Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge Completed

In January 2019, I undertook to read twenty books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  I also challenged myself to read 60 books on Goodreads (which I achieved just yesterday) and to finish Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone in Spanish. I did somewhat better than that with my Spanish reading because I also read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a collection of short stories and La Distancia Entre Nosotros in Spanish. Looking through my Goodreads, I read 23 fiction and 37 non-fiction, 37 Australian and 23 non-Australian books.

The proportions are somewhat different for the books that I have read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019, alphabetically by surname.  Lots of History, Memoir and Biography here (nineteen!), but I’m rather deflated by how little fiction I read- only four! Perhaps improving on that should be my New Year’s Resolution.

Fiction

de Saint Phalle  Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir

Kate Morton The Lake House

Alice Robinson  The Glad Shout

Carrie Tiffany  Exploded View

Non Fiction

Robyn Annear  Nothing New: A History of Second Hand

Judith Brett  From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage

Margaret Cook A River with a City Problem

Joy Damousi The Labour of Loss

Kirsten Drysdale  I Built No Schools in Kenya

Jill Giese  The Maddest Place on Earth

Jenny Hocking The Dismissal Dossier

Rebecca Huntley  Quarterly Essay 73: Australia Fair Listening to the Nation

Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan (eds) Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre

Cathy McLennan  Saltwater

Lee Kofman Imperfect

Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmirara) Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence

Lesley Potter  Mistress of her Profession: Colonial Midwives of Sydney 1788-1901

Shirley Roberts  Charles Hotham: A Biography

Jill Roe  Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939

Myra Scott  How Australia Led the Way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage

Leigh Straw  Angel of Death Dulcie Markham: Australia’s most beautiful bad woman

Michelle Scott Tucker Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World

Nadia Wheatley Her Mother’s Daughter

 

‘Nothing New: A History of Second-Hand’ by Robyn Annear

annear_nothing_new

2019, 273 p.

In Australia at the moment, as in other economies in the world, Treasurers and bankers are wringing their hands at consumers’ “failure to spend”. Different causes are attributed: low wage growth, underemployment, the China/U.S. trade war. I wonder, though, if there’s something else going on. Perhaps, as Greta Thunberg suggested, people are beginning to see that the obsession with continual growth blinds us to the changes needed to keep our planet habitable. Perhaps we are tiring of poor-quality tat that is purchased with the intention of throwing it away. Perhaps we are yearning for a Marie Kondo make-over and just to have less stuff.  For what-ever reason, we’re just not buying new merchandise in the way that we used to.

Historian Robyn Annear is a long-time afficionado of second-hand.  Right up front she admits that “Other people’s detritus calls to me. And from that siren song this book was born.” (3). Her opening chapter is titled ‘Nothing New’ and her closing chapter is titled ‘…Under the Sun’. In the intervening chapters, she embarks on a digressive history of second-hand, told with her trade-mark giggle in the narrative voice.  The book is roughly chronological from 1700s to the present day, and it jumps around the Anglosphere, with Australia considered quite naturally and unselfconsciously among Britain and America, with occasional additional reference to France and Africa.

As she explains, before the 1700s, clothes had long lives, passed on from class to class, generation to generation, mended and remade. During the late 18th century, increased consumerism and the influx of Jewish immigrants led to a commercial market in old clothes, collected by the Ol’ Clo’ man, and ending up in markets where they were revived and remodelled. An international market existed as old clothes were circulated between different countries. In this regard, Australia during the 1850s stood out, as people tended to buy new clothes on arrival in the colony, and there was a post-convict sensitivity over Australia being seen as a dumping-ground for old clothes, as well as old lags.

Once clothes really had got beyond the point of being remodelled, there were other markets for rags.  Before paper was made from wood products, rags were used for paper, with old linen kept aside intentionally to make up-market linen weave paper. Rags could be shredded to make ‘shoddy’, a reconstituted fabric which could then be resewn for new, cheap garments. They could be melted down and mixed with horses hooves and horse blood, ashes and scrap iron to make Prussian Blue dye.  The dust created in the manufacture of shoddy could be used to make ‘flock’ wall paper, and rags could be used to stuff mattresses.

