Monthly Archives: May 2023

‘Inés of my Soul’ by Isabel Allende.

Have you heard of Inés Suarez? I hadn’t, and from Isabel Allende’s Author’s Note at the end of the book, it seems few other people have either, because she was “nearly ignored by historians for more than four hundred years”. She was a Conquistadora born in 1507 in Spain, and along with her partner Pedro Valdivia, and then later with her husband Rodrigo de Quiroga, she established the city of Santiago that is today the capital of Chile.

After marrying Juan de Málaga, she was left in Spain for years as her husband travelled to the New World in search of riches. When he did not return, she received permission to go in search of him. She arrived in Peru in 1538, where she learned that he had been killed. As the widow of a Spanish soldier, she received a land grant and and encomienda rights to a number of Indians. Her land was adjacent to that of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia and they became lovers. When Valdivia decided to push into the territory now known as Chile, she accompanied him, ostensibly as his domestic servant, to avoid the strictures of the Church. After a harrowing trip down through the Andes and the Atacama Desert, they arrived at the valley of the Mapocho river, in December 1540, some11 months after leaving Cuzco and established Santiago. The indigenous Mapuche people resisted the invaders over several battles. The Mapuche destroyed Santiago on September 11, 1541 (what is it about that September 11 date?). Vastly outnumbered, the Spaniards retreated to the plaza, where Inés decided to decapitate seven Mapuche hostages who were being held for ransom, arguing that the Mapuche were calling out encouragement to their kinsmen. She threw the heads into the crowd, who fled. However, Santiago itself was in ruins, and the settlement almost starved until it was able to re-establish itself. Meanwhile, her lover Pedro de Valdivia was summoned back to Peru to face charges levelled against him by his enemies. He was found innocent of all charges, except that of living with Inés Suarez in the manner of man and wife. He was forced to break off with her, and bring his own Spanish wife (who had also been left in Spain while he was off adventuring) to Chile. He arranged for Inés to marry one of his generals, Rodrigo de Quiroga, whom he left in charge of Santiago while riding off to try to subdue the Mapuche. She was much younger than Rodrigo, but they fell in love. After the death of Valdivia, Rodrigo became Governor twice, in 1565 and 1575. She and Rodrigo died in Santiago in 1580, within months of each other.

Well, there’s certainly enough in that life to fill a book, and I’m a little surprised that others had not done so before Isabel Allende’s book (there are some earlier attempts, but not very well known). As a well-known Chilean writer, she is well placed to popularise Ines’ story, and she says in her afterword that she spent four years researching her. It’s a shame, then, that the final product is so flat.

Part of the problem is Allende’s choice of a memoir, supposedly written to her daughter, as the frame story. As a result, it is a book with little conversation (as Alice in Wonderland might have complained) and when there is conversation, it seems rather implausible that it would be remembered verbatim. As a historian, I acknowledge and salute Allende’s determination to stay within the boundaries of the history, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a riveting story. Allende imagines herself into Suarez’s emotional life with her lovers, but the most dramatic scene of her life story (if, indeed it is true- some historians question this) is where she executes the seven hostages, and this is merely reported, with little anguish or regret on her part, and without rich – if gory- description. The narrative voice of Suarez, recounting her memories, is rather stilted and academic, and it was difficult to suspend disbelief enough to go along with the conceit that it is Suarez talking. I can understand that, as a woman writing about another woman, Allende would want Inés Suarez to tell her own story, but I think that a better frame story might have been told from the point of view of an observer.

So all in all, a bit disappointing, especially from a writer with the profile and reputation of Allende.

My rating: 6.5 (There was an Amazon Prime series made of her story, based on the book. It is on YouTube (Ines Del Alma Mia) but the subtitles are only in auto-generated Spanish).

Sourced from: the little library in Macleod Park.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 May 2023

Emperors of Rome. After a bit of a hiatus, Dr Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith return to the Emperors, picking up with Episode LXV – Antoninus Pius. It just goes to show that there is no reward for having a prosperous, peaceful reign because Rhiannon and Matt could only scratch one episode for Antoninus Pius, even though he ruled for twenty three years and was known as fourth of the Five Good Emperors. We know little about him, because most of the sources peter out at this point. His family was from trans-Alpine Gaul, but he was actually born in Italy. His father and grandfather had both been consuls under Domitian, but did well under Trajan and Hadrian as well. His daughter ended up marrying Marcus Aurelius, who succeeded him. Despite being a bit cranky at the end, Hadrian had planned his succession well, and Antoninus moved smoothly into the role of emperor and promptly set about getting Hadrian deified, which he deserved but some of those on the receiving end of Hadrian’s crankiness didn’t see it like that. Antoninus, known as ‘Pius’ meaning “dutiful” (rather than “religious” as we might think today) was a diplomat rather than a warrior, and a good money manager. He rebuilt the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, both of which were looking a bit tatty. The Senate wanted to rename September and October after him and his wife Faustina, but he refused. He died in his mid-seventies in his sleep. Episode LXVI – Fronto. This episode presents Dr Caillan Davenport, who is going to take over from Dr Rhiannon Evans fairly soon. He tells us about Fronto, a senator and some-time consul and orator who became Marcus Aurelius´ tutor and later friend/advisor when Marcus was already 18 years old. He wrote over 200 letters to Marcus Aurelius, of which we have about half.

Travels Through Time. 1924 Knowing What We Know features Simon Winchester, and I think that our presenter was rather overwhelmed by the prospect of interviewing him about his new book Knowing What We Know, the transmission of knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic because she herself wrote a book about how ancient knowledge was transmitted. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Winchester is a journalist rather than a historian, because his books are marked by their broad scope and attraction to the ‘good story’. Anyway, after a long discussion, he identified 25 October 1924, when the Zinoviev Letter was published in the British press, setting Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party up for election disaster; the creation of IBM – International Business Machines and the passing of Asian Exclusion Act through Congress, enshrining anti-immigration policy and racism into law. Actually, I wonder if he read the instructions for this program because he seemed to wander all over the place.

