Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The World: A Family History’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore

2022, 1263 p.

Thank God that’s over! Never have I complained so much about a book that took me so long to read. So long, in fact, that it is massively overdue and the library has blocked my account. But once I had committed to about 500 pages, I felt that I had to keep going partly out of obtuseness (no big fat 1200 page book was going to beat me!) and because, flicking ahead, I’d find parts that interested me and wanted to reach them. But after probably six weeks of reading, was it worth it? Probably not.

It started well. I was interested in the book after reading an interview with the author, well known as a Russian historian, and the sheer scope of the endeavour impressed me. Starting off with the footsteps found in Happisburgh, England, of a man and four children, dating from between 950,000 and 850,000 years old, Montefiore looks to the family – “the essential unit of human existence”- as a way of linking great events with individual human dramas. By focussing on individuals, families and coteries, he admits that the families and characters that he follows in this book are exceptional, but they also reveal much about their era and place.

It is a way of looking at how kingdoms and states evolved, at how the interconnectivity of peoples developed, and at how different societies absorbed outsiders and merged with others. In this multifaceted drama, I hope that the simultaneous, blended yet single narrative catches something of the messy unpredictability and contingency of real life in real time, the feeling that much is happening in different places and orbits, the mayhem and the confusion of a dizzying, spasmodic, bare-knuckle cavalry charge, often as absurd as it is cruel, always filled with vertiginous surprises, strange incidents and incredible personalities that no one could foresee


One of the things that I very admired in this book was his attempt to cover the whole of human endeavour, looking at all the continents across time. Admittedly, Australia gets pretty cursory treatment but both Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe are all dealt with in his chronological swirl throughout human history. The book itself is divided into twenty-two chronological acts, identified not by dates but instead by world population size. Within each ‘act’, there are a number of sections identified by family surname, often conjoining ruling families from very different parts of the globe. Taking Act Eight, for instance, when the world population was 360 million, its four sections set in the 1100 and 1200s are:

  • Genghis: A Conquering Family
  • Khmers, Hohenstaufen and Polos
  • The Keitas of Mali and the Habsburgs of Austria
  • The Tamerlanians, the Ming and the Obas of Benin.

Its final ‘act’ 22, with a world population of 4.4 billion takes us right up to the present day with:

  • Yeltsins and Xis, Nehruvians and Assads, Bin Ladens, Kims and Obamas
  • Trumps and Xis, Sauds, Assads and Kims

I had expected more of an emphasis on dynasties, which certainly do appear in this book, maintaining a presence across several ‘acts’ (e.g. Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns). Nonetheless, quite a few of his actors are not part of a multi-generational power base (e.g. Yeltsin and Obama in Act 22) but are instead individuals who flame up and then events move beyond them. He does not particularly consider ‘the family’ as a unit of analysis, or identify ways in which it changed in any great depth. However, as he points out in his introduction, by taking ‘the family’ as his frame, it is possible to pay more attention to the lives of women, both as shapers of the men who dominate the main narrative, but who also formed the sinews of dynastic control, stepping in as regents, and as court powers in their own right.

There were some rather surprising omissions. I would have thought that the War of the Roses might have been dealt with, given that family and dynasty were fundamental to it. Perhaps Australia could have got a look in with the Murdoch family that we have inflicted on the late 20th-early21st century Anglo-sphere.

But the book is already overwhelming in many ways. Not only is there the kaleidoscopic effect of shifting from one continent and culture to another, but there is just so much. I gave up trying to keep it all straight, and just let it sweep me along, not even attempting to create my own internal mental narrative while reading.

I was also disconcerted by infelicities that I could detect that undercut my confidence in him as a historian somewhat (and who knows how many went undetected). He starts with Egypt, Africa, Athens, Persia and India, and I must admit that this part read a bit like the ‘begats’ section of the Old Testament. For me, it was only really with the arrival of the more familiar (to me) Romans that the narrative seemed to become more human-based instead of “one damned thing after another”. Now, I am no expert on Rome, beyond listening regularly to two podcast series on Ancient Rome, but one thing that the historians in these podcasts have highlighted is the slanted nature of the remnant narratives available to us today, shaped by the agendas and perspectives of their classical authors. There was no hint here of the cautiousness with which these historians embroider every statement: instead contested events and interpretations were presented as fact. So, likewise, I found myself reading of the truly horrific cruelties imposed by powerful men on the powerless with a similar twinge of skepticism. While not at all doubting man’s ability and perverse imagination in torturing other men, what was the purpose of counting and recounting these chilling punishments?

My wariness was increased further when I learned that:

The first outsiders to reach Australia were not Europeans (the Dutch landed there in 1606), but African sailors from Kilwa [near Tanzania], as evidenced by the discovery of copper Kilwan coins, inscribed in Arabic with the name of an amir of Kilwa, dug up on Marchinbar Island, Northern Territory.

p. 268

What???? Thanks to Google, I found that indeed copper coins, inscribed in Arabic were indeed found in the Northern Territory, but even though their origin remains a mystery, there is little credence given to the idea that they were brought by African sailors in the tenth century CE. Who was he reading? I wondered, to come up with this rather out-there hypothesis, but there was no bibliography. I only found out once I finished the book that there was an online bibliography available so as not to add to this already lengthy book.

Of course, a book focussing on the family is going to deal with sexuality, which was often only tangentially linked to marriage and the passing-on of DNA. But I did find myself wondering what was the point of frequent tales, especially in the footnotes, of perversion and sexual oddity, and the narrative and political purpose such anecdotes served in the histories from which they were drawn. In fact the footnotes, while often interesting and quirky, seem to act as a bit of a catch-all for the facts that he had uncovered that he couldn’t bear to leave out, even if they were only obliquely related to the text.

