Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

‘Girl Talk: One Hundred Years of Australian Girls’ Childhood’ by Gwenda Beed Davey

girl_talk

2017, 210 pages

As it happened, I started reading this book during International Day of the Girl  (October 11). It’s telling that there is no International Day of the Boy- and nor should there be, considering the straitened and frankly bleak lives that many girls live throughout the world compared to their brothers.

The very first picture in the opening pages of this book, subtitled ‘Group of girls with the Leones and the di Giglio Band, St Kilda, 1911’ shows a musical band of men, with young girls in the background, dressed in white, looking for all the world as if the characters from Picnic at Hanging Rock had turned up at a musical soiree. The text of the book itself starts at a very different place with the ‘sexting’ events of 2016 where young girls texted images of themselves to two boys, only to find their images shared and viewers invited to vote for ‘slut of the year’. It seems hard to even place those 1911 girls, all hatted and demurely dressed in white, in the same analytic frame as those internet images.

This is what Gwenda Beed Davey does in this book. As she writes in her introductory essay ‘Being a Girl in Australia’,

This book looks at the changes in girls’ experiences and behaviour through their own words, their ‘girl talk’. The book will consider what has changed and what has remained the same. Ten women, all born in Australia, have recorded their recollections of their childhood, in decades from ‘around 1910’ to ‘around 2010’ (p.2)

She defines childhood as ending at around 13 years of age, when puberty sets in and childhood games are often abandoned.

In an article for the National Film and Sound Archive, where Davey worked as a Research Fellow, she explains that she more than twenty years ago she had  recorded a number of oral histories for the National Library of Australia. Some of these interviews were made available for the body of this book, supplemented by more recent interviews which brought the book up to 2016.

After the introduction, each chapter is devoted to each interview which is presented as a separate continuous first-person account, with the questions removed. However, the presence of the questions lingers in the topics addressed, with a common emphasis on games played and rhymes recalled, reflecting the author’s interest in childhood games through her earlier involvement in the ‘Childhood, Tradition and Change’ research project (see its fascinating database here). As they are interviews, there is not a lot of narrative shaping, and the endings are rather abrupt. Davey has prefaced each chapter with a paragraph-length introduction, and each interview is seen as being emblematic of a particular decade.

So who are some of the women we meet here? Ethel Carroll, born in 1914, grew up in a series of rented houses with her extended family. Her father was a strong unionist, and worked as a bootmaker. She was brought up in the Methodist church, and through gaining a 1/2 scholarship, was able to attend Stott’s Business College.

Maxine Ronnberg was born in 1920 and lived in Mortlake in rural Victoria until she was thirteen. Her father was a stock agent, and she grew up in the family home where there was a governess, cook and housemaid, as well as the stockmen and drovers.

Jean Phillips was born in 1925 and moved from Collingwood where her father was employed in a boot factory to the nascent Canberra in 1927 where her father worked as a doorman at the ‘new’ Parliament House. They lived in Ainslie in a government house where the rent never changed. She left school at 14 because she didn’t like it and became a dressmaker.

From this point on, the interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2016. Dorothy Saunders was born in Sydney in 1932 and came to Melbourne when she was two. Her father was an industrial chemist educated at Sydney Tech, while her mother was a secretary. She lived at Seaholme, near Altona, which was an undeveloped suburb at the time. During the polio epidemic she went to live in the Blue Mountains for 6 months, and the family later shifted to Ferntree Gully when her father feared that Altona would be bombed during WWII. She had a wide extended family, but her father was very bad-tempered.

Claire Forbes was born in 1940. Her father fought in WWI, and he was left a life-long Pacifist. He was 55 years old when she was born, and he died when she was 15. She was part of a huge Catholic family, and they lived in a small Queensland country town and holidayed in Coolangatta with her large extended family. She had a rural school upbringing, with the Art Train and the Rural School on the ‘rail motor’ bringing extra curricular education to this remote area.

Sue Broadway was born in 1955, if not ‘in a trunk’, then certainly surrounded by vaudeville and greasepaint. Her mother was an entertainer who made the transition to television. Sue herself participated in eisteddfods and followed her mother to the Royal Show and shopping centres. Her father was a teacher and she went on the Moratorium marches.

Patricia Ciuffetelli, born 1961, grew up in Queanbeyan and then Canberra. Her parents were both born in Italy and came to Australia in the late 1950s. She did not speak much English when she started Catholic school. She had a large extended family, the result of waves of chain migration from Italy.

Tara Gower, born in Adelaide in 1981, is a Yawaru woman who dances with the Bangarra Dance Theatre. She was born in Adelaide but shifted to Broome where her father’s grandparents lived, and where many people were ‘coloured’ in Broome’s highly multi-cultural community. She went to St Mary’s, the ‘black’ school but later went to the ‘white’ high school. She considered that her childhood ended  at 12, when her father died.

Jodene Garstone was also of indigenous identity, and 12 years old when this interview was recorded in 2011. This is the only  one of the interviews with an informant who was a ‘girl’ at the time, rather than a retrospective account. She too was born in Broome, but at the time of recording lived in Kununarra, and was at Geelong Grammar on a scholarship. While recalling a childhood eating bush food with friends, she had aspirations to be a surgeon, while her brother was studying law.