History Extra. On the eve of the coronation, I enjoyed this episode featuring Tracy Borman on What Makes a Good Coronation? She starts off by pointing out that the coronation of King Charles III has its roots in Anglo-Saxon times with the crowning of King Edgar in 973. Her tips are:

  1. Have plenty of bling. Unfortunately most of the bits and bobs date only from Charles II because nearly all of them were melted down during the Civil War
  2. Make sure the ceremony is rooted in history, because the whole point is to emphasize that it’s business as usual.
  3. Make sure it’s televised (which of course could only apply to Charles and his mother’s coronations). Queen Elizabeth’s coronation had 90 different contingency plans for unforeseen events
  4. Be in tune with the times. Victoria had a very thrifty coronation to distance herself from the financial profligacy of William IV and George IV. George’s coronation had cost the equivalent of $14 million
  5. Watch the guest list. George IV had to lock his estranged wife Queen Caroline out of Westminster Cathedral when she turned up uninvited.
  6. Think carefully about a joint coronation. Henry VIII had had a very successful joint coronation with his first wife Catherine of Aragon, but his coronation with Anne Boleyn attracted a lot of criticism, no matter how much money was spent
  7. In fact, joint coronations were relative rare
  8. Beware wardrobe malfunctions. George II’s coronation took place on a very hot day and he was enraged when his cap kept slipping over his eyes. Better than Richard II, whose crown blew off in a gust of wind. It snowed on Henry V’s coronation, which was interpreted as an evil portent.
  9. Choosing the time. George VI stuck to the original date chosen for Edward’s coronation (before he abdicated). William the Conqueror went for Christmas Day in 1066 but it was a bit of a fiasco when the troops misinterpreted the cheers for a riot.
  10. Make sure you crown the right king. Edward VI was crowned in Ireland in 1487 but it was an imposter. Henry VII got his revenge by making the imposter a kitchen boy
  11. Don’t be too young. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned when she was 9 months old, and not unsurprisingly she cried when she was disrobed as part of the multiple wardrobe changes
  12. The most successful coronation was that of Elizabeth I. She prepared it very carefully, and took care to include references to her mother (the formerly unpopular Anne Boleyn).
  13. The most memorable was probably Queen Elizabeth II’s because television took the ceremony all over the world.

El Hilo (Spanish) Brasil: violencia en las escuelas, odio en las redes (Brazil: violence in schools, hatred across the social networks) was a program about the recent spate of killings in Brazilian schools. There has always been violence in Brazilian schools, but not at this level. ‘Our’ (honorary) Jacinda even gets a mention for not ever uttering the Christchurch killer’s name. BBC World picked up on the story (article in English)

The Guardian Long Read Historians generally aren’t awarded celebrity status but Timothy Snyder is an exception. Putin, Trump, Ukraine: how Timothy Snyder became the leading interpreter of our dark times looks at his rise to prominence, even though he is often derided as a Cassandra. He, on the other hand, says that good history means taking bad ideas seriously. Actually, I read and reviewed his 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom and certainly he was very prescient. He has a series of lectures on You Tube about Ukrainian history which I must watch some time.

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’ by Margaret Simons

2019, 318 p.

There are special challenges in writing about a current politician. While there are plenty of informants, there is also the spectre of defamation and the whole vexed issue of whether a biography is authorized or not. The political fortunes of the subject may change dramatically, and today’s policies and stances can be rendered obsolete by tomorrow’s developments. Margaret Simons’ biography of Penny Wong was written in 2019, while the Labor Party was still in opposition. Wong was reluctant to be involved in the biography and when she did finally agree to be interviewed, the sessions were conducted in neutral spaces (no empty fruit bowl for her!) with strict limits on what could and could not be discussed. I wonder if she would concede to be involved today, now that she is minister for Foreign Affairs: I suspect not.

Penny Wong is very much aware that she is the first Asian, gay, female Parliamentarian and it was largely because of these adjectives that she decided to run for the Senate with its statewide vote rather than the more geographically concentrated House of Representatives where a targeted negative campaign could cruel her chances. Because she is a Senator, and unlikely to change to the House of Reps, there has been little anointing of her as ‘the next female Prime Minister’.

She has never wanted the Asian/Gay label to define her, but that has happened anyway. I was surprised to learn that her mother’s family, the Chapmans, were an old Adelaide family with a much longer pedigree than many of those who told her to go back to where she came from. She was born in 1968 in Borneo, of Hakka heritage, a group originally from central and southern China, who had emigrated to Borneo to take up land offered to Chinese labourers by the British North Borneo Company. Her father Francis Wong came to Australia in 1961 under the Colombo Plan to study architecture, and he and his wife returned to Sabah, where he became a leading architect and minor public figure. She and her brother Toby were born in Borneo and brought up in a ‘cultural, religious and ethnic melange’. Her much-revered grandmother Lai was Buddhist, her father Catholic and her mother nominal Methodist, and the family celebrated Christmas, Chinese New Year and Muslim religious festivals. In 1976, Penny’s parents split up, and the siblings moved to Australia with their mother, although they returned often to Kota Kinabalu for school holidays. She was unprepared for the racism that she encountered in Adelaide: a neighbour yelled at her to ‘Go back to where you came from, you slant-eyed little slut!) and anti-Asian slogans were spray-painted on their driveway. She was verbally and sometimes physically bullied at primary school. It was at primary school that she resolved not to show her hurt, and this restraint has followed her into her adult, political life, as has -unfortunately- the racist bullying. Racism seems to have formed an invisible straitjacket around her, and continues to constrain her.

This was less true of her sexuality. I was surprised to learn that she had been in a relationship with later premier Jay Weatherill before embarking on a relationship with Dascia Bennett, a woman eight years Penny’s senior with two children, who Wong considered as her step-children. She was later to meet and have two children with Sophie Allouache. As she says:

It is always about the person first. You fall in love with the person…I hope I have some empathy for those whose coming-out experience was really formative, but that wasn’t my experience. I was who I was in most ways before I decided I was in love with a woman. I was formed much more by an awareness of race than sexuality.


