Monthly Archives: April 2023

‘Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights’ by Alison Holland

2015, 382 p. plus notes

Books are a bit like buses: there can be nothing for a long time, and then two arrive together. This book Just Relations was published in 2015 and three years later Sue Taffe’s A White Hot Flame was published, both of them dealing with Mary Montgomerie Bennett, aboriginal activist (1881-1961) active from the 1920s through to her death in 1961.

Mary Montgomerie Bennett was a most unlikely activist. She was born in London, the daughter of a Queensland pastoralist and an East End actress mother and she spent most of her early life in England, her way eased by the wealth generated by the Queensland holding ‘Lammermoor’, near Townsville and Bowen. She lived in Australia between for the first six years of her life, but not on the station but instead in Stanthorpe and Tenterfield, Sydney and Hobart. She returned to England with her mother for another five years, before returning to Australia again for a further five years. This time, she would spend vacations between the ages of 12 and 17 with her father on Lammermoor, returning again to sell the property with her father in 1910. Yet Lammermoor, and her idealized view of her father’s own interaction with the Dalleburra people whose land it was, shaped her writing and politics throughout her adult life.

While in London, she became involved with the London-based Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society and was also confronted in her views by the outspoken Aboriginal activist Anthony Martin Fernando, who stood outside Australia House with skeletons pinned to his coat to protest the treatment of Indigenous people in Western Australia and Australia generally. After her husband’s death she travelled to Australia in 1932 and began working on Mount Margaret Mission, near Kalgoorlie, as a teacher. She continued her lobbying work, both in London and in Australia. She particularly fought against the Western Australian Aboriginal protector A.O. Neville whose blatant policy of ‘absorption’ and ‘die out’ was adopted by other state governments, to be replaced after WWII by ‘assimilation’, which continued the policy of child removal. Over time, she shifted her emphasis and political allegiances from humanitarianism to human rights, and from feminists to activists and internationalists.

Alison Holland’s Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights is a fairly academic book that examines her connections with various networks and lobbyists over time, as Barnett’s emphasis shifted from humanitarianism as a political project, to human rights as an international campaign. Holland contextualises her discussion of Mary Bennett’s ideas within Michael Barnett’s discussion of this philosophical shift from humanitarianism to human rights in his Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (2011). This emphasizes the international context of Bennett’s work as she developed networks with other people working in the political space. Although originally working within the ‘missionary’ mode, with an emphasis on education and the rights of aboriginal mothers, near the end of her life she joined with other political indigenous and non-indigenous activists, especially from the southern states, working to raise the profile of government policies and their abnegation of human rights, an increasingly potent international idea. This narrative is very much a political one, as was Bennett’s own writing, and it ranges across international, state and national levels. It was very much a crusade in writing and discourse mode, as she collected evidence, wrote submissions, appeared before commissions, maintained correspondence and wrote articles. Anthony Martin Fernando may have had his coat with toy skeletons: she had her files and her pen.

The book starts with a discussion of dissent at both imperial and Australian levels (with an emphasis on the former), then moves to a more chronological survey of Bennett’s life and the change in her emphasis over time. The chapters are

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Contextualizing Dissent: Humanitarians and the Aboriginal Problem
  • Chapter 2 Defining a Reform Agenda: Mary Bennett and the Humanitarian Moment
  • Chapter 3 Freeing Women: Righting the Wrongs Done to Aboriginal Women
  • Chapter 4 Domestic Rules: Ignoring the Rights of Mothers
  • Chapter 5: Mt Margaret: Promoting Adaptable Education
  • Chapter 6: An Inhumane Dictatorship: Challenging Policy in Western Australia
  • Chapter 7 Hunt and Die: Saving the Race from Extinction
  • Chapter 8 Defending Fathers and Sons: Human Rights for Australian Aborigines
  • Chapter 9 Demanding Justice and Freedom: Critiquing Assimilation
  • Chapter 10 At War with Evil: Dying in the Fight
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue

Holland starts her book with the rather startling scenario of Bennett’s papers being confiscated by government officials after her death in 1961, highlighting the government’s discomfort with her life-long and increasingly internationalist activism. She returns to this scene in the epilogue, and suggests that it may have been part of ASIO surveillance as part of the ‘fabric of the times’. In any event, Holland argues, by confiscating her papers (which were returned but later lost), it was a

profound personal violation because her papers were inextricably connected to Bennett’s spirit and self-definition. They were deeply rooted in her own past and family story as they documented those of others, and they were critical to her crusade because, above all else, she was a writer…There is no doubt that Bennett’s crusade was a mental fight and her pen her sword which never slept. She saw her task as the pursuit of truth and the evidence of the department as it (ab)used its power to defeat Aboriginal lives.

p. 381

This is a fairly dense book, very much embedded in the politics of activism and political groups. The list of abbreviations at the start of the book was much appreciated as her action moved increasingly into the political sphere. It is, as the subtitle denotes, the story of a campaign and issues, many of which have been vindicated and are still relevant today.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: I did a talk at the Melbourne Unitarian Universalist Fellowship about Mary Montgomerie Bennett to both celebrate Women’s History Month and in the context of current debate about the Voice Referendum

Sourced from: purchased second hand.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 April 2023

A History of the Inca. Why the sudden interest in the Inca? you might ask. Just before Covid, I was planning to go to Peru with my son and daughter-in-law and little granddaughter. If the ‘vid didn’t kill off the plan, the high altitude with a young child did, and we didn’t end up going (my refunded deposit bought a new washing machine instead). But now I’m reading an Isabel Allende book (in English) Inez of my Soul, and I thought that I’d go back to the Inca podcasts again. Anyway, Episodio 3: Los Moche (in Spanish) or Episode 3 The Moche deals with the Moche society, one of the four that preceded the Incas until about 700-800 CE. I had no idea they existed. Here’s a short travel video about them (in English)– check out The Lord of Sipan- a discovery as jaw-dropping as the discovery of Tutankhamen .

