Monthly Archives: April 2022

Exploring someone else’s city: Bunbury

“What’s she doing in Bunbury??” you may ask. Well, you know those COVID figures of cases and hospitalizations?…they’re real and some of those patients are aged 38 instead of 98- and one of them is my son. So, there was a quick scramble onto a plane and over to Western Australia. He’s much, much better now, and I’ll be heading home on Monday. But in the meantime, there’s walking to do and places to see, other than a hospital ward.

I decided that I’d walk to the hospital and went via the Big Swamp, which was absolutely teeming with wild life and birds. There has been lots of building development on what must have been swampland in the past. There are South Western Long Necked Turtles in the swamp, which cross the road to nest in a dry watercourse on the other side of the road. In a bit of an evolutionary blip, they can’t withdraw their necks into their shells, so they are pretty defenceless against predators.

I wonder if this is the last Civic Video store (now closed) still standing? Someone had a sense of humour with the parking bays.

I visited the Bunbury Museum and Heritage Centre in what had once been the Boys School, built in 1886 to replace an older convict-built structure. They had a nice little exhibition about ‘The Blind Man of Bunbury’- K. C. Lewis who ran a canvas goods store in Bunbury between 1955 and 2021.

Then up to the Art Gallery in the former Sisters of Mercy Convent School. There was a little exhibition called ‘Museum of Loss’ which attracted my attention. They had left one of the nun’s rooms intact. A pretty sparse life.

Then a walk up to the Pioneer Park, which had been the site of the first cemetery. Most of the paperwork over who had been buried there had been lost, so they don’t really know who is buried there. I had hoped that there might be gravestones, but there were only interpretation panels telling of the history of the graveyard itself.

Then across the road to the beach- absolutely beautiful. I was fascinated by the Back Beach Sea Baths which were built in the 1930s, but only lasted a few years before being destroyed by the waves. Still, those foundations have held on for nearly 90 years.

My phone tells me today I walked 8 kms but it feels much more than that!

‘City of Friends’ by Joanna Trollope

2017, 327 p.

One of the delights of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself loving a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. One of the burdens of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself gritting your teeth to get through a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. City of Friends falls into the latter category.

The narrative revolves between four middle-aged, successful, middle-class London-based women, who met years earlier in an economics course at university, where they were vastly outnumbered by the other male students. Gaby is an investment banker, married with three children. Melissa is a management consultant and single mother of a teenaged son. Beth is an author and academic, expert in business psychology and in a relationship with a younger woman, while Stacey is a senior partner at a private equity firm, married but without children, and suddenly called upon to care for her mother with dementia. Does that entice you to follow them over 327 pages? I didn’t think so.

I’m not a reader who has to like the characters, but I do need to have a frisson of interest in them. I’m aware that Trollope is trying to illustrate modern life and dilemmas – the role of daughters in caring for aging parents, step-children, flexible working, ‘having it all’- but really, I found that I just didn’t care.

If I dislike a book, I don’t usually review it, especially if it is a new writer. But Joanna Trollope OBE has sold more than 7 million copies of her books, so I think that she can do without this reader.

My rating: 4/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups.

Exploring my own city: Westgate Park

I hate driving over the Westgate Bridge. It’s a real white-knuckle drive, what with the steep drop over the sides and all the B-doubles thundering past. But if I’m a passenger, that’s a different matter. I always look down at the park below and think that I must visit it one day- and today, on a warm, still Anzac Day- I did. Click on the images to enlarge them.

The lake, a former sand mine, turns a brilliant pink at the end of summer, but there was no colour in it today. There were no noisy miners, and so there was lots of bird life: wrens, honeyeaters, wattlebirds, mudlarks, magpies. It’s hard to believe that it was ever the blighted place it was forty years ago. The Age described it in 1979 as ‘scrofulous scenery indeed … dead water, swamp, sick factories, dead wood, haze, gasping barges, wretched refineries, wheezing chimneys, dead grass, institutional putrefaction’. It’s not like that now. There’s been lots of hard work done here by the Friends of Westgate Park since 1999 – a real gift to the people of Melbourne.

Site of Westgate Park 1984 Weston Langford

You can read more about Westgate Park here.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 April 2022

History of Rome Podcast Episode 126 All the Kings Men deals with Diocletian’s reorganization of the government, something which had not occurred for a long time because of the increasing militarization of society. With the Tetrarchy, it meant that there could be four times more oversight of government activity. The empire now comprised over 100 provinces, and Diocletian was insistent that the governors do more in their own patch, especially in relation to the administration of justice. He introduced the idea of twelve dioceses, each headed by a vicar, in order to implement empire-wide change. He made Italy and Egypt equal to the other provinces in terms of taxation and expenditure, although he did carve out a special place for the city of Rome. Administrators were drawn exclusively from the equestrian class. The Praetorian Prefect was top of the bureaucratic structure, and acted as a type of vice-governor. There was a corresponding change in the status of emperor. He was no longer the First Citizen: there was now The Ruler and The Ruled.