However, one thing that came through clearly was the distorting effect of slavery – probably the most anti-family activity man ever invented. Not just Atlantic slavery, but across all societies and often as a by-product of warfare, slavery enriched some families and dynasties, and the consequences of that wealth stretched across centuries, furthering further empire-development and discovery.

This book was published in 2022, and particularly the last chapters are narrowing in on Ukraine and Russia, the author’s specialty. I suspect that events yet to come will render these chapters out-of-date and possibly downright wrong. In a book which has travelled so far, across so much time and geography, I am surprised that he is risking rendering his scholarship obsolete by such presentism. His frequent coy references to “this author” in referring to his own interviews with influential political actors remind us that his work has not just been desk research, but that he has been a player in present-day politics as well. That said, I was interested that in a footnote in the closing pages, he rebutted Putin’s argument about Ukraine’s Muscovite and Russian origins by pointing out that Ukraine has, over time, been ruled by Ottomans, Habsburgs, Polish kings and Lithuanian dukes, and peopled by Cossacks, Tatars, Poles, Jews, Italians and Greeks, as well as Russians and Ukrainians (fn. p.1231)

This book was written “during the menacing times of Covid” (p. xxviii) and perhaps that accounts for its length. I was drawn to keep reading but I found myself resenting the sheer weight and length of the book, and the relentless piling on of actors and actions. I found myself wishing that he would take a break from the narrative, to take stock and analyze for commonalities and change, before continuing on.

Am I glad that I read it? Probably, in that I will probably take away flickers of recognition of names and cultures, and from the effect of seeing events that occurred contemporaneously that I had only seen in isolation previously. But it was damned hard work and I just don’t know -yet- whether it was worth it.

My rating: My God, how does someone rate a book about the whole of human written history? 7/10?

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. Please, YPRL and the borrowers waiting for me to return it, forgive me for holding on to it for so long. But I bet that few future borrowers will be able read it in four weeks either.

´Between a Wolf and a Dog´ by Georgia Blain

2016, 320 p.


I have often thought that one´s response to a particular book is often shaped by the books you have read immediately prior. Sometimes a brilliant book casts everything else into the shadows and dulls your appreciation for whatever comes after, but sometimes it works the other way too. Immediately before reading this book, I read a dialogue-heavy political novel and I’m still reading a very long survey history non-fiction book. There’s no ‘singing’ prose in either of them. But right from the first page of Georgia Blain’s book I just relaxed into her precise and confident prose, knowing that I was reading a writer who can really write.

Much of the action in the book takes place over one day – a dank, wet Sydney day with the rain pouring down almost without stopping. We learn in the early pages that 70-year old Hilary is very ill, but she is keeping this knowledge from her two adult daughters, April and Ester. The two sisters have been estranged for three years, after April and Ester’s husband Lawrence had a brief fling. There had always been an underlying tension between the two siblings. Ever since childhood, April has had a scant regard for possessions, and freely takes what she desires. However, ‘taking’ Ester’s husband is a far cry from the ‘borrowed’ clothes and pilfered jewellery from their childhood. Ester and Lawrence’s marriage breaks down, and the two parents are negotiating the shared care of their children.

The phrase ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog’ refers to that twilight time when the shape of things is blurred, and it is no longer clear whether an animal is a wolf – a threat- or a dog -potentially friendly. Likewise, all the characters in the novel are at a pivot of change. Ester, a counselor, has met a man who might be a possibility; Lawrence’s career reputation is about to come crashing down; April and Ester are both wearying under this long estrangement, and Hilary is facing big, life-and-death decisions.

The narrative focus swaps from one character to the other, while the book itself is divided into sections ‘Now’ and ‘Three Years Ago’. I didn’t find all parts equally compelling. Following Ester through her counselling consultations as she negotiates around other people’s pain seemed superfluous, and could easily have been omitted. April and Lawrence’s separate irresponsibility and obliviousness to consequences was repellent, but Blain captured their own self-absorption and recklessness well. One character who remained shadowy was Hilary’s husband and the girls’ father Maurie, a successful artist whose reputation continues to grow after his death from heart attack. His widow Hilary is curling into her own ball of pain, and the closing scenes were poignant as she meets separately with her daughters who are blithely unaware of what is about to come.

The most beautiful writing in this book is in her descriptions of that drumming, streaming rain which lowers like an oppressive cloud over the family. Particularly the two opening scenes, where Lawrence and Ester wake up in their separate houses to the sound of the rain on the roof brought me right into the room with them.

Georgie Blain’s own experience of the same cancer that Hilary faced is a tragedy of irony, but it would be wrong to read this book solely in terms of the author’s own illness. The characters were so real to me that I found myself wondering what happened next, even while reminding myself that it is fiction. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hold its own truth.. It is a beautifully written, domestic novel, carefully constructed and balanced.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: CAE as our February 2023 bookgroup read.

‘The Unfolding’ by A.M. Homes

2022, 396 p.

This book is set in a very specific timeframe: from Wednesday 5th November 2008 to Tuesday 20th January 2009. Ring a bell? Probably not. I’ll help you out. It’s the time between the election night that saw Barak Obama elected as President of United States, and the day of his inauguration the following year.