However, by the 1850s there was a change, when direct donation of clothes came to be seen as “charity”, rather than as a market. As is often the case “charity” existed side-by-side with a fear of being ripped-off, so only dirty clothes, beyond repair tended to be donated for distribution to only the “deserving” poor.

With the rise of ‘rummage sales’ in America in the 1850s, and their gradual extension to London in the 1890s, the stigma of “charity” was assuaged by the charging of a cheap price for goods that were given free.  The Salvation Army created its Household Salvage Brigade, which provided a waste collection service, with the collected goods sorted into sale items, and unsellable material directed towards recycling. When the Household Salvage Brigade went into recess during WW I, St Vinnies (St Vincent de Paul) started up the Waste Collection Bureau.

In Melbourne, the first “Opportunity” shop was located in the Cyclorama in Victoria Street in 1925, near the present St Vincents Hospital. Named by Lady Millie Tallis, who had witnessed the success of second-hand shops runs on charitable lines overseas, it was intended to raise money for St Vincent’s Hospital (unrelated to St Vinnies). The Cyclorama had been built in 1889 to house a 360 degree panorama of events like the Battle of Waterloo, the Eureka Stockade or the Siege of Paris, but by 1925 it had been rendered obsolete by the new craze for moving pictures. What better use to put a clapped out, round building?

cyclorama

Creator: Allan C. Green, State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/31352

The ‘opportunity shop’ spread to other suburbs, but it died out during the Depression, only to reappear after World War II when the years of “mend and make do” were past, and consumer spending – and, as a result, disposal of  no-longer-wanted goods-  sprinted ahead.

Second hand came to be distributed through a variety of forms: Lost Property Auctions (as Annear points out, why isn’t it Found Property Auctions?), Exchange and Marts in newspapers, antiquarian collections, charity shops as a business, the Trading Post, garage sales, Trash and Treasure markets, hard rubbish collections on the footpath, and e-bay.

Finally, there’s a whole market that is invisible to us in First World countries, whereby second-quality, secondhand goods are baled up and sent to Africa. I visited Toi market in Nairobi, the largest second-hand market, which burnt to the ground this year after being slated for demolition (hmmmmm…)  If you’re not prone to sea-sickness, this rather jerky video takes you on a bus to Toi Market- it really captures what you see in Nairobi well.

When I visited Rwanda, I was horrified to learn that Donald Trump had pressured Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda into dropping their plans to ban the import of second-hand clothes from America, in order to protect their own clothing industries.Only Rwanda persevered. However, as Annear points out, the Chinese government has stepped into the gap, and is now importing second-hand, and  increasingly, new cheap clothing from China into Rwanda.

Written in a quirky conversational tone, ‘Nothing New’ wears its scholarship lightly, but the references at the back reveal the research that has gone into the book. Where footnotes appear at the bottom of the page, they are jokes and comments, rather than references. Robyn Annear also has a podcast called Nothing on TV,  based on her Trove research, which deals with similar material and the very Australian delivery is similar to the narrative voice of the book. It’s a quick, fascinating read that will have you looking up and saying to anyone listening “Hey, did you know?…….)

My rating: 8, based largely on its enjoyment factor

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

AWW2019

This will almost certainly be the final book that I add to the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge!

‘Charles Hotham: A Biography’ by Shirley Roberts

roberts_charles_hotham

1985, 201 p.

Even though I’m a historian of Victoria, I confess to drawing rather a blank when it comes to all but the most recent Governors of the state. La Trobe springs to mind immediately, but many of the others I ‘know’ only by things that have been named after them, especially hotels and public buildings.  I was aware that Hotham had taken over from La Trobe, and that he has been characterized as the villain in the Eureka Stockade story.  There’s a street named after him, a pub in Geelong and a mountain… but that’s about all I could have come up with before I read Shirley Roberts’ biography of Charles Hotham.

