Category Archives: Essays and articles

Essay: ‘Nine lives’ by Brenda Niall

How fitting that I should be reading Brenda Niall’s Friends and Rivals when this essay should pop up on Inside Story.

She talks about her most recent book, but also the other biographies she has written, all in the latter part of her career with the English Department at Monash University, then in retirement. She is fond of the group biography, which she used so well with The Boyds: A Family Biography and now in her most recent book about four Australian women writers between the 1890s and 1920s: Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer.  I admire Brenda Niall a great deal as a biographer.

Essay: The Settler Fantasies Woven into the Prairie Dresses


Those of you who know me personally will know that I have absolutely no interest in fashion. Apparently during the 2010s the Prairie Dress – shapeless, high-necked, ‘modest’ dresses- became a thing.


Recently I’ve been listening to podcasts by Heather Cox Richardson, and she has referred several times to Little House on the Prairie and the Prairie Dress as a way of valorizing conservative, white, racialized, gendered American values that completely elide any consideration of Native American and African American presence in the homesteading   American past.

The Settler Fantasies Woven into the Prairie Dresses by Peggy O’Donnell, published on the Jezebel website explores the reincarnation of the prairie dress, the attitudes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work and questions the statements that adoption of the prairie dress make about women, femininity and gender.

Essay: The great acceleration


Thomas Parker Electric Car 1880s. Source: Wikimedia

Jeff Sparrow.  The great acceleration.  Overland Issue 236 Spring 2019

I had no idea that there was an electric car industry in the early 20th century – did you? And that of the 4200 vehicles produced in the US by 1900, fewer than 1000 relied on internal combustion. The majority used either steam or electricity.

This essay looks back to the early response to those great disruptors, the first automobiles, and the way that people-power was pushed aside by the powerful automobile companies, which managed to blame pedestrians for being hit by cars!

This is a really interesting essay.

Essay: Whatever Happened to _____?

A LongReads essay, written by an anonymous female author who writes of her own experience when, as a mother/professor/writer, she was about to have her third book published. Her husband, also a writer, but unpublished, was furious.

Through her own story, she explores the professional and domestic forces that result in women writers ‘disappearing’.  Obviously a Room of One’s Own is not enough.

Whatever Happened to ____? Published January 2020.

Article: Homelessness and Medical Research in Wartime London

There’s an excellent article called ‘Homelessness and Medical Research in Wartime London‘ by David Saunders on the History Workshop website. He’s a PhD student at the Centre of the History of  the Emotions  (a newish historical ‘turn’ that I find fascinating) at Queen Mary University in London.

During the war, pacifist and conscientious objector Bernard Nicholls established ‘Arch 176’, an air-raid shelter for rough sleepers, alcoholics and ‘misfits’ who were not made welcome, and did not want to go to, other conventional air-raid shelters.  The rough sleepers, who were often infested with lice, came to the attention of Patrick Alfred Buxton, Director of the Department of Entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  His glee at finding such good ‘subjects’ is rather ambiguous, and steeped in ambivalent attitudes towards the homeless and their bodies.

It’s a fascinating article, and the British Pathé video embedded in the post is intriguing, repellent and condescending all at the same time.


Essay: ‘The Long Road to Uluru’ by Megan Davis

I enjoy reading essays and articles, and so I’ve decided to write about them on my blog. Apart from the fact that they interest me, one of my criteria for selection is that they are available online or through a State Library library card.

NAIDOC week took place this month, with the theme ‘Voice, Treaty Truth’. This essay by Cobble Cobble woman, Megan Davis,  first appeared in the Griffith Review 60 ‘First Things First’  in April 2018 and it has been recently unlocked on the Griffith Review website in celebration of NAIDOC 2019. In the essay titled  The Long Road to Uluru: Walking together- truth before justice, she goes back to 1999 to describe the last twenty years of fumbling towards substantive and symbolic recognition. She is well placed to write this essay: she is Professor of Law at UNSW and an independent expert on the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She was also heavily involved in the Referendum Council that produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which this year’s NAIDOC slogan echoes.

It seems odd to read now of Rudd’s 2008  “2020 Summit” and realize that we’ve almost reached 2020 already. Not long after that summit, Rudd was presented with The Yolngu and Bininj Leaders Statement of Intent which in many ways foreshadowed the Uluru Statement some ten years later.

The old tactic of Delay by Report has been well exercised over the past 35 years:

Australia has amassed many reports on the exigency of structural reforms for Indigenous peoples, including a 1983 Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, a 1988 Constitutional Commission, the post-Mabo Social Justice Package of 1992–95, the 1998 Constitutional Convention, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000 and the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2003, as well as a 2008 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

In mid-2010 Gillard convened the Expert Panel with representation of a diverse cross-section of Australians and direct representation of all sides of parliament, charged with “leading a broad national consultation and community engagement program to seek the views of a wide spectrum of the community.” After handing up its report, the outgoing Gillard government generously funded the ‘Recognize’ campaign. This might have made white Australians feel better, but neither the Expert Panel Report or the Recognize Campaign had widespread support amongst indigenous Australians. Five years later the Referendum Council was formed, this time with a remit to give Aboriginal people a voice.