I found myself wondering about the author’s role in this book, given that the body of the work is the interviews. An oral history interview is always a shared production. While the questions by the interviewer might steer the shape of the interview, the real wealth of the interview comes from the participant.  In terms of the book itself, as distinct from the interviews from which it is formed, the main contribution of this author lies in the choice of interviews, the selection of pictures, the crafting of the small prefaces before each chapter and her introductory essay ‘Being a Girl in Australia’.

The introduction performs three roles here, and I’m not sure that they combine effectively.  Perhaps if Davey had spelled out more specifically her intent in writing this introduction, it might have been easier to know how to approach it. She has chosen a number of themes, where first she gives a historical precis of the theme across the hundred years covered by her informants; second, she provides a commentary on current (i.e. 2017) events in relation to that theme; then third, draws out illustrations from the interviews themselves.

It’s interesting to look at these themes.  She starts by looking at education, then moves on to health.  There is a long section on past-times and games, which perhaps reflects her earlier research interest in childhood games in the  ‘Childhood, Tradition and Change’  project.  Her discussion then takes a more contemporary approach in exploring ‘The Age of Fear’ and ‘Sexualization, Representation and Experience’. These sections roam far beyond the interviews to discuss helicopter parenting, Bill Henson and Safe Schools. Her theme of families is more firmly rooted in the interviews, but the section on diversity includes the contemporary question of single sex schools and detention centres. She returns to a historical narrative to deal with the 1920s strikes, the 1930s depression and the three major wars. Her section headed ´War, Bereavement and Loss´includes the Stolen Generation and child migrants.

While it is important that the stories revealed in these interviews are placed within their historical context, some of the themes that she identified seem to have been imposed onto the data from a 2017 perspective, rather than emerging from what her respondents said.  Today ‘Class’ sounds rather old–fashioned and 1970-ish as a historical and analytic theme, but it just leapt out from the interviews, as did the influence of extended family. Nor was church observance explored, even though many informants mentioned it. Although class, family and religion don’t have the currency of topics like Female Genital Mutilation, Social Media or Offshore Detention mentioned in the introduction, they are the themes raised by these women, many of whom were middle-aged or older when interviewed.

That said, I enjoyed reading each of the interviews, particularly the ones set further back in the past. Each chapter is between 15 and about 30 pages in length, and the women´s voices come through the narrative. Even though they are mainly told from an adult perspective, they capture the diversity of lived experience across one hundred years, in a range of settings, focused on a life–stage that is too easily overwritten by later events and sensibilities.

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I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

 

 

Source  Review copy courtesy of Australian Scholarly Publishing.

‘Almost French’ by Sarah Turnbull

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2002, 309 p.

Somehow or other, the deluge of books about women going off to France seems to rushed past me. I hadn’t particularly been drawn to dip my toes into the flow, but this book was chosen by my bookgroup and so I read it, some sixteen years after it was published.

At the time of writing it, Sarah Turnbull was an expatriate freelance journalist living in Paris. Most of her journalistic work was published in magazines (similar to the Weekend Magazine that comes with the Age), and the lightness of her touch and self-deprecation makes this an easy and very pleasant read. Food, fashion, the joys (or not) of pet ownership are topics that she addresses in the book, and could easily be lifted for lifestyle magazine consumption.

She only intended going to Paris for a week, having met Frederic in Budapest, and accepting his offer of a week in Paris on a whim.  She ended up staying eight years. In this time she came to realize the truth of the words of an elderly man she had met on the Greek  island of Samos on her travels. After migrating to Australia, he had returned to Greece but felt it “a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures”.

She has to learn the language, and she feels excluded by her limited French and frustrated by her inability to assert herself. But more than words, she has to learn the French purpose of language in a social setting as a game, to show one’s quickness and wit. She struggles with the coldness of other French women until she recognizes it as a manifestation of competition. She mocks Frederic’s horror at her donning tracky-daks to go down to the nearby bakery, but finds herself equally affronted by the tackiness of English dress-sense when they go over to England for a weekend.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny in places, for example where Frederic quickly ties his jumper around his waist and affects a dodgy French accent when pretending to be an Australian tourist when they are challenged for trespassing. There are moments of poignancy too, like when she needs to don sunglasses in the plane when leaving Australia, looking at the Qantas advertisement and seeing the landscape curving away from her from her plane window.

This is really just a series of anecdotes, with no great plot shifts or crises. She is insightful in identifying the nuance and yet solidity of cultural difference. It is something that we can and should all be reminded of, going in the different direction, by people who are adjusting to Australia. It’s a light, enjoyable read- and yes, it made me wonder if perhaps I could go to France next year after all…..

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have put this title onto the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘The Enigmatic Mr Deakin’ by Judith Brett

Brett_EnigmaticMrDeakin

2017, 434 p.& notes

Much of the commentary about recent Australian politics has decried the cycle of replacement of Prime Ministers over the last ten years, the spectre of minority governments and the congestion of hung parliaments as if they were an aberration. However, reading Judith Brett’s biography of Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, the early years of the Australian federal government were unstable and chaotic as well.

Yet in these years the federal government established some of the most progressive legislation in the world in relation to voting practices, a basic wage, pensions and arbitration, later dubbed ‘The Australian Settlement’ by Paul Kelly (see here and here).  This post-federation ‘settlement’ survived until dismantled by the Hawke-Keating government of the 1980s and 1990s, a process accelerated by subsequent neo-liberal governments.