In her opening pages, Shirley Roberts announces that “Hotham appears as a man who has been most unfairly denigrated”. Clearly her intention in writing this book is to rescue him from this fate.  Of course, historians mount arguments about individuals all the time, making judgements “from the enormous condescension of posterity” as E. P. Thompson put it.  In this case, however, Roberts’ intention to scrub the mud from Charles Hotham detracts from her book as history. She accepts uncritically certain sources and cherry picks from others, and when actions contradict her argument she brushes them off as inexplicable or strange.

However, despite these flaws, Roberts has written what seems to be the only biography of a man whose short 15 month governorship coincided with a political flashpoint in a colony on the verge of receiving self-government.  It starts in a workman-like fashion, with a family tree – the kiss of death for a biography.  Probably the book would be written very differently today, with more emphasis on the networks of empire and the significance of patronage links, and a widening of the focus from white politicians to include protestors’ and women’s forms of influence. But given that we are reading the book we are holding, and not a book as we would wish it written 35 years later, she has captured well the far-flung nature of the British Empire, and the circuits along which colonial authorities and civil servants travelled.

Charles Hotham never aspired to be a colonial governor. He far preferred his naval role, and the command of ships and navy personnel without the complications of representative democracy and colonial elite structures. His work took him to Argentina, where the British Navy at first played a type of peace-keeping role between Argentina and what is now Uruguay, before intervening to protect their trade routes along the rivers that bordered the two countries. After the putative abolition of slavery, he was sent to West Africa (generally seen as a grave-yard posting) to harass slave shipping along the trade routes, especially en route to Brazil. He demanded, and received, loyalty from his crews in an established hierarchy of authority and obedience.

But these very qualities made his posting to Victoria, already seen as a problematic colony, even less appropriate and bound to end in tears. The discovery of gold had led to a deluge of new arrivals, the complete disruption of the bureaucracy, and a crying need for infrastructure. The economy was wobbly, and running at a deficit. In true economic technocrat style, he pronounced and held to hard-line economic prescriptions, announced and implemented without consultation. The colony, like those in the other Australian states, was holding its breath waiting for the legislation for self-government (see Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) and this return to authoritarian, centralized rule was not likely to please anyone – even those who had craved a more ‘governor’-like presence than La Trobe had cast.

Roberts explains the origin of Hotham’s world-view in terms of his naval background, but uses it to excuse his too-quick turn to repression, and recourse to delay through ordering a Royal Commission (that old standby to gain time). She portrays him as a man surrounded by flawed men, who let him down.

In filling out Hotham’s early career, which she does very well, she draws on a biographical sketch written by Hotham’s sister as a gift to his sister-in-law on their marriage. Although no doubt drawing Hotham in a good light, it has been gift to his  biographer, too. In her analysis of Hotham’s time in Melbourne, she draws strongly on the conservative, pro-Hotham Argus with little reference to opposing newspapers. As an author, she is mounting a pro-Hotham argument, although she does not make it clear exactly what or who she is arguing against.

I was very impressed with her ability to summarize a scenario or event clearly and succinctly, without overwhelming the reader with detail.  This was especially true of Hotham’s time in South America and Africa, which I knew absolutely nothing about.  She is not an academic historian – and the paucity of her reference list attests to this – and her book is more a matter of setting things out, rather than complicating by nuance.

Hotham only governed the colony between June 1854 and November 1855. This short period of time is largely dominated by the Eureka uprising, and Hotham’s role in it. This short, pragmatic book fleshes out his career more fully, and portrays him as more than just the villain of the Eureka rebellion. But Roberts’ determination to rescue Hotham from blame has led her to mount a polemic, rather than write a biography.  The reader should approach this book with admiration at the job she has done, and appreciation for filling in otherwise little known information. At the same time, however, this book needs to read with care and a raised, sceptical eyebrow.

And look at this – I was half-way through the book when I found this plaque at Flinders Street Railway Station!  So he did leave a mark on Melbourne after all!