Episode 127 Commanding the Empire. Rome’s economy was in disarray when Diocletian came to power and he initiated major overhauls to get the system running again. He had four main reforms. First, he attempted to stabilize the economy by issuing new standardized coins of copper, silver and gold, but he didn’t recall enough of the old, debased coinage so this didn’t work. Second, he re-organized the tax structure based on the old army method of requisition. He drew up Tables of Equivalency for a ‘unit of tax’, so tax payments could be made in kind, based on what the tax payer had access to. Third, he calcified the professions by insisting on compulsory, hereditary guilds, so that from generation to generation, people had to stay in the same trade. He also stopped migration- and yes, we’re getting into pre-feudal ideas here. Finally, he issued an Edict on Prices where he catalogued everything that could possibly be sold, and set a maximum price for it. Punishment by death awaited those who overcharged, but it ended up being unenforcable. So old Diocletian really is moving the empire onto a more rational, pre-feudal basis and he was one of the most transformative of the emperors. But- there’s always a ‘but….

And here it comes in Episode 128 The Great Persecution.For the first 15 years of Diocletian’s rule, he had instituted great changes across the empire- some resisted, others accepted. But when he wanted an oracle to read his future, he was told that the gods couldn’t get through. Some said that it was because Christians had made the sign of the cross in the imperial palace. So he decided to deal with the increasing Christian movement by insisting that everyone make a sacrifice to Jupiter, and did the same in the army. This was just the start. At this point, Mike Duncan stops and backtracks to give a potted history of Christianity- and he does a pretty good job of doing so, given the eagle eyes of his Christian commenters on his webpage. The early church in the 1st Century CE had to sort out what to do about the Gentiles who wanted to join- whether to go ‘big tent’ or ‘little tent’. ‘Big tent’ won. In 2C CE the original disciples and apostles had all passed away, and the church had become decentralized with bishops who often disagreed with each other. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Christians did not join in the Jewish Wars of 130 CE and although the Romans had deferred to the antiquity of Judaism, this did not extend to the newly-formed Christians. The Christian Church endured the same chaos as everyone else in the tumultuous 3rd Century CE. Emperor Trajan had persecuted Christians in the 2nd Century and Decius did so in too in the 3rd Century. Within the Christian church itself, there was a split between those who acquiesced to Roman pressure and those who resisted. Between the years 260 and 300, the stigma of being Christian became muted, and Christianity began to spread across social groups to about 10% of the population (usually in urban centres, which made it seem even more prominent). By this time it was the largest monotheistic religion in the Empire, and it was accumulating wealth and building dedicated churches. It was becoming a threat to the status quo. In 302-3 the persecution began again. Galerius may have been the driving force (or that might just be anti-Galerius propaganda). In 303 Diocletian let the hardliners off the leash and they razed churches, burned scriptures and tortured and killed Christians who refused to recant. In the summer of 303, bishops and deacons were arrested, and the jails were emptied of regular prisoners to make room for them. However, Roman soldiers themselves often turned a blind eye, and Constantinus wanted nothing to do with it. Citizens were resisting too, because they saw Christians as harmless, taxpaying citizens. The persecution was dropped by 311 when Galerius realized the advantages in doing so, especially with the rise of Constantine the Great. All in all, a bad and bloody policy.

The Documentary (BBC) Understanding the long history between Russia and Ukraine is actually part of the BBC’s ‘The Explanation’ series. Here Claire Graham talks to former BBC foreign correspondent Kevin Connolly about what has historically bound Russia and Ukraine together, and what has pulled them apart. He points out that the Russ empire stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and this is more or less the sphere of interest that Putin is exerting pressure over. He goes back to the Orange Revolution in 2004 with the rather confusing election between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych (it’s sounding like a Fast Forward ‘In Moscow Tonight’ episode) – and, I’d forgotten about this- the opposition leader Yushchenko suffering dioxin poisoning. He reminds us of the mistaken shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine, and the conflict in the Donbass region where the Ukrainian forces took the offensive, both of which highlighted Putin’s impunit,. Putin denied military involvement in Ukraine until Feb 2022… and then we all know what happened next.

The Real Story (BBC) France’s Place in the World was recorded on 12 February, before Putin invaded Ukraine. It features Jacques Rupnik( Research Professor at CERI, Science Po, in Paris); Dominique Moïsi (French political scientist and a special advisor at l’Institut Montaigne, a think tank in Paris) and Catherine Nicholson – (European Affairs Editor for France 24). At this stage, Macron was in Russia, engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine. The commentators discussed this diplomatic move (which they all agreed was ‘bold’) by Macron , the youngest French president, who memorably declared that ‘Europe is brain dead’. They pointed out that Macron is operating in a vacuum after the resignation of Merkel and Brexit. They suggest that perhaps Macron is thinking of the Finlandization of Ukraine (although even Finland is rethinking its position at the moment). They discuss France’s anger over AUKUS- disappointment with U.S. but real anger at UK and Australia (we get a mention!)

Then, just before the French elections this weekend, I listed to The Appeal of the French far-right, featuring Nonna Mayer – (A CNRS Research Director Emerita at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics, Sciences Po), Jean-Yves Camus – (Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and Christine Ockrent – (Journalist and broadcaster). When asked when they first became aware of the French far-right, two answered that became interested in 2002 when Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of voting; the other identified 1984 when Jean-Marie Le Pen became one of the first MPs to the European Parliament. Marine Le Pen started off as a moderate, and expelled many of the old fascists attached to her father’s National Front. They suggest that the core of her program hasn’t changed, but she has turned arguments about laicite (i.e. secularity), women’s rights, gay rights, Jewish rights, against the left by arguing that by restricting Muslim immigration will defend these rights. She wants to change the constitution by referendum (which is illegal). The yellow vests, they suggest, emerged from a real anger about purchase power and the need to be heard. Le Pen is not necessarily pro-Russian, but does believe that ‘traditional values’ apply there, although her beliefs are more closely aligned with Hungary and Poland. (Not a reassuring thought). One of the commentators commented on the gender aspect of this presidential run-off-something I hadn’t thought much about.