Alfred Deakin was a ‘liberal’ in the true, nineteenth-century sense of the word;  not as in the so-called ‘Liberal’ party today which has long been the party of big business and is becoming increasingly conservative and faith-based. His biographer, political scientist Judith Brett, has written extensively about Liberal Party politicians, most particularly Robert Menzies in Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (1992), Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard (2003)  and a number of Quarterly Essays, most particularly QE19: Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia (2005) and QE29: Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard (2007). She is not  of the right herself, but she is drawn to studies of the middle class and their politics.

And what a wonderful biographical subject Alfred Deakin is! He was a prolific writer and correspondent, much of which is available today. Journalist, lawyer and politician, he wrote professionally, socially and most importantly, reflectively over the length of his career.  A gift to any biographer is his prayer diary, where he mused on spirituality and destiny, and a series of notebooks called ‘Clues’ where he collected epigrams, notes on his reading and reflections on life. In addition, he kept diaries between 1884-1916.

Alfred Deakin was born in Melbourne in 1856, one of the post-Gold Rush  ‘Australian-born’ generation. It was this Australian-born quality that marked him out among the other British-born politicians who drove Federation. He began his profession as a lawyer, but moved into journalism through his contact with David Syme, founder of ‘The Age’. In 1879 he entered the Victorian state parliament as the liberal candidate for West Bourke. He served in a number of coalition government ministries, state politics being just as volatile as the early federal governments were to be.  He was instrumental in establishing factory legislation and initiating irrigation in Mildura. However, with the 1890s Depression, he suffered a kind of mid-life crisis as he confronted the limits of politics and struggled with guilt over investments he had recommended for family and friends. He returned to the back bench and took up his legal career again. It was the push towards Federation that brought him back to politics again, and took him to the international and national stage. He then served in the new, wobbly federal parliament with three stints as Prime Minister within ten years.

Brett’s biography certainly integrates the political, the personal, and the spiritual aspects of this complex man. In an unstable parliament, compromise was necessary, even to the extent of a ‘Fusion’ party with the NSW free-traders, whose economic policies he deeply opposed.  He distinguished between liberals (as he described himself) and Conservatives:

the conflict between the particular and the more universal, between the everlasting Nay and the everlasting Yea, between those who obstructed and those who facilitated the forward movement of the spirit. (p.257)

He was not, however, a fan of the newly emergent Labor Party (the first in the world), because of their allegiance to the working class:

“their platform is selfish and their discipline admirable. They constitute a class in politics, and refuse to support representatives who have not been selected from among their own neighbours” (cited on p. 257)

There is no getting around the fact that one of the first pieces of legislation passed by this new, largely progressive parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act, which formed the cornerstone of the White Australia Policy. Brett warns us against imposing our twenty-first century frame onto this legislation, which while seen by Britain as an insult to their Japanese allies, was intended to maintain high wages and living standards. Deakin was oblivious to women as political actors, and silent on indigenous Australians.

Deakin’s personal life was revealed through his diaries and correspondence. He married his wife Pattie, the daughter of a prominent Melbourne spiritualist in 1882 and they lived in South Yarra. Brett suggests that even though Deakin was affectionate and conscientious, it was not the marriage of true minds that perhaps he might have craved.  However, this did not affect the longevity of his marriage. Indeed, as a demonstration of the ebb and flow of relationships, as Deakin became increasingly debilitated by age and memory loss, Pattie came into her own, much healthier in later, post-menopause life, than she had been as a younger woman.

It is the spiritual aspect of Deakin that is the most fascinating to me, and Brett explores it fully thanks to Deakin’s own frankness in writing about it. Deakin believed in contact beyond the grave and was heavily involved in the Spiritualist scene in Melbourne. While this would have raised eyebrows, it did not render him beyond the pale politically as it would today [I’ve often thought that all  Australia would need today is a shaky mobile phone of Scott Morrison speaking in tongues at his Pentecostal church for his support to evaporate among many voters]. Deakin approached the Melbourne Unitarian Church to explore the possibilities of becoming a minister there, where Rev. Martha Turner (very rightly) told him that his spiritualist leanings would not be accepted by the congregation there. Although in later life he looked back at his more youthful Spiritualist activities with some cynicism, his sense of destiny and acknowledgement of the spiritual wellspring of his identity remained throughout his life.

Brett closes her book with a consideration of Deakin’s place within Australian politics and historiography.

By 2001, when the centenary of federation was celebrated, Deakin had faded to a face on an information board, one of the bearded worthies who had made the constitution and after whom things are named: a suburb, an electorate, a university, a lecture series..Among the political cognoscenti too he had become more of a cypher than a man…He came to represent the now discarded policies of tariff protection, state paternalism, centralized arbitration, imperial nationalism and the racism of White Australia, policies which were shaped in the early decades of the twentieth century and all but gone by its closing (p. 431)

She locates the turn against Deakin within the Liberal Party itself under John Howard’s leadership, where economic issues dominated the agenda and a reactive social conservatism was adopted. Brett highlights Deakin’s statecraft and energy, his civility, optimism, ability to compromise and assumption of the existence of a consensual centre. Oh to have some of those qualities today.

This is an excellent, well-written, fleshed-out biography. No wonder it won the National Biography Award this year.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I’m reviewing this as part of the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

“And the Women Came Too: the Families of the Founders of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution” by Anne Marsden

marsden

2018, 187p.