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From this place the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company’s service to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) was inaugurated by His Excellency Sir Charles Hotham K.C.B., R.N. Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria on September 12 1854, when Australia’s first steam train departed for Sandridge at 12.20 P.M.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups. You’ll have trouble tracking it down, I suspect.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

 

 

‘The Labour of Loss’ by Joy Damousi

damousi_labour_loss

1999, 163 p & notes

It really wouldn’t have surprised me if this book had been reissued in the last five years, but it wasn’t. It would have done very well in the deluge of books about WWI between 2014 and 2018, and dealing as it does with loss experienced during and resulting from World Wars, it fits very neatly into the  ‘history of the emotions’ school of historical enquiry, which has high prominence at the moment.  But it wasn’t reprinted, and so it remains a fore-runner to much work that has been completed in its wake.

As Damousi says in her introduction

This book examines the stories of those for whom loss in war remained the experience through which they understood themselves, and through which they shaped their lives. After the wars ended, their lives had been irrevocably changed through continuing grief, for the burden of memory would remain with them as they attempted to rebuild an internal and external world without those to whom they had been so fundamentally attached. (p. 6)

Damousi is very conscious that she is dealing with ‘white’ soldiers and the experiences of their families, and mentions in several places that the burden of memory was often disregarded for indigenous soldiers.  A strong gender theme runs through her analysis.

The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the First World War, the second part deals with the Second World War.

Part I : The First World War

1. Theatres of Grief, Theatres of Loss

2. The Sacrificial Mother

3. A Fathers Loss

4. The War Widow and the Cost of Memory

5. Returned Limbless Soldiers: Identity through Loss

Part II The Second World War

6. Absence as Loss on the Homefront and the Battlefront

7. Grieving Mothers

8. A War Widow’s Mourning.

Conclusion

The themes of the grieving mother and wife are dealt with in both sections, while other themes e.g. soldiers writing to bereaved families, the return of limbless soldiers, or absence from home are dealt with in one section only. I’m not sure that there is a qualitative difference between these emotions and events between the two world wars, and perhaps the decision to locate a topic in one war rather than the other depended on the sources that Damousi uses.

As Damousi points out in Chapter 1, when a soldier died at the front, it was quite common for his friends in the battalion to write to his grieving family themselves. Sometimes bereaved families ‘at home’ drew their son’s friends to themselves like adopted sons. While writing these letters to other families at home, the soldiers were almost rehearsing their own possible death.  Meanwhile, back on the homefront, delayed letters continued to arrive from sons who had been killed , and bereaved families forged their own links with each other.

Blood_vote

Wikimedia

 

Chapter 2 and Chapter 7 both deal with grieving mothers, but in World War I the mother figure had a political as well as familial role. Not only was the mother lauded for “giving up her son” but the Conscription debates drew heavily on the image of the mother both as  the one who sacrificed, but also the one who determined, men’s fates.  ‘The Blood Vote’, for instance, placed the burden of decision onto mothers, rather than fathers or sisters.

Yet when it came to financial support for widowed mothers who lost their sole breadwinner, mothers soon found the limits to compassion for their sacrifice. After being giving a prominent role in the immediate post-WWI period, by the 1930s mothers found themselves shunted to the side of parades and their pensions became increasingly inadequate over time, especially when additional payments were granted to widows but not mothers.

In the World War II section on mothers, Damousi makes similar observations, drawing on the diary of Una Falkiner, whose son died in a plane accident in September 1942, and Hedwige Williams whose son  Charles Rowland Williams died in Germany in May 1943. This chapter -, shaped perhaps by the sources available? – seemed to me to have a deeper emotional timbre than the corresponding WWI chapter.

Chapters 4 and 8 deal with war widows. What is common to the experience in both wars was that the war widow tended to become public property as her lifestyle and life choices were judged by others to determine whether she qualified for a widow’s pension. It became rather unedifying as neighbours, other widows and mothers informed on those who they felt were ‘undeserving’. Again, in relation to the Second World War section, the same themes recur in the experience of women in the two wars, but in Damousi’s account she draws more heavily on a particular source – in this case, Jessie Vasey, the widow of General George Vasey who died in an Australian plane crash when he and several other high-ranking defence officers died near Cairns. She channelled her grief into political and charitable action for war widows but, once again, after the immediate post-war years, women found themselves and their sacrifices pushed aside.

