Monthly Archives: October 2022

‘Missing in Action’ by Marianne Van Velzen

2018, 240 p. plus notes

Australians are familiar with the War Memorials that stand in nearly every suburb and country town. They are so much just a part of the built environment now that we barely see them, except on Anzac and Remembrance Day when you walk past and see wreaths of flowers placed on them. At times I stop and look at the names, and shudder at the groups of names from one family, but more than 100 years on from World War I, they do not have a particular emotional resonance. That was not true at the time they were constructed. As Ken Inglis explores in Sacred Places, war memorials in every small town were a surrogate – however inadequate- for an individualized grave.

Quite apart from the practicalities and logistics of repatriating so many dead bodies from World War I, the decision was made at a Commonwealth level that all soldiers from Commonwealth countries would be buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery closest to where they fell. But they had to be located first. In battlefields that were bombed repeatedly, with weapons that could blow a man to pieces and without time for careful record keeping, this was no easy task. At first it fell to the Australian Graves Detachment, which worked alongside the English Graves Registration Unit in identifying and burying Australian bodies. At the end of 1919, the remaining soldiers working for the Australian Graves Detachment merged into the smaller, newly founded Australian Graves Services. The tasks of digging up bodies remained with the English Graves Registration Unit- after all, who knew what nationalities were going to be uncovered?- but once located, the Australian Graves Services (AGS) would inspect the body and its remaining clothing, looking for identification to ascertain if it was an Australian soldier, and if so, who it was. It was hard work, physically and emotionally, and soldiers who worked in these deployments were cut some slack, especially in terms of their leisure time activities. But the families at home did not know that, and the government wanted to keep it that way. And when questions began being asked at home, often prompted by disgruntled ex-employees, there was a concerted effort to keep any inquiries out of the news.

This book is the story of the two inquiries that were held into the Australian Graves Services unit in the first two years following the war. Quite apart from the difficulties of the job, this was a unit riven by jealousy, ego, incompetence and deviousness. It was overseen from Australia House in London, with three main bases over in Europe: Somme/Amiens; Villers-Bretonneux and then Poperinghe up on the Belgian border. Each of the officers who headed these bases loathed the others, for various reasons. Van Velzen approaches the story from multiple viewpoints, moving from one officer to the other, retelling events from their perspective. This leads to a certain degree of repetition, but it does also allow for actions and people to be viewed in different lights. Nobody comes out of this well. Jealousy, obstruction and rorting look bad no matter how you describe it.

After an initial inquiry cleared out the initial ‘troublemakers’ (who returned to Australia to make even more trouble there), there was a reshuffle of authority and a forging of an alliance between George Lort Phillips at Australia House, and Alfred Allen, a Quaker who had come to the AGS through the Red Cross, who was in charge at Poperinghe . Exonerated and perhaps emboldened by the first inquiry, Allen had become increasing sure of his ability to find bodies through ‘divining’, and it was this confidence that brought him into collision with Cecil Smith who had been charged by his wife’s uncle Col. James Burns with locating his son, Robert Burns. James Burns was wealthy and influential (he was the Burns in the Burns-Philp shipping company) and he had the money and contacts to persist when Phillips and Allen began stonewalling Cecil Smith in the search for Robert Burn’s remains. Smith alerted the politicians back in Australia, who wanted to keep all this out of the newspapers, leading to a second inquiry which was quietly shelved, just as the first one was. And as for Robert Burns’ body? Well, you’ll need to read the book.

Van Velzen has relied heavily on the 790 page report ‘Court of Inquiry: To inquire into and report upon certain matters in connection with the Australian Graves Services’. Bart Ziino’s also drew on this source in his more academic text A Distant Grief (my review here), as did a recent article “Suppressing an ‘undesirable public controversy’: Corpses, the Department of Defence, and the Australian Graves Services, 1919–1921” by Romain Fathi in the most recent edition of History Australia (Vol 19, Issue 3). However, in this longer, and less academic book, Van Velzen draws more heavily on the evidence given to the inquiry in a more conversational style, using it to bolster the varying viewpoints as she moves from character to character. The tone is rather sensationalist, tending to look for good guys and bad guys. However, by locating the inquiry within the very human story of Robert Burns and his grieving father, you as a reader do not lose sight of the fact that it is a young man who has died here, even though the other players in this grubby affair may have.

You are left with a sense that everyone comes out badly here. Perhaps it is just as well that people ‘back home’ did not know, and perhaps there was a justification at the time for keeping it quiet. As is often the way of things, it is deputy heads that roll.

