Category Archives: Book reviews

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


2018, 187p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan


2017, 392 p.

Near the end of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, there’s an interaction between the narrator, the jaded reality-TV producer Kif Kehlmann and a late-twenties writer Emily Coppin in a New York restaurant. Kif asks her what she writes.  Autobiography, she answers:

It’s what everyone writes now. Knausgaard, Lerner, Cust, Carrère. All the best writers taking literature somewhere new…It’s fake inventing stories as if they explain things…Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again….Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have… (p. 361)

This book is a wry, knowing riff on the act of writing and the literary imagination. It is written in the form of a memoir penned by the writer Kif Kehlmann who was employed to ghost-write the memoir of a con-man Siegfried Heidl.  Heidl had somehow inveigled himself into directorship of a shadowy para-military outfit under an innocuous public safety name. He had defrauded the banks of $700 million, and he was evasive and slippery. He had received a hefty advance from his publishers to write a memoir, but he had no intention of doing so. Aspiring but unpublished writer Kif Kehlmann was tapped on the shoulder for the job, only because he was recommended by Heidl’s bodyguard, Ray who grew up with Kif in Tasmania. Offered $10,000 to pull together a ghost-written memoir, Kif is given six weeks – and then less- to get the book out before Heidl goes to trial. He does not like Heidl, who is erratic, manipulative and dangerous. Ray warns him not to let Heidl into his head, but Heidl manages to do so anyway. Kif, lured by the money, leaves his heavily-pregnant wife in Tasmania while he comes across to Melbourne where he tries to pin Heidl down.

If Siegfried Heidl sounds familiar, it’s because he is. He is based on John Friedrich, who became the director of the National Safety Council of Australia (Victorian division) which collapsed with debts of a quarter of a billion dollars. He wrote, with Richard Flanagan (i.e. the author of this book) himself as ghost writer, Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich. And so, this book which appears to be a novel framed as a memoir, is probably more memoir than it appears, although it is not true.  As Richard Flanagan cheerfully admits in interviews, he was given a six week contract to ghost-write Friedrich’s memoir, leaving his pregnant wife back in Tasmania and he grappled with the erratic, manipulative and dangerous Friedrich.

Too tricksy? Possibly, although while you’re reading it, it all seems quite uncomplicated at first.  Kif’s voice is confessional and appealing enough, until he reveals himself as a bastard towards his wife.  The tension builds in the book as the six-week deadline approaches, and I found myself reading late into the night about 2/3 of the way through the book.  In many ways, I wish that the book had stopped at that point, because I found the denouement rather tedious – although Flanagan is such a clever writer than I’m not sure that this is exactly what he intended.

The real pleasure of this book was knowing its tortured relationship with ‘truth’, and I had a little chuckle out loud when Kif referred to his ultimately-rejected first novel about a drowning river guide, knowing full well that this is Death of a River Guide, Flanagan’s debut novel now viewed as a classic.  I wondered how a reader unfamiliar with Flanagan and his work would read this book.  For those of us who have followed Flanagan’s work, it’s a little nod and wink in our direction.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

My rating: 8.5/10 (it would have been higher if it hadn’t gone on for too long)

Find out more: There’s an excellent review by Roslyn Jolly at the Sydney Review of Books and of course, it’s worth listening to the wonderful Richard Fidler interviewing Flanagan on Conversations.

‘The Year Everything Changed: 2001’ by Philippa McGuinness


2018, 321 P

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

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

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


2018, 320 p

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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

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

‘Are You Somebody?’ by Nuala O’Faolain


1998 edition, 356 pages

A few years back this book was on the bestseller list week after week.  I remember at the time picking it up, seeing the blurb from Frank McCourt, then putting it down again. Although I had been transfixed by McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, I didn’t feel that I needed to read another Irish Misery Memoir. And so, some twenty or so years later, I came to Are You Somebody? as a bookgroup selection. And yes, there’s the feckless father, the despondent mother, the poverty, the pregnancies and the power of the Catholic Church – just as I anticipated there would be-  but there’s so much more. I just loved this book.