The correspondence between the Vaseys also features strongly in Chapter 6  ‘Absence as Loss’ where Damousi  draws on Vasey’s letters back home to illustrate the yearning for domesticity expressed in much wartime correspondence. Interestingly, I have just finished listening to an excellent podcast series called Letters of Love in World War II, where a British couple range over philosophy, yearning and domestic trivia in their 1000-letter correspondence. Again, it is perhaps not so much a qualitative difference between the two wars, as a question of sources.

The depth of sources has possibly also influenced Damousi’s decision to deal with fathers’ grief in World War I, and not in World War II. In Chapter 3, ‘A Father’s Loss’ she examines the extensive archive of John Roberts, an accountant with the Melbourne Tramways Board, who lost his son Frank on 1 September 1918 at Mont St Quentin. Perhaps there was a particular plangency in losing a son so close to the Armistice; or perhaps the almost-obsessive pursuit of every possible way of documenting and making contact with those who may have seen, or been with, his now-departed son reflected Roberts’ own personal approach to traumatic events. In either case, Roberts’ correspondence is a rich and complex archive of grief for the historian.  More generally, however, fathers maintained a more prominent public part than mothers and widows in commemorating their sons through political organizations and they leveraged their ability to influence policies.  In the Second World War, however, fathers (many of whom had served themselves in World War I) found that the reactivation of war challenged their ideas of patriotism and their own earlier sacrifice. They often found themselves harking back to their lost pre-WWI world, which they had been unable to secure.

Of course, World War I and World War II was interspersed by the experience of the Depression. It forced hard decisions about sacrifice and worth in finding and holding scarce employment. As Damousi points out in Chapter 5, initially there was strong pressure for governments, councils and private employees to offer jobs to returned WWI soldiers, and particularly soldiers who had been injured. However, when jobs became scarce,  returned men without injuries were preferred employees, and war widows were expected to yield their jobs to returned soldiers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the title of this book.  I’m not sure if the loss that she mentions here involves “labour” as such, although it certainly was a life-changing event for those who were left. But then I find myself thinking of the title of Shakespeare’s play “Love’s Labour Lost” which to me has its echoes in this title. For, without actually spelling it out in her title,  what comes through in Damousi’s examination of memory and grief, is “love”.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Womens Writers Challenge database for 2019.

Source: La Trobe University Library

 

‘The Lake House’ by Kate Morton

morton_the-lake-house

2015, 591p.

It was not my choice to read this book. Call me snobbish and superficial, but I’m even  turned off by the cover. There it is with its anachronistic photo of yet another woman’s back (although at least you can see her face here), and the fact that the author’s name is in a larger font than the title (one of my ‘amber lights’ warning of books that I probably shouldn’t read).  Kate Morton is a best-selling Australian author and has written several books, all with similar names and covers. Normally, I would steer well clear. However, this book was the selection for my bookgroup and because I am a very conscientious book-grouper, I read it.

It’s a mixture of a  historic big-house novel and a current-day police cold-case story featuring a middle-aged female detective. I’m rather guiltily partial to both genres. I’ve read my share of ‘big house’ books: I loved The Go-Between in Year 12, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, innumerable Victoria Holt books when I was 15, Molly Keane’s books and Atonement.  And in terms of cold-case police stories, after I finish writing this review, I’ll go off to watch Unforgotten on the TV to get my dose of intelligent female police detectives. All these indulgences are just that: they’re ‘down-time’ leisure, when I turn my mind off and just go with it. Which is how I think about The Lake House. It’s the sort of book you might read when you’re on a week’s holiday and want to just immerse yourself in a fairly-undemanding read.

There are two narratives interwoven through the book, one set in 1933 and the other in 2003, both based on the house Loeanneth and its mysteries. In 1933 it was the home of Anthony and Eleanor Edevane and their three daughters and baby son, Theo who mysteriously disappeared on Midsummer’s Eve.  The second narrative, set in 2003 centres on Sadie Sparrow, a London detective who has been stood down and told to ‘take a holiday’ after she spoke to the press about a missing-child case.  She travels down to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather and when she stumbles on the now-derelict Loeanneth, she is driven to find out what happened to the family who left it so abruptly after the disappearance of the little boy.