This article makes clear the differences between the Expert Panel and the Referendum Council which followed it December 2015 in terms of indigenous participation and findings. It explains how the Regional Dialogues were organized, what happened on the three days of the twelve dialogues held in different locations, and what the priorities were that emerged from these dialogues.  One of the strongest themes that came from the activities planned on the first day was the importance of ‘truth’ and making the indigenous story known to all Australians. Davis refers in particular to the Final Report of the Referendum Council, most especially the section ‘Our Story’ which starts on p. 16 of the text (p.24 of the PDF document)

The Final Report is interesting reading. Appendix D is  Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s essay ‘Rom Watungu: The Law of the Land’ from The Monthly July 2016.  As a shot across the bow on the part of conservative forces, Appendix E is Referendum Council member Amanda Vanstone’s ‘Qualifying Statement’ which has been echoed in recent commentary on Ken Wyatt’s referendum proposal.

I feel a little embarrassed to say that I hadn’t realized the nuances of ‘recognition’ and I had no real idea of how the Uluru Statement came to be written. This essay highlights that the Uluru Statement shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because it was foreshadowed many times when indigenous people were consulted in a meaningful way. It’s a rather depressing thought, although this essay is more optimistic than I am that we will ever to move past the fear and denial that has stymied action in the past.


‘On Identity’ by Stan Grant


2019, 95 p.

This essay is published as one of Melbourne University Press’ Little Books on Big Ideas  series. The essays, all of which are titled with “On….” have stellar authors, sometimes writing in their areas of expertise (e.g. former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane ‘On Hate’ or Germaine Greer ‘On Rape), sometimes not (e.g. David Malouf ‘On Experience’, Anne Summers ‘On Luck’).

Stan Grant, journalist and commentator, has dealt with the themes on this ‘On Identity’ essay through his other recent publications as well with Talking to My Country in 2016 and Australia Day in 2019. The biographical outline at the start of the book (which I assume he approved) describes him as a “self-identified Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish.”

In this book, Grant pushes back against being asked to tick the box which appears on so many forms asking ‘Are you Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?” By ticking the box, he writes, he is forced to deny the other parts of his identity- most particularly his white grandmother who was exposed to the virulence of the racism of the 1940s when she married his indigenous grandfather.

It is so simple I can say it in plain English and in one sentence: I will not be anything that does not include my grandmother. I don’t wish to be anything that sets me apart from my wife, or any of my ancestors, long lost to history, but whose blood still flows somewhere in me.  I will not put a mark in a box that someone has decided contains me. That box shrinks the endless mystery and possibility of the universe. I will always choose the side of love. (p.83)

As he points out, the question ‘Are you Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander’ is one that the nation pushes back onto the individual (p. 16).  John McCorquodale, the legal historian counted sixty-seven definitions, and Grant cites a series of statements from the High Court of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s that tried to definite Indigenous identity. He writes of the author Kim Scott, whose book Kayang and Me traced his own search for Noongar identity.  While claiming to be captivated by Scott’s work, Grant admits that he reads him now “with both eyes open and I realize that we are worlds apart” (p. 40)  Grant writes he has been long troubled about identity:

…how easily it morphs into tyranny. Scott is being asked if he is black or white, he can’t be both…It comes with the same assumptions of power: we will tell you who you are and whether you belong; we will determine your identity; you will answer to us. (p 26)

Instead, he claims love and freedom- something that he doesn’t find in Scott’s work.

This is a very poetic book, woven through with allusions to various writers and philosophers – none of whom are cited directly or referenced, so you just have to take his word for it. There is certainly the resonance of The Preacher in his writing, which I find rather off-putting.  Paradoxically, I read this book because I was preparing a talk to my Unitarian-Universalist fellowship on the theme of ‘identity’, a topic that I’m even more confused about now than when I started.  The book reads out loud beautifully (particularly for a spiritually-inclined gathering), but then I found myself wondering “but what does that actually mean?”

None of us likes to be defined by one thing only, and we are all aware of our own complexity and contradictions. Perhaps identity, and its attractions at various stages of the life cycle, is a malleable thing that is useful in different senses at different times. It has a personal meaning, but at certain junctures its political and historical uses are more pertinent.  Sometimes identity has a ‘conversion’ aspect, as when someone ‘comes out’, ‘comes to Jesus’  or discovers an indigenous heritage of which they had been previously unaware.  At such times, it is understandable that one aspect of identity overshadows the rest. Moreover, often the simplistic tick-the-box questions of indigenous identity or having a disability have funding and political implications that have been hard won.

