Monthly Archives: July 2022

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

History of Rome. I can’t believe it- I’m nearly at the end! Episode 162 Opening the Floodgates sees Flavius Claudius Constantinus, a Roman general who rose to power in Brittania, declaring himself Constantine III (even though he was no relation to the other Constantines), overthrowing Gratian and taking all his troops to Gaul (bad mistake) where the Barbarians were running amok. Although we talk about ‘The Barbarians’, they were not a single group, and Constantine was able to pick off some of the Barbarian leaders. Stilicho was ordered by Honorius to go after Constantine, which also diverted attention away from the Barbarian threat. Alaric, the Goth general, and his troops had been dispensed with after the death of Arbogast, although he was able to demand and receive compensation. Meanwhile, Arcadius in Constantinople died, leaving a vacancy because his son Theodosis II was too young. There were rumours that Stilicho was angling to get control of Constantinople, and Honorius believed those rumours. There was a revolt and Stilico, the Vandal, was executed – one of the last few competent leaders.

Meanwhile in Episode 163 Theodosius’ Walls we return to the eastern part of the empire. The Eastern provinces were more stable than the western ones and the truce with the Sassanids held. Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia reigned, but as a weak emperor, he was strongly influenced by the Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. John was very devout, very ascetic and very critical of Eudoxia. Eudoxia tried to get John banished, but mob unrest and an untimely earthquake meant that he was brought back. She succeeded the next time she tried to get him banished, but then she died of a pregnancy-related illness. Into the power vacuum stepped the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius. His legacy lives on in the Theodosian Walls that he constructed, comprising three layers of stone wall, each taller than the next, to repel invaders from Constantinople. Enough of the East- let’s go back to the messy West. With Stilicho dead, Olympius stepped in to the vacancy and ordered the murder of the Goths, who fled to Alaric and boosted the numbers in his army. Alaric invaded Italy (the Romans were too scared to confront them) and went straight to Rome, more as a bargaining chip to ensure his recognition within the Empire, rather than with a view to sacking Rome (at this stage). When Honorius and Olympius refused, Alaric invaded Rome again, so Honorius decided to recognize the usurper Constantine III to bolster his forces. Alaric lessened his demands but was refused again, so he went back a third time. He chose Priscus Attalus to be ’emperor’ (something not really within his power to do) and this time he really did sack Rome.

Episode 164- The Sack of Rome. So Constantine III found himself recognized as an emperor at last, but there was rebellion in Spain and Britain went its own way once Constantine left, taking all his troops with him. There was a battle between Constantine and Honorius, which Honorius won. Alaric was forced to depose his hand-picked Attalus, who was getting too big for his boots- but he’ll be back. And so we come to the sack of Rome, which was last sacked 800 years ago. It wasn’t a complete scorched-earth type sack: Alaric was a Christian, just like Honorius was, and he declared churches and the people sheltering in them off-limits for any wanton sacking. The people of Rome were plunged into despair, and many became refugees, leaving only 20,000 people in Rome by the Middle Ages. Alaric went to North Africa for grain supplies (that his ‘friend’ Attalus had been holding out on) but a storm caused him to turn back. In 410 Alaric died and his brother Ataulf took over. Meanwhile Constantius III (a general under Honorius) was appointed in 411 to take down Constantine III (really, this is getting too confusing for words). Constantine III found himself beseiged by Constantius, and he surrendered when promised that he could live. Tricked you!- they killed him anyway. This left Constantius III but new usurpers were popping up in a game of whack-a-mole, and the Goths were heading for Ravenna.

Rear Vision (ABC) Papua New Guinea’s Elections. It has been disturbing to the see the violence in PNG during their recent elections. But what a challenge- the elections take place over three weeks, there are literally hundreds of different languages, and electors vote for the ‘big man’ in their village, or people who are linked to them by locality or family. The political system is based on the Westminster system, but the elections have been becoming increasingly corrupted. There are no parties as such, united by policy priorities, but instead they have shifting coalitions of interests.

Rough Translation (NPR) Miles to Go Before I’m Me looks at female long-haul truck drivers in America. Jess Graham started truck driving with her 10 year old daughter, in order to escape an abusive domestic relationship. Eventually she kept driving, without her daughter, but found that it was a lonely job, and the tolerance and friendship towards her that her young daughter had attracted, had dissipated. Meanwhile Brandie Diamond, another long-haul driver, found the mobility made it possible for her to transition – although being ‘outed’ by another truck driver expedited her decision to live as a transsexual.

History Extra Fifteen minutes of fame: Marie Tharp. You’ve never heard of her either? Born in 1920, she was an American-born geologist and ocean cartographer, and she was the person who proposed the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics, radical ideas at the time. She was working in a male-dominated profession where her name was mysteriously omitted from jointly-written research papers. she was not allowed to go on research ships, and so she had to work on-shore analysing data collected by her colleague Bruce Heezen with whom she had a love/hate relationship professionally. She has received more recognition posthumously than she received while she was alive.


The Latin American Podcast. I haven’t listened to this podcast in ages, and when I returned to it, I found that it has been discontinued since 2021. I wonder what happened? Anyway, the The Conquest of Peru Part I starts off by pointing out that Spanish colonization depended on individuals who proposed expeditions in order to enrich themselves and then gathered the funding. They were often from the Army and had served on other expeditions before heading off on their own. This episode introduces Diego de Almagro, Hernando de Luque and of course Francisco Pizarro – who is the best known of the three. Episode 2 Westwards goes through the two previous expeditions from Panama. The first retraced the footsteps of Pascual de Andagoya who had had to abandon his expedition from Panama after falling into a river and becoming seriously ill. This expedition sailed down the coast of Colombia, but had to be abandoned because they ran out of supplies. His second expedition also went south, where Pizarro met a tribe that had been conquered by the Incas. His expedition was thwarted by the new Governor of Panama so Pizzaro went back to the King, who gave him six months to raise the manpower he needed. He had to inveigle his two brothers into the group of 180 who sailed off, not strictly within his charter. Almagro and de Luque, who were waiting back in Panama, distrusted Pizzaro, suspecting him for having presented himself as the leader and downplaying their role. (Which he probably did)

Revisiting Ruth Park’s ‘The Harp in the South’

The Harp in the South was the July selection for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle. I read all three books in the trilogy back in 2010 and had read The Harp in the South (the first written but second book in the trilogy) decades before that. So this book and I go back quite a way.