This book is one of a pair, the author having released The Making of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution some two years ago. In that earlier book, Anne Marsden looked at the men who were elected to the committee of what later became (and still is) the Melbourne Athenaeum. The Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution (established 1840) was one of the very early cultural and educational institutions in Melbourne. Through her enquiry into the men who were movers and shakers in pre-Gold Rush society, we see the networks and practices that supported nineteenth-century masculine respectability in a new colony.

It’s not hard to find many of the most prominent of these men in the newspapers, churches and business world of Port Phillip: indeed, many of them are interlaced through the pages of this blog that relate to Port Phillip.  Ah- but the women and families of these men! There‘s another degree of difficulty altogether.  In a very few cases there are diaries and letters, as in Georgiana McCrae’s family, but much of Marsden’s information has had to be gleaned from snippets of information. There are brief allusions to the women in the biographies of their husbands and sons, or tangential mentions in newspaper articles and personal notices. Marsden’s challenge has been to integrate these biographies of the families of the founders of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution into a perspective on the lives of women and children in Port Phillip. It’s a task long overdue.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, ‘The Challenges faced by immigrant women’ looks at early Port Phillip from the perspective of women, who were expected to operate within the domestic sphere, support without question her husband’s career aspirations and performance, and most of all, have children. Many of these women had travelled to Port Phillip either from Sydney or Van Diemen’s Land, or had emigrated with their husbands or families.

The book takes a little while to get going with an introduction, a second introduction,  and a prologue addressed in the second person to Barbara Dalrymple, who will marry Dr Alexander Thomson and arrive in Port Phillip in 1836, the first of the women of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution.  Introductions over, the text starts off with leaving home and follows the women on the journey, generally cabin class rather than steerage. There is a short chapter about Port Phillip’s brief European history ‘The Settlement’s Early Months’ to set the scene, then she moves onto the ‘Growth of Early Melbourne’. This is in two parts:  (i) the administrative and physical environment, and (ii) the people and community. The final chapter of this section is titled ‘The Early Melbourne Community: divisions and diversions’.  Each chapter is headed with a quote from either Finn’s Chronicles of Early Melbourne, a letter, or a contemporary newspaper.

This section does tend to be rather ‘bitty’. Marsden has used subheadings liberally, and while it makes information easy to locate, it does interrupt the flow of the narrative.  The chapter headings, complete with numbering (i) and (ii) and numerous subheadings give the sense that you are reading from notes, rather than an integrated text. Nor are the separate chapters conceptually distinct from each other.  ‘Community amenities and pleasures’ could fit equally suitably in the ‘Growth’ chapter (where she has, indeed placed it) or the ‘Early Melbourne Community’ chapter.   Nonetheless, there is a life-cycle logic to the information that she has selected, with its focus on finding housing and making it bearable, health and the bearing of children, and educating children – thus bringing to the fore the issues that Port Phillip women had to negotiate.

In the second part of the book ‘The Women’s Stories’, Anne Marsden looks at individual women whose husbands were influential in establishing the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution. She starts chronologically, with Martha Lonsdale, who accompanied her husband Capt Lonsdale down from Sydney to be the first police magistrate in Melbourne, the earliest form of administration from Sydney. Her second chapter involves Sophie La Trobe, the French-born wife of Port Phillip’s first superintendent. Much of the information (and scuttlebutt) about Sophie La Trobe comes from the (compromised) but very useful journals of Georgiana McCrae, who is dealt with in the third chapter. Familial relations are also important in her chapter ‘A tale of two sisters’ which covers Henrietta Yaldwyn and Caroline Simpson/Braim.  The fifth chapter ‘The minister’s wife’ involves Margaret Clow, whose husband the Rev James Clow arrived in 1839. Mamie Graham, ‘The merchant’s wife’, also had a connection with the McCrae family, thus highlighting the familial as well as professional networks within this small community. She married James Graham, whose extensive archives of correspondence give us  an insight into the family’s domestic life. This is followed by another chapter about sisters – or at least sisters-in-law, Caroline Wright and Elizabeth Kirby, who married brothers David and Donald McArthur. Their husband’s (and thus their own) fortunes varied, with David becoming a highly-prominent banker, while Donald’s  career as a surveyor faltered. So too did the marriage, and Elizabeth McArthur became a well-known and respectable school proprietor.  The final two stories are of more shadowy relationships: Celia Reibey (daughter of Mary Reibey who featured on the $20 note) who died soon after marrying Thomas Wills, then his two partners Mary Ann Barry and Mary Anne Mellard.  Four ‘more elusive women’ complete the analysis: Mary Anne Peers, Mary Wintle (the jailer’s wife), Elizabeth Beaver and Hester Hurlstone. These brief biographies highlight the difficulties of finding sources and reading between the lines of the public record. The final chapter ‘Out of the shadows and into the half-light’ serves largely as a summary of the book.

Marsden has been very faithful to her sources. While speculating and assuming in places where the documentary record falls silent, she has tethered her analysis of early Port Phillip society to the lives and experiences of these women. While I respect her fidelity to primary sources, I wish that she’d roamed a little further into the secondary literature. She cites Penny Russell’s Savage or Civilized, but I think that she could have used Russell’s analysis of ‘manners’ more fully and explored the meaning of ‘the visit’ and the nature and implication of chain migration in family clusters. As a British colonial outpost, Port Phillip did not differ greatly from other such port towns, and she could have drawn on Kirsten Mckenzie’s work, and sources from Upper Canada that also explore the women’s world, with its own stringent expectations, that existed underneath the more publicly-documented world of their husbands.  In addition, by tethering her analysis of Port Phillip in Part I to the experience of these particular women, there is also a fair bit of repetition when the same details are retold in Part II. The final chapter summarized the preceding text, but did not prod the reader into new questions.