Emperors of Rome Podcast Episode LIX – Martial. And there I was, thinking that I would be listening to a podcast about armies. But no, Martial was a poet, writing during the time of Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. He was famous for his epigrams, short poems that were often satirical or obscene, and the ‘sting’ often came in the last line. Matt Smith, the co-host, likens Martial to a stand-up comedian, which is probably not a bad parallel. Episode LXI – Gladiator (2000) looks at the Russell Crowe film, which I have never seen, so that made it a bit hard to follow what they were talking about. Of course, it’s a fictional film and Maximus is a fictional character, but Dr Rhiannon Evans was at pains to point out that Commodus didn’t kill Marcus Aurelius (which is the whole premise on which the film is based) – in fact, he wasn’t even there. Nor did Marcus Aurelius intend reverting to a republic, and it didn’t. Interlude – The Bronze Head of Augustus talks about the bronze head of Augustus which featured in the exhibition A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum, which was on show at the National Museum of Australia in 2016- in fact, I went to it! You can see the sculpture at It’s a bit confronting, because the statue still has its inlaid eyeballs, instead of the blank holes in most statues. It was part of the publicity machine of circulating the emperor’s image throughout the empire (a bit like the Queen). It was found in the ancient city of Meroë, in what is now Sudan, buried under the steps of a temple, probably placed there as a victory trophy when the local people defeated Roman troops- they literally walked all over his head. This episode features Dr Lily Withycombe, a curator from the National Museum of Australia.

Witness History (BBC) Richard Dimbleby Describes Belsen . BBC journalist Richard Dimbleby was one of the first journalists to report on Bergen-Belsen. He filed this radio report soon after visiting Belsen, and at first the BBC mandarins were reluctant to release it because his report had not been verified by other witnesses. After they equivocated for four days, he made it clear that unless they aired it, he would never do another report for them again, and so it was broadcast. I don’t know if it’s included in this podcast, but the version I listened to (on Stitcher) had an interview with his son Jonathan, talking about his father’s interview, and then they played Richard Dimbleby’s report in full. It was not an extermination camp, instead it was a ‘holding’ came for prisoners of war, and the emphasis was on the starvation and disease amongst the 40,000 people who were imprisoned there. It’s pretty grueling listening.

The Guardian Long Read The Ciskei Experiment: A libertarian fantasy in Apartheid South Africa looks at the concept of a ‘zone’, much loved by libertarians and economic rationalists where you don’t have to worry about nasty annoying things like democracy or unions. It was promoted as a South African Switzerland, but in reality it was a cluster of sweatshops, especially in the textile industry, where South Africans were no longer citizens of South Africa, but instead of the ‘Bantustan’ Ciskei, nominally an independent country. For all the talk of ‘small government’, it was heavily reliant on the government to subsidize the industries that set up there. Rather soberingly, the episode points out that there are more ‘economic zones’ now than there were in the 1980s, and that they keep being championed as the powerhouse of economic growth.

Radio Ambulante Me autodeclara Negra is a podcast in Spanish, but if you click on the link it will take you to the Radio Ambulante website where you can find a transcript in English. During Dilma Rouseff’s presidency of Brazil, she established a system where universities would set aside quotas for black and indigenous applicants. Lindinês de Jesus Sousa applied unsuccessfully, and it was only when she looked closer that she found that many of these quotas were occupied by white students pretending to be black. As a result of her challenging the process, a board was set up to test applicants using physical characteristics- hair, skin, lips etc. It seemed to be purely appearance-based, without the ‘community acceptance’ criteria that applies in Australia, where I suspect a scheme based on physical distinctions would be much more problematic. Interesting and rather confronting.

Latin American History Podcast The Conquest of Peru Part 6. This episode started off with cheering and tooting horns to celebrate Argentina’s victory in the World Cup – not quite what I was expecting! So there are Atahualpa and Pizarro sitting there in in Cajamarca looking at each other after the Spanish troops defeated the Inca and Atahualpa had been taken captive. Atahualpa was still worried about his half-brother Huáscar, who he had defeated in the Civil War. He might pop up again, thus rendering Atahualpa irrelevant. So he suggested that he would pay a huge ransom in gold, to be brought in over the next seven months, and he suggested that they all go to Cusco, which was a Huáscar stronghold, to collect it. Pizarro wouldn’t come at that, so Inca and Spaniard troops went off to Cusco, which they looted from Huáscar’s supporters. The Spanish had no appreciation of the religious significance of the gold they plundered, or of its workmanship, and they just melted it down. Meanwhile, rumours were circulating that another of Atahualpa’s half-brothers was gathering an army (he had 50 half-brothers and the rumour never specified which one) so Pizarro had Atahualpa tried for treason, and executed. Atahualpa converted to Christianity to avoid being burned to death, and he was strangled instead. Meanwhile Almagro turned up, and Pizarro found himself just as threatened by his own Spanish compatriots as the Inca. Even though they were given instructions to colonize, they knew that once they reported that they had colonized an area, that would be counted as the geographical extent of their territory, and that other Spaniards would come and take the ‘unexplored’ land. So it was in their interests to keep conquering, to take as much land as they could.