Archive on 4 (BBC) I’ve been very much aware of the strong visuals coming from the war in Ukraine. Not only is President Zelensky very much aware of packaging himself and his message individually for each country that he is addressing, but we have so much video footage as well. But wariness over disinformation is now so deep-seated that I find myself wondering whether I am looking at fakes or not, and the steady stream of Russian denials of things that are patently obvious makes things even more unsettling. War on Truth looks at the disinformation being purveyed through Russian television, and speaks to bloggers and influencers, mainly from the Ukrainian side, and the pile-on that has followed videos and postings showing life in Ukraine today. It unpacks the story of the pregnant woman filmed after the bombing of the maternity hospital, and the way that both sides are packaging ‘content’ to be picked up and broadcast further.

Nothing on TV Truth be told, there hasn’t been much action on the ‘Nothing on TV’ podcast either, with the episode Tin-kettling recorded in June 2019 (although at least history podcasts don’t date). Once she started looking into it, Robyn Annear found many, many references to tin-kettling. Tin-kettling in Europe sprang from the tradition of charivari, which was a way of expressing moral disapproval of things like wife-beating or marrying too soon after the death of a spouse. In Australia, it seems to have been a more raucous, alcohol-fuelled event, often linked with weddings although the protagonists often ended up in court. It seemed to have been particularly prevalent in areas where Cornish miners had settled, and the ‘tin kettle’ and saucepan were soon replaced with kerosene tins filled with rocks. By the twentieth century, it seems to have been tamed somewhat into some good natured fun.

Australia If You’re Listening. (ABC) In Episode 3 How Long Will the World Want our Coal? Matt Bevan turns to look at India, and its demand for coal and the involvement of the big mining companies here in meeting that demand. In particular it looks at the Galilee Basin, and Adani and the arguments that the fossil-fuel lobby mounts in trying to protect its product and extort more assistance from state and commonwealth governments.

‘Quiet Dissenter: The life and thought of an Australian pacifist Eleanor May Moore 1875-1949’ by Malcolm Saunders

1993, 361 p & notes

Actually, I don’t know if I would have called Eleanor May Moore a quiet dissenter. She had plenty to say over her long secretary-ship of the Victorian branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and she became so publicly identifiable with WILPF in Victoria that she was almost indistinguishable from it.

“So who was Eleanor May Moore?”, you may ask. Of solidly middle-class background, she was born in 1875 and educated at Presbyterian Ladies College. Rather unusually for her background, she attended Stott’s business college and trained as a stenographer. She attended Rev. Charles Strong’s Australian Church (of which, more anon) and when he suggested that the women of the church form a women-only and women-led peace group, she was there from the start. This became the Sisterhood of International Peace, which, along with Vida Goldstein’s Women’s Peace Army were represented at the international congress in Europe in 1919 which led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Eleanor Moore had attended the congress as the Sisterhood of International Peace’s delegate, along with Vida Goldstein and Cecilia John from Women’s Peace Army. The two Australian contingents had sprung from different impetuses: the Sisterhood from a progressive Christianity, and the Women Peace Army from the suffrage movement. After the war, Vida Goldstein distanced herself from the W.P.A which soon disbanded, leaving the Sisterhood as the Victorian branch of WILPF.

It was difficult to find a shipping passage back to Australia after the war, and Eleanor stayed for some time in Geneva, where she established a friendship with WILPF international secretary Emily Greene Balch and worked with her at WILPF headquarters. This placed her in good stead to be the linchpin of the Victorian branch, and she retained this position until a few years before her death in 1949.

She was obviously a strong presence and dominated the local WILPF’s stance on a range of matters- not just peace, but also White Australia, the Pacific, economic sanctions, military service, atomic warfare and eventually, absolute pacificism. With the rise of fascism, she became particularly fixed in her views that all war was wrong – a stance that put her at odds with her old friend Rev. Strong and the European branch of WILPF. It took its toll on the local branch of WILPF too, with its numbers dropping lower and lower as women left because of this adamant stance, and through the attritions of old age.

While there is much to admire in a life-long commitment to an organization, her long career with WILPF serves as a salutary warning for all volunteer organizations, really. There is a danger in one person becoming synonymous with an organization, and that while that person remains, other people will not step forward.

In assessing her life, Saunders notes that her politics were rooted in British liberalism, and at times she sounds almost Thatcher-esque in her emphasis on the individual, rather than collective groups like ‘society’, the ‘community’ or ‘the nation’. Prior to the First World War, she had been a strong supporter of the Federal Government, which had brought about many of the progressive, independent policies that “young” Australia became famous for. But this changed with the war and the heavy-handed War Precautions Act, and by the 1930s she believed that acquiescent obedience to government was the greatest threat to Australian democracy. She had doubts about Christianity, but considered religion extremely important, hence her attraction to the Australian Church and the Society of Friends (Quakers). She supported the White Australia policy and continued to do so when many other people in the peace movement and in WILPF itself believed that it should be abandoned.