Marianne Van Velzen has written a very readable if populist book, with neat narrative framing around Robert Burns. Your attention is captured anew with each new character, with a satisfying ending, which is not something that you can often say about military books. Its marketing might be a bit sensationalist, but it’s a well-constructed story that uses its sources well in an engaging, but thought-provoking way that emphasizes the human and the political over the military

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

Emperors of Rome Going back and continuing on with Julius Caesar with Dr Rhiannon Evans (Lecture in Mediterranean Studies, La Trobe University and host Matt Smith. Episode V Caesar and Civil War has lots of parallels with current day (not that they make them- I do). Julius Caesar (hereafter JC) had enemies in the Senate but they couldn’t charge him if he was still Consul or Pro Consul (shades of Trump?). The crossing of the Rubicon with his troops (it was not allowed to bring your army with you) shows the transference of loyalty from the Roman Empire to the individual instead. The triumvirate was no longer operational: Crassus had died, and Pompey (by now JC’s rival and enemy) was killed by the Ptolomys in Egypt. Cleopatra was installed. Dr Evans questions the romance of Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar, given the view of marriage as a form of alliance at the time. JC had made himself dictator for 10 years and then for life- so many rules and norms were being broken by that time (shades of Xi Jinping?) Episode VI The Death of Caesar JC remained popular with the people but he had enemies in the Senate- not the majority of the Senate but enough- who resented him taking on the trappings of monarchy lie a throne, a diadem, wearing purple etc. He had been merciful to his enemies, which was a mistake. The assassination happened on the Ides of March because he was going to leave with his armies the next day. His assassins had to flee, and his bloodied toga was displayed on a statue outside the Senate. Episode VII The Legacy of Caesar. For someone who didn’t rule for long, he had a big impact. Augustus claimed lineage from him (he was actually JC’s great-nephew); JC had embarked on a big building program; and he went on to be embraced by many dictators, including Mussolini. Jumping ahead a bit then to Episode LX Cleopatra, recorded live at the Wheeler Centre on 22 November 2016. Cleopatra was from the Ptolomy family from Greece, which kept itself apart from the Egyptians and intermarried within itself. However, unlike the rest of her family, Cleopatra actually learned the Egyptian language and championed herself as the Queen of Egyptians the people, as well as the territory. She was intelligent, and not necessarily beautiful. I’m rather ashamed to admit that I knew so little about this that I thought she was having it off with Caesar and Anthony at the same time, but Caesar was long dead by now.

New Books Network. You should thank me because I listened to this podcast so that you don’t have to. The Small Matter of Suing Chevron was of course not a small matter at all and in this podcast the author of the book of the same name, Suzana Sawyer talks about the case, which ended up taking up 200,000 pages and running for decades. Texaco, later taken over by Chevron, had been drilling for oil between 1964 and 1992 close to the Amazon. It was a very contaminating activity, and they left behind more than 300 wells and pits to bury the waste products from the extraction process. An Ecuadorian court ruled in 2011 that Chevron was liable for $9 billion, mainly for remediation but 2 weeks before the ruling was handed down, Chevron commenced a case in a New York court. Armed with 2000 lawyers, Chevron had the case overturned, arguing that the Republic of Ecuador had already signed off on the remediation process with Texaco and therefore the findings were overturned. It ended up in a court at The Hague determined that the Ecuadorian judgment had been procured through fraud and was unenforceable. Sawyer is an anthropologist, not a lawyer and not a historian, and she had worked with indigenous groups in the Amazon prior to the launching of the case. She talks in rather convoluted ways about finding a grammar based on chemistry to talk about the legal process, which is in itself very complicated. But chemical/scientific concepts like “valences” and “exposure orbitals” are not particularly useful in talking about legal argument and this was a very hesitant, disjointed and abstruse podcast. I would have given up but I was already too far in.

99% Invisible Vuvuzela Remember the South African world cup and that dreadful vuvuzela? Tuned at Bflat, it can play only one note, and has since been banned by FIFA (thank God). The origins of the vuvuzela are murky, but it seems that it was invented by a man called Saddam Maake, who used a bicycle horn at first, and then modified it. But somehow or other the ownership got tied up with a plastics manufacturer, who also claims to be the inventor. Soccer is very popular in South Africa, and during the apartheid years, it was the only way that activists could meet together without being arrested because – hey, they were just watching the football. Although 99% is an American podcast, this episode is presented by James Parkinson, with a lovely familiar Australian accent

In Our Time (BBC) I hadn’t heard of Berthe Morisot, but she was one of the French Impressionist painters who has been overlooked in the 20th century. She was born into a wealthy family, had the support of her mother to become an artist at a time when women required chaperones to sketch at the Louvre and were not encouraged to undertake formal training. She married Eugene Manet (Edouard Manet’s brother) and she had extensive networks within the artistic world. She exhibited six times at the Salon de Paris, and in eight Impressionist exhibitions alongside Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir. She painted in plein-air, but she also painted family interiors, often featuring her sister Edma (who was also a gifted artist until she married) and her daughter Julie. I was fascinated by her painting of Edma who was heavily pregnant (and looking rather fed up with the whole thing). I’d never heard of her- check out her paintings. This episode Berthe Morisot features Tamar Garb (Professor of History of Art at University College London) Lois Oliver (Curator at the Royal Academy and Adjunct Professor of Art History at the American University of Notre Dame London) and Claire Moran (Reader in French at Queen’s University Belfast) and an increasingly-decrepit-sounding Melvyn Bragg. I just looked him up- he is 83 and sounds every bit of it.