Notwithstanding, Anne Marsden’s book is a testament to her patient digging as a historian and her recognition that all these ‘mover and shaker’ men starting up new enterprises and institutions in an infant colonial town, had women behind them. It reminds you that Port Phillip was a town for women and children as well as for the ambitious new arrivals, and that even though it might not be readily visible in the public record,  the domestic always underpins the civic.

Sourced from: Melbourne Athenaeum Library. $20.00 – well worth it.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

 

‘The Year Everything Changed: 2001’ by Philippa McGuinness

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2018, 321 P

The genesis for this book rested in a festschrift [i.e. a collection of papers to honour a scholar] held in 2014 for a recently-retired historian from ANU. The author, publisher Phillipa McGuiness was there because she had published several of the historian’s books. At the same festchrift were a group of historians who had worked alongside the historian on the Fairfax publication Australians: A Historical Library. This series, released to celebrate the bicentenary of European settlement, took a ‘slice’ approach at fifty-year intervals: 1788, 1838, 1888, 1938 and 1939 onwards. Her mind wandered (as minds are wont to do on such occasions) to consider other books that had been published with a chronological year as the title: 1492, 1915, 1968 etc.  The year ‘2001’ popped into her head- a year whose September 11 date is seared into the consciousness of anyone who is fifteen or older- and she began listing the things that happened during that year: 9/11, Afghanistan, Tampa etc.  Her mind turned to the people who she could commission to write such a book. Then with a jolt, she remembered that 2001 was the year that she buried her baby son, Daniel. She decided to write the book herself.

And so this book is part-analysis, and part-memoir.  As she writes in the preface:

My intention is to tell the story of a year. Part of includes my story, with no presumption that it represents a universal truth. Do I really want to make myself a subject in a general history, I asked myself? But I would feel dishonest were I to write a history of 2001 without mentioning my personal tragedy. …I’m no dispassionate observer analysing, assembling and asserting, unencumbered by emotion all the while. I’m no scholar able to eschew the personal and the vernacular, committed to interrogating the existing peer-reviewed literature and little more. (p. 6)

She acknowledges that 2001 is ‘history’, but it’s contemporary history.  I’m not sure that this book qualifies as ‘contemporary history’, although I don’t know for myself where I draw the line between analysis and commentary and ‘history’ as such.  I think that too much of the book is written from the viewpoint 2018 for it to qualify as ‘history’.  Nonetheless, looking at her lengthy list of acknowledgements at the back of the book, it is clear that she has spoken or shared her writing with many well-known Australian historians, many of whose books I have reviewed on this blog: Bain Attwood, Anna Clark, Stephen Foster, Tom Griffiths, Carolyn Holbrook, Robert Manne, Mark McKenna, Henry Reynolds, Zora Simic, Frank Bongiorno and, thanked most fulsomely, Stuart Macintyre.  There’s a wide range of other public intellectuals, writers and public figures as well ranging from Larissa Behrendt, Meredith Burgmann, through to Tom Frame, John Howard, Gerard Windsor and Bernadette Brennan among many others.

The book is arranged chronologically by month, with each month devoted to a particular theme. This is, of course, somewhat as an artifice because events do not restrict themselves to one month only, although often there is often a peak incident (most especially 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan) that crystallize a particular date.

She starts January with the centenary of Federation in January 2001, while noting the inauguration of George W. Bush on the other side of the world.

Her February chapter is titled ‘More icons, myths, legends and heroes than you can poke a stick at’ which starts with the death of Sir Donald Bradman in February 2001, touches on Nicole Kidman and her divorce and ends with the Australian Achievers presentation. This presentation, conducted as part of the Centenary of Federation brought out a list of ‘achievers’  and a discussion of Captain Cook and Ned Kelly.

March ‘Connecting you now’ brings the rise of Google, which made its first profit in 2001, Apple and Wikipedia. This chapter was thematic in nature, with no specific links to the March chapter to which she attached it.

‘A right to rights’ is the April chapter, loosely linked to the inaugural edition of Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s ‘In Denial’ about the stolen generations. It moves to same-sex marriage, which became legal in the Netherlands on 1 April 2001.

May’s theme is ‘Holy Shit’ which explores the role of the Catholic Church in society and in relation to child abuse, then moves onto religion in America and the connection between islamism and terrorism. The chapter starts with George Pell who became Archbishop of Sydney in May 2001.

The month of June is ‘Free money’ which, again, is a broad topic not tied to any one month. She examines the collapse of Ansett and Enron, the rise of Amazon and the rise of global inequality.

July ‘Demography is destiny’ likewise doesn’t have a particular chronological reference point – indeed the Census night that she identifies in the opening paragraph occurred on 7 August 2001. Here the personal enters into her story as she, her husband and toddler daughter shifted to Singapore, where unlike multicultural Australia, identity is viewed through the lens of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. As a white Australian, she was Other.  A rather disjointed chapter, it moves onto AIDS before returning to the question of whether demography is destiny.

At this point, the connection between chronology and themes becomes sharper. The month of August  examines ‘A boat called Tampa’ and its political implication. Drawing heavily on David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book Dark Victory and Peter Mares’ Borderline: Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers she revisits Tampa (and after 17 years, the details have become fuzzy) and its political fallout.