There are red-herrings and misdirections galore, and although some of them took me by surprise, I guessed the too-pat ending ahead of time.  I suppose that I should be pleased that I actually knew who dunnit by the end, instead of plaintively wailing “But I don’t get it…..”

The book contains every possible big-house and cold-case cliche and at just off 600 pages it certainly is a big baggy monster. There are whole plot lines that could have been omitted without loss, but the twin-narrative structure was well-constructed and sustained across the whole long book. It certainly romped along and drew me in so that I didn’t at all mind reading great slabs of it, which is probably the way you’d read it if it were a holiday read. But it’s not high literature, and I suspect that much of its appeal is that it is so recognizable and comfortable. I won’t be rushing to read another Kate Morton – there are too many other books that are more challenging to read and enjoy, and at 500+ pages, the rewards just aren’t there

My rating: 6/10

Read because:  CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.

 

‘A River with a City Problem’ by Margaret Cook

River_City_Cook

2019, 198 p plus notes

As it happened, when I was in Brisbane earlier this year, we ambled along the Riverwalk floating walkway. Watching the ferries and catamarans plying the river, crossing the pedestrian bridges and feeling the sand under our toes on the man-made beach, we wondered “Why doesn’t Melbourne do more with its river?”  Then we passed a restaurant on the walkway that had a mark on its window (which I’ve highlighted here in red) to show the height of the 2011 flood.  You can gauge its height by the legs on the stools at the bottom of the window.

river

At first I thought “What resilience!” but after reading Margaret Cook’s book, I’m not so sure.  This restaurant would have been under water in 1893 and 1974 had it been there then, and it will be under water again when the floods inevitably return. This dogged determination to keep rebuilding is exactly what Cook means when she says that the Brisbane River is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.

White settlers, like the indigenous people who were here before them, are always drawn to fresh water sources. They should have listened to the Turrbal and Jagera people whose Dreamtime stories tell how the river was created by Moodagurra, with an emphasis on the rain and cloud that allowed him to wriggle to form the sinuous river. Of course, they didn’t listen to anyone. Early development took place on the floodplain, subjected to regular floods, but riverfront continued to be viewed as prime land.

Until 1893, that is, when the floodwaters surged onto the floodplains, where homes, wool sheds warehouses and industries had been located. Thirty-five people drowned. The solution? Why, build a dam, of course!….and this has been the approach in Brisbane ever since. There was a hiatus between 1893 and 1974, when drought was often more of a problem than flood, but inevitably the floods came again, and the Somerset dam was found lacking. And so, the solution? Why, build another dam – this time, the Wivenhoe, which was designed to be a dual-purpose dam that would maintain a water supply for Brisbane in times of drought, but also prevent Brisbane and Ipswich from flooding during heavy rains.  A shorter hiatus this time, between 1974 and 2011, then inevitably the floods came after days and days of rain. This time, the ubiquity of smart phones meant that the flood was captured in all of its swirling, turbid power, and rank, stinking aftermath.

This book tells the story of the three major floods – 1893, 1974 and 2011 – from ecological, geographical and human perspectives. More importantly, though, it looks at the failure of policy as successive governments of both persuasions lacked the courage to say ‘enough!’ and prevent development on the floodplain. In the aftermath of a crisis, there’s a proud defiance in claiming that” we will rebuild” but often it defeats good sense.

But the Queensland governments were even more egregious than other Australian governments, in their dogged pursuit of growth and development at all costs. It’s not just Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s white shoe brigade here; it’s Clem Jones the Labor Mayor of Brisbane, and a succession of Premiers of both persuasions who consistently looked to technology instead of asking the harder question “Should we even be building here?” When other governments were looking at floodplain planning, especially in the light of global climate change, Queensland governments went through the motions, leaving loopholes that were (of course!) exploited, and tip-toeing around developers and their investments.