Once she was elected to the Senate, she and her political advisor John Olenich were debating ‘how to deal with the sexuality issue’. She protested that she had never been in the closet, and therefore she did not need to come ‘out’ but they agreed to a profile about the two new female Senators written by an acquaintance from university days, Samantha Maiden, which had a single reference to her sexuality: “In Labor circles, it is also well known Senator Wong is gay, a fact she would prefer to leave as a private manner. It was not an issue during her preselection to Labor’s highest ranks.” (The Advertiser, 10 August 2002)

After attending Scotch College where she proved herself to be an outstanding student, she attended the University of Adelaide, and this is where she became involved in student politics as a representative of the Students’ Association and the Adelaide University Union board. She was not necessarily fated to be attracted to the Labor Party. She could have just as easily become involved with the Liberal Party as the Labor Party, until John Howard moved to the right with his racist dog-whistling to attract Pauline Hanson-type voters. It was while she was protesting outside a Labor convention that was debating a graduate tax – and the vote was tied- that she realized the importance of ‘being in the room’, and this has become one of the touchstones of her political stance. At many times- and most particularly during the multiple futile attempts to change Labor party policy on same sex marriage- she remained in the room, even though she was then forced to publicly adhere to a policy that she did not agree with. But for her, the important thing was that the debate was still had, inside the room. But should she have openly opposed Labor policy? In reporting her interview over this topic, Margaret Simon observes that Wong was “defensive and combative”. Wong tells her:

I had a decision to make at that time that I could either resign in a blaze of glory or I could stay and fight. And I did make that decision in 2004- that I would make sure that we changed the party platform one day, and that ultimately we would change the country.

p. 149

It was to take twenty-three bills introduced into parliament, usually by minor parties, until marriage equality was finally achieved in 2017. With her hands covering her face and brushing away tears, the country had finally been changed.

Quite apart from the areas of race and sexuality, which are of personal importance to Penny Wong, I had forgotten that she had been responsible for the Water and Climate Change portfolios – two intractable policy areas, both of which were caught up in the toxic politics of entrenched interests and grandstanding. She was not particularly successful here – indeed, has any politician been successful? – although her pursuit of buybacks in the Murray-Darling scheme have turned out to be more successful than the infrastructure improvement approach which followed her tenure, with little evident improvement. As Climate Change minister, she got caught up in the international politics of the COP meetings and Kevin Rudd’s declaration and then retreat from ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’. Her political judgement was astute but largely behind-the-scenes: she was the only colleague to raise the question of the electoral implications of Rudd’s back-pedalling.

Written in 2019 (an updated second edition is due out this year), Margaret Simon was witness to Labor’s defeat in an election that many thought was an assured Labor victory. It meant that Wong remained a shadow minister, but her work in preparing to be Foreign Minister was prodigious, and was evident (after the book had been published) in Wong’s quick spring to action as soon as Labor won office in 2022. Despite Paul Keating’s withering putdown of her for Penny Wong for “running around with a lei around [her neck] handing out money” in the Pacific, I think that she is very capable and her quiet, polite demeanour has enhanced Australia’s reputation, as well as her own.

I know that Adelaide is a small town, but I hadn’t realized how closely intertwined (dare I say ‘incestuous’?) Adelaide politics were, and probably still are both within the Labor Party and in the political arena generally. In the interplay between student politics, the legal/political profession and across formal political parties, allegiances and enmities were formed and continued over time, including when the participants moved onto the national stage. Wong established a firm friendship with Mark Butler, and a combative relationship with Don Farrell, both of whom are Adelaide representatives and current ALP ministers.

Simon makes no secret of the fact that Wong is a political animal. She has played political games and made political judgements, and not all of them do her credit. She has displayed loyalty, particularly to Kevin Rudd long after others had moved away, and to Anthony Albanese, whose time has come. She has made enemies too.

Simons has chosen as her subtitle ‘Passion and Principle’. Apart from the obvious alliteration, I wonder why she chosen “passion” in describing Penny Wong. Her demeanour is deliberately passion-less – her breaking down in tears after the same-sex marriage plebiscite notwithstanding- and Simons points out the ‘Wongisms’ that she uses to keep control of her language e.g. her low, quiet delivery; her expressive eyebrows to suggest skepticism; her vocal tics like ‘the best of our generation’ and ‘let me just say this’. It came as a surprise to read some of her lectures and addresses (e.g. the John Button Memorial Lecture) where she spelled out her beliefs and priorities and I found myself thinking “You are really good” in a way that doesn’t come through in other forums. While not indulging in ‘what-if’ thinking, Wong entertains counter-factuals as part of working out her position, and she eschews the idea of binary thinking, always looking for an alternative.

Her passion seems to have been constrained by the second ‘p’ of the subtitle: principle. In deciding to ‘stay in the room’ she steadfastly abided by cabinet solidarity outside it (something that I am criticizing pro-Voice Liberal front-benchers for doing), even when it went against her own interests. This came through most clearly to me at the 2011 South Australian Labor convention where the question of a conscience vote for same-sex marriage would come up for debate. She warned Julia Gillard (who opposed a conscience vote) that she would publicly support a change to the party platform. As the most senior South Australian member, she held Julia Gillard’s proxy, and knowing on principle that she couldn’t use it, she gave it to Don Farrell, thus giving her opponents an extra vote and opening up a space for Farrell to give an incendiary ‘no’ speech. (p.231) Given how important the question of same sex marriage was for her, that’s principle.

Margaret Simon is not an invisible presence in this biography. Coming from the press ranks herself, she affords an influence to the media that perhaps a political scientist or historian would not.She has had to actively pursue Penny Wong, and the long list of nearly forty named informants at the end of the book and an extensive bibliography and index reflect her diligence in writing this book. At times it reads like a tussle between two feisty interlocutors: she often challenges Wong’s assertions, and Wong pushes back. Penny Wong has been firm about the ‘no-go’ areas (e.g. her brother, her children). This is no hagiography: instead, as with other good interviewers (I’m thinking her of Janet Malcolm) Simon is reflecting on her own practice as a biographer and refining her own ideas about politics and politicians. In the final pages, Simon says:

…as the book had proceeded I had come to think of it as being about politics itself: how hard it is, the price that is paid in the struggle to make change, and both the necessity and inevitability of compromise, even when- as with climate change- such compromise may do us in. I was thinking that perhaps, as with a tragic play, the audience might leave with a greater understanding of the human affairs it depicted. Perhaps they might also grasp the humanity behind the headlines- and what it meant for a person of talent, passion and principle to devote herself to delivering the service of political representation.

p 317

And in this, I think that Simons achieved this admirably.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: own copy

Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle selection for April.

‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ by Robert Galbraith

2013 (2014) 560 p.

I’m not much of a fan of detective fiction and murder mysteries, and I don’t read much of it. I do watch it on television, but either I roll my eyes at the predictability of simple murder mysteries like ‘Midsomer Murders’ or ‘Death in Paradise’, or I ending up saying “But what happened?” at more complex and convoluted murder mysteries that demand an inordinate number of hours to reach completion. So, I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to read this book, but it was selected by my CAE bookgroup and I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated I would.

As nearly the whole world knows by now, Robert Galbraith is a pen-name for J.K.Rowling who, as an experiment, wrote a book under a pseudonym to gauge the effect of her name in generating sales. Well, she found out: the first edition ran to only 1500 copies, and it was #4,709th on the Amazon best-seller list until the news that Robert Galbraith was in fact J.K. Rowling broke on 14 July 2013. [As an aside, the question over the effect of her name has had a twist. I volunteer at Brotherhood Books and after noticing several visibly unread donations of Robert Galbraith books over a number of weeks, I wonder if they were given as gifts to former Harry Potter aficionados who either (a) decided without opening it that they didn’t like crime fiction or (b) consciously refused to read it on account of J.K.Rowling’s views on transgender rights. Interesting.] I’m too old to have been caught up in the Harry Potter phenomenon: the only one that I read was in Spanish, which is probably not a good basis for judging its quality.

But whether it’s Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling, I was completely caught up in her story-telling within a few pages. She follows all the reassuring conventions of old-fashioned detective fiction – a murder, a flawed main character with a side-kick, a range of possible murderers, lots of sitting in pubs – but she also developed her private detective with the suitably-implausible name of Cormoran Strike with a physical (as distinct from emotional or psychological) disability and an eager female secretary who brings a frisson of romantic tension. Strike lost the lower part of his leg while serving in Afghanistan in an investigation capacity, his business is failing, and he has resorted to sleeping on a camp bed after his girlfriend evicted him from her flat. Meanwhile, his temporary secretary Robin has recently been engaged to Matthew, an accountant, who disapproves of Strike and wants her to find a more respectable secretarial position- something that is less and less appealing to Robin as she is drawn into the investigation.

Perhaps reflecting Rowling’s own ambivalence about fame in the wake of her Harry Potter success, the death that opens this book is an apparent suicide of supermodel Lula Landry from her Mayfair apartment. His investigation is funded by Landy’s brother John Bristow who suspects a police cover-up. In investigating Lula´s death, Strike becomes immersed in the world of high-end fashion, celebrity and paparazzi. He has a family connection with this world, as his father was a Mick-Jagger-esque rock star, but he brings only trouble to Strike’s life. As part of his investigation in a scene reminiscent of Princess Diana, Strike finds himself in a chauffeur-driven car, blinded by the flash of camera bulbs, as he seeks out interviews in nightclubs, photographic studios and luxury apartments. Apart from the conspicuous consumption and empty vanity of this lifestyle, grubby motivations of ego and revenge play out in explaining Lula’s death.

There is a wide range of characters, of varying wealth and class, who swim into and out of the frame as red herrings. Rowling denotes these variations through dialogue, which at time verges on cliche, but these conversational inflections help to distinguish the characters from each other and to reinforce their social distance from each other. It was a long book, and at one stage when a character re-emerged with a new significance, I found myself having to leaf back through the book to remind myself who she was.

This book consciously stays within the crime fiction genre, with some rather surprisingly dated gender stereotypes, which I hope she subverts in later books in the series. The ending has a whiff of the Agatha Christies about it with its “You’re probably wondering why I called you to the drawing room” type ending, but I was grateful that the murderer was clearly identified, the motivations explained and all loose ends tied up. At least I wasn’t left saying “But what happened?”

My rating: 8.5/10- and yes, I will seek out more Robert Galbraith books and see if I can find the television series somewhere.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-30 April 2023

The Documentary (BBC World Service) Caught in Sudan’s Conflict. It all seems so pointless and unnecessary: an armed struggle by two factions within the same army. As if Sudan hasn’t been through enough already: violence, protest, dictatorship, political instability and upheaval. Sudan borders seven other countries apparently, and ripples are likely to spread to these neighbouring countries. In this episode three women from Khartoum – Dallia, Sara and Enass – share their personal situations and concerns, followed by interviews with a very young doctor. Incessant bombing and sniper fire, electrical failure, lack of food and water, unstable internet- and overwhelmingly fatigue from the stress and 24 hr bombing- what a nightmare.

Emperors of Rome Podcast Episode LXIV – Q and A III. This Q&A session dealt with:

  • What did the Romans know about China and India? (Answer: They knew a bit through trade. They knew that Alexander the Great got to north-west India, but not the subcontinent, and they knew vaguely about the Chinese through the fabled land of Scythia. The Chinese reported that a Roman envoy had visited them)
  • At what point does someone who is conquered become a slave? (Answer: if the commander of a battle wanted to, he could take everyone into slavery- or he could kill them, or he could leave them alone. Up to him)
  • Where did the colours come from for Roman garments? (Answer: the red came from plants. It was expensive, and so only rich people would wear it – pictures depicting the Roman Empire during the Renaissance were not accurate. Purple, which came from fish, was even more expensive.)
  • What did Romans celebrate? (Answer: Saturnalia, triumphs, the emperor’s birthday (when he would give presents to the people) and their own birthdays)
  • What did Romans eat? (Answer: pretty rank and disgusting things. They covered everything with garum, a fermented fish sauce. They liked disguising one food as another. For the poor people, they mainly ate grains. In fact, nearly everyone in the Ancient World was malnourished).
  • Do we know where Julius Caesar was stabbed? (Answer: no, it’s an internet thing)
  • Who is our favourite Emperor? (Dr. Rhiannon likes Hadrian. So do I)
  • How did the ancient texts get to us today? (Answer: most of them are copies of copies because paper decays unless it’s in the desert, or buried under lava)
  • How do we prepare and do our research for the podcast? (Answer: it’s not scripted but Matt does have some talking points)
  • How did the emperors see themselves compared with other emperors (Answer: they had to walk a narrow line between being a ‘king’ – because the Romans were allergic to kings- and a god – but only once they were dead. The image of an emperor, and their own concept of themselves, changed over time).

