Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Eastern Curlew’ by Harry Saddler


2018,  212 p.

What’s the life of a shorebird like? What’s it like to live a life of contact activity, when even your moments of rest are full of wakefulness? To gorge yourself on food twice yearly, and become obese, and burn all that fat off, year after year? To fly wing-to-wing with dozens or hundreds or thousands of your fellow creatures, for days at a time? To find upon your arrival, starving and exhausted, that your feeding grounds have been destroyed? (p. 203)

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an ABC Background Briefing podcast called The Bird and the Businessman. It’s about Toondah Harbour outside Brisbane, where developer Lang Walker wants to build a residential enclave. It’s situated within Ramsar-listed wetlands, but money is talking here. It’s also one of the feeding grounds for the Eastern Curlew, one of the migratory shorebirds that travels each year from Australia to China and Korea to the Arctic to breed, and then flies back again. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a program that made me so angry: listen to it.


Panthus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Curlew is written by a keen birdwatcher, who traces the path of the Eastern Curlew, much as Ann Jones did in her excellent OffTrack series of programs Flying for Your Life.

The book is divided into three sections: Seeing, Moving, Being. The first section, Seeing traces his own growing awareness and fascination with the curlew, then moves on to the misnaming of the Eastern Curlew as Numenius madagascariensis, even though it doesn’t go anywhere near Madagascar.  The chapter ‘The Sea Curlew’ celebrates the indigenous response to curlews, particularly around Roebuck Bay near Broome, where they congregate before heading off to Asia.

Part II, Moving, starts with a chapter about bird tracking. The author then takes us to Dandong, China which he has mistaken as his destination instead of the similarly-sounding Donggang. It is a critical ecosystem for curlews: it is also one of China’s major ports. Netting, channelling, draining and road and seawall construction are all threatening the location. After leaving China, he goes to the mudflats of Ganghwa and the developing city of Gunsan, where the South Korean Government hopes to build a ‘dream hub’, surrounded by the 33-kilometre long Saemangeum seawall. Although the Korean government spouts their environmentally-friendly construction practices, all is not as it seems.

In attempting to justify the intentional destruction of the tidal mudflats at Saemangeum, the South Korean government stated that the birds would simply fly elsewhere. But the birds were never going to relocate. One of the reasons there are so many species of shorebird in the world is that each species has adapted to take advantage of a subtly different niche within tidal mudflasts. Different rivers, flowing to the sea through different geologies, create a wide variety of mudflat ecologies- and, as in any environment, variety in mudflat habitat leads to variety in the species found in that habitat. (p. 151)

Part III, Being, takes us to the Arctic and Lemmenjoki National Park in Finland, and the frantic mating and hatching before the birds leave for the Southern Hemisphere again. The chicks are left to fend for themselves. Then, we head back to the local wetlands in Cheetham in Victoria, where again developers are circling. The final chapter takes us to the Melbourne museum where he inspects the collection of curlew carcasses, collected mainly in 1990 at the Werribee Sewerage Treatment Plant, including object B.17906, a female which was collected nearly forty years earlier. As he closes the drawer,

…it occurs to me that the drawer contains the densest concentration of eastern curlews that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. (p. 198)

This is a beautifully written book. The proof-reader seemed to go a.w.o.l. for a couple of pages, and it jarred so painfully because the rest of the book is so careful and lyrical. The book meanders and goes off onto tangents, but what comes through clearly is the love of watching, the sorrow and anguish at our impotence against larger economic forces, and the feeble beating of a spark of hope that it doesn’t have to be this way.

When it comes to the conservation of migratory shorebirds, moments of hope are too few and too far between. Yet the very exuberance of these birds’ life cycle, the unfathomable vastness of their exertions, itself is a kind of hope: there are few animals in the world so full of life. And if there’s one fundamental truth about life, it’s that it wants to persist. If we can give it enough of a chance to do so, it’ll take that chance. (p.207)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5

The East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP)

BirdLife Australia

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


2017, 133 p plus notes.