‘Statements from the Soul: The Moral Case for the Uluru Statement from the Heart’ Shireen Morris and Damien Freeman (eds.)

2023, 288 p.

Although the Uluru Statement comes ‘from the heart’, it is not hard to sense its moral force. Religion does not have a monopoly on moral thinking, but this particular volume contains essays from people of faith, speaking about their moral response to the Uluru Statement and talking about the elements of their own faith that have brought them to that position.

In many ways, this is a further step from the statement issued in May 2022, the fifth anniversary of the Uluru Statement, when the leaders of Australia’s major faith communities passed a joint resolution supporting a Voice, and the referendum to bring this about. The statement said:

As leaders representing diverse religious communities, we declare our support of the Uluru Statement and its call for a First Nations Voice guaranteed by the Constitution. We endorse this reform as necessary, right and reasonable. Indigenous Australians must now be afforded their rightful place in the Australian Constitution…We call on political leaders to take immediate bipartisan action to hold a referendum on a First Nations voice.

p. 12-13

As Shireen Morris says in her introduction:

The joint resolution signified the advent of religious communities uniting to speak with one voice on this issue. The significance of the essays in this collection lies in the unique ways in which these different voices advocate. It is important to hear both the unity and diversity of their messages. They reach the same conclusion – support for a First Nations constitutional voice- but through different and illuminating paths.

p. 14

Then follows a series of essays, most about 8-10 pages in length by religious figures writing from their own religious tradition. Many of them come from multi-cultural backgrounds, which reflects the diversity of Australian society. From within Australia there is:

  • Shireen Morris, Fijian-Indian and former ALP candidate, director of the Radical Centre Reform Lab *
  • Stan Grant, Wiradjuri journalist and writer
  • Kanisha Raffel, British-born Australian Anglican bishop of Sri Lankan descent and Anglican Archbishop of Sydney
  • Peter A. Comensoli, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne
  • Antonios Kaldas, Parish Priest of Archangel Michael and St Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church
  • Sabah Rind, lecturer at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University, fourth generation descendant of a Baluch Afghan cameleer and a Badimaya-Yamatji Aboriginal woman*
  • Fiona Jose, CEO Cape York Partnership with indigenous/Torres Strait Islander/Portuguese identity whose family were Latter Day Saints (Mormons)*
  • Ajmer Singh Gill, Sihk and President of the National Sihk Council
  • Prakruthi Mysore Guraraj – Hindu *
  • Sheik Wesam Charkawi, director of Abu Hanifa Institute, NSW muslim
  • Ralph Genende, Jewish
  • Bhikkhu Sujarto, Theravada Buddhist monk
  • Russell Broadbent, Liberal MP, Christian
  • Karina Okotel, former federal Vice President of Liberal Party*

International contributions are provided by

  • Anthony Ekpo, Rome-based, Vatican
  • David Saperstein, Past President of World Union for Progressive Judaism
  • Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The collection closes with a conclusion by Damien Freeman, Australia Catholic University

Among such a diverse group of writers, some draw on their own biography; others use the history of their own cultural group in Australia (e.g. connections with Muslim Makassans) while others concentrate more on the teachings and principles of their faith that bring them face-to-face with the moral questions raised by the Uluru Statement. I must confess to feeling a bit uncomfortable about Prakruthi Mysore Guraraj’s somewhat presumptuous claim to insight through the welcome offered to her by the Gunggari Nation, which did not sit well with the other contributions in the book. I found conservative Liberal Party contributor Karina Okotel’s essay rather partisan and mean-spirited, but I enjoyed Liberal MP Russell Broadbent’s contribution interweaving the Beatitudes from the New Testament tradition with the Uluru Statement.

I suppose that any book that draws on ‘major faith traditions’ will, by the nature of formal and often patriarchal religious structures, feature more men than women. But I found the representation of only five women contributors amongst the 18 essays to be very unbalanced. (I have asterisked the female contributors).

And as we head towards this referendum, I guess that it reflects the deeply-regrettable intrusion of the culture wars into something that need not necessarily be partisan. These are generally voices from the conservative side of politics, but as it turns out the question has splintered on both conservative and progressive sides.

For me, the referendum is a moral question, and an appeal to the soul just as much to the heart and head. I can see what this book is doing by appealing to religious leaders, but other groups in society have their own moral response as well. I hope that we hear more of that too.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Honk if You Are Jesus’ by Peter Goldsworthy

1992, 290 P.


