, staunchly Confederate during the war, and resentful and broken afterwards. Emancipation has seen formerly enslaved people suddenly free, but without resources, money or plans. Many of them stay in Old Ox, some still living and working for their former owners, others building shanties under the eaves and in the alley-ways of the buildings in the town. Formerly enslaved, but now emancipated, Landry and Prentiss are hiding out in the woods where they are discovered by George Walker, a small-scale white farmer. They agree to work on George’s farm, planting peanuts, in return for shelter in the barn, food and a wage. They had been enslaved on a nearby plantation, and the cruelty of the owner, Ted Morton, had stripped Landry of speech. The brothers dream of finding their mother, who had been sold, and now that they can earn some money, they have a chance of doing so. This is a beautifully told book. It has a slightly formal, 19th century lilt to the language and it captures well this liminal time, when the gaping newness of Emancipation had not yet solidified into inevitability of Reconstruction. (My review here)

I started off with an American book and I ended up with an American book. And how fitting that I should start and finish with two books that were nominated for the Booker Prize in 2021.

‘A Town Called Solace’ by Mary Lawson

2021, 288 p.

Had this book won the Booker Prize, all my fears about the dumbing down of the Booker would have been realized. As it is, it did not progress from the longlist, and that’s a good thing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the book. Set in a small town Solace in 1970s Ontario, the narrative switches between three characters: Clara, Elizabeth and Liam. Eight year old Clara’s family is in crisis after Clara’s older sister Rose has left home and disappeared without trace. She stands vigil by the window, willing Rose to re-appear. Rose doesn’t, but instead she sees a car draw up at the house next door and a young man get out and let himself into the house. The owner of the house, Elizabeth Orchard, is in hospital and Clare has promised to feed the cat in her absence. Unknown to her, Elizabeth has died and left the house to Liam, the young man, who had been a neighbour of Elizabeth’s many years earlier. Many years earlier Elizabeth, unable to have children, had welcomed Liam into her house and come to love him as her own son. Liam had only re-established contact with Elizabeth in recent years, and was surprised that Elizabeth had left the home to him. His own marriage had just broken down, and so he moved up to Solace with the intention of selling the house and working out what to do next.

It’s a pleasant enough, holiday read: I read it in an afternoon, sitting on the back deck. All the ends are neatly tied up and it’s a slightly unsettling feel-good story, but it’s certainly not Booker material. A Women’s Weekly Good Read maybe. But surely not the Booker

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2021