I suspect that, of all the different types of historians, family historians are probably the most attuned to the world of the midwife. In their family trees they trace those successions of births just two years apart, often over two decades; those births of the baby followed by the death of the mother in the days and weeks afterwards. Most probably, other women were present at these events, but they are largely invisible. It was this invisibility that attracted me to this book.

The author of Mistress of her Profession emphasizes the difficulty of finding these midwives within the sources, but she has managed to locate and name some of them. Having done so, Lesley Potter then aims to

discover not only midwives’ attitudes to midwifery and to understand the kind of midwifery they employed, but also to discover the attitudes of others (patients, doctors, coroners and others in authority) towards them…. the purpose is to bring the colonial midwife to life, to encapsulate her humanness, fraught with all her faults, ideals, values and anxieties: to explain and interpret her past to the present generation. (p. 6)

Her book starts with a case study, one of the eight which separate the chapters. Sarah Ann Hopkins, who boarded the Steadfast from London in 1848 as an emigrant to NSW was a trained midwife, possessing a diploma from Westminster Lying-in Hospital. As a trained midwife, she accepted the temporary position of matron on the Steadfast, working under the supervision of a Dr Read. Seven confinements took place on the ship, and not all had happy outcomes. Twenty-four year old Lydia Lever went into premature labour, triggered by dystenteric diarrhoea (it doesn’t do to think about just how awful that must have been). Her premature baby died, and she died about six weeks later. That same day a second baby was born, this time to 26 year old Jane Calder. The baby died at five days, and the next day Jane Calder’s one year old child died. Twenty year old Matilda Humpreys developed ‘epilepsy’, which was often the diagnosis of eclampsia at the time. Nor did this baby survive.   Four of the babies and mothers did survive, and one of these was Sarah Ann Hopkins herself. Just in this one case study, we have writ large the uncertainty of childbirth in the early nineteenth century.

Potter divides the midwives of colonial Sydney into several groups. First there were the convict midwives, many of whom only became midwives after transportation, using midwifery as a way of gaining respectability and a economic foothold in the colony. The second group were free immigrant midwives, often widows, who had been practising as untrained midwives in their own communities prior to immigration. Third, as the century drew on, overseas-trained midwives emigrated for a range of reasons. Finally, there were colonial-trained midwives who appeared at the end of the 19th century, some of whom were registered with the Australasian Trained Nurses Association.

The books starts with Aboriginal birthing. Probably as a result of the curiosity of early officials and naturalists, there are quite detailed descriptions of indigenous births. Although (and because?) the details in these descriptions sprang from the mindset of ‘otherness’ held by their male writers, they provided more information about actual practices in terms of pain relief and rituals than the European sources about European births did.

Where Potter was able to find such information was in the coroners’ inquests, but even in these there is not the detail that she as historian, and I as reader, wanted to know in terms of pain relief and the actual birth. What is interesting is that most 19th century cases involving midwives charged with misdemeanours associated with childbirth did not advance to higher courts (p. 41). Most often the verdict was ‘visitation by God’ or ‘natural causes’, reflecting the ignorance of an all-male jury.

Of more concern was the charge of ‘for want of medical aid’ , which spoke to the authority relationship between male medical doctors and female midwives- a familiar story even today. Midwives and nurses operated in a legal system that did not recognize them or consider them part of the health system. The law had no precedent  whereby a midwife at fault could be prosecuted, and as a result several midwives whose care was deficient, escaped sentencing. Likewise, the number of midwife-abortionists is unknown, and here too the courts were reluctant to convict.  But as the century progressed, their activities increasingly fell under the purview of the law.