If you’ve ever been to an election-night function as a volunteer, you’ll recognize the awful, chin-trembling bleakness of defeat when the balloons, the music, the party pies all of a sudden take on a bilious yellow hue. For white, racist, life-long Republicans that election night -more than any other before it- must have seemed like the world was shifting on its axis. And so we meet Hitchens, nick-named “The Big Guy” who decides that something must be done. He calls on his mates, fellow-Republicans, entrepreneurs, a crackpot historian, a tax lawyer etc, all rich, entitled, puffed up with their delusions that they can change history if they get the right people onside and pull a few strings. And so they launch into a series of sleazy meetings with ‘fixers’ and quasi-military figures where men talk in catch-phrases and allusions, plotting to somehow over-turn Obama’s election, to set the world right again. If we hadn’t seen Rudy Giuliani sweating away in the All-Seasons Garden Supply car-park, or January 6th, this would just seem like farce. Not any more: as the author of this book, published in 2022, knows only too well.

While all this is going on, the Big Guy has his own problems at home. His wife Charlotte is an alcoholic who finally seeks help for her addiction; his daughter Meghan is at boarding school and starting to question her own views on life and politics, after joining the family jaunt to the polling booth to vote for John McCain. The family has its own secrets and it is forced to face up to them, while Big Guy is escaping reality through his ham-fisted political manipulations to try to go back to the good old days.

This book read very much like a play, with a heavy reliance on dialogue. There are no chapters, but instead a series of ‘scenes’, each identified by date and location. There are probably a lot of political references and in-jokes that escaped me, and I felt my Australianness keenly while reading the book. What an unsavoury group of people. How depressing that they’re still here.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I heard the author on a BBC Start the Week podcast (see my response to the podcast here). This podcast has a lot to answer for.

‘To Calais, in Ordinary Time’ by James Meek

2019, 382 p.

I have only read one other James Meek novel, The People’s Act of Love, although I’ve often seen his articles in the London Review of Books. I read The People’s Act of Love before I started blogging. It was set during the Russian Civil War that followed the Revolution – a time when fortunes and allegiances shifted in response to the global political situation, and when loyalty and survival were pitted against each other. Meek’s most recent book To Calais, in Ordinary Time is likewise set in 1348, a time of political flux, but this time politics is rendered hollow by the threat of plague. This book was published in 2019, before our own world was to face its own plague, and to read it in 2022 is to find resonances of which the author would have been unconscious, as the plague is at first just a rumour, dismissed, politicized or seen as divine intervention. But by the end of the book, the plague dominates, throwing into question social distinctions, faith, and the nature of commitment.

The book involves a journey from South-West London to Calais, two years after the battle of Crecy where a group of archers under Edward III routed a larger French army and went on to capture Calais. A band of battle-hardened archers is gathered together by knight Laurence Haket to return to Calais, and young serf Will Quate is nominated by his liege lord to join them. The other archers, led by Hayne, had been involved in the sack of Crecy two years earlier and had taken captive French noblewoman Cess, who was forced to accompany them back to England. Now they are heading back to Calais again, and they are joined by Lady Bernardine, Wills’ master’s daughter who is escaping an arranged marriage to an older man; Thomas, a clerical administrator on secondment to an abbey who, while not an actual priest, is steeped in the church; and Hab, a swineherd with desires of his own. While they are heading to France, the plague is heading towards them.

The narrative is told in different voices. The cleric Thomas writes his first-person narrative on parchment, in a high, intellectual tone; while the third-person narrative depicts Lady Bernardine as speaking in a lofty, French-inflected language. Will, Hab and the archers, on the other hand are depicted as speaking a form of dialect : not quite Chaucer, but with many unfamiliar words (‘neb’ for face; ‘steve’ for voice) and a curious sentence-construction. Meek sustained this well throughout the book, although I confess that it often tangled my reading.

What I found most confusing, though, was the names. Hab (the swineherd) is very similar to Mad (one of the archers); Mad (the archer) is very similar to Madlen (Hab’s ‘sister’); Hayne (the leader of the bowmen) is very similar to Haket (the knight). Add to this abbreviations (Cess for Cecily; Berna for Lady Bernardine), some gender-bending, and a play within in a story- and I didn’t know where I was for much of the book. In a way, my own confusion mirrored the other-worldliness and the unfamiliarity of the 14th century setting. It did resolve, particularly as the plague set in and different characters dropped away.

In her blurb for the book, Hilary Mantel wrote:

Fans of intelligent historical fiction will be enthralled by a story so original and so fully imagined. Meek shows the era as alien, which it is, and doesn’t falsify it by assimilating it to ours. But his characters are recognisably warm and human.

I confess that I found myself wondering if I was “intelligent” enough for this book, because I did find it challenging. But as Mantel points out, Meek has created a world on its own terms, with disorienting little twists, that reinforces that his characters are not just ‘us in funny clothes’ and he sustains this across the whole book. And, by chance, we bring to this 14th century world our own 21st world view of plague which, for me, only enhanced the book further. It’s a remarkable- but challenging- book.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5/10 (….eventually….)

‘A Man Called Ove’ by Fredrik Backman

2012, 337 p.

Although this book purports to be about a curmudgeonly old man, the American film (renamed ‘A Man Called Otto’) stars Tom Hanks so he certainly couldn’t be too curmudgeonly. As someone who has experience of Grumpy Old Men (Reader, I married one) Ove is only eye-rollingly annoying with a heart of gold. It was altogether too saccharine for me.

There are advertisements at the end of the book for the author’s other publications, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologizes and Britt-Marie was here. They sound just like this book with an misunderstood older person covering a hidden warmth who blossoms under the attention of others. Pardon my cynicism.

Sourced from: purchased e-book (it was on special)

Rating: 5/10

‘The Tour’ by Denise Scott

2012, 244 pages

Denise Scott is one of my favourite comedians – no, she’s my FAVOURITE comedian. I enjoyed All that Happened at Number 26 and when I was looking for a book to read quickly to round out my Goodreads Challenge for 2022, this seemed a good choice. There’s quite a bit of repetition here from All that Happened at Number 26 but that didn’t stop me laughing out loud in bed and on the train and bus on a 3 hour journey.