Latin American History Podcast The Conquest of Peru Part 7. Now that they had killed off Atahualpa after sitting looking at each other for 9 months, they had lost their main bargaining chip. The Spanish troops were playing cat and mouse with Quizquiz, who had been one of Atahualpa’s generals. Pizzarro had arrived during a civil war between Atahualpa and his brother Huáscar, and now that Atahualpa was dead, he had to decide which side he would throw his support behind as a way of saving his own skin. In the end he went for the south, wanting to base himself in the city of Cusco.

Source: Wikimedia.

In Our TimeReligion. NOT that I am reconciled to the idea of one of my children taking his family to Bloody Cambodia…. but. Angkor Wat was built for Suryavarman II in the 12th Century in modern-day Cambodia. The Sanskrit culture at that time stretched from Afghanistan through to Bali, in a form of colonialism without the military bit. At the time, Angkor Wat was the largest urban location in the world, with 700,000 to 900,000 people. The temple itself is four times the size of Vatican City and almost the same size as Old London at the time. It is a sculpture in its own right, constructed without mortar. It was built as a Hindu temple to Vishu, but in the 16th century the royal family became Buddhist. Unlike European cathedrals, it was built in an amazing 32 years, and the carvings were made in situ, so there was no scope for mistakes. When the French colonized, they put out the belief that the temple had been ‘lost’, but in fact, it had never been abandoned. Melvyn Bragg, who has been hosting this program for decades, sounds very old and quavery.

Hoy Hablamos. This podcast in Spanish, presented by a Spaniard (as distinct from a Latin American) goes pretty damned fast. I bought a year’s subscription, which gives you access to a transcript and some vocabulary exercises, and with the transcript I can just follow it. Fortunately, the episodes only last about 10 minutes which is my limit at such intensity, so I listen first time by myself, a second time with the transcript, then a third time without the transcript once I know what it’s about. Anyway, during February this year he did a four part series a bout the Guerra Civil Espanola (i.e. the Spanish Civil War), with one episode a week, and it’s really good. It had never occurred to me (forgive me if this is self-evident to everyone else in the world) but Franco the right-wing dictator was actually the rebel leader. I’ve listened to three episodes: Episode 1515 Antecedents and Causes; followed a week later by the Episode 1519 Parties (Bandas), then Episode 1524 Developments. The last episode is Episode 1528 Consequences. But be warned: it’s all in Spanish, and it’s fast.

Take Me to Your Leader (ABC). I’ve finally finished listening to this series, with the final Episode 8: Narendra Modi. I must confess to being rather wary of Narendra Modi and the BJP party, and I don’t particularly feel reassured after this program. It features Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Journalist and Author of ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times‘.Dr. Bharat Barai and Dr Panna Barai, longtime friends of Modi;  Professor Ian Hall, Griffith University. Author of ‘Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy’.Lance Price, Author of ‘The Modi Effect‘. Modi faced international criticism over the Gujurat Riots in 2002, and several of the guests (except his friends) felt that he could be characterized as anti-Muslim, even though the Indian Supreme Court acquitted him of complicity. As with many of the leaders that Hamish Macdonald has examined in this series, there is consensus that he’s not going anywhere in a hurry.

Rear Vision (ABC) Heading up to the Voice Referendum, this is a two-parter. The first episode looks at the 1967 Referendum- a vote to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People as part of the Australian population. As the presenters point out, there had been Aboriginal activism from the 1930s onwards, but by the 1950s, pressure was building for constitutional change. Holt agreed in 1967. There were two parts to the Aboriginal question. The first was that they be counted in the census which they did not previously, presumably because censuses were used to allocate electoral boundaries and there was little prospect, when the constitution was framed, that Aboriginal people would vote. In fact, Aboriginal people did have the vote by now, but many of them did not realize it. The second was that the race powers of the Constitution, which had been written to support the White Australia Policy by legislating against Indian, Chinese and Islander worker populations, be extended to Aboriginal people so that special legislation could be implemented for them. [It’s interesting to hear ‘No’ voters saying that the Voice will be divisive because it gives ‘special’ treatment, and yet the 1967 Referendum, which had bipartisan support at the time, did exactly this quite consciously]. There was another referendum held on the same day with a question about the composition and size of Parliament, and this was far more politically contentious, and when it did not get up, newspaper headlines said that the referendum had failed. The 91% yes vote for the Aboriginal questions was more or less taken for granted. In reality, little changed immediately following the Referendum, but the clause about race-specific legislation laid the groundwork for later legislation, not all of which was positive for Indigenous people.

Part II Giving a Voice to Indigenous Australians- why has it always failed? goes through the history of different consultative committees, highlighting why the Yes proponents want it enshrined in the constitution, and not just by legislation. After 1967 an advisory committee was established with three white men. Whitlam established the elected National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, but when Fraser got in, he abolished it and established the National Aboriginal Conference. This was probably more an exercise in political fence-marking, because both bodies were elected, with about 35-40 delegates, and Fraser made only modest changes. Both were largely ignored. Hawke abolished the National Aboriginal Conference in 1985, probably because it was critical of the Hawke government’s backdown on land rights, and established ATSIC instead in 1987 after two years consultation. It was formed of 63 regional councils (later reduced to 35), and it had a board of 17 members and a chair. It had two roles: 1. to advise the government (not just the Minister) and 2. to oversee expenditure of money. When Howard got in, ATSIC, its regional councils and aboriginal organizations were heavily audited, and the accusations and ongoing criminal proceedings against the ATSIC Chair Geoff Clarke gave Howard licence to abolish ATSIC, supported by Mark Latham. Nothing replaced it. I really enjoyed both these episodes. I thought that I was relatively well-informed, but I really learned a lot.

‘Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here’ by Heather Rose

2022, 236 p.