The book traces through the beginnings of maternity care in Sydney, from the Female Factory in Parramatta, through the unsuccessful efforts of Dr Tierney to establish a private lying-in hospital, the development of the Benevolent Asylum, which did not have trained midwives until after 1879 and the gradual increase in private lying-in and maternity homes, especially in the 1890s. Midwifery was a commercial enterprise for women acting independently, and after midwifery training was instituted in the late nineteenth century, employment opportunities within an institutional setting increased. In terms of training, Australia followed the British trends, and midwifery became a certificated qualification, earned through on-the-job training in hospitals. However, as in Britain, midwifery training was kept separate from the training of medical men (although as Potter notes, there were men-midwives). Legislation and registration had to wait until the twentieth century.

I enjoyed the case studies which separated the chapters of these books, which generally illustrate the chapter to which they are attached.  They vary in the amount of detail that Potter was able to uncover, and unfortunately some of them are rather bare-bones, factual accounts. But even this highlights the difficulty of the task Potter set for herself.

I found the law chapters in this book the most illuminating, but even they do not really answer my questions about what it was like to give birth in colonial times. Did they sit? stand? lie? What was the attitude towards making noise? And even the most basic question- what did they do with all that boiling water that people were sent off to fetch in the movies? (or was that just a way of keeping them busy?) I recognize the paucity of the sources, but I do wonder if Potter had access to the records once training moved into more institutional settings which might have shed more light on this. Were there textbooks? Did new, more standardized techniques  replace traditional, ‘old wives tales’?

Potter has brought many of these women out of invisibility by naming them, but I’m not sure that she actually achieved her aim of bringing them to life or explaining and interpreting them to the present generation. I think that perhaps, given the limitation of the sources, her aim may have been too ambitious, and for me, still unmet.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.


I have included this book as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria’ by Aeneas Macdonald

1937,  179 p.

I warned you. Yet another commissioned history of the Presbyterian Church, this time to celebrate 100 years since the Rev. James Clow held the first Presbyterian service in Geelong in late 1837. He was in Melbourne to check out the opportunities to set himself up as a landowner: indeed, he bought up big during the November 1837 land sale, purchasing four half-acre blocks on the south-west corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets.  His wife and family arrived on Christmas Day 1837 from Hobart. He started his work as a Presbyterian minister informally, encouraging Presbyterians to set up congregations and preaching on Sunday afternoons.

This centenary history covers much the same material as the other histories of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria that I have read. Macdonald is a more lively writer, however, and more attuned to other social and economic events outside the Church.  As it was written post-WWI, he incorporates an assessment of the churches’ cheerleading role during the war, which he admits has changed in the twenty years since then.

He spends two chapters on the Charles Strong controversy in 1883, regretting that

It was the misfortune of Dr Strong and of our Victorian Church that they ever came together, and especially that they came together when they did…In a later generation the story might have told itself in different words and worked itself to a different conclusion (p. 135)

Even writing fifty years later about Charles Strong, Minister of one of the largest and most popular churches in Melbourne, who split from the Presbyterian Church and started his own Australian Church, Macdonald admits that the written record is not sufficient:

The relevant minutes and documents of church courts, the columns of contemporary newspapers and the reminiscences of the few survivors have given us the groundwork of our narrative. On these, too, have been founded such comments as have been made. But had we been able not only to evoke the sequence of events as each arrived, as we have tried to do, but also to show each against the full colour of the background, we might have felt constrained to tell our story differently. That background has now faded completely from the canvas, but then it played what was sometimes a major part in leading men on that side and on this to act as they did and to determine as they did. With it before us what perplexes us now might perplex us no longer; what seems to demand our sympathy might be seen to deserve it not at all. (p. 137)

Ah, welcome to the historian’s world, Rev Macdonald, instead of the world of the chronicler!

In talking about the Church’s shift to social, as distinct from purely theological activity, he talks about Selina Sutherland, the child welfare reformer, who fell out with the Presbyterian Church over its attempt to restrict its welfare to Presbyterian children only. The former Sutherland Childrens Home in Diamond Creek is quite close to where I live, and it had never occurred to me to wonder what it was named after.