We were both born in the same year, and she grew up in Watsonia/Greensborough which is just up the road from my own house, so many of the schools and places she mentions are familiar to me. So, too, are the experiences of facing the death of parents and the bodily indignities of aging. It was interesting to read of the frequency of sexual assault, that of course underpins the whole “me too” movement, but was almost taken for granted by women of our age. I suspect that a younger woman today would conceptualize and write about it very differently.

It’s not high literature but she’s funny and human and I wish that I were sitting beside her, just listening to her and laughing.

Sourced from: purchased as a e-book

Rating: who knows.

‘August in Kabul’ by Andrew Quilty

2022, 276 p.

Photojournalist Andrew Quilty had been thinking about writing a book about Afghanistan since late 2020. The Doha agreement had been signed in February 2020, thousands of Taliban prisoners had been released, and the Americans were pressuring Kabul to take more responsibility for ‘active defence’ so that the US troops could withdraw as planned. In this book that he imagined writing, he intended following the theme that he’d been following for several years in his reporting: that the US refusal to deal with the Taliban had ignited the insurgency, as it had in Iraq. He would follow the lives of rural Afghans, who had experienced a very different war from that experienced from Kabul, and bring their experiences to attention.

But then August happened, and that book was put aside and this one written instead. Biden had specified a withdrawal date of 31 August, but as the Taliban took Kabul, the date was brought forward. By mid August foreign embassies were closing, expatriates were being brought home, and crowds of people desperate to escape the return of the Taliban surrounded the airport, standing in a canal of sewage, clinging to the undercarriage of airplanes. We all saw it, but the sheer press of humanity turned these people into a ‘mob’. Andrew Quilty gives them back their individuality.

The book is written chronologically in three parts, with each chapter set at a different location, with some locations appearing in all three parts. Part I is set in early August, as the rumours of the return of the Taliban become stronger; Part II is set in mid-August as the government falls apart; and Part III is set in late August as the Taliban take Kabul and those who can, try to flee. In Part I in particular, he captures some of what he intended in his earlier planned book, interviewing soldiers protecting the Antenna Post in Maidan Wardak Province, but also the villagers who, because of their own conservative beliefs and lifestyles, saw no threat from the returning Taliban. In the later sections he focuses his attention on Kabul, not only because the provinces are now Taliban-dominated and thus less accessible to him, but also because it is city-dwellers and those who had assisted the US and other foreign troops who have more to fear and more to lose as a result of the return of the Taliban after two decades.

The journalistic leanings of the author are clearly visible. Each chapter is written almost as an object of long-form journalism, with interviews and stories of colleagues and antagonists interwoven with each other. It reflects my own cultural blinkers, I know, but I did become a little confused between characters whose names seemed very similar to me, and I would have appreciated a list of characters with an identifying paragraph at the start of the book. However, the index was very useful, and most of the acronyms were spelled out in the index as well. I was bemused, though, by his insertion of a chapter of historical background which appeared in Chapter 8, two-thirds of the way through the book. I would have thought that it would have been more useful earlier.

And I don’t know if it is because I am a woman, or whether the recent closure of universities and NGO jobs to women in Afghanistan has heightened our awareness, but I responded most to the stories of women, in particular Nadia, whose oppression within the family became more suffocating as the Taliban approached. It was as if her brother was emboldened within the family home by the appearance in the streets of the Taliban perched on their jeeps, bristling with guns. The power of her older brother within the family is frightening, as he cajoles his father into stricter discipline of his daughter, and her mother averts her eyes. Then there is Hamed, a presidential staffer, who watches as all the framework of government melts away as men decide to look to their own safety first by taking advantage of opportunities of escape that were not available to those crowds surrounding the international airport. Quilty takes us to those people at the airport, some of whom manage to get inside and escape to a new, if uncertain, future and others who after days of heat, dehydration, crowding and sloshing through that foul canal of sewage decide that it is futile and return home.

There are many dangerous places in the world, but surely the most perilous time must be as one regime gives way to another. If you have made a commitment to either side, all traces need to be expunged without hesitation or sentimentality, and it becomes clear where the limits to loyalty lie. And now, as the Taliban reneges on its promises about women and as the world struggles with how to deal with this inexorably hardline government, I wonder what happened -and will happen – to the people that Andrew Quilty has brought forward into Western consciousness.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. Read because I read a review of it somewhere.

‘Dreamers and Schemers: A political history of Australia’ by Frank Bongiorno

2022, 396 p. plus notes

My overwhelming feeling on finishing this book is sheer admiration for the breadth of endeavour to write a political history of Australia right from pre-colonial through to COVID times. Few historians would take on such a task: even fewer could carry it off without flagging. But Frank Bongiorno does, with his customary clarity and a mischievous twinkle in the eye when he encounters absurdity and pretension.

I like Frank Bongiorno, and he is a historian who takes his role as a public commentator seriously. He is current president of the Australian Historical Association, and on the Federal Executive of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. He is a contributor to newspapers and journals (both academic and general) and he’s likely to pop up on politics programs on the ABC television and radio. I found myself wondering whether his own political leanings would influence his analysis once he reached the years which he would remember (he was born in 1969) but I couldn’t really detect any change in his stance. The title, while catchy, is a little misleading: it evokes a ‘Hundred Ratbags’ sort of book based on crackpots and shysters. The book takes a much more general approach than this, with more emphasis on the big sweeps and arcs of history rather than the foibles of transitory individuals. The ‘Dreamers and Schemers’ are not just found on the floors of parliamentary chambers – they are out in the pubs, meeting halls, churches and unions as well, but the main focus is on formal political structures.