September is, of course, 9/11 where again a recounting of the events is valuable. There are things that I don’t think I ever did know – for example, that a flight attendant on Flight 11 which smashed into the North Tower was in phone contact for twenty-three minutes before the plane crashed. She then moves to Bush’s political response immediately following the tragedy, drawing frequently on Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (written in 2006 and making me pause about whether indeed history can indeed be written within just years of a event).

‘Afghanistian, America and the Alliance’ are the theme of October, where Australia followed America’s lead. In particular she examines Howard’s actions immediately following 9/11 and so, just as the ill-fated military campaign itself, 9/11 and Afghanistan are intertwined in this chapter.

In November, elections occurred in a whole long roll-call of countries, including Australia and the USA (she lists all 73 of them). She pauses to mention East Timor, Italy, Israel and Nepal, but focuses on Australia and Howard’s unlikely victory. Now resident in Singapore herself, she closes the chapter looking at the Singaporean election.

And in the December chapter, her own life comes to the fore with ‘Death and birth’, a chapter still rather too raw for me, as she loses her son in a foreign country.

In her conclusion ‘What happened next happened’ she returns to take stock “not of my tiny life in the world, but of the world itself”. She turns to the confident title of her book (The Year Everything Changed) and questions whether, indeed, everything did change in 2001.  It’s a wide ranging chapter, written very much from 2018 rather than 2001. [Interestingly, when I looked for the book cover image to put on this page, there were two other ‘year’ books that claimed to be the ‘Year Everything Changed’, Fred Kaplan’s 1959 and Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969]

I enjoyed this book and its interweaving of the personal and the political. It is very much a mainstream left-leaning analysis (think The Monthly or Saturday Paper) I read it more as commentary than history, and I think that its 2018 presentism will  render it outdated within a few years.  Nonetheless, for now, it’s a good read that ranges across a huge amount of territory in an engaging way.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia’ by Christina Twomey

twomey

2018, 320 p

Over the last few years, there has been a steady flow of books by historians written to counter the tidal wave of WWI centenary ‘celebration’. The ANZAC legend, which has been contentious for some decades, has been given a good working-over, and there will probably be further retrospectives once the various centenaries are over.

But although it’s not yet possible to know how and if opinion about the ANZACs will be resolved, there are some other questions about the relationships between the Australian military overseas and broader society ‘at home’ where the tide of opinion has already swung.  In her book The Battle Within,  Christina Twomey focuses on the WWII  prisoners-of-war, particularly those imprisoned by the Japanese, and traces through the changes in society’s reception and recognition of them. Unlike the WWI re-evaluation still under way, the trajectory of opinion about POWs can already be discerned and has probably settled, although who knows what a centenary in 2039-45 will bring. Her title The Battle Within is a neat one. Not only did individual POWs have their own own internal battle, but there was a public-relations and repatriation battle among POWs themselves too.

It is the POWs of the Japanese who most starkly captured the Australian imagination on their return after the war. Cameras captured their skeletal frames and their 36% death rate was much higher than WWI POWs (9%) or those who had been taken prisoner in Europe during WWII (3%).  Donald Trump’s 2015 jibe at John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”) goes to the ambivalence about the reception of the returning POW back in 1945. Even though it was broadly recognized that the Australian forces in Asia had surrendered as a consequence of decisions made by British and Dutch commanders, there was still an internalized and tacit suspicion that POWs were ‘second-class’ soldiers.  As prisoners, they were removed from the masculine arena of aggression and valour; they were unable to protect the women who were taken prisoner too, and worse still, they were humiliated by being taken captive by Asian forces. WWII propaganda had depicted the Japanese as small, short sighted, simian and Asian (p. 27).  To be treat as a ‘white coolie’ triggered resonances of slavery and indentured Indian and Chinese labour.

Twomey’s book has four sections. In Part I she examines official attitudes to Prisoners of War; in Part II she looks to the former-POWs themselves as they tried to rebuild their lives and take up marriages. Part III ‘Coming to Terms with Asia’ looks at post-war Australian relations with Japan and Asia in general, and Part IV ‘The battle resolved’ traces changes in official and public perceptions of the POW experience.

The authorities were determined not to make a special case of the POWs, as distinct from other soldiers and the post-war campaign for a subsistence allowance for each day of captivity failed. Nor did medical understanding following the war help their cause. After WWI, governments and psychiatrists had largely abandoned ‘shell-shock’ as a way of understanding the psychiatric casualties of war, instead defining it as ‘neurosis’ that arose among people predisposed to mental illness through existing weakness, imprisonment or not.  If pre-existing mental weakness did not exist, then medical problems were explained as tropical bacterial and intestinal illnesses.

In this, POWs were not served well by those other POWs from the officer corps who had the ear of government, who strongly resisted the idea of ‘barbed wire disease’.  This class aspect comes through strongly. The death rate of 37% in ‘other ranks’ of POWs of the Japanese dropped to close to 10% among  officers, many of whom spent their war years separated from other prisoners. Through pre-existing networks and dynamics of education, opportunity and wealth, it was men of the officer class who were appointed as the spokesmen of POWs and served as their representatives on different consultative bodies.  Some of the most prominent, e.g. Ted Fisher from the Council of the 8th Division, were dismissive of ‘sob stuff’.