This book might have seemed far-fetched when it was published in 1992, but it doesn’t any more on a day when meatballs have been created from the DNA of long-extinct mammoths . Nor do resort-like Bible Colleges seem implausible in a post-tele-evangelist world. This book is a fairly light-hearted approach to topics like artificial insemination and DNA recovery, set on the Gold Coast in Queensland when middle-aged Dr Mara Fox, lecturer in obstetrics and authority on in-vitro fertilization is head-hunted to work in a research department attached to an American-evangelical-style Bible College. She’s not the only academic import: there is also another scientist Scanlon, who has been working on recreating long-extinct animals like dodos and thylacines. She learns that Scanlon’s work has involved scraping religious relics for possible traces of Jesus’ DNA, and she comes to learn that her reason for being attached to the Bible College was to perform some off-campus artificial insemination on the wife of the founder of the Bible College, Hollis Schultz. I think you can probably see where this is heading….

The book is fairly predictable and the ending, although ambiguous, is rather predictable too. Still, this is not high literature and I found myself willingly going along for the ride. I thought that Goldsworthy captured the studious, naive Dr Fox well, whose work had consumed her life and for whom romance just never happened.

I’m not quite sure why it’s called what it is, but no doubt it echoes those ‘Honk if You Love Jesus’ bumper stickers that used to be around (in fact, what has happened to bumper stickers? Perhaps they don’t stick on plastic…) It’s a gentle satire and enjoyable enough.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my own bookshelves, but obviously purchased second hand somewhere for the princely sum of 20c. It is certainly worth more than that!

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 April 2023

Emperors of Rome. Interlude – The Singing Colossus of Memnon. Just a little short 10 minute podcast this time about Hadrian’s visit to the Singing Colossum of Memnon, near Luxor in Egypt. Actually, there were two statues there, standing guard over Amenhotep’s memorial temple. The biggest one had a crack in it, probably caused by an earthquake, and it made a noise in the middle of the night or as the sun rose, which was said to be the statue ‘singing’. Memnon was a hero during the Trojan War, which is probably why Hadrian wanted to see it. As was custom of the day, he left his signature and Julia Balbilla, a Roman noble woman and poet who was travelling with Hadrian as part of the court, wrote a . Whilst in Thebes, touring Egypt as part of the imperial court of Hadrian, wrote three epigrams which were inscribed on the leg of one of the statues. Episode LVII – Little Soul, Little Wanderer, Little Charmer It’s probably good advice not to end up a Grumpy Old Man, because that’s how you will be remembered. Hadrian was suffering from degenerative heart disease, and took a long time to die, just as was foretold in a curse uttered against him by an erstwhile successor whom he later put to death that he would “long for death but be unable to die”. He was a testy old bugger in the last few years. He chose his former brother-in-law and his son as possible successors, then executed them; then he chose a young, sickly man who also predeceased him, and then finally chose the future Emperor Antoninus Pius, along with Lucius Ceionius Commodus (not the later Emperor Commodus- he’s a way off yet) and Marcus Annius Verus as a three-way bet. Episode LVIII – Tacitus looks at one of the most important historians of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. We don’t know much about Tacitus himself e.g. when he was born, when he died, even his real name. The little that we do know about him came from his biography of his father-in-law Agricola, which probably only came down to us because of the connection with Britain. Tacitus himself was a consul and a senator. He wrote 5 works covering 14CE and 96CE but the most famous ones were his Histories and Annals, which drew on Senate records and oral testimonies, even though we’re missing about half of them. He was dramatic, engaging and a bit sententious. He was on the side of the Senate, and the emperors who respected the Senate.

You’re Dead To Me (BBC) The Colombian Exchange is a modern day term (invented in the 1970s) to describe the interchange of animals, food, plants, people and culture between the New World and Europe. Featuring Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, author of On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe and comedian Desiree Burch. In relation to animals, the Spanish introduced cattle, sheep, goats and pigs (i.e. big domestic animals) and nearly wiped out llamas. Flowing back to Europe were birds in particular and cochineal from insects (which was used for the colour red). The plants mainly went from South America to Europe, including Brazil wood and rubber tobacco (the act of smoking was described as ‘drinking smoke’), tomatoes, beans, squash, potatoes, pineapple. Instead the Europeans gave them cauliflower, wheat, rice, olives. There was an interchange of diplomats e.g. In 1544 Mayan lords visited Phillip II, bringing gifts of chocolate and feathers and taking back crosses and religious items (they wuz robbed). Pennock reminds us, too, that tens of thousands of South Americans ended up in Europe as slaves and servants.

Take Me To Your Leader (ABC) Rishi Sunak It didn’t surprise me at all that Liz Truss defeated Rishi Sunak in the first ballot after Boris Johnson. I always expected that Tory voters would prefer a woman over a man of colour when push came to shove, but that ended up being a disaster. The prominence of women and people of colour in the Conservative party never ceases to amaze me, particularly considering the dearth of both in the Labour Party, but this is the result of David Cameron’s concerted efforts to increase the representation of both. He is described as ‘Asian’ in the United Kingdom, which has a different meaning than in Australia, but both his parents actually came from Africa. He had an elite education, and his wife is very, very rich. As one of the commentators pointed out, in Britain it is now not a matter of race, but of class. He promised to calm things down, which he has, but he is quite hard-line (e.g. over Brexit) without engaging in culture wars. However, neither Johnson or Truss have gone away, so perhaps this still has some way to run. The guests were Baroness Kishwer Falkner of Margravine, British politician and member of House of Lords; Sir Craig Oliver, former British news editor and former Director of Politics and Communications for British prime minister David Cameron and George Brandis, former High Commissioner to the UK and former Australian Attorney General.