We often talk today of ‘political junkies’, who delve into the minutiae of political events that many others flip past when they encounter them in the newspapers, and who see everything through a political lens. By writing a political history, Bongiorno focuses his attention on the science of politics as it played out chronologically over Australia’s white history, which means that there is necessarily an emphasis on the dead white men who dominated big-P politics, while many other forces are omitted. Women, for instance, are barely seen in the first third of the book because, politically, they were insignificant. Bongiorno starts the book with First Nations politics: something that is barely acknowledged in Australian history, and when it is, it is more anthropological than political. Indigenous politics are woven throughout the rest of the text, but reflecting the events of the time, they disappear for whole decades only to reappear 40 or 50 years later. Economic fluctuations and wars appear in the narrative, but only to the extent that they affected the politics of the day. Likewise, international events feature in the early chapters, when Australia’s nascent politics were a reflection of political currents that affected the empire generally, and they reappear in the closing chapters when a world-wide pandemic disease and cynicism over politics generally bring politics to uncharted territory.

One of the real strengths of this book is that it considers both federal and state politics alongside each other, taking care to address each of the states, and not just the most populous ones. Personalities tended to loom larger at state level, with a predominance of ‘schemers’ over ‘dreamers’. The distinctiveness of the different states is highlighted: the conservatism (by design) of the Legislative Council in Victoria; the radicalism of Queensland at the turn of the 20th century which contrasted so much with the Bjelke-Petersen era some 70 years later; the way that South Australia often seemed to be travelling its own path. This emphasis on the states means that the full range of politics is explored -not just the big moves of a Federal government, but the compromises and obligations of State governments as well.

I was interested to see how Bongiorno structured the chronology of the book. He proceeds chronologically, but decisive events like Federation, war, the Depression or the Dismissal are subsumed under broader categories, rather than meriting a chapter in their own right. The chapters are:

  • Autocracy, Community and Democracy: from Earliest Times to 1855 (i.e. the granting of a degree of not identical self-government to the separate colonies as part of a broader sweep towards reform across the settler empire)
  • Making Democracy Work: 1857-90 (which takes us far from the 1850s view of self-government to a concept of government as an entity which can transform society, alongside increasing demands – particularly through the unions- for direct representation of class
  • A New Australia 1891-1914 (emphasizing the importance of the ‘Deakinite Settlement’, and the rise of the Labor Party and fusion of conservative forces)
  • Loyalty and Interest: 1914-1939 (a big time span, collapsing WWI into the post war era until the start of another war. Labor dominance during the early years of the war, the rise of sectarianism, rise of the Country Party, first Menzies government)
  • War and Peace: 1939-49 (war and post-war considered together. Co-operation between Menzies and Curtin in welfare provision. The Labor Party would not have dreamt that they would be in Opposition for so long)
  • The Good Times 1949-1966 (Menzies’ second prime ministership; influence of Santamaria and Victorian Labor split)
  • Revolt, Reason and Reaction: 1966-1982 (series of Liberal prime ministers after Menzies, Victoria a brake on an ALP victory earlier than 1972, Kerr/Whitlam/Fraser conceptualized as a contest of manhood; Fraser more like a Country Party politician. A changed world- free trade, unions but reaction through Bjelke-Peterson in Qld, Charles Court in WA; rise of Australian Democrats)
  • Australia Remade? 1983-99 (Winding back of the protective state, much of it by the ALP; influence of globalisation and free market economics; Howard and Hanson)
  • ‘The Glimmer of Twilight’: 2000-19 (2001 the end of progressivism- emergence of the darker side of globalization. 2005 Howard wins Senate majority and introduction of WorkChoices, Australian Wheat Board, David Hicks, the Intervention; Kevin Rudd and the Summit, Kyoto, the Apology. Gillard’s first minority government since WWII but passing of 561 pieces of legislation; lower primary vote and rise of independents and Greens; Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison – studied ordinaryiness)
  • Conclusion – In the Age of COVID

I’m not going to go through the details: you’ll need to read the book for them. It’s a fact-heavy book, driven by chronological events. But there are themes that arise out of this mosaic of personalities and events.

The first is the continuity of the view of an interventionist government. He devotes much attention to the Deakinite Settlement of the 1890s, which held over many decades (perhaps there are even traces of it today) and brought Australia to the forefront of progressive legislation in the early decades of the 20th century. The economic interventions of the post-WWII governments in the 1940s – and here Bongiorno echoes Stuart Macintyre, to whom the book is dedicated- continued under Menzies and were only ruptured in the 1980s. Even during the COVID pandemic, with which the book closes, there remained

a broad acceptance, no doubt stronger among some than others, that government should play the predominant role in defining where the boundaries between individual rights and the common good lie….Outside extreme libertarianism, a minority taste in Australia, there tends to be only mild political disagreement. Otherwise, most people get on with their lives, expecting the state to set reasonable parameters for individual behaviour while allowing people a wide scope to pursue their private interests as individuals and families.


Related to the early adoption of progressive electoral legislation, voting schemes continued to evolve over the early 20th century. The method of voting (preferential, above-the-line, secret) etc. continued to be experimented with as the system was finessed. Democracy was not delivered cut and dried: instead, it evolved over time.

Some issues remained constant (or intransigent) over decades. The question of land and vested interests dominated colonial politics. Free trade versus protectionism was a major dividing line between states and parties, and still underpins politics today. Sectarianism and racism (against First Nations, Chinese, immigrants) bubbled under the surface throughout Australia’s political history.