By the time the 2011 floods came, even though the water level itself was lower than earlier floods, the financial implications were disastrous because of the encouragement of higher-density development on the floodplain. She discusses the role of Newscorp media after this flood, most particularly the Australian, in attacking the science behind the decision to release dam water to save the dam, and blaming individuals rather than opening up a broader analysis of the systems that had led to such disastrous results.

The book had its origins in a PhD thesis, which is a remarkably hard genre to shrug off when writing for a more general audience.  This is most obvious in the chapter ‘Flood Management with Hindsight’, which examines the decision to release flood water during the 2011 floods. There are lots of acronyms in this chapter, and I rued the lack of a glossary of abbreviations. I also regretted, as a general reader not local to Brisbane, the lack of a more detailed map of the Brisbane River within the city of Brisbane. There is a map that shows the Brisbane River Catchment more broadly, but when mentioning suburbs and city landmarks, the names meant little to me without a map.

The presence of  images throughout the book, especially when discussing the three floods, breaks up the text. I liked that the pictures were placed within the text, instead of being corralled in the middle of the book as a set of plates – a decision probably made easier by the fact that they were black-and-white newspaper images, rather than colour photos.

By the end of the book, I was not at all confident that anything had been learned at all, and I don’t think that Cook is, either.  That line on the restaurant window showing the flood level that I spoke of earlier seems now to be more an act of hubris, than a mark of resilience.  For now.  Her conclusion, titled “The Floods Will Come Again” is a statement of fact, rather than a prognostication of doom. Perhaps then the political courage might be found to acknowledge that the city itself is the problem, rather than the river.  As the title says, it is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.

Source: review copy courtesy of the author

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

 

 

 

‘Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939’ by Jill Roe

Roe_theosophy

1986, 388 P.

20190823_150525A couple of months back, I went with my Unitarian fellowship to a retreat near Springbrook in south-east Queensland, owned by the Queensland Theosophical Society. Curious about theosophy and wondering if it has any parallels with Unitarianism, I decided to read Jill Roe’s book Beyond Belief. (Thank you for asking: no, Unitarianism  is completely different in terms of philosophy although maybe it does have similarities in terms of public profile). Roe herself was not a Theosophist, so this book is no ‘insider story’ – in fact, it is written with a dry, dispassionate but not hostile air of curiosity. And curious the history of Theosophy in Australia certainly is, but given its attraction to politicians, judges and some academics in the first decades of the 20th century, it can’t be discounted either.

Blavatsky.010

Mme. Blavatsky, Wikimedia Commons

Roe’s book covers the years 1879-1939. Its starting point is 1879 when the Theosophical Society, an international organization, enrolled its first Australian member.

Established in  America in 1875 and eventually based in India, with the so-called psychic Mme Helena Blavatsky as its founder, people joined the central Society as individuals rather than joining a local satellite.  When Mme. Blavatsky was pronounced a fraud for manipulating her seances, she fled to Europe and never returned to India,  and the Theosophical Society continued on without her.

Between 1891-1894 Theosophy gained an effective foothold in Australia with small groups established in various states. Success was mixed. Melbourne, with its solid network of liberals and secularists might have seemed a fertile ground for Theosophy: think Alfred Deakin, Henry Bourne Higgins, Vida Goldstein etc. However, in Melbourne the experimental spiritual space was already occupied by Charles Strong’s Australian Church, the Melbourne Unitarian Church and the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists.  Sydney was a more fractious place, with either hardline churches or frankly ‘nutters’ (have things changed?) and a “freer market for heterodoxy”. The surprising thing to me was that Brisbane became a stronghold for Theosophy (evidenced perhaps by the continuing presence of the retreat I visited in Springbrook?), and it attracted professional and commercial people like judges, doctors, lawyers etc.

Annie_Besant,_LoC

Annie Besant, Wikimedia Commons

The real international “catch” for Theosophy world-wide was the recruitment of Annie Besant (did you know that it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘pleasant’?), already well-known for her activism on contraception and championing the cause of the British Match-Girls. (I’m still haunted by a picture I saw in primary school fifty years ago of a girl my then-age, suffering phossy jaw).  She visited Australia quite often in her role as President of the Theosophical Society and was well received as an excellent public speaker. There was a personal connection too: her daughter had married English journalist Ernest Scott, who ended up the first Professor of History at Melbourne University. He had eschewed both Theosophy and his double-barrelled surname Besant-Scott by the time he received his university appointment , and the marriage had broken up.