This biography was produced by the Peace Research Centre, and would probably be almost impossible to procure today. Its production values are rather rudimentary, but the research is sound and well-supported by references, and Saunders has a clear-eyed view of both Moore’s strengths but also her short-comings. He has captured well the nature of commitment to an ideal, and the narrow line between inflexibility and fidelity to a principle. The WILPF that outlived her was a dwindling, increasingly antiquated body until other, more forward-looking women stepped into her place. But for sheer persistence, intelligence and unswerving steadfastness, Eleanor May Moore was an admirable woman who should probably be better known today.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 April 2022

History of Rome Podcast Episode 123 The Tetrarachy We had two emperors before (Diocletian and Maximian) and now it was about to become four with the addition of Constantius and Galerius in 293AD. Mike Duncan makes the rather large claim that the years of the Tetrarachy were amongst the most important in Rome’s history, laying down the ground rules for late antiquity. It does, however, cause a narrative problem for Duncan as a podcaster, because now there are 4 centres of power. The self-elected ’emperor’ Carausius was still sitting over in Britain, but before Diocletian and Maximian could confront him, they needed to make sure that the Germanic tribes had been pacified first. However, Maximian failed to retake Britain in 289 AD. So who were these other new emperors: Constantius and Galerius? Constantius had married Maximian’s daughter, and we really don’t know much about Galerius. However, in 293 AD they were named as part of the Tetrarachy (although they didn’t call it that then) as junior partners. Constantius was given oversight of Gaul and Britain; Maximian had Spain, Africa and Italy; Galerius had responsibility for the Danube, and Diocletian concentrated on the Far East. However, these were not demarcated political units: Diocletian always emphasized unity.

Episode 124 The Tetrarachs at War sees Constantius embarking on the job of retaking Britain. It was a hard task, because Carausius was a very able ruler, and well supported. But not supported well enough, because he was assassinated by Allectus. During Maximian’s earlier attempt to take Britain, they landed in one place but this time Constantius landed his fleets in two places. Allectus didn’t have the popular support that Carausius had enjoyed, and the people were more frightened of the Franks than the Romans, so they were willingly reabsorbed back into the empire. Meanwhile, over on the Danube, Galerius was battling with the Sassanids, who were restive again and invaded Armenia and threatened Syria. The Romans were defeated at first. Diocletian had to leave the east to go to Egypt to quash a rebellion there, and Galerius had another go at the Sassanids in Armenia, and this time he had the last word.

Diocletian wrought many changes, but always with the aim of saving the old order, not introducing a new one. Episode 125 The Best Defence is a Good Defence starts off with a summary of the changes in the Roman military over time. From the citizen army, they had gone to the Maniple structure of fighting. Professional standing armies were introduced, but they mainly ended up fighting other Romans. Augustus introduced garrisons to protected what they had captured and Hadrian and Antoninus Pius built walls. From the 3rd century AD onwards, the numerical strength of invading forces outnumbered that of the Roman legions. So Diocletian introduced 4 changes: 1. He devised a ring of small militarized provinces around the empire 2. He separated the civilian and military career paths. No longer could you have a soldier emperor. Instead, there was a general and there was a governor- two men. 3. He divided the army into legions and static frontier militia. 4. instituted webs of defence across the empire (i.e. ‘defence in depth’) which would slow an opponent’s army down, causing it to lose memomentum although this argument, exemplified by Edward Luttwak’s work, is somewhat disputed and not well supported by archaeological evidence.

Rules Based Audio. This podcast is put out from the Lowy Institute. In Ukraine and the Future of the Rules Based Order, the presenter Ben Scott discusses the war in Ukraine and international law with Professor Fleur Johns and Dr Eve Massingham. They talk about the laws of war, economic sanctions, cyber operations, neutrality, international humanitarian law, and war crimes. Certainly it’s all more complex than it might appear at first. International law is just one tool that can be deployed in this situation, and even though it may not be particularly useful at the moment, it will bring accountability once hostilities have stopped, and will (hopefully) be useful in controlling behaviour in the future (e.g. Ukraine asking for guarantees of security). Cyber war is a new complication (i.e. it is not legal to give information to direct an attack), and sanctions using electronic banking is another new horizon. It was surprising to learn what is legal under international war, and what is not.

Patriarch Kirill (Wikimedia)

God Forbid (ABC) The March 20 episode Ukraine and Russia: religion and the politics of war is well worth listening to (and I did- three times, because I was listening to it in bed and I kept falling asleep!) With its own panel of speakers and drawing on interviews on other ABC radio programs, it looks at the Orthodox Church, Putin’s war against Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s support of Putin and the resultant dissent amongst Orthodox clerics. Christianity came to the East in 988 and after the 2014 ‘Revolution of Dignity’ which expelled the pro-Russian president, in 2018 the Archbishop of Constantinople (the Orthodox church still calls it that), Bartholemew I, recognized a distinct, self-governing Orthodox Church in Ukraine. A study of people who identify as Orthodox in Ukraine in 2020 found that 34% identified with the Orthodox Church in Ukraine; 14% with the Moscow Patriarch and 28% as neither. Recently 300 Orthodox Clerics in Belurus, Spain and inside Russia signed a letter condemning Kirill’s tacit support for the invasion, and refusing to mention his name or commemorate the Moscow Patriarchy in their services. The speakers point out that both Russia and Ukraine are multi-cultural countries- Russia, for example has 35 official languages- with sizeable Muslim populations. Ukraine also has a large Jewish minority (and indeed Kyev and Odessa were important Jewish centres historically) and the Ukraine Greek Catholic Church is also prominent. While there are anti-Semitic groups in Ukraine, they also operate throughout Europe and perhaps to a lesser extent in Ukraine than elsewhere. Well worth listening to- even three times!