That said, another theme was the sense of roundabouts and swings. One or the other of the major parties would make a clean sweep at both federal and state level, only for the jigsaw to be quickly broken apart as the opposing parties would have electoral success and the cycle would begin again. Where there was a long period of one-party dominance, it was largely through the weakness of the opposition. The significance of sectarianism, and especially the influence of Bob Santamaria and the ‘groupers’ in Victoria is highlighted as a brake on Labor success at both federal and Victorian level over an extended time.

Despite the title ‘Dreamers and Schemers’, the relationship between individuals and the big movements of political history is a nuanced tension between practicality, complacency and continuity on the one hand, and vision and courage on the other. In this, we see Bongiorno the progressivist historian coming out. He notes:

Australian political history has had its dreamers and visionaries alongside the pragmatists and schemers…Big change of the kind that occurred in Australia in the 1850s, 1890s, 1940s and 1980s would have been impossible without the idealists and thinkers: that is, without political leaders, activists, intellectuals and movements who refused to be merely ‘practical’. Change depended on people willing to resist complacent utilitarian appeals to majority interests and consensus opinions, on refusing to accept injunctions merely to tinker rather than transform. In the end, it depended on a vision, however modest, of the good life.

p. 392

This book is written for the general reader, but the relentlessness of change and a succession of actors means that it does require concentrated reading. It provides a wide sweep of history, enabling ‘political junkies’ to step aside from their own cauldron of day-to-day politics to reflect on continuity and courage, both of which have existed across Australia’s political history. Although I have read ‘generalist’ Australian histories that take a broad-lens approach from settlement onwards, I haven’t read another book quite like this one that is so disciplined in its focus on politics as the framework of analysis. It’s an important book, and well worth reading.

My rating: 9

Sourced from: review copy Black Inc books

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott

2022, 226 p.

Had I given up on this book half-way through, which I was tempted to do, I would have agreed with the author’s rather rueful reflection on how the plot of this story would appear to his two older brothers, should they return from WW2

As far as his brothers would ever know – when Toby came back, if Bill came back – their warless little brother had spent a pleasant few months killing rabbits, buying a boat, repairing and then selling it before he went back to school. To them, that would be the extent of his work. That would be the story.

p. 202

That’s what I felt for much of this story. Fifteen year old Ned West lives with his widowed father and older sister on an orchard in Tasmania during World War II. Ned’s two brothers Bill and Toby have gone to fight, and no news has been heard of Bill for some time. Set over the summer school holidays, Ned embarks on his own bloodbath in trapping and shooting rabbits, selling their pelts in town, ostensibly as part of the war effect, but in reality to perhaps, one day, buy a little boat of his own. He inadvertently traps a quoll, which he hides and feed, even though it is savage and more burden than joy. Shamed by his sister into taking his limping horse to the vet, he shows the quoll to the vet who treats both the quoll and his horse without charge on condition that Ned shoots the rabbits that were overrunning her property. As a result, he accumulates more and more money until he is able to buy a shabby little boat which, after he strips the paint off, turns out to be a beautiful Huon Pine boat. But between the shooting and the sanding-back, nothing much seemed to be happening in this book. There were flashbacks and leap-forwards which made little sense, and I was just tiring of this tedious, if beautifully described, summer.

It was only in the last third that the book came together for me. Those obscure flashback/forwards all of a sudden made sense, and lifted the book into a broader story of loss, regret and love. By the end, my frustration had dissipated into admiration for how beautifully the book was written, and the control that Arnott has of a deceptively complex narrative. I don’t know if the shift was in me, or in the writing, but I’m glad that I persevered.

My rating: 8 – would have been higher had the book not taken so long to get going.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life Story’ by Bain Attwood

2021, 204 p. plus notes

Unfortunately, I think that Australians may be more aware of African American political activists than they are of Indigenous Australian ones. William Cooper is now commemorated by an electoral district and a statue in Shepparton, but neither of these capture Cooper’s contribution to Australian history – in fact, in some ways they do a disservice to it. William Cooper’s attempt to have designated Aboriginal representation in Parliament never eventuated to this day, and the Shepparton statue commemorates an event which was only tangentially connected with his lifetime of Indigenous activism. The resolute, handsome face that stares out from the cover of Bain Attwood’s book William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life Story should be instantly recognizable to us, but it is not.

William Cooper was a Yorta Yorta man, born on the junction of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in northern Victoria. His date of birth -sometime around 1860- is inexact, but as Attwood points out, the actual date was largely immaterial compared with the significance given to the place of someone’s birth, their family and kinship group and totem. Nor was his paternity particularly relevant. Attwood claims that that the Yorta Yorta, like other groups, tried to establish a reciprocal kin relationship with the white invaders of their country, by encouraging sexual relationships between their women members and whitefellas (p.5). Thus, several of Cooper’s siblings adopted the surname of Atkinson, for John Olbury Atkinson who worked on the nearby Moira run as overseer, while other siblings (including Cooper) adopted Cooper as their surname, perhaps for Edward Cooper – or maybe not. This meant that Cooper was “half-caste”, a distinction which he himself vehemently rejected, but which came to have ramifications as Aboriginal Mission policy changed over time. He was taken as a child to Melbourne in 1867 by the leaseholder of the Moira station, politician John O’Shanassy, and appeared to have lived with him in his Camberwell mansion Tara Estate- or maybe he worked for O’Shanassy in his New Imperial Hotel in Elizabeth – it’s not really clear. In any event, he returned to the Moira estate on his own Country as a teenager, and learned horse-breaking and pastoral skills that he drew on for the rest of his working life.