At the Ivanhoe Reading Circle, it is the practice for one or two people present a paper on the book under discussion (and after tracing through the 102 year old history of this book group – Melbourne’s oldest- I can tell you that this was exactly the procedure they followed back in 1920 too). The first of the papers was about Ruth Park’s own biography and the writing of The Harp in the South. She was Catholic herself, and had had a Catholic education. She grew up in New Zealand, but on shifting to Australia in 1942 and marrying, she and her husband lived for a time in Surry Hills in Sydney. It was this experience that she drew on in 1946 when writing The Harp in the South as an entry in a writing competition with the Sydney Morning Herald. It was published in twelve daily installments in the newspaper, and attracted both criticism and praise for its depiction of slum life, right from the start. It was reluctantly published by Angus & Robinson as part of the prize.

The second paper dealt more closely with the book, and opened it up for discussion. It is rather confronting reading of the prejudice towards Chinese and Indigenous people, and the words with which it is expressed in this book, but the group felt that it was realistic for the time. (Indeed, I would suggest, today. Didn’t one of the Royal Family express concern about the colour of the Royal Baby when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle?- just as Mumma did in this book when Roie married the indigenous Charlie). Indeed, the title itself which references the Irish immigration to Australia, and Park reminds us that Surry Hills contained people of many cultures. Despite cringe-inducing slang, she treats these characters with respect and nuance.

Some of the group felt that the book lacked plot, but others would describe it as ‘domestic realism’. For myself, it was the lack of plot that appealed to me. People who didn’t enjoy it were even more repelled by the tidy ending. I must confess that I found the ending rather too saccharine as well.

The group had read Shuggie Bain last month, and several people mentioned similarities and differences between the two. Both involved dire poverty and alcohol, but in Harp it is Mumma who holds the family together instead of dragging it down with her. Some readers noted the Irish Catholic fatalism of that time which made a virtue of lack of aspiration. This was not a feature of 1980s Glasgow in Shuggie Bain: in fact, there is a sense of grievance and thwarted ‘effluence’ (to quote Kath and Kim) in the more recent book.

For me, reading this book in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on abortion made me even more aware of just how regressive this decision is. Even though Park took the narrative easy way out in her book, she still captured well the fear and desperation that drove women to backyard abortionists in a time when there was no other choice. I had to remind myself, too, that in 1946 this book would have been writing about contemporary lives, not history. Indeed much of the criticism of the book was her depiction of slums at a time when many people declared there were no slums in Sydney. Not so – the book is credited (for better or worse) for driving the slum clearance movement in Sydney. I appreciated the historical detail that was conveyed almost in passing – for example, in describing rubbish collection when Dolour picked up a paste brooch- having found myself trying to investigate this in 1920s Heidelberg.

Anyway, I loved this book just as much on this third reading as I did on the first. The discussion of Ruth Park tempts me to read her autobiography A Fence Around the Cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993). Just add it to the pile.

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

History of Rome Episode 159 The Divine Winds. Arbogast, Theodosius and Eugenius finally confronted each other at the Battle of the Frigidus River in 394 CE. Arbogast and Eugenius’ troops wore pagan symbols (perhaps- all of the information for this is pretty dicey) but it was not a religious war- it was about power. Arbogast had taken control of the terrain, and Theodosius’ troops were restive because the Goths who made up their ranks felt that they had been used as cannon fodder. It all looked as if Theodosius was doomed until the Bora winds blew up, making it hard for Arbogast and Eugenius’ troops to fight because it was blowing directly into their faces. Eugenius was captured and executed, and Arbogast did the right thing and committed suicide, which left Theodosius the last emperor standing. He was staunchly anti-pagan, so the Altar of Victory disappeared at this time, never to reappear. However, in mid 395 Theodosius died, leaving his 16 year old son Arcadius and 11 year old son Honorius in charge. They were too young to rule in their own right, so they were being manipulated by advisors- Stilicho and Rufinis the Pretorian Prefect. How to judge Theodosius? Well, he wasn’t truly great, and as an anti-pagan, he allowed Bishop Ambrose a degree of autonomy which was to set up relations between church and state for centuries. His decision to deal with the Goths through diplomacy saved the Empire, but it had serious consequences.

Episode 160 East Vs West Rufinis was assassinated by local enemies, and Arcadius’ wife Eudoxia was becoming more powerful than her weak husband. Now the empire was divided three ways: East, West and Constantinople. Taking advantage of the power vacuum, there was a Visigoth uprising in 395, led by Alaric. Meanwhile a Berber General in North Africa, Gildo, was a supporter of Theodosius and he began withholding grain shipments. Stilicho, who was by now Honorius’ father-in-law used Gildo’s brother Mascezel to fight against him (the two brothers were enemies) Gildo committed suicide and the eunuch Eutropius, another court official, had himself declared consul. Arcadius just disappears from the scene. Really, I’m losing track of all this. Suffice to say Arcadius and Honorius are too weak as emperors, and the officials are taking advantage of it.

Episode 161 The Swamps of Ravenna. In 402 Alaric, leader of the Goths goes on the offensive and crosses the Alps unchallenged because the Western troops were engaged elsewhere. He mounted a siege of Milan, not because he thought he would succeed, but to spook Honorius. This worked, and Stilicho moved the seat of the western court from Milan to Ravenna where it was surrounded by swamps. And then the Huns and Allamani were on the move again – the Barbarians are at the gate!!