I enjoy reading memoirs, but they are a strange beast. First, there are the events that the memoirist decides to include or exclude. Second, there’s the voice that the writer adopts, and here Heather Rose adopts a present-tense, unadorned voice with short sentences. And then there is the structure that the writer chooses to shape their memoir. Heather Rose’s memoir is subtitled ‘A Memoir of Loss and Discovery’ and she uses the loss/discovery dichotomy as the fulcrum on which her memoir balances. Despite the title, you have the sense that for sure something bad is going to happen here.

It starts idyllically enough. Born in the 1965, Heather Rose grows up in a new subdivision, close to the River Derwent and under the watchful shadow of Mount Wellington. Her earliest memory, as a two-and-a-half year old, is of her mother climbing a ladder to hose down the roof during the Hobart Black Tuesday fires on 7 February 1967. Their house was spared, and she continued to grow up in Hobart, ensconced in a family with loving and present grandparents. Her maternal grandfather, Grandad Burgess, built a tiny shack on the Tasman Peninsula, 120 kilometres from home, five minutes from the beach and on the shores of a tidal bay. They spent all Christmas holidays, Easter, long weekends and school holidays at the shack where they ran wild, going fishing with their Grandad, and rather intimidated by their intelligent but imposing Nan Burgess. They had even more contact with their paternal grandparents, who lived across the road from the primary school they attended. As the family lived more than a kilometre from the school, the children would go across to Nan and Pa Rose’s house for a home-cooked lunch every day, and return there after school until their mother picked them up. When Heather Rose was eleven, her grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, and she learned that

Grief is when nothing can be done and there’s no going back to fix it, and there’s no going forward without knowing that it can never be fixed.


She is to learn even more about grief the following year. A boating tragedy sees her family rent apart after her brother Byron and Grandad Burgess drown when their fishing dinghy overturns in Lime Bay, half an hour from their beach shack. It is in the wake of this tragedy that she has her first visitations – or whatever you want to call them- from the spiritual realm. The morning before the tragedy, she dreamed that her brother was drowning, and she blamed herself for years for not rousing her parents, convincing them to do something – that it could not be fixed. On seeing her brother leave for the fishing trip, she saw a white light around him as if he were glowing; after his death she saw Byron in their house, sitting in the chair by the bookshelf, standing in the open door. But the family is broken: no-one mentions Byron’s name; her remaining brother becomes moody and volatile; her sister becomes quieter. And

A bitterness sets in between my parents. There are silences at the dinner table, arguments, fights and long cold spells in which Mum and Dad do not speak to one another. I want everyone to be happy. If only, I can make everyone happy, maybe it will be okay. Years later, when my own marriage unravels, I experience the same sense of defeat. I have failed to keep everyone happy.

p. 28

The shack is sold, her parents separate, her mother remarries and her father ‘retreats into a monkish solitude’.

She leaves Tasmania in 1984 to travel around Asia; the backpacker’s rite of passage. She catches typhoid in Java, heads into Thailand, visits opium dens in Malaysia, then becomes addicted to heroin in Thailand. It is the midst of a heroin stupor that she goes looking for death, finding it as an old door mounted in the wall of a cave, that she only has to push open. Then she hears a small voice that says “No. Not this way. Not here. Go back. Go back. Not now.” It is this experience that propels her towards a monastery in Bangkok, opening up the second pillar of her memoir: discovery.

Then follows a long section on her spiritual journey, which takes her from monasteries to Native American sweat lodges and the grueling Sun Dance ritual. Here I felt as if I should be enjoying this memoir more than I was. I am a spiritual person, and attracted to that yearning and questioning that hums under my day-to-day life. But I found myself recoiling in bemusement from the physical extremity and bizarreness of the rituals she describes (appropriates?) as part of her spiritual source. Perhaps there’s a reason why words fail in the face of spiritual experience. How to distinguish the earnestness of this spiritual search for the sublime and transcendent from an unhealthy obsession with the self and the sidelining of other people and issues?

This emphasis on the ineffable dissipates in the chapter near the end of the book titled ‘Elephant’. She has mentioned in passing her diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling hereditary chronic arthritis that brings flare-ups and periods of remission. She uses her hard-won skills in meditation and supplements, but also drugs, supplements and medical cannabis. After many pages describing her own spiritual journey, she becomes frustrated by the remedies, diets, rituals and meditations prescribed in books by Eckhart Tolle, Louise Erdich, the Dali Lama and a long list of other authors. She spells out a long list of forty-nine therapies she has undertaken over the last forty years, from physiotherapy to a whole shopping list of New Age rituals, and any number of food regimes: no starch, low starch, paleo, candida elimination, vegetarian, vegan, no fruit, no sugar no fats, no red meat, raw food, the fast diet. (p 214) As she gradually has fewer flare-ups, perhaps associated with age and menopause, she takes nothing for granted. This chapter, although it seems inconsistent with all the spiritual exegesis that takes up the central part of the book, almost gives the sceptical reader an escape-route: she has undergone all this mortification of the flesh but she needs to heed it, in the end.

She returns to the theme of loss in the closing chapter. Some forty or more years after Byron and Grandad Barnett’s drowning, she tracks down a copy of the coroner’s report on their deaths. Her parents had never seen, or requested, it. She resists the word ‘closure’, but she notes that reading the report eases something in both her parents, to know that there had been multiple attempts to save them. It is when she returns to swim in the bay where they died that she realizes that, for Grandad and Byron, it was what happened. But nothing bad ever happens; that every life is perfect in its own way. She closes with some learnings about memories and their place in our life that reflect, although couched in a bit of ‘woo-woo’ery, both age and experience:

There are memories to acknowledge if we are to learn to live with ourselves, events we revisit over and over, wondering who we are, and why we made those choices. There are always parts too painful to either forget or surrender, and parts that remain unknown until something or someone comes along who offers an invitation. Trauma is a form of haunting. In the darkness of life, there is an invitation for expansion…I’ve come to accept that what I perceive as myself is actually something malleable, prone to change, to shed and reconstruct, and to blossom at unlikely moments and for unlikely reasons. That seems to be the nature of being human. We become what we are story by story, piece by piece.

p, 233, 234.