It was around 1874 when ‘Billy’ Cooper first approached the Maloga mission, established by Daniel and Janet Matthews on land selected by the Matthews brothers on the Barmah sandhills on a bend of the river Murray. This land had been traditional ceremonial grounds, and was formerly part of the Moira station – a source of later conflict. He moved there largely for the safety of his mother and younger siblings, but he himself moved away to work on surrounding pastoral stations. In 1881 the Matthews were joined by Thomas Shadrach James, from Mauritius, who worked as a teacher there and later married Cooper’s sister Ada. Cooper returned to Maloga more or less permanently from 1882, and two years later, he converted to Christianity, part of a wave of conversions amongst Indigenous men at Maloga at this time. The influence of the Matthews and Thomas James on Cooper’s political mindset was fundamental. Through their preaching, and drawing largely on the Old Testament and hymns, they gave him a framework that held that all people were God’s children and thus potentially equal, and that salvation was promised in the future for the oppressed. (p. 38) Shortly after his conversion, Cooper married Annie Murrie, but she died suddenly of respiratory illness after having two children. He remarried 21year old Agnes Hamilton in 1893 and over the next seventeen years she was to have seven children, six of whom survived infancy. However, the Maloga mission fell victim to the priorities and policies of the Aborigines Protection Association NSW which comprised white clergymen, philanthropists and leading parliamentarians under the patronage of the governor himself. Maloga was stripped bare, and incorporated into Cumeroogunga Mission, which is better known today. After initial problems, Cumeroogunga boasted 60 buildings by 1908, with three streets, gravel footpaths, a church, a meeting house, a school, a dispensary, storerooms and many outbuilding. With over 300 people, it was the largest Aboriginal reserve in NSW. But Cooper left the Mission in 1909 after conflict and controversy over the refusal to grant land blocks arose yet again, and following Agnes’ death from tuberculosis. Further deaths followed, including his eldest daughter in August 1913, his eldest son Daniel at Ypres during WWI, and several years later, Jessie the eldest daughter from his marriage with Agnes died of peritonitis after giving birth. In 1928 he married for a third time, to Sarah McRae (daughter of the artist Tommy McCrae). Cooper was to live to a ripe old age, but the reality of the foreshortened Aboriginal life expectancy, meant that he was surrounded by family deaths. In 1933 he and Sarah decided to move to Melbourne and embarked on a new phase of his activism as a seventy-year old.

Here Cooper set in train the actions for which he is best known today. He established the Australian Aborigines’ League around 1934, an organization which is often confused with the Aborigines Advancement League (of Victoria) which was formed in 1957. He was supported in this by several white supporters. The first was English-born fervent Christian and self-described “Christian communist” (p. 119), Helen Baillie, who had connections with many other Christian humanitarian networks involved in missionary work among Aboriginal people. The second was Arthur Burdeu, another fervent Christian, but wary of left-wing influences subverting Aboriginal organizations. Like Cooper, he was a strong Labor man; they had both lost family members in the Great War, and they lived relatively close to each other. He was appointed president of the Australian Aborigines’ League, even though by its constitution, full membership was only open to Aboriginal people. This raises the inevitable question of whether the League remained the voice of Cooper and other Aboriginal members, and whether the letters in Cooper’s name (generally composed by Burdeu) represented his views. By looking at the way that Cooper and Burdeu worked together, Attwood concludes that the letters in Cooper’s name by and large did represent his views, although formal statements were generally Burdeu’s work (p. 132). Cooper was joined by fellow Indigenous campaigners Shadrach James (his nephew) Anna and Caleb Morgan, Margaret Tucker, George Patten and and Doug Nicholls.

So what were Cooper’s views? Throughout all his activism – right from his time at Maloga- he drew on his Christian belief that as the first people of the land, created by God, and as British subjects, they had a rightful claim on the land, and on the government. However, ‘equal rights’ or ‘citizenship rights’ as distinct from Indigenous rights, were conditional in the sense that they rested on the capacity of their people to exercise them – not so much an entitlement as something that had to be earned (p.134). He framed this in different ways at different times.

At a time when Aboriginal people’s difference was deemed to be the cause of their plight and constituted the grounds upon which they were denied the rights and privileges enjoyed by British subjects, they emphasised their common nature with their fellow Australians and demanded the same rights as Australian citizens had. But in pressing these claims they often made reference to their difference, though the differences they had in mind were primarily rooted in their people’s history rather than culture (or civilisation) and race (or biology). Most often, Cooper and the members of his organisation invoked the fact that they were the descendants of this county’s first peoples and that the British Crown had given them an undertaking to protect them.

p.203, 204

This was exemplified in the petition that he drew up in 1933, prior to the establishment of the Australian Aborigines’ League but promoted and submitted under its auspices. It is not surprising that Cooper should turn to a petition as an instrument of persuasion. Indigenous people in Australia and across the empire, tended to look to the King/Queen as the source of power, rather than the local government, and had turned to petitions as their means of communicating with them. This petition, addressed to King George V argued that the commission issued to “those who came to people Australia” included a strict injunction that the original inhabitants and their heirs and successors should be adequately cared for. Given that the terms of the commission had not been adhered to, in that their lands were expropriated by the King’s Government and legal status was denied by the King’s Government in the Commonwealth, they prayed that the King would intervene to prevent the extinction of the Aboriginal race, give better conditions for all, and grant them power to propose a member of parliament “in the person of our own blood or white man known to have studied our needs and to be in sympathy with our race, to represent us in the Federal Parliament”. (p. 103) Actually, this was a watering-down of Cooper’s lifelong call for parliamentary representation, prompted probably by his white advisors, because he believed that white men could not “think black” and therefore they needed an Aboriginal representative in Parliament. The petition was signed by over 1800 Aboriginal people – no small feat when access to missions and permission to circulate the petition had to be sought over and over again. It was held back for some two years until after a meeting of all the administrators of Aboriginal affairs in Australia in mid 1937. It was only when this meeting failed to deliver any outcomes that the petition was finally submitted to the Australian government. However, it fell largely on deaf ears. Although Prime Minister Joseph Lyons expressed his sympathy, the petition was dismissed by the secretary of the Department of the Interior, J. A. Carrodus and was never submitted to the King. I found myself angered by such a supercilious dismissal, and the words of the Uluru Statement “the torment of our powerlessness” spring to mind.