File on 4 (BBC) Ukraine: War Stories was released on 15 March 2022 and so it captures the early weeks of the war on Ukraine. The BBC has arranged for ‘ordinary people’ to record audio diaries on their phones as their cities are bombed and families torn apart. So we hear model and dancer Mari Margun in Chernihiv who starts off confidently, but becomes increasingly shattered as the bombs fall; we hear a young woman just about to give birth, crowded into the basement of a maternity hospital; we hear of a young beautician learning to fire an AK47- the only weapon she has ever held; we hear a doctor reluctant to leave the children’s hospital until all the children are taken care of, and we hear the fear of families being separated with some desperate to leave, others too frightened to leave.

New Books Network. I subscribe to several feeds on the New Books Network, and I noticed on the Australian and New Zealand section that Marilyn Lake had recorded an interview on Nov 16 2021 about her not-so-new book Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform. I was rather startled that it appeared on the ‘New Books in Native American Studies’ section, with an American interviewer who seemed rather unprepared to discuss anything other than the American connections in the book. It’s one of those books that I know I should read, but probably won’t- and at $61.00 it has always been prohibitively expensive. (It is available as an e-book at SLV). This interview sums up the book pretty well, I think. She starts the interview talking about progressivism, which was embraced by both Australia and U.S. who saw themselves as ‘new’ countries (dispossession of 60,000 year old custodianship in Australia notwithstanding) with a strong political subjectivity of seeing themselves as white, pioneering men (largely) on the frontier. Exclusion was built into progressivism, and in Australia’s case it was baked into a form of state socialism and maternalism. Her book examines progressivism through particular individuals like Charles Pearson and Alfred Deakin, and the challenge that rose in both US and Australia in the early 20th century when indigenous people challenged progressivism to recognize cultural difference and the importance of the past, using the language of Woodrow Wilson’s ‘self-determination’.

Strong Songs. When I realized it was July, I wondered if there was going to be a Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever in Melbourne this year because I was interested in doing it (lack of fitness, complete inability to dance and sore knees permitting). Short answer- not on 31 July, when it seems to be held elsewhere. This started me thinking about what a complex song Wuthering Heights is, but I lack the music theory to explain why. So I turned to Kirk Hamilton’s recent episode on Wuthering Heights, which he actually recorded some time ago but has repeated because of the recent success of ‘Running Up That Hill’. It’s a very American-centric recording (he had barely heard of Kate Bush) and he had never read Wuthering Heights. Nonetheless, he gives a good breakdown of the instrumentation and musical shifts in the song, using terminology far beyond me. Actually, I’ve never been able to understand the words in Kate Bush’s song when she sang it, and when I looked at them more carefully, it’s hard to believe that it was written by an 18 year old:

Out on the wily, windy moors /We’d roll and fall in green
You had a temper like my jealousy /Too hot, too greedy

How could you leave me /When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you, too

Bad dreams in the night /They told me I was going to lose the fight
Leave behind my Wuthering, Wuthering,Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy /I’ve come home, I’m so cold/ Let me in your window

Ooh, it gets dark, it gets lonely/ On the other side from you
I pine a lot, I find the lot/ Falls through without you

I’m coming back love, cruel Heathcliff
My one dream, my only master

Too long I roam in the night/ I’m coming back to his side to put it right
I’m coming home to Wuthering, Wuthering Wuthering Heights

Ooh, let me have it/ Let me grab your soul away
Ooh, let me have it/ Let me grab your soul away
You know it’s me, Cathy

Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy/ I’ve come home, I’m so cold /Let me in your window

‘Booth’ by Karen Joy Fowler

2022, 466 p.

As it happens, I have read two historical novels in fairly close succession. In the first, The Birth House, I felt that the plot was being driven by the desire to draw in as much historical detail as possible. In this second book, Booth, there is the opposite scenario: fidelity to the events and personalities has meant that plot development is slow and measured. The events of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are well-known (probably much more to American readers than to Australian ones) and the author’s intent here is to widen her lens to look at the family of John Wilkes Booth and the effect of his radicalization and its resultant crime on the Booth family more broadly. Much like Jacinda Ardern’s refusal to name the Christchurch terrorist, Karen Joy Fowler does not dwell on the assassination as such, but more the events leading up to and following on from it.

The book also clearly locates itself in the present day, although it is only in the Afterword and Acknowledgments that she identifies Donald Trump by name. But the first of the Lincoln-related chapters starts with an epigraph from Lincoln himself asking Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch will at some stage spring up amongst us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. (p. 5) The theme of political violence, both through civil war and through the acts of an individual, throbs underneath the book.

The historical John Wilkes Booth is not the only Booth in this story. Instead, it is the whole family of Booths- father and sons. It opens with Junius Booth who emigrates with his family to Baltimore where he becomes a celebrated Shakespearean actor. Several of his sons follow in his footsteps: June, a rather unsuccessful actor; John Wilkes who was to become (in)famous for other reasons; and Edwin, who becomes the most famous and wealthy of them all, although for many years in his father’s shadow. Joe, the youngest son, is the only one not to follow his father’s theatrical career. Rosalie, his eldest daughter never marries and finds herself subject to her brothers’ plans and domestic arrangements, while her sister Asia does marry and has several children. The family itself displays different political leanings (shades of Trumpism here too) with the increasing radicalization of John in the face of his siblings’ varying degrees of support for Lincoln and abolition. Each member of the family was affected differently by John’s actions. All are shunned, with instant career implications for the brothers who were working as actors. Some family members blamed themselves, or each other, and all distanced themselves from the assassination.

The narrative intertwines the stories of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth as they both move towards the assassination that we know will happen by the end of the book. There is an irregular structure within the Booth stories. At times the narrative just flows chronologically, but at other times the author takes each family member in turn to explore events from their perspective (but still with omniscient narrator voice). I found this inconsistency rather annoying: I prefer a structure to be sustained throughout. There are many small chapters- rather too many for my liking- headed with a roman numeral, evoking a 19th century novel. The narrative is in the present tense, which worked well in highlighting the contingent and unfolding nature of events.

As she explains in the afterword, Fowler has blended fact and fiction. The Booth family has been much researched, both at the time in trying to make sense of the assassination, and later in historicizing it. Rosalie as the eldest daughter was the least defined historically, which gave author greatest scope for invention, albeit within the constraints of the spinster daughter role.