All in the Mind (ABC) I seem to be listening to a few podcasts about the ethics of experiments recently, and here’s another one, part of All in the Mind’s series on Unethical Experiments. Childhood attachment, animal rights and the ‘pit of despair’ looks at the experiments conducted by eminent psychologist Harry Harlow at a time when animals were not considered to have feelings or emotions at all. I remember pictures of ‘cloth mother’ and ‘metal mother’ and baby chimps from first year Psych. Ironically, it was the resistance to the type of experiments that Harlow conducted that spurred the animal rights movement.

‘Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage’ by Alice Munro

2002, 323p

That’s quite a mouthful for the title of a book, and unfortunately instantly forgettable if someone asked you “What was that Alice Munro book of short stories that you read?” I read this book as part of a book club read and although we all enjoyed the stories enough while we were reading them, we found it very hard to remember enough details to discuss the stories in any depth. I often find this with short stories, although I enjoyed the longer length of these nine stories (most of about 30 to 40 pages in length). They were was long enough to become engrossed in the characters and too long to just turn to the next story once you had finished.

As you can see, Munro writes of a particular milieu- Canadian, middle-class, middle-aged- with a particular sympathy towards women. The stories are a bit like a short-form Anne Tyler, and I was not particularly aware of a distinctive narrative voice to distinguish one story from another. Perhaps this is why I, and my fellow book-clubbers, could not really remember the stories as discrete entities when we came to discuss them. We could remember particular events or people- but which story were they from?

So, indulge me while I summarize the stories so that I can remember them in the future- and beware of spoilers!

The title story ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship and Marriage’ is set “years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines”. Johanna is a middle-aged, rather plain woman who is working as domestic help for Mr McCauley, who is caring for his teenaged daughter Sabitha. Sabitha’s mother has died, and her father Ken Boudreau lives at some distance, writing occasionally to his former father-in-law for money. Sabitha and her friend Edith, intercept Ken’s letters and devise a hoax whereby Ken declares his love for the rather drab Johanna. Johanna takes her meagre savings and goes to Ken, who is oblivious to the letters that Johanna has received that have been written under his name. But Johanna has the last laugh: on meeting the rather pathetic Ken, she turns to caring for him instead, marries and has a child.

In ‘Floating Bridge’ middle-aged Jinny is returning home from an appointment with her oncologist. Her husband Neal, is brazenly flirting with Helen, a young woman whom they have hired to help around the house during Jinny’s chemotherapy regime. Neal insists on driving the sullen Helen to her home, and staying there for dinner, leaving his frail and washed- out wife to wait in the car. But Jinny has not received bad news from her doctor: instead her cancer is in remission, and she is no longer facing death. When a young man, Ricky, approaches her while she is waiting in the car, she acquiesces in going with him into the fields, where he kisses her on a floating pontoon bridge over a lagoon. She laughs.

‘Family Furnishings’ is about Alfrida, who is a journalist who writes several columns under different pen names in the local paper – Round and About the Town, and Flora Simpson Housewives’ Page. Her cousin and his wife and their young daughter, the narrator, were rather in awe of her, and referred to Alfrida as a career girl. As the narrator grows older, she goes to university in the same town where Alfrida is living, but she resists going to visit her. When she finally does, she is struck by Alfrida’s poverty and lack of sophistication. The narrator takes a story from Alfrida’s childhood and becomes a successful writer, a form of theft that Alfrida grudgingly admired.

In ‘Comfort’, a woman returns from her tennis match to find that her husband, who had been suffering from a neurological illness, has committed suicide. A teacher at the local high school, he had been increasingly targetted by fundamentalist Christian students and their teachers and forced to resign. She searches for a suicide note and removes all signs of suicide before calling the local undertaker, with whom she had gone to school. It is the undertaker who finds a note in Lewis’ pyjama pocket- a bitter and sarcastic note in riposte to his critics.

In ‘Nettles’ a woman recalls a boy she was friends with when they were both children. He was the son of a well-digger, who came round each year to work on the wells in their town. She meets him again, years later, at the house of a mutual friend. Even though he is married, the attraction she felt for him years ago is still there. They go for a walk along the golf course, and get caught in a sudden storm. He divulges a tragedy that he and his wife have faced, and she knows that their relationship will go no further. When they return home, their legs are itchy with welts from the nettles and weeds in which they took shelter.