The subtitle of some editions of this book calls it an ‘accidental memoir’. Even though Nuala O’Faolain was very well known in Ireland, especially for her newspaper columns, I suspect I’m not alone in saying that I had never heard of her here in Australia.  But for her readers in Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the relationship between a newspaper columnist and his/her readers is a strange one. There is a veneer of companionship and familiarity but it is all controlled on the author’s side. As a reader, you feel as if you know them, but you don’t.  And an editorial reshuffle or lost contract can sever the connection forever.

This book was intended to be a collection of her newspaper columns. She was asked to write an autobiographical introduction, but it grew beyond that.  In the ‘extended’ edition I read, roughly half of the resulting book is her introduction, followed by an ‘afterword’ reflecting on the response to the publication of the first edition, and the rest is her columns, arranged by theme.

This book really suffered for the lack of a good glossary or footnotes. As an Irish ‘personality’, writer and academic, she is enmeshed in Irish literary society and she name-drops liberally. As she becomes increasingly enchanted with the recovery of the Irish language, she also cites phrases and sentences that are not translated.  I didn’t ever lose the sense that I was reading about a different culture in a different country, (which, transposed, means that Irish readers would be strongly affirmed in their sense that this was their story). I had to google many of the references to then-current events in the newspaper columns. Of course, written almost 20 years ago, events have moved on, most particularly with the recent referendum on abortion, and the rise and fall (and recovery again?) of the Celtic Tiger economy.

Nuala was one of nine living children; her father was a gossip columnist who anglicized his name to ‘Terry O’Sullivan’. He was serially unfaithful and often absent. Her mother was an alcoholic and money was tight. Nuala escaped this life through education and the jobs that became available through the opening up of media opportunities, but underlying all this was her assumption that she would marry and have children. She never did. She had a string of liaisons, often with married men, and looking back at her life acknowledges that had she had a child when she was younger, she would have been a poor mother.  It shocked her to realize that she was inadvertently repeating her mother’s own self-destructiveness.

I found it somewhat difficult to get into her memoir. It is very well and artistically written, at a far more abstract level than her newspaper columns, and while it moves chronologically, there is a fair bit of movement back and forth in the early chapters. But by the middle of the book, and particularly at the end of her introduction and through her ‘afterword’, there was a shift. I felt stripped bare by her candour. This is a middle-aged woman, looking back without sentiment, at her choices, her body, her relationships, her sense of self. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so honest.

I’m not alone in thinking that. As she explains in her ‘afterword’ she was deluged with responses – probably many from other middle-aged women like me. This raw directness is even more apparent in an interview she gave just a few weeks before she died, after receiving a diagnosis of cancer that gave her mere weeks to live.  The interview comes with trigger warnings, as it certainly needed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so articulate, so bleak, so honest, from someone so close to death.  It is one of the most searing interviews I have ever heard: absolutely unforgettable.

I loved this book. I am of the right age and the right demographic to love it, I suppose. Perhaps it’s just as well that it took me twenty years to find it.  It will be right up there for my best reads of 2018.

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup read

My rating: 10/10

‘Captured Lives: Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps’ by Peter Monteath


2018  239 p & notes

Six faces stare out at us from the front of Peter Monteath’s Captured Lives. For me, the most striking is the young woman at centre bottom, her curled hair caught up into a scarf, smiling as she holds up a hand-written sign reading ‘163’. She was Maria Vagarini, the wife of an Italian fresco painter who had been arrested and interned in Palestine before being sent, along with her husband, to Australia during WW2. Up in the top left hand corner is Anton Gueth, a German Buddhist monk, interned in Ceylon and sent to Australia during WWI.  On the top right hand side, in suit and tie, looking like an earnest bank teller is Karl Moeller, the captain of a German ship captured during WWI. Below him on the bottom right is Hajime Toyoshima of Japan, still bearing the facial injuries he sustained when his aircraft was shot down over Darwin on 19 February 1942.

The variety of these photos, from both world wars, of combatants, naval officers, pilots and internees, reflects the diversity of those who ended up in Australia’s wartime internment camps. In this book Monteath explores the range of people who were deemed to be threats to Australia’s security:  those who were born in Australia to ‘foreign’ parents or who held suspect political views, others captured as part of military activity (e.g. the naval officers and seamen on the Emden in WWI and the Kormoran in WW2) and others who were part of the circuit of POWs being shifted from one country to another among the Allies as the war-front changed.