Karen Joy Fowler is explicit in her linking Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of Donald Trump. Would the book work just as well without these current-day references? I suspect that it would, although I wonder how a pro-Trump reader would react to her clearly anti-Trump stance. As it is, it is a well-researched fictionalized telling of a family story that wears its research lightly, but subjects itself to the constraints of facts in its plot. For me, this is historical fiction with fidelity.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 July 2022

Bernardino Alvarez, founder of the Hospital de San Hipólito. Source: Juan Díaz de Arce, Libro de la vida del próximo evangelico, el venerable padre Bernardino Alvarez (Mexico: 1762).

New Books in Latin American Studies. Bedlam in the New World. Most of the books in this podcast are academic texts published in the US, and not likely to be readily available in Australia – and if they are, they are usually prohibitively expensive. So this podcast is a good way of becoming familiar with the books without reading them. Christina Ramos was originally a historian of science and medicine and it sounds as if she was rather railroaded into Latin American history. Bedlam in the New World: A Mexican Madhouse in the Age of Enlightenment tells the story of Mexico City’s oldest public institution for the insane, the Hospital de San Hipólito, founded in 1567 by the Catholic Church. It finally closed in 1910 when a secular asylum was opened. Other historians and theorists have spoken about the medicalization of madness, and the use of the asylum as a form of social control, but her book looks at the relationship between religion and the asylum. Over such a long period of time, the Church moved from an idea of madness as a form of bewitchment or possession to a view of it as illness, and this played out through the activities of the Inquisition which wanted to probe into issues of intent and veracity – concepts not usually considered in asylums. Hospital records can be bald and bureaucratic, but the Inquisition’s rich records capture the voices of people who appeared before it. She speaks of the Spanish Enlightenment, which I confess I had never thought of before and closes her book at the point where the medical model took over from the spiritual model in the early 20th century.

Rear Vision (ABC) Zero COVID in China: the social, economic and political cost looks at the continuing policy of lockdown that China is following, after the rest of the world has decided to ‘live with COVID’. At the moment it seems that China’s government is just as ideological by not wanting to give up on its success in quashing COVID during 2020, as Western governments are in their determination to shut their eyes and chant ‘COVID-normal’. The inactivated vaccines produced by the Chinese government are less effective than MRNA, especially against Delta and Omicron, and there has been no herd immunity developed. They started with vaccinating front-line workers rather than the elderly, so there is a very large group of vulnerable citizens. Despite the disruption to the economy internally and supply chains globally, there is no sign of a change in policy, with the Chinese government cancelling the 2023 Asian Cup which was going to be held there.

History of Rome. Episode 156 Jockeying for Position. The three forces of Maximus, Theodosius and Valentinian were fairly evenly balanced. They could each hold their own, but were not strong enough to overthrow the others. This state of balance meant that most of their actions were PR stunts backed by diplomacy. Once Bishop Ambrose arose in Milan, both Maximus and Theodosius knew how powerful he was, and both positioned themselves as defenders of the Nicene Creed- in fact Theodosius became a bit fanatical about it all, but at this stage he just went after Arians, rather than pagans generally. Maximus wanted to show his chops too, so he ordered executions for heresy (which Ambrose opposed) and ordered the closure of Arian churches in Milan. Valentinian and his mother Justina were Arians, which was a bit awkward as they were based in Milan, with the strongly anti-Arian Ambrose. There was a stand-off between Ambrose and Valentinian and his mother over the occupation of a church, and in the end Valentinian and his mother Justina fled Milan.

Episode 157 Only the Penitent Man Shall Pass sees Valentinian (and Mum) and Theodosius joining forces in a war against Maximus. Maximus’ troops eventually handed him over and he was beheaded. Now Theodosius had to face Ambrose and reached out to him, but Ambrose was stubborn. There was an anti-Semitic uprising by monks that Ambrose supported. Theodosius humbly went to the Senate to shore up his authority but his position was undercut by the Massacre of Thessalonica (Greece) where imperial troops violently put down unrest over the arrest of a chariot racer over an alleged homosexual rape. When the general was killed, Theodosius ordered the slaughter of the crowd at the next chariot race. He regretted his decision, and tried to countermand it, but it was too late- although all of the details about this massacre are murky. Ambrose took the high moral ground and announced that he could no longer associate with Theodosius until the emperor made a personal apology. In the end, Theodosius grovelled and prayed – so Ambrose won. This is seen by some as a watershed moment that emphasized the Church’s power over the soul. Once forgiven, Theodosius turned his attention to stamping out paganism – and this may (or not) have been responsible for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria (no-one really knows who destroyed it).

Episode 158 An Imperial Suicide When Theodosius finally left Milan to go back to the east, he appointed General Arbogast to mind the shop, even though Valentinian was by now twenty years old. When Arbogast began making his own appointments of minister, Valentinian became depressed over his lack of power and committed suicide. Even though this was convenient for Arbogast, he probably wasn’t behind it, because as a Frank, he couldn’t have become emperor anyway. When no news came about who should be Valentinian’s successor, Arbogast named Eugenius, who had noble links. Eugenius set about reinstating pagan practice and restored the pagan Temple of Venus and Roma and the Altar of Victory, after continued petitions from the Roman Senate. It was, in effect, the last gasp of the pagan empire, even though both Arbogast and Eugenius were themselves Christians.

The Wheeler Centre. Well, it’s a video rather than a podcast, but I’ve just re-read Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South for my upcoming book group, and I found this talk by Alice Pung at the Wheeler Centre in January 2015. Actually, it was a bit too gushing for me, and I had hoped for something more critical. Pung drew on her own working-class origins to talk about Park’s treatment of class in the novel, although as the child of Vietnamese refugees, her working-class experience was very different from that of the Darcy family.