Asking did not work: perhaps protest would. After witnessing a ceremony in Melbourne on 24 January 1937 to celebrate John Batman’s founding of Melbourne, Cooper realized that the imminent 150th anniversary celebrations in Sydney on 26th January 1938 would be of the same triumphalist tenor. Drawing on his Biblical schema of epochs and days – of Judgement and Restitution, Mourning and Hope, and eventual Deliverance, Cooper proposed “a day of mourning” to be held simultaneously with the sesquicentennial celebrations. The original idea was his, but the proceedings themselves, held at the Australian Hall, were dominated by Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten of the Aborigines Progressive Association. Cooper, Nicholls and Tucker attended, driven to Sydney by Helen Baillie in her little car, but did not play a prominent part.

Although Cooper lived in Melbourne, he and many of the League’s members retained their emotional connection to Cumeroogunga. He continued to appeal to NSW government to provide Aboriginal people with land and capital so that they could develop the land for their communities and become self-sufficient- something he had urged since his Maloga days. He urged that the services provided on reserves should be put into the hands of Aboriginal people themselves, and that regulations should ensure that no resident could be expelled from a reserve without an open enquiry. In June 1937, contrary to the wishes of the Aboriginal people, Arthur McQuiggan had been appointed as manager of Cumeroogunga, despite repeated complaints about his violence as superintendent of Kinchela Aboriginal Boys Home. Some people made preparations to leave, but were prevented from doing so by the police on the basis of “quarantine” regulations. Cooper submitted another petition signed at Cumeroogunga to the government, but this had no effect. On 26 January 1939 Jack Patten, born and bred at Cumeroogunga, returned there and addressed a gathering of the people in the church two days later, urging them to “walk off”, before they were prevented from leaving again. Cooper and Burdeu were rather ambivalent about this direct action. The League had long had a preference for representations, appeals, petitions and public meetings, and Cooper and Burdeu were apprehensive that Patten’s methods would alienate the League’s white supporters. In the end, it was socialists, communists and Labor supporters in Melbourne who backed what they saw as a “strike” at Cumeroogunga, providing moral and material support for the people who had walked off. But after nine months of hardship, the protest achieved nothing, and there was a tailing-off in the League’s activity, exacerbated by Cooper’s decline in health.

By now WWII was in train. Cooper had lost his son in World War I, and he was disillusioned by the failure of the Government to grant citizenship to the thousands of Aboriginal men who had enlisted in the AIF after World War I. He pointed out that Aboriginal men had ‘no status [and] no rights’ and ‘no country and nothing to fight for but the privilege of defending the land which was taken from him by the white race without compensation’. (p. 197) This was not necessarily a popular stance.

It is ironic that the only monument to William Cooper (presently) is the one in Shepparton, funded by Jewish philanthropists through Gandel Philanthropy. The monument depicts him holding a petition defending the human rights of Jewish people in response to Kristallnaucht, “The Night of Broken Glass” which he presented to the German Consulate in December 1938. The petition served an Indigenous purpose as well: it stated “Like the Jews, our people have suffered much cruelty, exploitation and misunderstanding as a minority at the hands of another race”. This fleeting act, which has captured and been embraced the (white) public imagination, tends to overlook the fact that several left-wing groups, churchmen, pacifists and civil libertarians had already raised their voices against the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Consistent with Attwood’s claim that this is a minor part of Cooper’s contribution, he spends only four pages on this petition, although he expands in further detail in the footnotes. I think that it says much about white Australia and its unease with Aboriginal activism, that Cooper should be commemorated for this one act of solidarity with an overseas injustice, rather than his activism against injustice here in Australia over many decades.

Attwood started his book by pointing out that, especially in relation to Cooper’s childhood, documentary sources are thin. Cooper was an eloquent speaker, but he found writing a struggle, and often turned to his white supporters to undertake this task. Moreover, members of Cooper’s family have their own stories about him, which differ in places from the stories Attwood is telling. He points out that a biographical approach can misrepresent the life of an Indigenous man or woman by casting them as exceptional.

Make no mistake: I believe Cooper was a remarkable man. But the political work for which he is best remembered was the product of a broad network of family, kin and community, and the outcome of a historical experience that he and his fellows had in common and shared with each other.

p. xiv

The book has many black-and-white photographs throughout the text, courtesy of Cooper’s family, and they emphasize both Cooper’s striking bearing but also his embeddedness amongst other activists. Attwood is writing within the academic discipline of history, and this tone pervades the book, with an essay-like introduction and conclusion, a cautious use of “I” and rather stilted cross-references in parentheses to different parts of the book. I sense a reserve in Attwood’s writing.

I’m sure that Attwood did not intend it this way, but I found the book ultimately depressing. William Cooper worked all his life for Aboriginal rights, but had little to show for it. His optimism that if only people knew; if only the King knew, then things would change- was sadly misplaced. He had a faith in white Australia that was not reciprocated. There are, of course, many resonances today. I hear shades of William Cooper in Noel Pearson, who shares his suspicion of ‘the left’ and Christianity, particularly in the linguistic and schematic framing of injustice in biblical terms. Cooper’s faith in white Australia echoes in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the call for a Voice has resonances of his call for parliamentary representation. Hopefully this time – at last- white Australia will recognize the generosity of what is being offered and finally fulfill William Cooper’s expectations.

Rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.