Now, for me as a non-Theosophist, this all gets pretty weird. Not only the clairvoyance, but also a belief in Lemuria- an Atlantis-like mega-continent encompassing the Himalayas, Madagascar, Tasmania, Greenland and Siberia before sinking into the sea because of volcanic activity. Then there’s the onward evolutionary cycle of rise and fall of dominant civilizations, with the Aryan world in decay, waiting for the sixth cycle which would be presaged by the arrival of the Coming Christ, the World Teacher. There was the connection with Co-Masonry;  the esoteric offshoot ‘The Order of the Star in the East’; and the takeover of the Old Catholic Church, renamed the Liberal Catholic Church complete with Bishops, mitres and ‘mysteries’.

Then there was the World Teacher himself, whom the Theosophical Society identified as Jiddu Krishnamurti born around 1895 in India and adopted by Annie Besant and fellow Theosophist Charles Leadbeater (no relation to the possum). Expectations of the arrival of the messiah reached their zenith in the 1920s, which was also the high point of Theosophy in Australia. The Star Ampitheatre was built on prime harbourside Balmoral Beach in Sydney for the World Teacher “when he comes” (see image here), but not for Jesus walking through Sydney Heads as the legend goes.  The land cost £7000 and the ampitheatre building itself cost £20,000.  It was demolished in 1951.

During the heady 1920s Theosophy was strongest in Sydney (despite schism) and prominent real estate was purchased in all the capital cities.  It owned and controlled 2GB (home of Alan Jones -HUH!). It moved into education, particularly kindergarten education, with a later offshoot into Anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner education. It encouraged art (particularly the Arts and Crafts movement) and dance (especially eurhythmics). Despite claims to being ‘progressive’, it was a rather straitened progressivism by today’s standards: vegetarian, teetotal, dislike of ‘luxury’, anti-vaccination, proponents of ‘racial hygiene’ and attracted to some of  Mussolini’s ideas.

By the 1930s Theosophy was in decline, and has remained that way. Anthroposophy attracted many of its leading lights; the World Teacher Krishnamurti rejected Theosophy himself and went off in a different spiritual direction; the Society lost 2GB and people drifted into other religions or apathy. It had become an anachronism. Theosophy is, as Roe says “best understood as an alternative religious position dating from the age of imperialism. The ground it stood was undermined by the crises of the early twentieth century” (p. 378)

Quite apart from my curiosity about this esoteric (and in my opinion eccentric) philosophy, the book highlights three interesting themes.  First- here is a church where the major figures are women (Mme Blavatsky and Annie Besant) although, as Roe points out, women only held 1/3 of the officebearing positions in the organization.  Second, this is an imperial endeavour, with India at its heart. The frequent communications and visits between Australia (particularly Brisbane) and India are a different way of looking at empire, largely ignoring the metropole. Finally, there are those rich intersections between Australian intellectual life in the early 20th century and Theosophy- a veritable Who’s Who of connections.

This book was published in 1986 as part of the NSW University Press ‘Modern History Series’. It has the look and feel of a typed manuscript or thesis, with very dense text and footnotes at the end of each chapter (as used to always be the case). Apparently Wakefield Press are crowd-sourcing for a revised edition edited by Marion Quartly  (I wonder how they’ll get around the problem that Wakefield already have another book under their imprint called ‘Beyond Belief’?)

This is an academic text, and it is more an institutional history than a bottom-up, personalized history.  However, in our increasingly rabid religious world, perhaps there will be a readership for this strange history which has so many intersections with early 20th century intellectual history. After all, in an interview with the Australian Humanities Review in 2004, Roe said

if you want to understand the norm, you should look at what isn’t the standard. It’s very illuminating to look at those who have taken a position to the edge, it casts a different light on what really is in general.

AWW2019I have read this book as part of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.