In ‘Post and Beam’ Lorna recalls many years ago, when she, her husband Brendan and two children were living in an architecturally distinctive Post and Beam house. Brendan is a university lecturer and one of his most brilliant students was Lionel, who had a nervous breakdown. Lionel now works for the church, and is poorly paid and still troubled and he starts writing poetry to Lorna. Lorna’s cousin Polly, five years her elder, comes to stay with them and is needily judgmental of Lorna’s life. When Lorna and Brendan have a weekend away for a wedding, Lorna is terrified that Polly will have committed suicide in their absence, and she makes a deal with God- or whoever. The deal is not honoured, and life goes on.

‘What is Remembered’ is set in Vancouver and Meriel and her husband Pierre are travelling to a funeral for Pierre’s best friend Jonah. Meriel decides to visit her elderly Aunt Muriel at a nearby nursing home, then return home later that night. Dr Asher offers to drive her there, and he accompanies her into the nursing home. They have a brief dalliance that he puts a firm end to, and they go their separate ways. She remains married to Pierre, but is always aware of that other life that she could have had.

‘Queenie’ and Chrissy are step-sisters, but Queenie suddenly leaves home and runs away with the widowed older man next door, Mr. Vorguilla. After eighteen months, Chrissy finds out where Queenie is living, and comes to stay with her before starting Teachers College the next year. Mr Vorguilla is emotionally coercive and mean, gaslighting Queenie over a Christmas cake that she had saved money to buy. As Chrissy goes on to her life as a teacher, marries, has children, and travels in retirement, she learns that Queenie has left her husband. She thinks that she glimpses her in different places, but is never quite sure.

The first and last stories in this book were both made into films, and they are the strongest stories in the collection. They were, too, the only ones that we were able to remember well enough to discuss. ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ was adapted into the film ‘Away from Her’. Fiona and Grant had a long, happy marriage, but when her Alzheimers forces him to place her in care, she transfers her affections to another patient, Aubrey. When Aubrey’s wife Marian can no longer afford to keep him in care, she takes him home and Fiona is heartbroken. Grant meets with Marian, and starts up a relationship with her in the hope that this is a way that Fiona and Aubrey can meet again. The ending was ambiguously written.

As you can see, there is a sameness about these stories. Munro was awarded a Booker International, which is for a body of work, and I can see that she is insightful and masterful in weaving real complexity and emotional truth into a short work. I think that her writing would appeal much more to older than younger readers, and she has a compassion and indulgent tolerance for the mis-steps and compromises that we all make to keep living. Perhaps compiling such similar stories into one volume does them a disservice. Perhaps they are better left as they were originally published- many of them in the New Yorker and other magazines- where their similarities are less obvious and where they can stand alone and their strengths shine.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (aka The Ladies Who Say Oooh)

Immigration Film Fest III

I only have two more days left on my pass, so time to watch some longer films.

My DACA Life (69 minutes)

DACA means Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, which was a Obama-era program which put a hold on deportation of young people who had arrived in America as children when their parents moved there. Because their parents did not receive official entry, their children had no documents either. This meant that they could not get a driving licence, obtain scholarships, or travel out of America. Maribel was born in Mexico, but had never been there. There she meets her extended family for the first time. Being given a one-off work permit, she is allowed to travel to Mexico and by being registered returning to America, to finally receive entry documentation. But then Trump gets in, and everything changes.

I Come from Away (58 minutes) Nyamoun Nguany Machar (aka Moon) is a 30-year old African woman who arrived in Portland, Maine with her Ethiopian mother and Sudanese father as a refugee in 1995. Portland is the second whitest state in America. She experiences racism, but nonetheless Portland manages to accommodate 600 asylum seekers arriving from the Congo, under the influence of progressive activists, churches and communities which make them welcome. One of these asylum seekers, David Zwahila Mota, tells of his six month journey from Africa to Central America, up through Mexico and into Maine.

Los Hermanos/ The Brothers (84 minutes)

This was so good. Cuban pianist Aldo López-Gavilán stayed in Cuba while his older brother, violinist Ilmar travelled to Russia as a 14 year old and ended up in the United States. Until Obama, they could not perform together but for just a few years they could. All brought undone by Trump.

Mango House (58 minutes)

What a truly good man. Dr PJ! is a general practitioner who developed Mango House, a combined health/dental clinic, meeting space and food court/mall where refugees could start their own businesses. The documentary covers the clinic’s activity during the COVID pandemic, and shows the myriad ways in which Mango House meets the needs of refugees.