The Latin American History Podcast The Conquest of Peru Part 5 The Spanish sent their first envoy to Atahualpa, who kept him waiting. Both sides thought that they had each other’s measure, and so the vastly-outnumbered Spanish agreed to meet with Atahualpa in Cajamarca, a large square surrounded by mountains. After Pizarro read the Requerimiento, a legal document (“requirement”) drawn up in 1513, to be read before initiation of the conquest of Amerindians offering them Christianity, Atahualpa asked to see the Bible that was being brandished around. Not having ever seen a book before (let alone a Bible), he dropped it on the ground and Pizarro ordered his hidden army to attack. Six thousand Inca were killed, with no reported Spaniard deaths, and Atalhualpa was captured, thus replicating Cortez’ ‘success’ with Montezuma.

A History of the Inca I saved this to my podcast feed ages ago and haven’t really listened to it. I was excited when I found it, because it has episodes in English and in Spanish. The English version was done first, and then the presenter Nick Machinski decided to translate them into Spanish, read very clearly by Alicia Yantas. I’m about Intermediate B1 in Spanish, and I was able to understand her quite easily. Episode 1 is just a five-minute introduction, then Episodio 2 Bienvenidos a los Andes in Spanish (or Episode 2 Welcome to the Andes in English) talks about the terrain and the climate, especially the influence of El Nino and La Nina, and the development of ayllus as a way of spreading the risk of drought or flood amongst loosely linked communes. Actually I saw an ayllu (below) when I was in the Atacama desert, and I didn’t realize what it was.

Movie: Living

Apparently this film is a remake of the Japanese film Ikuru, which was itself inspired by Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’. That doesn’t surprise me because it had that well-structured short story feel about it. In fact it reminded me of the other film based on a short story that I saw recently ‘The Quiet Girl‘ (well, last year) that affected me so much with its close-up focus, beautiful cinematography and repressed emotional pain. I’m not surprised, either, that Kazuo Ishiguro was involved in the screenplay because it has the same nostalgia and repressed yearning of ‘The Remains of the Day’. Bill Nighy’s acting is just wonderful and the stultifying atmosphere of the office is so well captured that you can feel it deadening you.

My rating: 4.5 stars

‘The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson’ by Leah Purcell

2019, 278p.


Any Australian child who grew up during the 1960s would know the story of The Drover’s Wife. It was in the Fifth Grade School Reader, and we all had the vision of the unnamed woman, dressing up on Sundays and walking through the lonely bush pushing the perambulator with her children beside her; and sitting up all night waiting for the snake to come out from the woodpile into the house, with Alligator the dog stretched out, his hackles rising as the snake finally slithers into the log hut.

I hadn’t realized that the version we read at school was an abridgment of the longer story (which can be found at and it was only when I read the longer version that I realized the racism threaded through it. The “stray blackfellow…the last of his tribe and a King” had built the woodpile hollow, and was thus indirectly to blame for the presence of the snake in the house; then there is the caricature figure of King Jimmy, who sent his wife Black Mary “the “whitest” gin in all the land” to assist with her third childbirth. Thankfully, these do not appear in the School Reader version.

But it’s easy to see how the story of The Drover’s Wife acts as a springboard into Purcell’s 20th/21st century reimagining of the story with an aboriginal protagonist, domestic violence and rape wrought by white men, and morally superior indigenous characters. Far from the heroic white settler ideal, the white men here are murderous brutes and ‘justice’ is warped. She fleshes out and gives a name to The Drover’s Wife – Molly Johnson- and she gives “Black Mary” a backstory that reflects the violence of Australia’s colonial history. There are no white saviours here: the good man is Yadaka, and it is Yadaka who reveals Molly’s own story to her.

There are nods to the original Lawson story – a fleeting reference to the Sunday walks through the bush- enough for someone who knows the story to recognize it. But younger readers, I suspect, would not know the Lawson story and would perhaps not recognize the subversion of the original that Leah has executed. Perhaps in 30 years, the subtitle will be sufficient ‘The Legend of Molly Johnson’.

This was such a clever, insightful playing with white settler fantasies that I feel curmudgeonly in pointing out the flaws in the story which are, unfortunately, many. The book is an expansion of the stage play and it still bears the strong use of dialogue that would have marked a performance. But with the tasks of expanding into a novel, Purcell has permitted herself to explore her characters’ “inner thoughts” and this is one of the things that brings the book undone. She skips from character to character, switching between first and third person which gives a disjointed feel to the narrative. She has introduced two white characters into the book – Nate and his wife Louisa Clinton- who, in a twist that doesn’t quite come off, ends up being a nod to Henry Lawson’s mother Louisa Lawson. There are plot steps that just don’t make sense: for an isolated bush-hut there seem to be many people going past, and it is never explained why Molly stops, endangering her children whom she has protected fiercely throughout, on their way to Yadaka’s cave. The ending was heavy-handed and cliched.