Things Fell Apart (BBC) Episode 2: Dirty Books goes back to 1974 when a church minister’s wife in West Virginia challenged the board of education when they sent textbooks to support a new curriculum to her school. She read through all the books, and was offended by many things in them and encouraged other parents to join her in refusing them. But she may well have misinterpreted some of the things that offended her so much. Fast forward thirty years, and textbooks are still being challenged- this time for Critical Race Theory (in maths books, no less).

Emperors of Rome It’s Good Friday, so I thought that I would listen to the episode on Crucifixion. Episode CLXXXI Crucifixion, as you might expect, came with a content warning. Crucifixion was a much wider term than we might imagine, because people could be nailed to a stake, tree, plank etc and the ultimate cause of death was asphyxiation when it became too difficult to heave yourself up to breathe. It was a form of death only for slaves and enemies of Rome, not Roman citizens. Owners could crucify their slaves privately, or it could be a state punishment. As well as the gospels, which give a lot of detail, there are other sources as well: Seneca, Cicero, Josephus in written form, archaelogical evidence (e.g. an ankle bone in a Judea that had a nail through it), and graffiti. Crucifixion was formally abolished in 337 CE by Constantine, who felt that no ordinary mortal should die the same way as Jesus had done (not because it was a painful, cruel and slow death).

Australia If You’re Listening (ABC). Episode 2: How we became addicted to coal. I don’t know why I have been so slow to listen to each episode of this podcasts – perhaps because I thought I already knew all about it- but it really is excellent. The historian in me really liked this episode, which focusses on Newcastle, which was Australia’s first coal region. It deals with the coming and going of ‘the’ BHP (how quaint) (1915-1997) and Newcastle’s development into a coal port, even though the local coal was eventually exhausted. The program gives a really good description of the stagnation of the Australian economy as Australia, ‘the lucky country’, drifted into a heavily protected domestic economy that was only saved by the export of raw products like coal, especially to China. Historians featured include John Maynard from the University of Newcastle, and Judith Brett, author of the Quarterly Essay The Coal Curse (which I’m sure I have unopened on my bookshelf somewhere- might be time to open it.)

Travels Through Time In this episode The Last Emperor of Mexico, historian William Shawcross discusses Maximilian I of Mexico, who was appointed as Emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III as part of a French invasion of Mexico. After the Mexican War of Independence between 1810 and 1821 and Spain’s final relinquishment in 1836, there were still a lot of royalists in Mexico. After being wupped by the United States in the Mexican-American war in 1848, these royalists approached Archduke Maximilian of Austria, a stereotypical second son to become emperor of Mexico. In 1863, he consented to do so at the request of Napoleon III. William Shawcross chooses 1867 as his year of interest, starting on 13 February 1867 as Maximilian rides out with his Mexican troops (and not his far more experienced, European troops) to confront the guerrilla fighters led by General Benito Juarez. On May 15 1867, Querétaro. Maximilian is cornered in a shell-shattered former convent, beseiged by the Mexican guerillas, getting ready to break out. By 19 June 1867, it was all over, with Maximilian under arrest in another convent in Querétaro another convent, and -spoiler alert- executed by firing squad.

‘Song of Solomon’ by Toni Morrison

1977, (reprinted 2016)
416 p.

I have read this book twice and both times, to my regret, I have failed to write about it in any detail immediately after reading it. Perhaps it’s because the book itself is so complex and masterful that I have barely known where to start. I still don’t. There were more than twenty years between my two readings, so on my re-reading, it was as if I were coming to the book for the first time. I was just as impressed the second time as I had been the first. After reading some pretty mediocre writing recently, it was like handing myself over to someone who can really write. I love books that have a circular structure, where the actions in the opening pages are mirrored in the last. The book opens with Robert Smith, the insurance agent, jumping from the roof of Mercy Hospital in 1931, and it ends with Macon Dead Jr. making his own leap. In between these two flights, Morrison takes us on a Quest novel from the northern states of America to the south in Virginia – the opposite direction to the flight from slavery- and across American history from Reconstruction through to the Civil Rights movement.

The book is too complex, and too much time has elapsed for me to write about it. Suffice to say that it is a book that merits reading and re-reading and reading once again. It combines magic realism with real-life historical events; it is a meditation on naming and the loss of names; it reflects folk-knowledge and music- there is just so much here, layer upon layer. It is magnificent.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Readings. My own print copy

Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle March 2022 book.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1 April-8 April

Axios – How it Happened More Ukraine. Putins Invasion III: How It Could End. In part three, Axios World editor Dave Lawler examines a difficult reality — that the only clear path to peace in Ukraine is a deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but the red lines drawn by the Russian and Ukrainian leaders do not intersect. This episode features interviews with Zelensky’s chief of staff, a member of Parliament in his party, two close observers of Putin and the Kremlin, and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine with decades of diplomatic experience in the region. The interviewees point out that Zelensky is very ideological, a good listener, but that you can’t pressure him. They point out that legally, Ukraine’s borders can only be altered via referendum (and the Ukranian people are not likely to vote for that). Putin cannot win, but Zelensky will not accept Putin’s terms. Putin’s best hope is to exhaust Ukraine and the interest of the west. Something, they all agree, will have to change.