He also tells about the Rev P. J. Murdoch, the clerk of the Presbytery of Melbourne South, who was jailed in 1909 for contempt of court  for refusing to hand over a document to Mr Justice Hodges in the Victorian courts. It evoked all the questions of State Vs. Presbyterian court rights which had prompted the Great Disruption in Scotland,  and flowed through Presbyterian churches all over the world. Obviously the question hadn’t been completely resolved in 1909, and indeed there are shades of it still in the churches’ responses to the  Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this very year. In a rather chilling final sentence in this chapter that foreshadows the fight again Hitler, he writes from his 1937 perspective:

…the division between the things of Caesar and the things of God has not yet been clearly and finally made. It is conceivable that we might yet have to fight again along that frontier even as the Confessional Churches are having to do in Germany to-day. (p.169)

So- now I’ve read all the ‘official histories’ that I can find about the early Presbyterian Church in Melbourne. Next stop- Malcolm Wood’s history which the blurb tells me is written from a “secular, critical perspective”. I must say that I welcome that. I think I’ve had enough commemorative histories by true believers.

‘The Presbyterian Church of Victoria: Growth in Fifty Years 1859-1909’ by D. Macrae Stewart


1909, 129 p.

This book was written to celebrate the golden anniversary of the creation of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1859, combining the Synod of Victoria, the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria and the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church of Victoria. There was one section of the United Presbyterians who didn’t join until after 1870, but in terms of golden jubilees, 1859 was the date. (Mind you, the earlier book I read about Presbyterianism in Victoria dated the coming together of different strands of Presbyterianism to 1867 instead.)

Written as a celebration publication, the text is laid out quite beautifully, with red margins and decorated inhabited initials to mark the start of each chapter. Stewart has used a planting metaphor to organize his chapters, which are titled ‘Seed’ ‘Stem’ ‘Branching’ ‘Pruning and Grafting’ etc.

As this book goes up to 1909, it covers the Charles Strong controversy of the 1880s, which of course had not occurred with Sutherland published his earlier history of the Presbyterian Church in 1877. Charles Strong, who had been the pastor of Scot’s Church in Melbourne (probably the premier Presbyterian church in Melbourne)became the first minister of  the Australian Church in 1885 after being charged with  promulgating unsound and heretical doctrine and resigning his position from Scots Church.  I think that if I’d been alive at the time, I would have been attracted to the Australian Church.

the australian church.

The Australian Church at the eastern end of Flinders Street (near Spring Street). It seated 1200 and opened in 1887 but the Church shifted to more economical premises in 1922. The Australian Church was finally dissolved in 1957. From the Australasian Sketcher. SLV

The book has several plates showing prominent churchmen, mainly of the past but with some contemporary men (in 1909) as well. So many beards!  There are few mentions of women, but there is a section on the Presbyterian Mission Womens Union, famous for its cookbook. I only now realize that I always called it the PMWU rather than PWMU.

The book is curiously silent about the 1890s depression. Perhaps in 1909 it was too soon to discuss such things.


‘The History of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’ by Rev. Robert Sutherland

1877, 516p.

“Why on earth is she reading this?” you may ask. It’s the first of a few books that I’ll be reading over the next month about the Presbyterian Church and Scots immigration to Victoria, in preparation for an exhibition that Heidelberg Historical Society will be putting on later in 2019.

This book was published in 1877. At the time, it would have been very current as it covers the time “from the foundation of the colony down to the abolition of State Aid in 1875”.  It is steeped in the Presbyterian attitudes of the time in relation to Sunday observance and temperance, and many of the ministers of whom Sutherland writes in a historical sense were still alive (and no doubt, readers of his book) when it was published.  He is careful to note the illustrious sons – always sons- of early ministers of the church who became wealthy contributors to the Presbyterian church and/or members of the Legislative Council of state Parliament. Being an MLC was obviously the ultimate form of success.