The Garcia Family (28 minutes).‘Stop Time’ looked at the Sanctuary movement from the point of view of the refugee seeking sanctuary. This documentary looks instead at the family outside, supporting and agitating for refugee law reform. Alex Garcia has spent over 700 days in sanctuary at the United Church of Christ in St Louis, Missouri. His wife Carly is American, and they have had five years together. There is no pathway for him to get citizenship, even if he returns to Honduras for 10-15 years. It is only with the Biden administration that the law is changed on Feb 21 2021 and Alex can finally step outside onto the church steps to thank his supporters.

Ocean Wings (12 minutes)

A man and his daughter are walking away from war-torn Syria to join people-smugglers who will take them by sea. But the journey does not turn out as they thought it would.

And so finishes the Immigrant Film Fest 2022. There were far more films there than I could watch, but I feel that I received sufficient value for my $100 (damn you, AUD/US exchange rate!) Given that this was such an issue-based film festival, I guess the ultimate test would be whether I did anything new as a result of it. Yes, I did. Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (

Immigration Film Fest II

Stop Time. Plenty of Spanish in this one! Lucio is the father of four who has sought sanctuary in the First Congregational Church at Amherst, Massachusetts. He was born in Guatemala, left school early, and then went to pick coffee in Mexico at the age of 15. He left for America at the end of 1999 but was arrested as an undocumented migrant while in Dunkin’ Donuts on a trip with his children. He lived in the church for 1128 days, until the court gave him a stay on his deportation while his case was heard. He was one of 70 undocumented migrants who sought sanctuary in churches during Trump’s presidency.

One, If By Land (14 minutes) looks at the journey of three undocumented immigrants. One is a woman travelling with a coyote across the Mexican border, for the sake of her five year old son who she has left behind. Second is a Chinese migrant who arrives by ship, jumping into the water near New York only to find himself handcuffed in a hospital when he regains consciousness. Third is the imagined story of the Angolan migrant who stowed away on a plane flying to London, who fell to his death from the wheel well.

Crisis. A short (15 minutes) film about a young Korean man working in his father’s restaurant in Croatia during the COVID lockdown. As he rides around Zagreb making home deliveries, he encounters various people who look down on him but he still has dreams of enrolling to study, rather than taking over his father’s restaurant as his father wants him to do.

Voices and Locks. This 20 minute Turkish film has two children, one Armenian and one Turkish, growing up in a remote village. Gaspar (I think the Armenian boy) returns back home after 40 years in America, suffering from what looks like Parkinson’s Disease, hoping to recapture his childhood memories. But the village has been taken over by the Turkish authorities, who confiscate their land and search for gold that they (incorrectly) assume the impoverished Armenians have buried.

Un barco para mi mamá. A very short (6 minutes) black and white film where a mother recounts her two attempts to get into the United States. They are caught and deported after the first one, and the second time they go through a tunnel to get across. I don’t know whether the second time was successful or not.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 October

Revisionist History I’ve telling everyone I meet about a three-part series of podcasts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History program about the Minnesota Starvation Project. In the first episode, The Department of Physiological Hygiene, he describes what this experiment was about: during the last year of WWII 36 men volunteered to undertake a year-long experiment in what happens when you are put on a starvation diet that results in a loss of 25% of your body weight? Three months were spent measuring and regulating calorific intake and output, then six months on a very stringent diet and exercise regime, then three months to return to health. In Episode Two, The Rise of the Guinea Pigs, Gladwell challenges the scientific consensus that such an experiment would never be conducted today for ethical reasons. He digs deeper into the process by which the experiment was set up, and found that the volunteers were genuinely volunteers- they were conscientious objectors who wanted to do something for the war effort but did not want to fight. Most of what we know about nutrition and starvation comes from this experiment, why not repeat it with genuine volunteers (as these men were) now that we could monitor what was happening with much more precision than was done sixty years ago? (I don’t agree). Episode Three The Mennonite National Anthem looks more closely at the volunteers’ motivations for enlisting in the experiment, many of which related to their religious beliefs. They look at one volunteer, Lester Glick, who kept a diary throughout, and using the oral histories provided by many of the participants, note that none of them regretted their involvement. This is really good.

The History Listen (ABC) The Loveday Trilogy Part I looks at German Oskar Speck, who decided in 1932 to paddle his kayak single-handed to Cyprus but then kept on going- all the way to Australia. By now, Hitler’s National Socialist Party was the government of Germany so his relationship with Nazism is confused but either way, he ended up in Loveday Internment Camp as an enemy alien. Fancy going all that way, only to end up interned!

Now and Then When the news came out that Rudy Giuliani was drunk on election night, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman dive back into American history to see other times when the tide and tenor of American politics may have been affected by alcohol. Alcohol in American Politics starts with Franklin Pierce (never heard of him), but moves onto Warren Harding’s hypocrisy during Prohibition, Teddy Kennedy’s alcoholism that led to Chappaquiddick and Gerald Ford hiding his addictions under the cover of his wife Betty.