There were a number of disconcerting anachronisms in the book. Women had ‘baby bellies’; there were ‘hobby farms’; people did ‘business degrees’ (universities offered no such courses); people were affected by hormones (not discovered until 1935). This is not the American West: executions required a Supreme Court trial, not the local magistrate, and they took place in capital cities. Even the scenario of children ordered by a judge to be ‘taken’ without reason is anachronistic, the legislation being introduced in the early 20th century. This book cried out for good editing and fact checking.

There is much to admire in its subversion and defiance. But this book has shown me that playwrights are not necessarily novelists, and that even the most creative and politically sharp critiques can be brought undone by infelicities.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: own copy. Read for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 March 2023

Kerning Cultures A Past Life I’m quite attracted to the idea of a past life (or lives) but I don’t really believe it. However, adherents to the Druze faith certainly do believe in reincarnation. Possibly this is because you can’t convert to the Druze faith: you need to be born into it, and rebirth keeps the numbers stable. This is the story of Heba, who lived in both America and Lebanon, who as a child called herself ‘Amad’ and spoke of ‘Amin’, her husband. People from her parents’ village back in Lebanon told her family that Amad had died, and that they had known her. As an adult, Heba went back to Lebanon to locate this family, but found herself enmeshed in a family that she did not know or remember.

The ‘Brown Building’, site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

History This Week Fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Saturday 25 March 1911 was the date of this appalling fire, which led to the deaths of 146 garment workers within 15 minutes – 123 women and girls and 23 men in a 10 storey building opposite Washington Square in New York. This episode features David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America who points out that the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was actually one of the most well-lit and modern of the garment factories which replaced the sweatshops in tenement buildings. The fire broke out on a Saturday afternoon as the employees were about to pick up their pay and leave for the weekend. (Even though the vast majority of workers were Jewish, they had to work on Saturdays). The shirtwaist factory occupied the 8,9 and 10th floors, and was conducted by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, former garment workers themselves. But by now they were entrepreneurs, suspicious of their workers and vehemently anti-union. When fire broke out, the fire brigade found that their ladders only reached to the 6th floor. The lift operators were in many ways the heroes here, running the lifts up and down to the burning floors for as long as they could (after making sure that all the management staff were evacuated from the top floor, that is). The water did not work and escape doors were locked to prevent theft, but both owners escaped punishment. However, the fire prompted changes to working conditions …eventually, once Tammany Hall politicians began distancing themselves from the factory owners. I was amazed that the building was still standing when we visited New York back in 2011, and it has plaques on the wall commemorating the tragedy. So strange to think of so much death occurring right opposite Washington Square Park.

History Extra George VI’s Nazi Dilemma During WWII, George VI (i.e. Elizabeth’s father) faced a dilemma on two fronts. The first was his brother, the disaffected former Edward now Duke of Windsor. The second was his advisors, including Chamberlain and his foreign secretary Halifax, who both urged appeasement – and indeed, George himself leaned towards appeasement at first. This episode features Alexander Larman, the author of The Windsors at War: The Nazi Threat to the Crown The Duke of Windsor, he says, was cunning but not clever and he worried more about communism than fascism. Although not a Nazi himself, he did have Nazi sympathies. He harboured fantasies that perhaps he might be invited back as King, and he thought that he might be able to act as a puppet leader for Hitler, whom he admired till the end. He did do intelligence work for Britain early in the war, but then gave intelligence to the Nazis e.g. the layout of Buckingham Palace so that there could be targeted bombing. There was still residual warmth for the former king, so it was decided to send him to the Bahamas as Governor rather than have him tried for treason in England (for which there would be grounds). In effect, George VI found his mettle during the war and became good friends with Churchill.

The Ancients Beast Hunts. Our image of lions in the Colosseum underplays the industrial scale of importation of animals for spectacles that were held throughout the Roman Empire. The killing was on a massive scale: 9000 beasts were killed in the 100 days festival of the opening of the Colosseum. The logistics of locating and shipping animals from the provinces required organization, and provinces could be taxed in animals rather than money. The animals were often used for meat afterwards. But so were condemned non-Roman criminals who were fed to the animals, the ultimate form of death-shaming. Emperors used displays of animals to show their power, although Pompey’s plan to ride into his triumph on elephants was brought undone when they didn’t fit through the gate!

Rear Vision (ABC) War in Ukraine: The Political Story. I learned more from this episode than I did from the earlier one (The Military Story). The central and eastern nations in NATO had been warning about Russia for some time, but were largely disregarded by the ‘older’ NATO nations of Germany and France. Finland and Sweden are now looking to join NATO, thus bringing NATO right to the Russian border (one of the reasons that Putin put forward for moving into Ukraine). Finland has always had a large army, and Sweden (which previously prided itself on its neutrality) was already building up its armed forces after allowing them to run down. The Baltic States, Finland and Sweden are now more aligned than they were. Central Asia, which has had a strong relationship with Russia in the past, are wary, and are looking more to southern Asia as an alternative. Turkey is useful to Russia because of its presence in NATO, and Iran is providing weapons. The non-Western countries e.g. South America, Africa are cynical about the West’s response, and largely keeping out of it.