History of Rome Podcast Episode 121 Phase Three Complete sees the mop-up before Diocletian comes on the scene. Mike Duncan starts off this episode, reflecting that people who were born during the Severin epoch had only know the chaos of the 3rd century when emperors came and went in regular succession. They didn’t realize that they were just about to turn the corner. We don’t really know much about Carus and his two sons Carinus and Numerian. Carus was about 60 years old, and he had been a Praetorian Prefect. Realizing that he couldn’t spread himself across the empire, he sent his son Carinus to Rome and he headed to Persia to fight the Sassanids with his other son, Numerian. It was a good time to attack Persia because the Persians had just committed most of their troops to invading Afghanistan. Carus died: struck by lightning, they said, as a punishment for straying too far outside of the empire. His son Numerian, spooked perhaps by this theory, withdrew back to the borders, even though they were beating the Persians. His sons had a brief reign until Diocles came on the scene. Apparently he was a real back-room operator. There had been a prophesy that Diocles would only become emperor when he killed a boar, and this came true when he executed the Praetorian Prefect Aper for murdering Carus’ son Numerian. ‘Aper’ means ‘wild boar’, although historians dispute this story as being ridiculous. But hey- lots of things here are ridiculous. Diocles changed his name to the more regal-sounding Diocletian and began bad-mouthing Carinus. He was about to battle Carinus, but Carinus (conveniently) died. Episode 122 Jupiter and Hercules As a back-room political operator, Diocletian had actually thought about the empire, instead of having it thrust upon him. He decided that there would be no Senatorial purges, but he also decided that he would side-line the Senate altogether. He decided that there had to be two Emperors, so he appointed Maximian to rule over the West as co-emperor with Diocletian who would rule the East. Maximian was a soldier, and so not a political threat to Diocletian. However General Carausius, who had been appointed in charge of operations against pirates on the Saxon coast, went rogue, proclaimed himself Augustus and set himself up in Britain. Diocletian came across to the West to bolster Maximian’s troops. To boost their authority, Maximian also took up the title of Augustus, and then Diocletian appealed to the heavens for legitimacy (much as Augustus had done), thus laying the foundation for Divine Right for the next 1500 years. He claimed that he had been appointed by Jupiter himself, and Diocletian assumed the title Iovius, and Maximian assumed the title Herculius.

The History Hour (BBC) usually has a couple of stories on different topics but in this episode Ukranian History Special, they concentrate on events in Ukraine’s history. It is really good. It starts with the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986 and the tardiness of the government response. It moves on to the Budapest agreement where the international community – including both Russia and the USA – offered security “assurances” to Ukraine in return for giving up its share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Then there is a survivor’s account of Ukraine’s great famine in the 1930s, the Holodomor, when several million people died (although she was very young- about 3. I’m not too sure about the fidelity of the memories of a three year old). It moves to the mass killing of Ukrainian Jews by Nazi Germany during World War Two- noting the irony that Putin has used ‘anti-Nazi’ as a justification for invasion. Finally, in an abrupt change of pace, the episode finishes with how Artek, on the shores of the Black Sea in Crimea, became the Soviet Union’s most popular holiday camp. Really worth listening to.

In Our Time (BBC). I thought that In Our Time must have finished, because I couldn’t find it on Stitcher but then I discovered that you can access it through BBC Sounds. Old Melvyn Bragg is sounding older and more slurred. I’ve never read any Walter Benjamin (and in fact, for half the podcast I had him mixed up with Isaiah Berlin). He was an academic, but he styled himself as a critic of what was then the modern media. Born in Germany, from the late 1920s he led a mobile life living in Russia, Italy and France. He was not interested in writing about the past as it was, but seeing it in terms of the questions of the present. Notably, in his Arcades Project, he looked into the past of Paris to understand the modern age and, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, examined how the new media of film and photography enabled art to be politicised, and politics to become a form of art. As a German Jew, he was fearful of the rise of Hitler and was interned in Paris and although, because of his eminence he had an entry visa to America, but he could not get an exit visit. Although in very poor health, he decided to walk from France to Spain but, in very poor health and realizing he wouldn’t make it, he committed suicide on the way. Most of his work was published posthumously and taken up by the 1960s counter culture. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction greatly influenced John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and is even more apposite given the rise of digital cameras everywhere in galleries and museums and NFTs.

History of Ideas- Talking Politics. I started listening to this ages ago and just stumbled over it again on my ‘Favourites’ list. David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge (and not, as I thought, the Archbishop of Canterbury) goes through the major political works starting with Hobbes. I listened to Hobbes and Wollstonecraft but then skipped a few because I was interested in Marx and Engels on Revolution. This was the best description of Marx and Engels’ ideas that I’ve heard. He points out that where Hobbes saw revolution as the problem, Marx and Engels saw it as the solution. The ideas of revolution in The Communist Manifesto were not taken up at all in 1848 (although they wrote it in a hurry because they hoped that they would be), and their ideas in their death throes during WWI when it turned out that the workers of the world did not unite but instead fought each other. However the Russian Revolution in 1917 vindicated them, and the fortunes of the book have waxed and waned ever since. They point out that the state will always be in crisis, and that in replacing the people who run the state, there will inevitably be violence. Revolution has to be international, and that has not happened (and in current events, is not likely to do so). Runciman considers that the most successful revolutions were in East Germany and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the 90s. He points out that both 1848 and the Arab Spring were short term failures, but they did have an impact on democracy later (I think that the Arab Spring has yet to show results). He questions whether class today is as important as Marx and Engels thought, suggesting that education level (albeit related to class) and age (youth) are more important on voting patterns.