The Daily (NYT) In the wake of the terrible news on the overturning of Roe v Wade in the U.S. Supreme Court, An Abortion Rights Champion of the 1970s on Life Before and After Roe is fascinating. Fifty years ago Nancy Stearns was a NY lawyer who was preparing to mount a case in the New York court system challenging the ban on abortion in effect at that time, arguing that the impact of an unwanted pregnancy led to inequality in terms of liberty and the equal protection of the law, both of which are protected under the Constitution. However, just as the case was about to reach the court, New York legalized abortion, rendering the case moot. Roe v Wade made its argument for abortion reform on the grounds of privacy, not the Constitution (which I remember Ruth Bader Ginsberg also thought was a weakness), and as we have seen, an originalist can reject ‘privacy’ as a right because it is not protected by the Constitution. Nancy Stearn’s argument was never tested. Nonetheless, she thinks that even her arguments would be overthrown under the current Supreme Court, and she urges people to keep fighting even though she doesn’t think that she will live long enough to see safe abortions re-established in the United States.

Lives Less Ordinary (BBC) You probably think you don’t know Abi Morgan, but if you are an ABC viewer, you probably do. She is the screenwriter of The Iron Lady, Shame, and The Split, but in this episode My husband thought I was an imposter, she felt as if she were in her own nightmarish television series. When her husband Jacob, who suffers from MS, was rapidly taken off a drug-trial, he became so gravely ill that he was placed in a medically-induced coma. When he awoke, he suffered from Capgras Syndrome, where the sufferer becomes convinced that someone close to them has been replaced by an impostor. In this case, Jacob believed that his wife was an imposter -only his wife- and they have had to rebuild their relationship to accommodate this belief.

‘Swimming Home’ by Judy Cotton

2022, 240 p in paperback

So what do you do when you have a memoir in your hand, but know absolutely nothing about the author? One option is to start Googling so that you have some context into which to slot the biography, and to gauge some sense of authority of the writer. The other is to just read it as a piece of writing, on its own terms, and then Google afterwards. This is the approach I took with ‘Swimming Home’ by Judy Cotton.

So, drawn from this memoir, who is Judy Cotton? She is an artist, based in New York, but born in Australia during WWII in Broken Hill. Her father, later to be the parliamentarian and U.S. ambassador Sir Robert Cotton, trained for the RAAF but was posted to Broken Hill by the Dept of Supply during WWII because of his familiarity with mining. He and his family later shifted to Oberon in NSW to establish a timber industry, another crucial war-time industry. Judy was one of three children born to Robert and his wife Eve. The children were sent to boarding school in Sydney where Judy’s older sister Anne received treatment for crossed-eyes. Her father embarked on a parliamentary career with the Liberal Party and her mother, an accomplished pianist became involved in sheep-breeding. Judy attended university and married a diplomat who was posted to Korea. Her marriage broke up, and she and her son Tim went to Japan, and then to New York where she worked as a journalist and successful artist, until contracting Lyme disease which forced her to change her artistic direction. Her parents moved to America too, when her father was appointed Consul-General in New York between 1978-81 and U.S. Ambassador between 1982-85 before returning with Eve to retirement in Sydney and then Palm Beach. Her mother died in 2000, her father six years later in 2006, having re-married.

All of this sounds quite straightforward, but I have imposed an order that does not exist onto this memoir, thereby leaching it of its power and beauty. You have to work hard as a reader to piece a chronology together: indeed, I could only do it by going back to read it again. The chronology does move forward at a chapter level, but each chapter splinters into shard from different times, identified by year, but fused together. It is more like a mosaic than a canvas. Although a memoir, many aspects of Cotton’s own life are left oblique – her first marriage, her success in New York, her 40 year relationship with Yale.

The book opens in 1923 with ‘Eve’ playing imaginary scales while hiding under the fig tree. She was somewhat in awe of her beautiful older sister Jean, protected by her mother Ollie from her drunken father Archie. We soon learn that ‘Eve’ was Judy Cotton’s mother. And the cracks in the author’s relationship with her mother are quickly revealed:

Eve rated my sister and me by the same terms, and we both lost in the equation. She scored us on looks, clothes and marriages, having decided that achievement in the world was best left to my father. She worked hard to even things up between my sister and me, tying me down by one metaphorical leg so that I could not run faster than my blue-eyed sister


I must admit that my heart sank a bit when I read this. As I explained in my review of Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter (see my review here), I am not particularly comfortable with the parental memoir genre, and the sense of grievance that seems to pervade it. It’s certainly in evidence in this book, as Cotton stores up the injustices and harsh comments committed by her mother in a form of emotional ledger.

What are Judy Cotton’s accusations against her mother? Sending her two daughters away from their country town in NSW to boarding school ; her parents’ (especially her mothers’) response to Judy’s divorce “they wanted to see the wreckage for themselves…they left me stranded and penniless in Korea in the hope that it would force me to stay married and not embarrass them”. Once divorced and living in Japan with her son “Eve [her mother] waged a relentless campaign for me to return to Australia so she could ensure I did not take lovers and become like Jean [her mother’s sister]”. Her mother, by then living in New York with her husband who was US ambassador, had a heart attack: “Eve worked up a good set of arterial blockages in preparation for a massive heart attack. She had talent and she used it”. On her mother’s return to Australia, she remained imperious to the last. She had a clear sense of how things should be, rejecting things that were ‘not just exactly right’. She was blunt, with a pertinent charm: ‘Horizontal stripes are unkind to your hips’ ‘Oh dear, not grey again’.

She commented on inappropriate clothing, husbands and haircuts, on roots showing, a vase of flowers or world news not arranged to her liking. She pecked at tiny flaws and big ones, a hen in the yard after grain, a pianist aiming for precisely the right note


In these lists of wrongs, I sense little of the adult (with her own secrets, compromises and vulnerabilities) appraising another adult (with her own secrets, compromises and vulnerabilities), only the resentful, hurt child. And yet, from the outside, Cotton would seem to be very much the dutiful, loving daughter. When her mother is elderly and failing, she flies back and forth over the globe, sitting by her hospital bed, being as supportive as an expatriate child can be. She is both made by her mother’s life, and unmade by her mother’s death.