The Ancients Much as I might want it, it’s almost impossible for me to even conceive of a mindset where race is completely irrelevant. But in this episode Race in Antiquity it seems that this might have been the case in Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. The Kushite pharaohs, Septimus Severus, Peter the Great’s son – being ‘black’ was described much the same way that being ‘blonde’ might be described today. Features Luke Pepera who is writing a book Motherland: 500,000 Years of African History, Cultures, and Identity (big topic!) which will be published next year.

History Hit In Russia Falters in Ukraine: Parallels with World War I historian Alexander Watson, author of the award-winning book The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl, talks about the Eastern front during WWI- the one that we hear less about. Although he is cautious not to say “history is repeating”, there certainly are parallels. After the Russo-Japanese war, Russia made a huge investment in its army in an attempt to project great-power status. The Russian people were never as enthusiastic about the war as the political elites were, and there were draft riots in 1914 (I think of the lines of cars leaving Russia in the wake of its recent draft). Russia came into WWI ostensibly to protect Serbia (I think of Putin designating Ukraine “Little Russia” and the need to “defend” the territories annexed through his recent “referendum”). Because of the huge size of the Russian army, people thought that its force would be overwhelming (just as many thought would be the case with Ukraine). The parallels (so far) stop once the elites lose legitimacy after 1916 and a string of defeats, and once revolution breaks out. Dare we hope?

Inside the SLV. Jamie Wang Flickr CCCC BY-SA 2.0

Nothing on TV It’s time to hear a good Aussie voice, and who better than Robyn Annear. She hasn’t done a podcast for ages, so I’m having to delve into her back catalogue. Clean Hands starts off with the theft of soap from the front entrance to the Melbourne Public Library (now State Library of Victoria) – the soap was carefully cut into small pieces the size of a domino, but people were quite annoyed by the thefts. But not as outraged as they were when people stole the books, cutting out the Melbourne Public Library stamp on p. 91 (always), and erasing the stamp on the front and back pages. The Melbourne Public Library was open to everyone, which was a principle quite unusual at the time, and one which Redmond Barry vigorously defended. There were suggestions that there be a special room for people who just came into the library to lounge instead of read, but that never happened either. Although thinking back to nights at SLV, before the roof was opened up and everything was plunged into an eternal twilight lit by little green lamps, I think that there were many people there then too, in overcoats and smelling of alcohol, who were not actually ‘reading’.

Free-Day Friday in my own city

On Fridays, I usually volunteer down at Brotherhood Books in Kensington. I catch the train to the very sparse Kensington South station and walk along Childers St./Hobsons Rd, crossing Kensington Road. But as I left the station last Friday, a passerby warned me that I wouldn’t be able to cross Kensington Road. He was right. I looked up Hobsons Rd and thought “no-one’s going to be working there today”. And I was right. Brotherhood Books has been closed all week, after the Maribrynong river washed through our warehouse. (If you click on the images, you can see a larger version).

So, I had the rare experience (for this year) of a free Friday. It felt like a holiday! We decided to go in to see the ‘Lust Love Loss’ exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance, then to pop in to the NGV International.

I haven’t been to the Shrine for probably 30 years. Its new galleries underneath the hill on which the Shrine is placed and the unobtrusive entrance received well-deserved architectural acclaim. The Shrine is such a strange place: built to last for hundreds of years in stone and marble, with lots of Egyptian references combined with classical figures and marble reliefs of battles (which reminds me that I really must read Ken Inglis’ Sacred Places one day).

I was impressed with the three exhibitions: Lust Love Loss (which closes 20 November 2022), Defending with Pride, the first of its kind for an Australian war memorial (closes July 2023) and For Kin and Country (until 26 March 2023) the history of First Peoples’ service in the Australian Defence Force, a display which makes you feel angry and ashamed of the discriminatory treatment that they received on returning home.

I really liked the human scale of these exhibitions, with none of the big-boys-toys approach being pushed by Brendan Nelson at the Australian War Memorial. But I am mystified that with all the ‘professionalism’ of the GLAM sector, so many signs were difficult/impossible to read. Why would you put black print on a dark khaki background in a dimly lit gallery? I don’t want to go through a gallery with the catalogue on my phone, drawing my eyes constantly to a 15 cm screen that pings messages at me: I want to look at the exhibition. The artworks and photographs had only rudimentary signage beside them on the walls, and there were only two printed catalogues available (which we returned for someone else to use).