As you can possibly tell, I found myself confused by knowing what to do with this book. Janna Thompson in ‘The Identity Trap’, at Inside Story, has done a much better job than I could ever do of grappling with this small, slippery volume.

My rating: 7/10 ?

Sourced from: Purchased at Readings.



Article: ‘The Snub:Robert Menzies and the Melbourne Club’ by Sybil Nolan

I enjoy reading essays and articles and so I’ve decided to briefly review them here. My criteria for selection is that they are available online, either freely or through membership of one of our State Libraries (in my case, the State Library of Victoria). Membership of a State Library is free, and it often gives you access to online journals that you would not otherwise have. Not the most recent edition, admittedly, but free nonetheless.


‘The Snub: Robert Menzies and the Melbourne Club’ by Sybil Nolan Australian Historical Studies, 2017, Vol 48, Issue 1 pp.3-18  (Available for Victorians through SLV)


Commander Keane: Melbourne Club 2012 Source: Wikimedia

I’d always assumed that Robert Menzies, founder of the modern Liberal Party and Prime Minister for what felt like all of my childhood, was a member of the Melbourne Club. It’s a very august institution in Collins Street Melbourne, to which Establishment men belonged (and indeed, may well still do so). However, as Sybil Nolan’s essay shows, Menzies was never a member of the Melbourne Club, even though he belonged to other clubs like the Savage, Australian, Atheneum clubs etc. both in Melbourne and in ‘the mother country’. But why not the Melbourne Club?

Ah- don’t mention the war! Because, even though Menzies’ name was put forward as a “clubbable” chap in 1939 after he became Prime Minister, he demurred. In the invitation letter, one of the club’s oldest members said that Menzies should have been invited years earlier “but three or four returned soldiers kept up the always stupid yowl and I couldn’t propose to a man in your position to take a sporting risk.” Menzies had not served in WWI (he was at university, and two older brothers went to war) and in the post-war years, the Melbourne Club did not admit men who had ‘shirked’.

But as Nolan points out, there are other forces at work too. A number of Melbourne Club men, along with the Argus newspaper, had campaigned to clear the way for anyone but Menzies – favouring instead Richard Casey- to rise to the position of Prime Minister. Menzies had been at the head of a group of conservatives called the Young Nationalists, and many Melbourne Club men disapproved of his thrusting political style and his appeal to the middle class. The fact that he had not served in WWI was yet another reason to spurn him, even though in popular memory today Menzies seems to typify Empire Loyalty.

Still, perhaps it was just as well. As Nolan points out, being a member of the Melbourne Club would have sat at odds with Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ speech, which appealed to the middle class and is still cited by members of the Liberal Party today. And Richard Casey didn’t miss out- he ended up being Governor General.

Article: Artists in Society 1850-1880

I enjoy reading essays and articles and so I’ve decided to briefly review them here. My criteria for selection is that they are available online, either freely or through membership of one of our State Libraries (in my case, the State Library of Victoria). Membership of a State Library is free, and it often gives you access to online journals that you would not otherwise have. Not the most recent edition, admittedly, but free nonetheless.

Caroline Clemente ‘Artists in Society: a Melbourne circle 1850s- 1880s’ Art Bulletin of Victoria, 30,  (2014) freely available online here.

The focus of this article is on three colonial artists whose works can be found in the NGV’s collection of colonial period art: Edward La Trobe Bateman (1815-97), Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-95) and Georgiana McCrae (1804-90). Although the works discussed in this article were all created during the period 1850-1880s, the networks and family/friendship connections between the artists reach back into 1840s Port Phillip.  The Howitt family are the linch-pin here as the centre of cultured Port Phillip society, in their large house at No 1 Collins Street and  at Barragunda, their retreat at Cape Schank. [See a photograph of their Collins Street residence here in 1868, showing the presence of large residences and gardens in what is now the centre of the city.]

At the same time, the links between these artists and their works and the cultural influences in the metropole are clear.  Bateman‘s work featured at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition held in Melbourne in 2015 and Louisa Anne Meredith’s books and illustrations attracted attention in London as part of the empire’s fascination with the flora and fauna of ‘the colonies’.  Even Georgiana McCrae, whose professional life was largely stifled by her emigration to Port Phillip,  was trained by some of the best masters in England and, thankfully, continued her work within her family circle even though it was deemed unseemly for her to work commercially.

This article takes each of the three artists in turn, highlighting the links between them. As the closing sentence of this essay notes:

This circle of friends and artists thus provides a unique insight and testifies to the breadth and vigour of the cultural life of early Melbourne.