It is this sense of being drawn away and yet returning that is captured in the title ‘Swimming Home’ and in the frequent descriptions of shores that are repeated throughout the book. It is there right in the opening preface:

Undertow is perilous, the Pacific riptide hauling me hand over hand like a movie on rewind as I watch from the plane. Landing, I struggle to take off instead, but no matter how many times I leave, the land has me by the ankles with a grasp that won’t let go


She returns again and again to the sea, just as she returns again and again to Australia with its light, its smells, its birds, its trees. It is a wide Australia on a huge canvas: it is also a prison, steeped in the blood of dispossession and injustice. The ocean represents openness and distance, and yet also a treacherous pull. Her descriptions of the sea are beautifully created images. I think of George Orwell’s injunction against worn-out metaphors, and certainly she has imbued each of her descriptions of the sea with new, completely original images. The Pacific “hiccuped its briny breath”, it has “goosebumps”, the waves are “an ancient island’s rasping breath” and, most evocatively “the sea shivering in filmy layers as if it were sheer fabric pulled diagonally in ruched pleats one across the other ” (p. 103).

Her final words encapsulate the expatriate’s tug and flow.

Then I will leave again, attempting to evade the land and people that still hold me prisoner, shake off its fierce undertow…I resist the invisible feelers that creep like tiny heat-seeking missiles to cut to my core. I cannot afford to feel. Age has taught me that. I leave again.

No one’s story can explain the past.

No one story

p. 126

I must admit I found myself relieved that this memoir was relatively short (my e-version has 131 pages; the paperback book appears to have 240 pages). The writing is almost too sharp, too crystalline, almost as if you were reading a whole book of poetry in one sitting. I found myself gaining a new appreciation for the book in the second reading I was compelled to undertake, in order to be able to write this blogpost. And this written, now I’ll look at her work.

My rating: 8/10 (hard to say)

Sourced from: review copy from Black Inc. books.

‘The Birth House’ by Ami McKay

2007, 352 p.

One of the ongoing debates in literary and historical circles revolves around the question of the dividing line between fiction and history. Just this morning, I read another contribution: Between Fact and Fable: Historical Fiction or Non Fiction Novel? I must confess to my own wariness when historians include speculation in their histories, and am critical of historical fiction that does not display fidelity to the time that it is depicting. In reading this book, however, which was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, I find myself disconcerted by yet another variation on the conundrum. Is this a novel, or mainly a device upon which to hang the author’s research?

The subject matter interests me: I have always been interested in midwifery practices in the past, and the nature of women’s knowledge about their bodies. Set in Scots Bay in Nova Scotia (a real place) during and immediately after WWI, its main character is Dora Rare, the first female Rare in six generations. She is treated with suspicion by the people in the small town, and is drawn to Miss B. the town midwife, who is similarly ostracized (and feared?) by the locals. Out of love for Miss B. and drawn by her own interest, Dora becomes a trainee midwife. However, both Miss B. and Dora find their knowledge and skill questioned when Dr Thomas, an obstetrician in the employ of Farmers Assurance Company of King’s County, arrives in town. He talks up the advantages of health insurance, and deprecates the old folk ways of midwives, which are under threat not only from him but from legislation and regulations encouraging ‘safe’ hospital births.

Despite ‘catching’ many babies, Dora herself struggles to fall pregnant. Faced with no other real alternative and eager to have her own child she has married Archer Bigelow, a feckless man who enjoys the unfettered access to his wife in order to impregnate her. This marriage and her own maternity does not turn out the way she envisaged it would. Forced to leave Scots Bay, she travels to Boston where she meets liberated and unconventional women involved in the suffragette movement. There she develops an independence which helps her to return to fight, along with her friends from the ‘Occasional Knitting Society’, for the rights of Scots Bay women to give birth as they wish.

By its very nature, the author of historical fiction chooses a particular time and place in which to set the novel. By establishing her book in 1916-1920s, a range of fascinating historical situations opens up for Mackay. There’s the Canadian contribution to WWI; the Canadian homefront and attitudes towards men who did not enlist; the Spanish flu epidemic; women’s suffrage; the rise of the ‘girl’ and changing attitudes towards women and their sexuality and maternity. She has clearly researched all these things, but I found myself wondering if the plot was being driven too much by the search for scenarios in order to utilize all this research. While reading it, I don’t think that I ever lost the consciousness that I was reading a book and that there was an author pulling the strings – and for me, that’s not a good thing.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE book groups

AHA Conference 2022 Day 3

National Wool Museum, Geelong. Flickr: Andrea Williams

This blog post is a week late, the AHA conference having wound up a week ago. Nonetheless, better late than never.

So, I was up and at it again by 8.30, tuning into the ENVIRONMENTS AND INSTITUTIONS stream. Rachel Goldlust started off with a presentation on A History of Australian Housing: A view of and from the environment. After tracing through early approaches to developing an Australian vernacular of housing through the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1890s, the Garden City movement of the 1920s, and the development of the Queenslander, she then turned to the Small Homes Service and Robin Boyd. One of the architects that Boyd featured was Alistair Knox who championed earth housing. At first, this was largely a response to the shortage of building materials after WWII, but Knox was increasingly drawn to the artistic community at Montsalvat, who provided the labour force for mud brick construction (always the most expensive aspect). Eventually, Knox came to see mud brick as a challenge to the modernism promoted by Robin Boyd, and it is still at the core of sustainable housing today.

Josh Woodward following with Making a Modern Marketing Machine: NSW Government Tourist Bureau 1905-1915, starting off with a meeting at the Australia Hotel in Sydney between former and current Premiers and ministers of the NSW Government, and Hunter, the Head of the NSW Tourist Bureau and (former?) editor of the Daily Telegraph. Since Hunter’s employment in 1906, the NSW Tourist Bureau had shifted to a central location, and had the biggest plate glass window in Sydney. In his advertising, Hunter challenged the stereotypes of poisonous snakes and ‘savage Aborigines’ in Sydney, announcing that there were absolutely no hostile ‘blacks’ and that the danger of snakes had been exaggerated- thereby placing indigenous people in the ‘fauna’ category. Photography of the Blue Mountains, a focus of NSW Tourist Bureau Advertising, drew on 19th century ideas of the ‘sublime’ which had been largely superseded by then, leavened with scientific information.