Then off to the NGV International. When was Deborah Halpern’s Angel sculpture moved out of the moat? (Ooops! 2006. Why hadn’t I noticed earlier?) I was keen to see Richard Mosse’s Broken Spectre but it was so loud and dark – and the chairs at the back were taken and it was too dark to see if there were any other chairs there, and no way was I going to sit on the floor in the dark for 74 minutes…..and yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old lady. So we went up to the Jewellery and Body Adornment display on the balcony which was interesting, although again with rather baffling signage. I liked the malicious glee of the Gold Makes Blind, Bracelet (the middle bracelet). Covered in rubber, there is (supposedly) a gold bracelet underneath the rubber, but you need to destroy the bracelet to see if it is really there.

I liked the pieces that had some social history attached to them. I had heard of Josiah Wedgwood’s Anti-Slavery medallion, but never seen one. I was rather taken with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Holloway Brooch (in the middle in the image below) which was awarded to women who had been imprisoned. The two medals with the green, white and purple ribbons were awarded by the Women’s Social and Political Union to women who had endured hunger strikes while in prison. Fewer than 100 of these medals were awarded.

Off to lunch at Roule Galette in Flinders Lane- and yes, the city still is much quieter than it used to be- then back home for a grand-daughter pick up from school. I haven’t ever done the pick-up run because I’m usually down at the Brotherhood- and hopefully, things will have dried out enough that I can be down there again next Friday. Says she, with thunder rumbling outside.

Movie: The Quiet Girl

This was absolutely beautiful. Set in rural Ireland in the 1980s, Cait lives in a squalid farmhouse with her parents and her many siblings. She is not coping at school, and she just goes into herself to escape life. Distant middle-aged relatives, whom she had never met, offer to take her for the summer holidays, and she just unfurls with their gentle treatment. Although she is told that there are no secrets in their house because secrets spring from shame, she does find that there is an unspoken fact that lies under their quiet life. The last scene brought me to (copious) tears, and I kept hoping that the film might start again after the credits so that I could learn what happened next.

Five stars from me.

‘Lessons From History: Leading historians tackle Australia’s greatest challenges’ by Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity and David Lowe (eds).

2022, 349 p. & notes

It’s a big claim: that historians can tackle Australia’s greatest challenges. Despite Santayana’s rather facile aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, the humanities -and history in particular- have been largely left behind in the trample of lobbyists, think-tanks and policy advisors who direct political decisions from a more presentist and futurist perspective. I’m not sure that it’s a historian, rolling up her sleeves, who is on the end of the old phone depicted on the front cover,

This book, written during the COVID pandemic, responds to the feeling, that I share with many others, that we seem to be living in particularly historically fraught times. It aims to:

[provide] a roadmap for this vital knowledge, laying bare how history can and, indeed, should inform public debate. It is a book for politicians, policymakers, community workers, journalists and engaged citizens, as well as historians. Far from seeking to offer crude historical ‘lessons’ or rigid templates that might be imposed upon contemporary problems, instead we are interested in history’s capacity to enlarge and contextualise public debates…. Historical literacy may not always lead to better policy, but we maintain that history is fundamental to understanding context- which, from its Latin roots, means weaving together or drawing on surrounding circumstances.


The chapters that follow, mostly about 12-20 pages in length, deal with the major ‘hot-button’ challenges of the early 2020s: climate, China, foreign aid and investment, equality, water and power policy, refugees, war crime, the far right, First Nations issues, women and childcare, domestic violence, the Northern Territory, federation. Each chapter chooses its own time parameters, informed by the issue at hand, and closes with a summary statement: “Lessons from history” with the main policy ‘takeaway’ in a couple of short paragraphs, giving the book a somewhat managerial flavour. The chapters reflect the methodologies and ‘schools’ of the authors: economic historians provide statistics; oral historians provide snapshots from interviews.

The book is in two parts, which work almost at odds with each other. Part I: How a Knowledge of History Makes Better Policy seems to challenge the idea that historians, specifically amongst other public intellectuals, have anything particular to offer, and whether what they offer is used accurately or usefully. Graeme Davison champions, as a historian, the intellectual and social commentator Hugh Stretton, who published books like Ideas for Australian Cities (1970);Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (1978) and his final work Economics: a New Introduction (2015). These do not sound like the work of a historian and indeed, Stretton himself doubted whether he was a historian but, as Davison says

..from first to last, his thinking about public policy was deeply historical. He was not a policy wonk who taught history on the side; everything he wrote about public policy drew on his understanding of history


Stretton did not look to history for specific information, or analogies, but instead for a way of reasoning and a capacity to think about problems in a certain way. Frank Bongiorno warns in his chapter that politicians, exhorted to look to the past, can take the wrong lesson -e.g. by conceptualizing anything in diplomacy other than bristling belligerence as Chamberlain-esque ‘appeasement’ – or can subscribe too uncritically to an orthodox reading of economics – e.g. that Australia’s economic decline of the 20th century was caused by the flabbiness encouraged by the Australian Settlement, that only rigorous market reforms by governments of the 1980s and 90s could reverse. James Walter challenges the idea that historians are necessarily ‘outsiders’ by looking at historians who have worked ‘inside the tent’ of government policy, like the feminist historians in the 1970s/1980s and civic historians like Stuart Macintyre and John Hirst, and the policy pressure exerted by Gideon Haigh and Graeme Davison to secure funding for the National Archives of Australia.