In Chapter 1, several women are named. The first is Mrs Turnbull, who was a friend of Rev James Forbes, the first Presbyterian minister appointed to Port Phillip. Mrs Turnbull was

a lady of vigorous understanding, of religious character, and thoroughly acquainted with business. She fully returned to the minister as much information as she received from him, and they were both mutually edified (p. 14)

Then there was Mrs Cumming, whose husband was a fellow-countryman of Rev Forbes:

After speaking a few words with Mr Cumming, the conversation was afterwards principally engrossed by Mrs Cumming, who was a lady fully equal in mental powers to Mrs Turnbull, and of as much firmness. (p. 14)

Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcombe of Geelong get a mention too. “That’s a good start!” I thought.  Unfortunately, after Chapter 1 there are no other women at all in this book, which seems quite amazing, given the emphasis on family in 19th century Christianity.

The attitudes towards aboriginal people are of their time. Given recent research on indigenous land practices described by Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu, this description of Rev. Clow’s journey to Port Phillip in 1837 is rather discordant:

Moving slowly along the windings of the Yarra Yarra, he saw its broad meadows covered with sterility under the gaze of savagedom, but soon to be clothed with fertility by the hand of civilization (p.10)

In speaking of missions to indigenous people, Sutherland subscribes to a view that Australian aborigines had descended (in both senses) from races with a highly developed civilization. Although now debased, it was felt that on the basis of their complexity of language and marriage practices, there must have been a more sophisticated earlier culture. He supposed that

It is most likely that the aboriginal settlers of Australia were of the poorer classes, who had drifted to the land, in consequence of having lost their way at sea. (p. 424)

Much of the book deals with the Australian replication of the Great Disruption that occurred within the Church of Scotland in 1843.  Just as in Scotland, the Victorian Presbyterian church split: one group adhering to the Established Church of Scotland, another to the Free Church of Scotland and a third distinguishing itself from the other two by eschewing any government financial aid. There are pages and pages of letters and resolutions going one way and then the other.  It seemed as if the schism was about to be resolved in 1855 but no – it all blew up again until 1867 when finally union was achieved (well, nearly completely).  In 1870 when State Aid to churches was discontinued, there was another gathering-in of Presbyterians.  I’ve heard talk of “stiff-necked Presbyterians” and it’s certainly an apt description of these disputes.

There’s much talk of church buildings, particularly in rural areas. In the late 1860s and early 1870s covered by the book, many suburban churches were rebuilt, replacing the earlier wooden buildings that had first been constructed. I was interested to read of St Enoch’s in Collins Street, directly across the road from the current Scots Church. During the schism St Enoch’s was part of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland bloc, whereas Scots’ Church was aligned the Established Church of Scotland group.

St. Enochs United Presbyterian Church 96 Collins Street East Melbourne

St Enoch’s 1864. State Library of Victoria

St. Enoch’s was built in 1851 and renovated and enlarged in 1864. Once the different branches of the Presbyterian Church re-united in 1867 there was little need for two large Presbyterian Churches directly across the road from each other, so it was turned into an Assembly Hall instead. It was demolished in 1911 and replaced by The Auditorium, while a new Assembly Hall was built on the Scots Church side of Collins Street.






‘The Valley at the Centre of the World’ by Malachy Tallack


2018, 352p.

I can’t remember quite why I borrowed this book when I saw it on the ‘New Books’ shelf at the library. Perhaps I’d heard good reviews of it or maybe it was its setting in Shetland that attracted me. I enjoy Shetlands on the ABC and I heard a cracking interview with the author of Vera and Shetlands, Anne Cleeves. What ever drew me to it, it’s a beautiful book that I almost didn’t want to end. It surprises me that the author is a young man. The book felt as if it were written by an older person (think, perhaps Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead or perhaps Elizabeth Strout’s work) in terms of its treatment of the relationships between people, infused with a sensitivity to place and space.