Things Fell Apart (BBC) This is a terrific series about the culture wars, and things that make you scream at the television. One Thousand Dolls is about the beginning of the culture wars over abortion in America. Until the 1970s, anti-abortion was a Roman Catholic thing, but Frank Schaeffer, the son of an influential Christian art historian, talked his father into adding an anti-abortion segment into his art history films. Although poorly received, he decided to make a highly emotive Christian film against abortion, and it came to influence many anti-abortions including James Kopp, who murdered Barnett Slepian, an American physician from Amherst, New York who performed abortions. He has since distanced himself from the anti-abortion movement. Really interesting.

‘The Shortest History of the Soviet Union’ by Sheila Fitzpatrick

2022, 256p.

On 24 February Russia invaded Ukraine. On 1 March, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s small volume ‘The Shortest History of the Soviet Union’ was released. Although I’m sure that she takes no pleasure at all in this turn of events (indeed, you can read Fitzpatrick’s response here) – could there possibly be a better time to launch such a book? After all, we had all seen Vladimir Putin’s version of history during his speech given two days before the launch of the “special military action” where he declared Ukraine “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space”. He blamed Lenin for the creation of modern Ukraine, with further gifts of territory by Stalin and Kruschev. Was any of this true? For those of us with sketchy knowledge of Russian and Soviet history, a small book on the Soviet Union is just what we need- and here it is.

Although the book spans the years 1922 to 1991, Fitzpatrick starts her book in 1980 in Brezhnev’s Russia, when a Conference of American Sovietologists confidently proclaimed that the Soviet Union would not become a political democracy, nor would it collapse, in the forseeable future. They were wrong. Within ten years it was gone. The abruptness of this development reflects Fitzpatrick’s stance that in history (certainly in the Soviet Union, and perhaps generally) there are few inevitabilities.

Historians’ narratives tend, by their nature, to make events seem inevitable….But this is not my intention with this Shortest History. My view is that there are as few inevitabilities in human history as there are in the individual lives that compose it. Things could always have turned out differently but for accidental encounters and global cataclysms, deaths, divorces and pandemics


Even though the Russian Revolutionaries thought that they had history taped, with everything under control and a firm view of what to expect:

The many ‘accidental’ changes of course and ‘spontaneous’ diversions along the way were simply irrelevant to this grand scheme, although they will play a large part in my Shortest History. They were not irrelevant to the life of people living in the Soviet Union, of course, and the gap between official rhetoric and lived experience was the stuff of the distinctively Soviet genre of political jokes (anekdoty) that bubbled under the surface as a constant, irreverent commentary. The contrast between ‘in principle’ (a stock Soviet phrase provoking immediate distrust, like ‘frankly’ in the West) and ‘in practice’ was one of the staples of the Soviet anekdot.


In her book, Fitzgerald illustrates this contrast between ‘in principle’ and ‘in practice’ and the place of happenstance and unexpected events throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Indeed it’s there right from the opening line of the first chapter:

The Russian Revolution was meant to spark off revolution throughout Europe. But that plan didn’t work, and what was left was a revolutionary state in Russia- the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) with Moscow as its capital


In principle, the Mensheviks should have taken control of the revolution: in practice the Bolsheviks did. In principle, workers of the world should have united behind the revolution: in practice, they kept fighting WWI. In principle, the proletariat should have led the uprising: in practice, the party had to do it for them. In principle, the peasants should have gladly handed over their land for collective farming: in practice, the state had to embark on dekulakization. In principle, glasnost and perestroika should have renewed and strengthened communism: in practice it shook it to the core. In principle, capitalism should have failed: in practice, it was USSR that failed.

There are seven chapters in the book, and a final conclusion. True to the name, the book deals with the Soviet Union, not Tsarist Russia which preceded it and it goes up to the fall of the Soviet Union. The conclusion deals with post-USSR events and the string of acronyms for the shifting constellation of allegiances afterwards.


  1. Making the Union
  2. The Lenin Years and the Succession Struggle
  3. Stalinism
  4. War and Its Aftermath
  5. From ‘Collective Leadership’ to Khrushchev
  6. The Brezhnev Period
  7. The Fall


One of the things that this book reinforced for me is that ‘Russia’ is not the same as ‘Soviet Union’, even though I have tended to use the two terms interchangeably. Putin’s claim that Ukraine was invented by Lenin is based on the fact that, yes, the Bolsheviks did encourage nationalism in Ukraine and the other regions because they realized that it was impossible to eradicate it (hence acknowledging a pre-existing Ukrainian identity) and because the Russian core of the government did not want to be seen as, or act, as another version of the Tsarist Russian empire. Despite this, the other soviet states often complained of Russian chauvinism. The ‘Russia’ we see today really is Russia, with the old imperial two-headed eagle reinstated as a state symbol, and the restoration of the Orthodox church. Related to this is Putin’s admiration for Stalin as a nation builder and the hero of WWII. I hadn’t realized how much WWII has been engraved into the present-day Russian psyche.

Because so much of this story is party-political, it tends to be a rather top-down history with an emphasis on powerful men jostling for more power. The book broadens its emphasis from the Brezhnev era on, presumably because this is within living memory and as a researcher Sheila Fitzpatrick herself had more access to social history and personal observation (see my review of her memoir A Spy in the Archives). Here we see more women, and more everyday life.

I couldn’t help but read this book with an eye on Ukraine. Some of Russia’s recent actions make more sense to me now, even though I continue to condemn them. I hadn’t realized that Crimea was such a recent addition to Ukraine, having been handed over in 1954 by Khrushchev, who was born near the present Ukraine/Russian border and had been head of the Communist Party of Ukraine. I hadn’t realized that Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formed the core of Commonwealth of Independent States after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 – no wonder Ukraine is a hot-button country as far as Russia is concerned. Not excusable, but perhaps understandable.