The book is divided into four parts: WWI, the two aspects of WW2 captivity (i.e. ‘enemy aliens’ and Prisoners of War) and the final release after WW2.  The text is broken up with vignettes of individuals, which keeps the emphasis on the fact that internment happened to real people with prior histories, who went on usually to live out their lives with these years of internment just one part of their longer life story.

In both WWI and WW2, the act of internment was facilitated through legislation. During WWI it was the War Precautions Act of 1914 which was introduced in the early months of the war, and in WW2 the National Security Act of 1939. During WWI, everyone was called a ‘prisoner of war’, even though many in the camps were naturalized citizens who the minister of defence had reason to believe were “disaffected or disloyal” (p.12). Some men submitted themselves for internment because, if their families could make a compelling case of financial adversity, their families could claim a meagre allowance. Most were German, Austro-Hungarian or Bulgarian, with a few Turks. They were not required to work, but they often chose to do so. At first there were internment camps in each of the states, but over time these were consolidated mainly in New South Wales.

Between the two wars, the Geneva Convention had spelled out the distinction between internees and prisoners of war, and as a signatory Australia respected this policy during WW2 and arranged access for  Official Visitors (often judges), the Red Cross and YMCA. During WW2, internees were provided with food and accommodation which from 1940 onwards was provided through large purpose-built camps, usually in rural areas, in each state. For German and Japanese nationals, their  governments made provision for ‘pocket money’, which involved the swearing of allegiance to the German or Japanese government, a practice which surprised me. It did not extend to Australian internees whose German, Italian or Japanese origin had brought them under surveillance.  Internees were not allowed to work, and many found the boredom onerous. However, ‘enemy aliens’ who were not interned could be required to work, and in labour-hungry rural Australia, Italians  in particular were in demand for agricultural work. They were channelled into the Civil Alien Corps and although not behind wire, they were subject to a strict regime as they were viewed as a flight risk.

Prisoners of war were sent to Australia from Allied theatres, and indeed there were more prisoners of war than internees.  They could be used for labour, as long as it was not on war-related activities and on condition that they were paid, fed, accommodated and treated the same as civilians. They might be prisoners of war, but class still counted, and officers were accommodated separately. The  German naval survivors of the Kormoran, which sank the Sydney with such a huge loss of Australian life, were accommodated in Dhurringile mansion, in Victoria (now a minimum security prison). Japanese prisoners, however, were always treated with distrust, and were rarely allowed outside their camps.

For POWs of all nationalities (Australian as well), escape was “the legitimate act of a man imprisoned”  and the punishment for attempted escape was relatively mild (p. 202). However, Japanese attitudes to the shame of capture and imprisonment were quite different to those of Italians and Germans, as evidenced by the huge loss of 234 lives when Japanese prisoners broke out of Cowra POW camp.

After the war, it took some time to clear the camps. They were not allowed to stay in Australia, even if they wanted to, but had to return home and could then re-apply to come to Australia.  Quite a few did; others picked up their lives at ‘home’, whether it be in Australia or overseas.

This book is not about the present-day internment of refugees on Manus Island, but their shadows are everywhere: in the discussion of international conventions, and in the descriptions of boredom and lost, listless years of indeterminate imprisonment.  This book describes policies and provision, but its focus is just as much on people – something that current refugee policy tries its best to obscure.  We see these wartime internees through their life histories, through the photographs that, surprisingly, they were allowed to take within the camp, and through their sketches and paintings – all of which are distributed generously throughout the book. We see these WWI and WW2 internees far more clearly than we see Manus Island internees today, despite the ubiquity of social media and mobile phone cameras.   The final paragraph of Monteath’s book in particular evokes present-day events, and stands as a warning:

This absurdity of the detention of men like these, of condemning otherwise productive lives to unknown months and years of isolation and desolation, echoes through the history of Australia’s home front in the two world wars. More than that, it speaks to the twenty-first century and to the ever-present danger of allowing unfounded fears to stain the lives of prisoners and their captors alike (p.239)

Other reviews:  See Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers:

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Review copy from NLA Publishing through Quikmark Media

‘Our Man Elsewhere’ by Thornton McCamish


2016. 336 p & notes

One of the marketing points of Thornton McCamish’s biography of Alan Moorehead is that Moorehead is a forgotten writer, and that he has been re-discovered through this biography.  Not for me: I’d actually read an Alan Moorehead book within the last 15 years, and I knew who he was. Back in 2002 I had just finished reading Sarah Murgatroyd’s book ‘Dig’, then I noticed that I had a lurid-tinted old paperback copy Cooper’s Creek on my bookshelves.