Emperors of Rome. Episode LIV – There and Back Again (An Emperor’s Tale) After a short time in Rome (having taken the long way home), Hadrian sets off again on a four year tour. First he went west to Gaul, Brittania (where he left the 3-metre thick Hadrian’s Wall) and España; then he went east to Syria and Turkey, then he went to Greece which is where he really wanted to be (because he loved all things Greek) and stayed there for two years. This four-year peregrination was more about diplomacy than anything else- he did lots of building along the way as part of marking Rome’s dominance across the provinces. Wherever he went, he left troops in a peace-keeping role. It was while he was in Greece that he met his beautiful boy Antinous. Episode LV – What Hadrian Loves Best. Three things. 1. Impressive buildings. Even though it was hard to find space in Rome after all these centuries, he did, and he built the big 10-column temple to Venus and Roma. He rebuilt the Pantheon for the 3rd time. But although he liked leaving buildings with his name on them in the provinces, he was careful not to do so in Rome which would have seemed crass. 2. His wife Vibia Sibina. Well maybe he didn’t love her that much. Nonetheless, she was an Augusta and their marriage was a way of strengthening the Romano-Spanish contingent in Rome. 3. Antinous. He really did love Antinous. Lots of Roman men had boy lovers, but Hadrian seems to have been particularly besotted by him. Nonetheless, it’s debatable whether Hadrian was ‘homosexual’ in our sense of the word today. There is debate over Antinous’ death: was it an accident? suicide? even murder? What is not debatable is that Hadrian was heartbroken when he died. Episode LVI – May His Bones Rot Although he had no intention of expanding the Empire, Hadrian was intent on consolidating what he still held. There had been discontent bubbling away in Judea for some time, and the stubbornly monotheistic Jews were an intractable problem in a polytheistic culture like Rome. Hadrian had plans to rebuild Jerusalem, which was still in ruins after the first Roman-Jewish war of 66-73CE, as a distinctively Roman colony, and he outlawed circumcision. An anti-Roman insurrection broke out, led by the Messianic Simon bar Kokhba, and led to a three year guerilla war of attrition. According to Cassius Dio, Roman war operations in Judea left some 580,000 Jews dead and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages razed. Hadrian erased the province’s name from the Roman map, renaming it Syria Palaestina, and had Jerusalem rebuilt in the Greek style after re-naming it Aelia Capitolina.

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams

2020, 406 p.

“Have you read The Dictionary of Lost Words?” I asked my daughter-in-law. She hadn’t, she said, although she started it and then abandoned it because she didn’t find it very interesting. I could sympathize: I wasn’t too enamoured of the first eighty or so pages of the book either. But I’m really glad that I persevered, because by the end, I absolutely loved this book.

I am a historian, and I love history, but I am very conscious of when the research behind a book swamps the narrative. I find myself wishing that the author had done their research, and then just put it away out of reach and written into the spaces left in the history. This is exactly what Pip Williams has done here, and her book is all the stronger for it.

The book is based on the real-life compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, which formed the basis of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, a book which describes the relationship between James Murray, the Editor of the OED and volunteer Dr. William Chester Minor, incarcerated at Broadmoor Asylum. Pip Williams read that book too, and in her author’s note, she says:

I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was left with the impression that the Dictionary was a particularly male endeavour. From what I could glean, all the editors were men, most of the assistants were men, most of the volunteers were men and most of the literature, manuals and newspaper articles used as evidence for how words were used, were written by men. Even the delegates of the Oxford University Press- those who held the purse strings- were men

p. 410

Yet there were women involved in the Dictionary, and Pip Williams found them. There were James Murray’s wife Ada and three daughters Hilda, Elsie and Rosfrith who were engaged in the endeavour. Edith Thompson and her sister Elizabeth provided 15,000 quotations – perhaps not as many as Dr Minor, but prolific nonetheless. There was Eleanor Bradley who worked as part of her father’s team of assistants. Then there were the women who sent in quotations for words, or who wrote the texts that counted as ‘evidence’ of a word.

It is among these real-life women that Williams has created her story, finding the gaps and merging fact and fiction. Her fictional character, Esme, is the daughter of one of the lexicographers working in the Scriptorium, a rather-grandly named shed in the grounds of James Murray’s house. Her mother had died, and her father is raising her with the aid of Lizzie, an Irish maid not much older than Esme herself. Esme accompanies her father to the ‘Scrippy’, where she hides under the table as the lexicographers work, and it is from under the table that she notices one of the slips on which the words are written floating down to the floor. It’s the word ‘bondmaid’, and she takes it and hides it in the trunk under Lizzie’s bed onto which she scratches the label ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’. As she becomes increasingly aware of the class gap between herself and Lizzie, and the gender gap between the men compiling the Dictionary and the women whose work provides the fabric of their middle-class existence, she is drawn to more ‘lost’ and ‘unknowledged’ words. She collects them from Lizzie, from old, toothless Mabel in the market, from actress-turned-suffragette Tilda, and as her experience grows, from her own knowledge of women’s bodies.

At the same time, this fictional Lizzie is living within a real-life historical world including the suffrage movement and World War I. Just as we are shaped by events and trends (for myself: baby-boomer prosperity, a politics in which the Labor Party became a viable political contender, the internet, 9/11, COVID), so too Lizzie’s life is touched by historical events, but Williams deftly keeps these as external, but inexorable influences without letting them overwhelm the narrative. She has her research well under control.