Part II Lessons from History then turns its attention to the ‘challenges’. The challenges very much reflect the year in which the book has been compiled. While this contributes to its timeliness, it does also cast some -not all- chapters as more like commentary than analysis, giving the book the feeling of being an extended Monthly magazine or other Schwartz Media publication. Indeed, many of the better-known authors have featured in Quarterly Essays, and in some other chapters where the writer was not known to me, I found myself being able to predict what the “Lessons for History” were going to be after reading just one or two pages. I even found myself double checking to see if these were really historians (yes, most but not all were) and not lobbyists or spokespeople.

I was mystified by the short time spans and limited parameters that some authors chose for themselves. Several chapters reached back onto to the 1970s and 80s, as if the issues underpinning the current challenges started only then. For example, Mia Martin Hobbs’ chapter ‘Why soldiers commit war crimes- and what we can do about it’ looked only at the Vietnam and Afghan wars; the multiply-authored chapter ‘Urban water policy in a drying continent’ looked mainly from the 1990s’ onwards. ‘We need to hear the voices of refugees: citizen engagement for reforming refugee policy’ focussed on Tamil refugees, surely just one of the many refugee groups in Australia today.

The chapters I enjoyed most had a broader span, and surprised me by some of their conclusions. I was surprised that Claire E. W. Wright agreed with Graeme Samuel’s contention that an ‘impenetrable club’ of women was keeping other women out of the boardroom, before unpacking the reasons why this might be- although Wright, too, confined her analysis to post 1980s. I enjoyed Joan Beaumont’s chapter ‘Governing during economic crisis: the importance of memory’ which looked at the recent references to the 1930s Depression as a point of comparison during the COVID epidemic, and the power of the Great Depression in collective memory. I found Caroline Holbrook’s chapter on ‘How To Fix our Federation’, with its comparison of Commonwealth Day (1 January 1901) and Australia Day fascinating. I give my tick of approval to her suggestion of 29-30 March, the anniversary of the first elections for federal parliament, as an alternative to Australia Day, a choice that engenders pride in democracy itself and Australia’s contribution internationally. (For myself, better still if it could include a successful Voice referendum on that day too.)

As you might expect in a book of this type, some essays are more likely to appeal than others. For me, I like the ones that stretched further back in time than 1980, and I felt short-changed by those that ended with a policy prescription that could be found just as easily in a Saturday-paper article. There were others, however, that combined a concise sweep of events with an analysis of their meaning, and a critique of how they could be used or misused in policy formulation. These were the ones that left me wanting to hear more.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Immigration Film Fest

I didn’t get to go to the Spanish Film Festival this year because I was still a bit anxious about COVID. But I know that I will find lots of Spanish in this US-based Immigration Film Fest, while learning about immigration issues around the world. So I’ve signed up to their ten-day virtual festival. Now I just have to find the time to watch them. It runs from October 13- October 23 (American dates) and it worked out at about $100 AUD for access.

The first documentary I saw was called Docked. It starts off with a dictionary definition of ‘to dock’. To cut off an animal’s tail; to bring into a port; to cut off someone’s pay; to bring to justice. This definition works at several levels in this exploration of Peruvian and Chilean indentured labourers being brought to work as sheep-herders in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Unable to speak English, scared of losing their jobs, unaware of their rights, they are in a vulnerable position. Tom Acker, a human rights activist, travels around with a former sheep-herder to pressure for better wages and conditions and generally keeping the bastards (ranchers) honest.

The second documentary The Aliens only went for 14 minutes. Essam Soltan, Sherein Mohamed, and Sheri Soltan emigrated from Egypt when Sheri was very young. They went on to have other children who were born in America, and they were waiting for these children to reach 21 so that they would be able to apply for their parents’ residency visas. They started living off living in a basement, and both parents worked incredibly hard for just $4.00 an hour in a supermarket- no dodgy little corner store, but a legitimate big business. For me it just highlighted how big industry in America colludes with illegal immigration as a source of cheap and submissive labour. It also showed the effect of 9/11 on American attitudes towards anyone from the Middle East.

This issue of American-born children applying for residency for their parents once they turn 21 is a key plot point in G.I. Jose, where an ICE agent and a policeman raid a house where an ‘illegal’ mother and her 20 year old son and 10? year old daughter are living. The son has served in the U.S. Army but has not yet reached the magic age of 21. The police officer bails the son up in the bedroom where his mother is hiding, and he has the choice to arrest them or show mercy. Another short one at only 11 minutes.