The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was established by Prime Minister Menzies in October 1950, after the failure of the campaign for subsistence payments. It was open to former POWs from both the Pacific and European theatres of the Second World War.  The Repatriation Department held the line that POWs were not to be treated as a ‘class apart’ from other ex-service personnel, but there was constant pressure from ex-service organizations and parliamentarians to take some action towards former POWs. The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was more like a charity than a government service, with rigorous vetting of applicants and no avenue of appeal.  The board of the fund, which oversaw its distribution, comprised two senior public servants and three former POWs, all from the officer class.

The letters of application to this fund forms the archival basis of Twomey’s book, most particularly in Part II.   In the absence of  POW repatriation files  (which are not yet available), the application letters to the fund provide her with an available and valuable resource that reflects both how the POWs conceptualized their needs, and the board’s concern for respectability and determination not to be ‘taken in’ by spurious claims. As she notes,

The applicants to the fund were, by and large, from the ‘other ranks’: men of limited education who often had menial jobs and sometimes lives blighted by alcoholism, depression, marriage breakdown or loneliness. Yet many of them took the opportunity, in shaky handwriting or in bold, capital letters, to make known their views about the treatment meted out to former prisoners, their family troubles and their struggles to rehabilitate. (p.xvi)

The ex-POW board representatives were from the officer class, and their class perspective  came through in the rejections and restrictions imposed by the board when administering the fund.

A similar bifurcation, with some class and education overtones, emerged in the decades after the war when some former POWs publicly supported the need for reconciliation with Japan. In some cases, this was for political reasons, especially amongst those from the ex-officer cohort who were politically aligned with conservative parties, when the fear of Chinese communism meant that alliances had to be formed with the Japanese as a way of countering the sweep of communism. Other considerations were economic, especially in the 1970s and 1980s in Queensland with Japanese-oriented tourist developments and with the mooted Multi-Function Polis in Adelaide, where the Japanese were seen as a lucrative market.  Other POWs acted out of spiritual or conscientious motives. However, this only served to throw into relief those POWs who did not feel this way, and who could not forget, much less forgive. This characterization of the POW as bitter and back-ward looking remnant became a trope for exploring Australia’s xenophobic past.

So what changed?  Opposition to the Vietnam War undermined the national mythology of Anzac and questioned Australia’s role in Asian wars. In the 1980s and 1990s a wave of prisoner diaries and memoirs was published, most particularly Arneil’s One Man’s War which was an instant success, praised by left-wing historians as a means by which to complicate the “jingoes and militarists” (p. 219) whom they believed had come to dominate Anzac Day.  In 1980 the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognized post-traumatic stress disorder, and new understandings of trauma replaced the older view of a pre-existing mental weakness. In 1984 the ABC Radio National documentary P.OW. Australians under Nippon was published as a book and has been repeated as recently as February 2017 (listen here).  As Twomey notes:

In this confluence of events, POWs emerged as historical figures capable of expressing contemporary tensions about war, identity, race and region. By the 1970s the POW story could pull in many directions at one: as a metaphor to express ongoing anxiety about the potential for domination by Asia, as evidence that forgiveness and racial tolerance were possible, and as a reflection of outdated attitudes towards racial difference. As a victim of war’s terror, ultimately the POW was perfectly placed to revive interest, in a non-belligerent way, in the military history of a country that had, but for a short period, been particularly attached to war as an essential element of its national story. (p. 215)

I very much enjoyed this book.  It is well written and engaging, and refreshingly clean of military ra-ra. She makes good use of her resources in bringing former POWs to life, while acknowledging the class and political influences that affected their treatment by both bureaucracies and the public at large.  She starts and finishes her book with a personal reflection on the Thai-Burma railway, which has come to epitomize the place of the POWs of Japan in the Australian memory of WWII.  It’s a powerful image:

Just as a visitor to Hellfire Pass can pick out the railway line by glimpsing the sleepers beneath the gravel, as a historian I have dug deep in the archive to reveal the foundations of the POW story in Australian culture. It is tempting to see the current veneration of former POWs as running along clean iron rails, from the past to the present.  This book suggests that the sidings were many, that the tracks were buckled and warped, and that the burden of this difficult journey fell most heavily on the people with the least social, cultural and economic resources to carry it. (p.xviii)

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

[An update: My attention was taken by the recent decision to award the Commendation for Gallantry Award for POWs who were killed escaping or after capture. As Monteath noted in his book Captured Lives on internment in Australia, to seek to escape was seen to be a legitimate act of an imprisoned soldier. Nonetheless, it has taken 75 years for them to be recognized. And is there still an implicit question-mark over those who did not escape? The tension remains.]

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have added this book to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation 1920-1990’ by Janet McCalman

Journeyings

1993, 301p. & notes

This book opens with the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle Street St. Kilda to Cotham Rd Kew on the first day of school, 1934. The tram wends its way “along the spine of Melbourne’s middle-class heartland”, with an ebb and flow of private school students who peel off as they pass the major private schools in Melbourne. Being 1934, these are the children of WWI parents and unless they have scholarships, their parents are paying for their private school education during the Depression.

The No. 69 tram in February 1934 is the opening chapter and linchpin of Janet McCalman’s book,  which explores both the antecedents and consequences of that daily commute.  Starting in the years 1850-1919, her second chapter titled ‘Inheritances’ examines the social and economic origins of what was to become the Melbourne middle class of the 1930s, starting with the ‘Seekers and Saints’ who emigrated between 1850-1870 and embedded themselves as ‘The Greedy and the Good’ between 1879-1890. Chapter 3, ‘The Lessons of Innocence 1920-1939’ explores the inter-war years in which these young school children catch their tram in 1934, oblivious to the second ‘war to end all wars’ that faced them.