My rating: A bit too hardcore spiritual and flaky for me. 7.5/10

Read because: I had read ‘Bruny’ and was interested to see what she would do with memoir.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Hydra’ to…

First Saturday, so that means Six Degrees of Separation Day. This is a meme hosted by Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest, where she chooses a starting title, and you link six other books that are related in whatever way you choose. You can read the instructions for the meme here. It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have never read the starting book, and I haven’t this month either. It is Hydra by Adriane Howell, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2023.

So….. Hydra. There’s Hydra the island, and hydra the freshwater organism, but there’s also Hydra of the Greek myth, the monster with nine heads. I’ll go with the latter, which made me think of David Malouf’s Ransom, where Malouf takes a couple of lines from the Iliad, where King Priam travels to recover the body of his son Hector, which is being dragged behind a chariot by the crazed Achilles.

Thinking of Greece, I jump to Gillian Bouras’ A Stranger Here. Back in the 1980s Gillian Bouras used to write columns in the Age about her life in a Greek village, where she emigrated with her husband. A Stranger Here is a novel, but I suspect that it has strong autobiographical elements, where an older woman has experienced divorce and the chains of love for her son that keep her in Europe.

With an older woman as narrator, both chastened and emboldened by experience, it reminded me of Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers (I bet that you thought I would go for Johnson’s biography of Charmian Clift instead).It is written as one hundred chapters, each very short consisting rarely of more than four pages, and sometimes as little as a paragraph. The hundred lovers here (such a daunting number!) are the spark between sensuousness and embodiment (in the sense of being in the body) and the whole range of a woman’s experiences.

A book with a similar title is Steven Lang’s 88 Lines about 44 Women, but the title does not refer to a countdown of lovers, but instead references a song by The Nails which I’d never heard of. There’s not 44 women it, either, just three and the main character is a washed-up rock singer, now living in a cold and isolated farmhouse in the Scottish Highlands.

Rock singers don’t come much bigger than Jimmy Barnes, although he grew up in Glasgow rather than the Scottish Highlands, before emigrating with his poor, violent family to Elizabeth in South Australia. I read Working Class Boy but I don’t seem to have blogged it, although I did see the documentary. They are both excellent.

Another boy from Scotland with a difficult childhood is in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, although his life took on a very different trajectory than that of rock star. It’s set in Thatcher’s United Kingdom – later than Jimmy Barnes’ book- and much of it is about his relationship with his alcoholic mother and his own conflicts about his sexuality.

So, I seem to have rattled around between Greece and Scotland, between blinding sunlight and cold, dank Scotland. Next month we start with Friendaholic. Guess what: I haven’t read that either.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 April 2023

Emperors of Rome Podcast Episode LXII – Juvenal deals with the poet Juvenal. We don’t really know much about him, but he probably wrote between 96- 127 CE. He was the last and the greatest of the Roman satirical poets. He went out of fashion, but had a bit of a comeback in the English satirical tradition when Samuel Johnson became a big fan. Roman satire was written in hexameter meter, like the epics, and in a way they were a bit of a take-off of the epic tradition. His satires were very metropolitan, with their focus on the city of Rome. Juvenal was aware of the dangers of writing about current emperors, so he saved his venom for Nero and Domitian who were safely dead. There’s always a tension in writing satire: its observations about society need to be realistic enough to be recognizable, but they also need to be clearly satirical. Episode LXIII – Women Poets. Well, so far we’ve been doing all these men poets and writers and satirists- but what about the women? We have pictures of women writing, but little actual writing done by women exists. There were two women writers called Sulpicia, although the second one may have adopted the name as a pseudonym. The first lived in Augustan times and wrote elegiac (i.e. love) poems from a woman’s point of view. The second Sulpicia was mentioned by Martial as a poet. We have lists that include women orators, but none of their work. Then there are inscriptions written by women, as in the Column of Memnon where Julia Balbilla and Caecilia Trebulla both left poetic inscriptions. Not a lot, really.

By George Cruikshank (27 September 1792 – 1 February 1878) – The Public Domain Review, Public Domain,

History this Week The Tragic Life of London’s Favourite Clown tells the story of Joseph Grimaldi, who gave his last performance on the 17 March 1828 at the Sadler Wells theatre. He exemplified the comic/tragic nature of the clown. His father, ‘Senor’ was a famous clown, who started his son working at the age of three. It was Joseph Grimaldi who invented the white clown make-up, the floppy clothes and the ‘drunk’ routine. But he had a tragic life: his first wife died in childbirth, his son died, and he and his second wife were so unhappy that they devised a joint suicide pact, which was unsuccessful. The guests on this episode are Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, and Naomi Shafer, Executive Director of Clowns Without Borders USA.

Travels Through Time A Year of Great Promise 1480 Finally the Wars of the Roses were over, the plague had abated, and 1480 dawned as a year of promise. This episode features Nicolas Orme, who is a self-described ‘mosaic’ historian, who gathers his information about phenomena hiding in plain sight. His most recent book is Tudor Children, and he starts off talking about concepts of childhood in Tudor Times. Generally, 0-7 was seen as infancy; 7-14 as childhood; 14-21 as adolescence and 28 onwards as adult- quite late really, considering the short life span. He then goes on to talk about 1480. His first scene is William Caxton’s Printing Shop where, reflecting the fall from favour of French, 80% of his books were printed in English. His second scene is Oxford, where William Waynflete is opening his new grammar school, Magdalen College School.It taught classical Latin, which was seen as a unifying language force in Europe, and was the first school to use textbooks. The third scene is Bristol. William Worcester is measuring and describing the streets of the city: the first ever historical survey of an English town. He was a retired polymath, and he returned to his childhood city of Bristol, measuring the streets in what was a forerunner of later geographical surveys. In the meantime, his sister’s nephew was leaving the port of Bristol to look for ‘Brazil’- at that time, still just a fable, in a year that was on the cusp of being the Age of the Great Explorers.