I started reading it, and was impressed by its evocation of landscape and explorations of personal loyalties. The book was from a different time, and its language was dated, but it certainly gave Murgatroyd’s book a good run for its money. I’d started reading it, thinking of Moorehead as an also-ran, but by the end of the book I found myself reviewing my opinion.


Biographer Thornton McCamish came to Alan Moorehead in his late twenties, through Moorehead’s autobiography A Late Education,which was assembled by his wife from three separate manuscripts. From that, he went on to read Moorehead’s eighteen other books

It was the germ that led, slowly at first, then with a feverish rush, to something like an obsession…I couldn’t get enough. Moorehead seemed to speak out of the past with a voice that felt astonishingly contemporary: alert, curious about everything, companionable.  It was like getting letters from a rather brilliant friend…Long letters that you didn’t want to end, letters steaming with atmosphere, thick with vivid detail that raced from thought to thought with just one intention: to make you see how amazingly interesting it all is. (p. 12)

There’s another reason that I read this biography. I’d recently read Hotel Florida, about war correspondents in the Spanish Civil War, and Moorehead was mentioned in passing. I hadn’t realized that Moorehead even was a war correspondent, and I certainly didn’t realize that he’d gone to Spain.

In fact, Moorehead left his native Australia in 1936 and he spent almost all his career overseas.  From Spain, he then became a war correspondent in WWII, most particularly in the Middle East.  Cutting most of his social (although not familial) ties with Australia, he became the British Daily Express‘s “Our Man in Spain; Our Man in Cairo” etc.  As far as Australia was concerned, he was “Our Man Elsewhere”, constantly on the move and afraid of the constrictions that marriage, family and home ownership bring.  He was hailed internationally as the pre-eminent war correspondent.

As a war correspondent, he experienced the duality of a war correspondent’s behind-the-lines and front line experience. Behind the lines, he enjoyed a social life among other correspondents that intersected with writers, politicians and public figures. On the front line he observed death, deprivation and actual physical danger. McCamish notes that Moorehead was disgusted by war, but at the same time, he was attracted to the soldier’s almost mystical ennoblement that emerged from facing death directly, again and again.

But what does a war correspondent do when the war ends? McCamish doesn’t bail out once the exciting bits dry up, but instead stays with Moorehead as he tries, with only mediocre success, to move into fiction writing. He becomes a magazine travel writer- another form of ‘elsewhereness’ – which while lucrative, was not particularly career-enhancing.

Moorehead would have been a difficult husband. His wife Lucy, who was the women’s fashion editor at the Daily Express, tended to be ‘elsewhere’ from him, trailing along occasionally but mainly bringing up their three children while he travelled and engaged in various affairs.

Moorehead’s career took off again when he turned to popular history. He wrote about Gallipoli and Africa, and then turned to his native Australia – and this is where my lurid copy of Coopers Creek comes in. His books were best-sellers, even though they were treated rather condescendingly by some- but not all- in the academy.

Although he was Melbourne born and bred, he joined the ex-Sydney expatriate group in England that included Clive James, Robert Hughes and  fellow-Melburnian Sidney Nolan and others. After so many years away, he was looking forward to returning to Australia in 1967 to take up a placement with the history department at Monash University, when he suffered a debilitating stroke. He could not write; he could not talk. He lingered for years, surviving a car crash that killed his wife Lucy.  This was no tragic, untimely, ‘young’ death: instead it was a slow, silent disappearance.

The author, Thornton McCamish, is present in this book, right from the opening pages. In the places where Moorehead’s career seems to bog down, as it did for years, it is McCamish’s enthusiasm and faith in Moorehead that draws you along as a reader.  It’s an honest literary biography that admits that not all writing is spun gold.  I don’t think that you need to have read any of Moorehead’s work to enjoy this book. McCamish gives you enough of the flavour of Moorehead’s writing for you to see what he is so excited about.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 8/10