McCalman then follows through with this generation, examining their war-time experience in Chapter 4 ‘Coming of Age 1939-1945’ and their post-war family and work lives in ‘The Trials of Experience 1946-1966.’ Her chapter ‘Mid-Life Crisis 1967-1975’ captures the mid-career mindset of her middle-class informants in the midst of the world-wide disruption of 1968 and the political ferment of the ascension and dismissal of the Labor Party in Australia. Her final chapter ‘The Age of Wisdom 1976-1990’ takes her right up to the ‘Journeyings’ survey conducted in 1990 amongst the former students (pre 1950) of four private schools  that were passed by the No 69 tram.

I must declare my own colours here. Even though in 1934 my father lived one block down from Glenferrie Rd, along which the No 69 tram rattled (i.e.the very years that McCalman uses in her opening image), I am proudly the product of a government school, as were my parents. I strongly oppose the social and educational distortions brought about by John Howard’s funding of private schools that no government seems to have the courage to dismantle. So I read this book with a jaundiced eye and certainly no sense of identification.

However , McCalman complicates my easy prejudices through her research. It is largely based on a 1990 survey that she conducted with Mark Peel that yielded 633 responses from pre-1950 school leavers from Scotch and Trinity, (both boys’ schools), Methodist Ladies College and Genazzano convent. There were 1235 surveys distributed, yielding a hefty 42% response rate. McCalman’s methodology combines prosopography,  survey responses, oral history interviews with 80 respondents, the judicious use of fiction and memoir, her own literature review, and statistics.

Although solidly middle-class, the financial and social backgrounds were more varied than I expected for this 1934 cohort, based on statistics drawn from Scotch senior students in 1934 and MLC students born in 1919 and 1920. Going to a private school did not guarantee a high education level:  43% of the Trinity 1919-20 boys cohort left without the Intermediate Certificate (i.e. Yr 10), while 65% of the MLC cohort left without their Intermediate.  In a rather anecdotal experiment, McCalman asked a group of retired senior teachers (who were themselves at secondary school in the 1930s and 1940s) to compare papers set for the external Intermediate, Leaving and Leaving Honours papers for 1935 and the examinations set for the  Higher School Certificate (superseded in 1992). Their consensus was that in 1935 the emphasis was on clean and accurate work, which penalized misspellings, grammatical flaws and arithmetical slips. French and German was much more difficult in the 1930s but “in most of the other humanities, the intellectual demands of the 1930s papers were lower than would be acceptable by the 1960s.” (p. 123).

As McCalman traces through this 1930s cohort, she contextualizes them within Australia’s history. Because these four schools were denominational, there is an emphasis on spirituality. I was well aware of the Split of 1955 and the influence of the Movement within the Catholic church, but completely unaware of progressive Catholic activism (which was featured recently in History Workshop). Long before History of the Emotions became a historical ‘turn’, she focuses on hearts, souls, masculinity and femininity, minds and manners.

I like her discussion of fiction and history in her preface:

…because this is a group biography, a collection of stories of actual lives, it needs to unfold in the way real lives do- which is that none of us knows what lies ahead. Perhaps one of the most important functions of fiction is to permit us to escape that existential plight – it is a rehearsal for life; in writing history, however, we need to feel life’s dreadful unpredictability, its untidiness, its ordinariness, its splendours. Art is under our control; history, like life, is not. And yet history is but our reconstructions, is but an artefact of the mind, conceived of differently by all of us, and differently by all of us at different times in our lives… We are incorrigibly historical beings; our inner histories of ourselves- private history- constitute our ever-evolving sense of identity- we are our own stories. But in constructing histories – whether private or public-  we are torn between what we would like the story to be and what the evidence insists that it really is. The novelist enjoys a licence; the historian a responsibility (p.viii)

Before writing Journeyings, McCalman had received acclaim for Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 which used a similar methodology in the working-class (although now gentrified) inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  I have read Struggletown, but did not record my response to it at the time. The two books work well as a pair. Journeyings also complements Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which is cited often.

By the final chapter (1976-1990) her informants were mature retirees, with a remarkably low divorce rate and generally (but not exclusively) politically conservative.  Perhaps it was my government-school-streak coming out here, but I found myself bridling at the smug moral superiority that came through many of their responses, the noblesse oblige and the disavowal of ‘old school tie’ networks when there was clear statistical evidence of its significance in ‘elite’ circles.  What was McCalman going to do with this? Did she feel the same way as I do?

I think she did. Citing Sir Robert Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People’ speech and Judith Brett’s analysis of it, McCalman writes:

Children who are educated apart behind high walls can find it difficult in later life to become at one with those on the other side. Children who are told endlessly by their parents and teachers that they are fortunate, privileged, special, inheritors and examples of excellence, will find it difficult to be good democrats.  Even if they are imbued with a sense of service and care ‘for those less fortunate than themselves’, they can still find it difficult to feel simply as fellow Australians.  (p.301)

This is an excellent book. It’s beautifully written, it is nuanced and yet broad. The No. 69 trope works so well.

And look at this: the Public Education Campaign has just released a video that answers back to that last chapter, too.

Sourced from: my very own bookshelves, where it has sat patiently for decades.

My rating: 9/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have recorded this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018