There was another presentation after that one, but I had to leave for a Spanish Conversation Class.

Después de mi clase, I missed the start of the COMMUNITY AND BELONGING stream, but I was able to catch it up later on-demand (a wonderful advantage of an online/hybrid conference). Alex Roginski spoke on Charismatic Careering in Spiritual and Religious Movements: Leadership and Rupture in Melbourne’s Free Christian Assembly, starting her presentation with an image of the anti-vaccine protests seen on our streets recently. She noted that the feeling of ‘persecution’ acts as a binding force on protestors acting from a variety of impulses, and that ‘persecution’ has long been a part of Christianity as well. She illustrated this through the case of the charismatic preacher John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907). He emigrated to Australia as a child, but returned to Edinburgh for his theological training. He was ordained into the Congregational Church, but left it in 1878 to become a street preacher. He was employed as a relieving minister at the Collingwood Baptist Church in 1881, but turned on the church over its attitudes towards alcohol, and started his own Free Christian Church in Fitzroy. By 1888 he was in Chicago where he started the Zion Tabernacle, which offered divine healing, with its own protection guard in paramilitary uniform with bibles in their holsters. By 1901 he established a city in Illinois called ‘Zion’ , attracting 7000-8000 followers where he declared himself to be the prophet Elijah. However, by 1904 Zion City (which was on pretty dubious financial foundations) was mired in abject misery, and he died in 1907. Fascinating.

Amanda Burritt’s presentation LGBTQI+ Christians: Mainstream Churches and welcoming Christian Communities in 1970s and 1980s Melbourne took us back fifty years to the decriminalization of homosexuality (South Australia in 1975, Victoria in 1980 and 1984 in NSW). Just because it was no longer a criminal offence did not mean that attitudes had changed, and she took us through the varying responses of the Anglican, Uniting and Catholic Churches. Homosexuality was a contentious topic, with attitudes varying from a literal Biblical declaration that it was sinful; to a view that because of The Fall it was an inferior type of relationship, through to the idea that homosexual Christians were capable of reflecting the nature of God in a different way. Some churches banned all involvement in the sacraments, while others recommended acceptance and love. Even before this theological tussling, the ‘Acceptance’ group had started in Melbourne in 1973 to discuss change in the Catholic church, and the L.A.-based Metropolitan Community Church started a branch in Melbourne in 1973. Many attendees at Metropolitan CC maintained their affiliations with other churches, but also formed relationships with many Uniting Churches. In 1979 the Gay Christian Collective started at St Mark’s in Fitzroy as an activist group, and at the same time the Christian Lesbian Collective started at the Fitzroy Uniting Church. Today, 50 years later, things are better, but LGBTIQ+ Christians are still not free from condemnation.

Lunch time – and no little grand-people this afternoon, so I could indulge myself in history all day! The ROUNDTABLE: URGENT HISTORIES OF AUSTRALIAN CAPITALISM featured contributors to a special issue of Labour History released in 2021. Hannah Forsyth spoke about ‘Industriousness’, particularly as it applies to schooling, which was seen as a way of being more productive (most apposite, given the recent free childcare during COVID as a stimulus mechanism, and the prospect of a funded year’s play-based learning preschool). Julie McIntyre spoke about the need to include nature in histories of capitalism, noting that agriculture is dependent on soils – an observation made by Marx who noted that under capitalism there was co-exploitation of the soil and the worker- leading to the question of why labour history and environmental history do not progress in tandem. Adonis Piperoglou gave a personal view of ethnic entrepreneurship through his family history, with his father growing up in a series of milk bars and fish and chip shops, leading to the purchase of a double-garage home in North Balwyn. He noted the role of chain migration, the ‘hard worker’ image and the scope for exploitation. The discussant of the session Sophie Loy-Wilson noted that the AHA conference at Deakin is being held in a repurposed wool-shed, which is very fitting. Wool depends on grass grown on soil, with the labour of Australian workers through the supply-chain, and is destined for overseas consumption.

My final session for the day and for the conference (unless the recordings remain available after the conference) was the HEARING AUSTRALIAN HISTORIES roundtable, with seven (!!) participants, who focused on the methodology of hearing history. Andrew Hurley spoke about his study of silence, which is often seen as a metaphor, or a paradox through descriptions of ‘noisy silence’. Often historians need to look for information about sound in written texts, and in particular he has looked at Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. Henry Reese‘s work has focused on sound recordings that no longer exist, but are shown in photographs. In particular he looked at Douglas Archibald, one of several promoters who travelled the theatrical circuits, demonstrating new sound technologies. Julia Russoniella used the printed arrangements and pencilled annotations of violinist Cyril Moss in order to recreate his performances in Sydney in 1900-1940s- literally, on her violin during the presentation. Amanda Harris spoke about listening to colonial songs through the printed music published in the 1830s and 1840s that claimed to be tribal songs. She looked at a concert held in 1826, at which, it was claimed Bungaree was banned from entering. Jakelin Troy spoke about reclaiming these early printed songs when local indigenous groups stripped out the ‘improvements’ imposed by these early European song-transcribers. Chris Coady spoke about Dean Dixon, an African-American musical director, who was tapped to lead the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1963. There were differing responses to his appointment both in Australia and internationally: some saw it as a celebration of dismantling the White Australia Policy; others thought that nothing would change; others were surprised, and many Australians framed him as the ‘ideal migrant’. Finally, Toby Martin described song-writing collaborations, as a way of history-telling in itself. He spoke about two projects, one in 2018 that created ‘Toi La Ai’ (Who Am I?),and the second Black Tears Tracks with Uncle Roger Knox, who recorded in song his mother’s experience as part of the Stolen Generations.

And that was the end of AHA conference for me. It’s not the same, of course, as being there but I probably wouldn’t have been involved at all had the Zoom option not been available. In a way, having a limited number of options available was almost a relief, as when you attend in person there are always competing sessions that require you to make a choice. Even though I might not have chosen the session that was available, each time I found that there was something of value and new knowledge. So perhaps there really is something that we can thank COVID for, after all.