Take Me To Your Leader (ABC) I should have listened to this earlier, as by now Episode 7 Sanna Marin is about an ex-Leader, having lost the leadership in the recent Finnish elections. The episode features Laura Liswood, (Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders) Salla Vuorikoski, (Finnish Journalist for Helsingin Sanomat and political commentator) and Herve Lemahieu, Director of Research, Lowy Institute. I hadn’t heard of the Council of Women World Leaders, which has 89 former and present prime ministers and presidents as its members. Liswood mentions the “crumbling cliff of women’s leadership” when women are only appointed after all hope is lost, but this wasn’t the case in Finland where the requirement of 40% of all cabinet positions to be allocated to each gender means that there is an ongoing stream of potential women leaders. Nonetheless, Sanna Marin copped flack for dancing at a nightclub, and for working as a checkout worker (‘chick’) in a supermarket, in comparison with Rishi Sunak, who uses his experience of waiting in an Indian restaurant as a badge of pride. Good on Jacinda Adern for slapping down the journalist who asked if she and Sanna they met together because they were both young, instead of because they were both leaders of their country.

A History of the Inca. Episode 5 deals with Los Nasca (in Spanish) who I only knew because of the Nasca lines (and isn’t there a car race of that name too? Oh. It has an ‘R’ at the end). It’s available in English here. I’m a little tempted to listen to the English episode as well, because I’m not sure if I understood the Spanish one completely. The episode talks about their ceramics and depictions of the Anthropomorphic Being (AMB) combining elements of animals like cats and monkeys, whales and plants. There’s some exploration of the ideas put forward to explain the Nasca lines from the God-type theories, to water channels, to ritual dance (which this program seems to favour). And then there’s the trophy heads, which have a range of explanations too- literally trophies from defeated foes, or perhaps fertility ritual objects. The site has a link to a story map (in English) which has some good images and explanations.

New Books Network. I keep my eye on the Australian and New Zealand books, and this time Elizabeth Elbourne’s Empire Kinship and Violence. I had come across Elizabeth Elbourne before, and it didn’t occur to me that she was Canadian. In her book Empire Kinship and Violence she looks at three families, the the Haudenosaunee Brants of northeastern North America from the American Revolution to exile in Canada; the Bannisters, a British family of colonial administrators, whistleblowers and entrepreneurs who operated across Australia, Canada and southern Africa; and the Buxtons, a family of British abolitionists. I guess that it falls under the ‘Australian and New Zealand’ label because of her treatment of Saxe Bannister, the first Attorney-General of NSW, who clashed with Governor Darling, and who participated in a duel with newspaper editor Robert Wardell. She chooses the time frame 1770-1842 so that she can start with the American War of Independence, and end with Buxton’s unsuccessful Niger Expedition. I like her approach. The book is available as an e-book from SLV (just as well, because the book costs $170. Cambridge University Press books are exorbitant. I can only imagine that people publish with them for the prestige, because few individual readers would buy them, only libraries)

‘A White Hot Flame: Mary Montgomerie Bennett, author, educator, activist for indigenous justice’ by Sue Taffe

2018, 468 p.

“What’s with all the Mary Montgomerie Bennett?” you might be asking yourself, as my other recent post dealt with Alison Holland’s book Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights. Well, March being Women’s History Month, I often volunteer to give the talk during March at my small Melbourne Unitarian Universalist Fellowship group as an opportunity for myself to research a woman whose ideals and values propelled her into activism. In this year of the Voice to Parliament referendum, and perturbed by the splintering of opinion amongst ‘progressives’ and the hardening of attitudes on the right, and stung by criticisms by some among the Blak Sovereignty movement of non-indigenous people acting as ‘white saviours’ I wanted to look at a woman who had been involved with aboriginal activism as a non-indigenous person (as I am). Hence my reading of two books in close succession about Mary Montgomerie Bennett. You can read my talk here.

In many ways I wish that I had read this book first. Although it was published later than Holland’s book, its approach is much more readable and more focussed on biography rather than political ideas. Fundamental to Bennett’s work, she argues, is the conflict and dissonance between her hagiography of her pastoralist father and romanticization of the relationship between blacks and whites on the family station ‘Lammermoor’, and the reality of the impact of government policy on aboriginal lives which she fought all her adult life to challenge.

Perhaps it’s my own leaning towards biography, but I felt as if I had a much fuller picture of Bennett (or Mimi Christison as her maiden name was) through Taffe’s emphasis on her childhood influences and adult experiences, rather than ideas. There are many paradoxes in her life: her emphasis on family in Aboriginal culture and yet her own fairly sterile family life once her much-adored father had died; her entirely correct assertion of the centrality of land to Aboriginal identity and yet her own rootlessness (the amount of travelling that this pre-air-travel family undertook is amazing) and her deep devotion to the Wongatha people of the goldfields of Western Australia and yet lack of action for the Dalleburra of northern Queensland on whose land Lammermoor stood (perhaps out of a feeling of guilt?) Taffe has relied heavily on family correspondence to give a fuller picture of Bennett/Christison’s childhood and London life, and on correspondence with fellow activists both overseas and interstate as she became increasingly critical of government policy. It was much of this correspondence that was seized after Bennett’s death, but Taffe has a more benign explanation than that suggested by Holland.

After an introduction, Taffe’s book is arranged around four main sections, ending with an epilogue:



  • Ch. 1 Parents: A pioneer Scots pastoralist and a London artist
  • Ch. 2 Mimi’s Childhood


  • Ch. 3 Mimi Christison: Art student and young English lady
  • Ch. 4 Christison of Lammermoor: Romance burdened by reality
  • Ch. 5 M.M. Bennett: Emerging activist


  • Ch. 6 Learning about Western Australia: ‘My eyes open and my mouth shut’
  • Ch. 7 Mrs Bennett, Teacher: Mount Margaret Mission
  • Ch. 8 Commissioner Moseley and Chief Protector Neville
  • Ch. 9 Disillusionment


  • Ch. 10 Dora and Gladys: Wartime London and a return to Australia
  • Ch. 11 Families: Peter Pontara and Human Rights for Aborigines
  • Ch. 12 The Wongatha people of Kalgoorlie
  • Ch. 13 Final days


Perhaps it was the ease of reading, or perhaps Taffe’s emphasis on people, but I came away with a much clearer view of the sheer bastardry of Chief Protector Neville’s ‘absorption’ policy than I had gleaned from Holland’s book- and hence her call for justice as much as ‘rights’. The two books cover the same material (naturally) but I was attracted more to the biographical than political/philosophical approach. They complement each other, but I’d certainly read Taffe’s book first.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: e-book borrowed from State Library of Victoria.