The Valley at the centre of the world is exactly that – a single valley with just five houses clinging to The Road that runs above and parallel to ‘The Burn’, the waterway that runs to the sea. The use of ‘The’ is intentional: there is only one. In its harsh but beautiful isolation, there is a timelessness about The Valley, although people are coming and going. Older man David has lived there all his life, as did his father and grandfather before him. Although he does not consciously think of it this way, he owns the valley.  His wife Mary, came there thirty years ago and their daughters Kate and Emma have both shifted away.  Sandy, a newcomer, was their daughter Emma’s partner and came back with her to the Valley but the relationship has broken up. He stayed on when Emma left, and with a respectful relationship to his inlaws (do you have inlaws if you’re not married?) and now landlords, he takes over the cottage and croft left vacant when Maggie, a very old inhabitant dies. There is Terry, a morose alcoholic single father, and Jo and Ryan, who have shifted into the Red House from the city, with Ryan a go-getter spiv taking advantage of the cheap rent. Finally, there is Alice, a crime writer (who reminded me not a little of Anne Cleeves herself) who has moved to the valley after the death of her husband. She has decided, somewhat presumptuously I think, to write about the Valley and is particularly drawn to Maggie as a character, hoping to find some secret or depth about this woman who had spent her whole life in the Valley.

The book revolves around the lives of this small group of people, who each have their griefs and flaws. It is a slow book, just as life itself in The Valley is slow. Soap opera? Perhaps, but it’s soap opera written with insight and generosity.

What is striking is the use of dialect in the conversation. There’s a glossary at the front, but it’s more the sentence construction and small words that slows you down as a reader. I don’t subvocalise or even mentally vocalise when I read, so this was a strangely auditory reading experience for me.

I really loved this book, and didn’t want it to finish.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan


2015, 224 p.

Like On Chesil Beach which preceded it, this book is quite short and has a similar tremulous, sinking, hold-your-breath feeling about it. It is named for the UK legislation of 1989 the Children Act which rules that “When a court determines any question with respect…to the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”.

The child in this case is Adam Henry, just three months short of his eighteenth birthday, who along with his parents, is refusing a blood transfusion rendered necessary by treatment of cancer because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The hospital, aware that time is running out, brings the case to the court, where it rests before High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

‘My Lady’ Justice Maye has come before other excruciating moral cases before in her capacity as judge with the Family Division, most particularly a case about the enforced separation of conjoined twins. In deciding this current case under such tight deadlines, she decides to go to the hospital to visit Adam Henry, who she finds to be highly intelligent, articulate and engaged. McEwen really knows how to built the tension as he reports her long-winded finding to the court, just as it would have been experienced by the gallery filled with family and journalists.

At the same time that professionally Fiona Maye is dealing with this, her own personal life is unravelling. After a long marriage with both partners working, her husband Jack announces that he wants to have an affair, now that the spark has gone from their marriage.  She is hurt, furious and ashamed. She has seen many ruptured families in her professional life, but somehow felt aloof from all that.

A professional life spent above the fray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide (p.49)

It’s only a small book, and I don’t want to give too much away. At heart is the question of how much responsibility Fiona has for Adam’s wellbeing both professionally and personally.

Adam’s case is just one in a long professional life, and I felt that McEwan turned too didactic in his backgrounding of the other cases she had heard. It felt clunky and contrived.  The ending is not as I expected it to be, and could perhaps be seen as a letdown. I didn’t see it that way, however.  I don’t believe in karma, and there is often no symmetry or fairness in consequences. The book has the same chilliness that many of McEwan’s books express, while dealing with pain and regret. Somehow it seems a very English combination.

I read this for my bookgroup, and it was my choice from about two years ago. It has taken some time for us to receive it! As it happened, we read it in November, just as the film was on general release.

My rating: 8.5

Read because: CAE bookgroup