Guest blogger: Willow Jade Gilbert

I’ve never had a guest blogger on my website, but I’d like to introduce a very special guest , my granddaughter Willow Jade Gilbert, aged six and a half. It warms the cockles of this Nanna’s heart to see her reading so fluently and with such enjoyment and she’d like to share a book review with you.

I have a book with twelve stories all about Billie B. Brown. The first one is The Birthday Mixup. Billie has to invite 10 friends only and it should have been 12.30 BUT she wrote 2.30!!! When her teacher said “Did you eat jumping beans for breakfast?” I LAUGHED.

The next story is Billie B. Brown and the Little Lie. She was playing with her friend Jack. Her last toy arrow went on the roof of the shed and then she fell off the fence and at school she lied about how she broke her arm.

The next one will be The Deep End. In the book, Billie’s class is going to swimming lessons and Billie is scared because there is a deep end. When she thinks about it she feels sick. Billie doesn’t want her name to be read out, but it isn’t, because she is one of the Swordfish. There are three groups: The Sharks,(the really good swimmers); Stingrays (good at swimming but not as good as the Sharks) and Swordfish (they aren’t as good as any of the other groups).

And now we’re moving on to The Midnight Feast. Billie and Jack are camping. Billie has rice crackers and dip, and Jack has two packets of chips. Jack’s dad pokes his head into the tent flap ‘Hey kids, dinner’s ready’ he says. Billie wants to watch TV because it’s Finding Nemo and Billie’s favourite is Finding Nemo. Once the movie has finished, they have to brush their teeth but Billie says “But you don’t brush your teeth when you’re camping” but Billie’s mum says “Yes you do!!” When they go back to the tent, it’s really dark outside. Billie was saying “If Jack’s not scared, neither am I” and then Billie asks the time and Jack says “Nine fifteen”. Billie isn’t sure if she likes camping in the dark. “Maybe we could have the feast now” says Jack. “No, Silly” says Billie “that would be a 9.15 feast”. Once I’ve been up till 4.44, which was past midnight! And then Billie and Jack think that there is a monster because there is a low growling sound and then it becomes bigger and louder. Then a big shadow goes over the tent. That’s why they’re scared. And then they accidentally fall asleep before midnight, and Billie is saying “Marshmallows for breakfast” in her sleep.

And that’s enough for now. See you next time.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-30 June 2022

History of Rome Podcast. Episode 153 Adrianople takes up with the Goths angry and their armies on the loose. Valens left a skeleton force of troops in the East after a shaky truce with Sharpoor, which allowed him to free up troops to head back west. He went to Constantinople where he received a frosty reception, and decided not to wait for Gratian to quell the Allemani but rode out by himself. The battle of Adrianople started prematurely, but the Romans were in front until an extra contingent of Goth cavalry arrived, and the Romans were defeated. Valens was killed in battle. Duncan refutes the idea that it was the horses that swayed the battle, noting that the Romans had been using the cavalry for 100 years. But certainly, it was the worst crisis that the Empire faced since the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE (wow- that’s going back 500 years!) and it left a 19 year old and a 7 year old as emperors. Episode 154 The Gothic War. So who are you going to call in this parlous situation? Why- a successful general, that’s who. The only problems was that Theodosius Snr, who had previously been the go-to general had been executed in Africa, probably as part of the post-Valentinian political realignment. Fortunately he had a 32 year old son, also called Theodosius, who was brought back as military commander to restore order. In 379 CE Theodosius was made Augustus of the Eastern Empire. The Gothic War was at a stalemate. The fortified cities held, but the Roman army was stretched by a general manpower shortage across the Empire, exacerbated by the big landowners who kept their best workers from the reach of the army. By continuing the Gothic War, the Roman Army was on a hiding to nothing. So when Athanaric, the King of the Goths, came to Theodosius and asked asylum from the Huns, Theodosius seized the olive branch. The Goths and Romans contracted a peace treaty which allowed the Goths to live in large groups under their own internal leadership- a big change to the old policy of scattering and Romanizing the enemy. Episode 155 The New Bishop of Rome takes us back to Brittania, where Magnus Maximus, a Roman general, led a revolt against Gratian, who had never been a soldiers’ soldier. Gratian ended up being executed by Maximus’ troops after his own troops deserted him. Maximus’ way was smoothed by Ambrose, the former Consular-Prefect, who was now the Bishop of Milan, even though he had never been a priest and was more-or-less coerced into the position. Ambrose negotiated an arrangement with Theodosius I and Valentinian II whereby Maximus was recognized as Augustus in the West.

Things Fell Apart (BBC). This final episode, made in March 2022, features an interview between Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux, two documentary makers who have a similar approach to similar themes. It’s a bit of a re-hash of the whole series, and you’d probably be better off listening to the series itself rather than this rather cozy summing up.

Sydney Writers Festival. A few weeks back I posted a review to Hanya Yanagihara’s weighty tome To Paradise. I enjoyed this podcast from 22 June 2022 where she talks about the book, and her previous equally weighty tome A Little Life. And how good that the question time was dominated by women, reflecting the demographics of a writer’s festival audience.

These were the giant footprints at Ain Dara Temple in Syria, a temple which is thought to be very close in design to- if not the same as- King Solomon’s Temple in the Bible. Photographer Klaus Wagensonner, Flickr Appallingly, this temple was destroyed by Turkish airstrikes in January 2018

The Ancients (History Hit) I really enjoyed the episode The Image of God, featuring Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, whose latest book ‘God: an Anatomy’ has been shortlisted for the Wolfson prize. She points out that the Old Testament is actually an anthology of writings from the 8th Century BCE through to the 2nd Century CE. The God we find in these writings is an anthropomorphic god, with footprints, hands and a body real enough that Moses had to go into a cave where God covered him with his hand so that Moses would only see the back of him. He was a mobile god, who could slip away from temples when they were destroyed, and his image gradually changed from a good looking, red-coloured god to an old man with a beard. I found this fascinating: I think I’ll look for the book.