Which is why, when we are increasingly sceptical of what we see and hear, a book like The Shortest History of the Soviet Union is so valuable. It is very readable, and it breathes life and colour into the greyness of the Soviet Union as it has been depicted to us. Fitzpatrick’s own sense of humour in distinguishing ‘in principle’ from ‘in practice’ is a light touch, and there is no false modesty in hiding her own contribution to Soviet history in the bibliography. And if ever there was a time to read this book, it is right now.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: review copy from Black Inc.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 March 2022

History of Rome Episode 118 The Palmyrene Wars brings Zenobia onto centre stage. How have I gone my whole life without hearing about Zenobia?

Zenobia on a coin. Source: Wikimedia

She was the widow of Odaenathus of Palmyra and after his assassination she stepped right in. She took Egypt, Syria and part of Anatolia, each time paying lip service to the Roman emperor but really ruling in her own right. At first she minted coins with the emperor on one side and her image (the only images we have of her) on the other but she soon gave up the pretence and minted coins with herself and her son depicted. Aurelian finally decided that he needed to deal with her. Aurelian’s reputation as a hard man preceded him, and most of the Eastern cities recently annexed by Zenobia just capitulated, fearing what was to come. But to everyone’s surprise, because of a dream in which the 1st century philosopher Apollonius begged him not to shed the blood of the innocent, Aurelian did not go round sacking cities. This was a master stroke because it meant that cities did not fear surrendering to him. He regained Syria and Egypt and went on to Palmyra, where Zenobia and her son had fled, seeking assistance. Aurelian’s troops captured her there, but he wanted her for a triumph back in Rome. In Episode 119- Restitutor Orbis, Zenobia might have been captured, but the leading men of Palmyra regretted capitulating so meekly and so they fomented rebellion, forcing Aurelian to return for a second time to quash the insurgency. He was pissed off this time, and while not killing everyone (Apollonius’ advice still stood firm) he levelled the city and shifted the trade route, which is why Palmyra is in ruins today. Aurelian then turned his attention to the Gallic Empire, which he regained after some sort of arrangement with the ‘Gallic Emperor’ Tetricus. Always conscious of the need to keep the soldiers paid, Aurelian increased the number of mints issuing coins, but kept central control. Now that he had both Palmyra and the Gallic Empire under his belt, he finally had his triumph back in Rome, where he was proclaimed Restitutor Orbis (Restorer of the World). Not just the world: he restored Sol Invictus as God too (shades of Elagabalus) hoping to institute one faith across the empire. This was to make it easier when Constantine had the same strategy. Despite his triumph in bringing the empire back together again during his largely successful five-year reign, Aurelian was assassinated by his generals, who immediately regretted it. Episode 120- Interregnum sees neither the army nor the Senate wanting to nominate a successor to Aurelian. After all, emperors seemed to have a short shelf-life and there was a good chance that their sponsors would end up assassinated too. After Aurelian’s death, an old Senator named Marcus Cluadius Tacitus briefly reigned before the throne fell to Probus, who ruled from 276-282. Barbarian invasions continued but he was happy to accept the surrender of German tribes as long as they disarmed and dispersed – a policy that was followed until the Huns came on the scene. There was relative peace during his reign, but this led to unemployment among the soldiers, and so they assassinated him too. He was followed by Carus who reigned from 282 to 283, followed by his sons Carinus and Numerian. Carinus seemed to have been a lecherous tyrant, and Numerian suffered a smelly death. Finally Diocletian took over, and he was to overhaul the Empire completely.

Soul Search There’s an interesting episode in Gods: from Ancient Greece to the Antipodes The first part of the program ties in with the current exhibition Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. There is a discussion about the role of fate and destiny in the Greek world, where the gods were ever-present and capricious, and the cultural reach of Greek mythology. It’s following by a discussion of Rev. Charles Strong’s Australian Church, which it just happens I spoke about at our Unitarian Fellowship last week.

Ben Franklin’s World I saw a reference recently to Caitlyn Fitz’s book Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (1775-1825) which looks at the relationship between the newly-independent US and the different countries in Latin America which achieved independence from Spain and Portugal. She is interviewed in a rather muddily-recorded Episode 90 Caitlyn Fitz Age of American Revolutions : surely the sound could be better than this! She points out that Spain and Portugal arrived in Latin America a century before British Settlement in North America, and the Spanish and Portuguese empires lasted longer in a continent that was ten times larger than the Continental States that constituted the United States at that time. When Napoleon was engaged in the Peninsula War, a vacuum in power opened up amongst the Spanish colonies, and made space for revolution. After North Americans emerged after the 1820s war, they looked around and decided that they were quite supportive of the revolutions in Latin America, although this didn’t extend to financial support. Even amongst slave-owning states, there was support for gradual abolition, even though there had been horror at the Haiti revolution. When asked to speculate on what would have happened if the French Revolution hadn’t happened, Fitz suggests that the independence movements probably wouldn’t have arisen, but would have instead been channelled into constitutional reform.

History This Week I recently finished reading Anna Sebba’s book Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy so I was interested to listen to this episode Ethel Rosenberg’s Day in Court. If you’re not likely to read the book, then listen to this instead. It has interviews with Sebba and Ethel Rosenberg’s son Robert Meeropol, who says that despite losing his parents, he is glad that he was not his uncle David Greenglass’ son.