The book is steeped in questions of language and power, and there are some nice little plot tweaks that highlight the importance of language and words. One of the lexicographers speaks to Esme in Esperanto – that quixotic attempt to construct an international language and the Suffragettes adopt the motto of “Deeds, Not Words”. The epilogue, which takes us to a Lexicography conference in Adelaide in 1989 might seem superfluous or tangential but it’s not: the collection of the Kaurna language by ethnographers and missionaries and its restoration, like language reclamation projects in many Indigenous communities, is another form of “lost words”. In this way, Williams takes the process of transcription and compiling out of the little Scriptorium in an Oxford garden over a period seventy-one years to our own present as Australians as we face our own truth about languages that were proscribed and extinguished, only to be found again.

I really enjoyed this book, and didn’t want it to finish.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups, and my own copy as well.

Six degrees of separation: from ‘Born to Run’ to…

It’s the first of April, first Saturday and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. This is a meme conducted through Kate’s BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest website, where she chooses the starting title, then you link six other titles that spring to mind.

The starting book for April is Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run. Of course, I haven’t read it – but that’s not unusual: I have rarely read the book that Kate chooses!

Bruce Springsteen is a singer, but I must confess to neither liking nor disliking him. But one group that I really did like was The Beatles (I’m showing my age) and I’m a sucker for anything Beatle-related. Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time takes a chronological approach, from the earliest days of playing together and goes through to their last performance on the roof of the building in London. It is written as a series of short chapters – 150 of them – some a few pages in length, some only taking up a page. It’s a very long book at over 600 pages, and the chapters range from facts, personal reminiscence, counterfactual and events that were only tangentially related. In fact, when I finished I wondered if it was even worth it. You can read my review here.

Someone who could count a bit further than four is Grace Lisa Vandenburg, the main character in Toni Jordan’s Addition. Grace counts things obsessively and incessantly, as a way of trying to control her world and all around her. Into this ordered and tense life comes Seamus, who is attracted to her humour and quickness, and steers her towards therapy and medication as a way of overcoming her obsessiveness. We lose our perky, wisecracking, passionate and controlled narrator as the medication submerges her into a slow, passive inertia. Will she lose the medication or lose her man? Or both? And what is the line between eccentricity and madness? It’s a feel-good romantic fiction book- not my usual fare, but certainly good for reading situations when you want something light. My review is here.

A far more searing and uncomfortable approach to ‘madness’ can be found in Kate Richards’ memoir of that name Madness: A Memoir. Kate is a qualified doctor, but years of mental illness have made this career path untenable for her. There is this chaotic, obsessive, hyper-sensitive existence inside her head that somehow co-exists falteringly with the semblance of a ‘normal’ life: a job in medical research, friends, parents, a flat. This is such a brave book. It is simply written, but it is hard to read. I reviewed it here.

A woman being manipulated into thinking that she was mad is a popular trope, but one of the early writers to explore it was Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White. This door-stopper of a book at over 600 pages has all the usual Victorian tropes: grand houses, fortune hunters, madness, swapped identities, secrets, dastardly deeds, swirling fog and graveyards. It uses a favourite Victorian technique of doubles: two sisters; two houses; two villains. But what is really striking about this book is how modern it is in its use of multiple narrators, who handball the narrative between them, and a real sense of tension that mounts through the book. You might not think it, but this 600 page book is almost unputdownable! You can read my review here.

Wilkie Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens, and their books (most of which came out in serialized form) are long, intricate and a damned good read. I could have gone for any one of Dickens’ books, or a biography of Dickens but instead, I’ll plump for some social history with What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. The book is a cradle-to-grave, upstairs-to-downstairs explanation of the domestic and social world of the characters one might find in Victorian literature. It explains clothes, food, business practices, social manners and expectations etc in a rather whimsical fashion. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and you don’t really need to have read particularly widely to enjoy it. It is divided into two parts- the first is organized thematically, while the second part is a glossary of particular terms and phrases that you’re likely to encounter in reading Victorian novels. The book is intended as a bit of a hoot, and in that way it probably fulfils the promise of its catchy title perfectly. I reviewed it here.

So, I bet you think I’m going to finish up with a Jane Austen. Not quite. Instead I’ll finish with P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley which is a mash-up of Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice with a crime fiction novel. The scenario is this: Darcy and Elizabeth have been happily ensconced at Pemberley for the past six years where Elizabeth has duly delivered two Darcy heirs. It is the eve of the traditional Pemberley ball instituted by Darcy’s mother Lady Anne. Sweet Jane and Bingley have arrived early, Darcy’s sister Georgiana is fending off two suitors in Colonel Fitzwilliam and the young lawyer Mr Alveston, the silver is being polished and the house is crackling with anticipation. Suddenly the preparations are disrupted by Elizabeth’s younger sister Lydia Wickham, arriving unannounced and hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered in the nearby wood. He hasn’t , but his friend Captain Denny has. I shall go no further… but here’s my review.

Can I possibly link Bruce Springsteen with Pemberley? Maybe I can. Apparently Bruce Springsteen used to live in a mansion too, albeit in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Not Pemberley, perhaps but not too shabby….