Category Archives: Historians

Historians on the coronavirus pandemic #5: Stephen Davies

I read about this through the blog of economic historian Andrew Smith who works at Liverpool University. Prior to this, he worked in Canadian history which is where I came across him while I was working on my thesis. I’ve followed his blog ever since, which naturally enough leans towards economic history.

In this posting he critiques the historian Niall Ferguson’s working paper on the impact of COVID-19. I’ve become increasingly put off by the conservatism of Ferguson’s work over recent years, especially since his links with the Hoover Institute have become more public. Andrew Smith picks up on Ferguson’s contention that “we need to think of COVID-19 as one of those rare catastrophes that befall humanity at irregular intervals in history. In addition to pandemics, these include major wars, volcanic eruptions or earthquakes and extreme climatic events.  Smith criticizes Ferguson for using only the 1918 ‘Spanish’ flu as a historical analogy (possibly because he had done work on it previously) instead of also looking at the 1957 and 1968 influenza epidemics. Smith points instead to a more historically-insightful working paper by Stephen Davies Going Viral: the history and economics of pandemics, which is available online.

In summary,  Davies argues that there have been a series of pandemics, but that COVID is more serious than the 1957 or 1968 influenza outbreaks. Historical comparisons teach us that they break out after periods of increasing economic integration, generally in connected cities that are centres of trade, and generally where the human world abuts the natural. They generally come in waves, with the second wave more serious than the first. Features of contemporary society mean that pandemics are more likely with more damaging results e.g. international integration, an increasingly efficient but fragile world economy, movement of women into the workforce and a change in the way that older people are cared for.  On historical precedent, this pandemic will last for about 18 months, and that for structural reasons, it will be followed by other pandemics.

He looks at the 1968 influenza, and the reasons why if it happened today, it would be much worse. Women in the paid workforce means that school closures have a much larger economic effect, and the concentration of a larger number of old people in care homes means that workers and visitors are more likely to contract it.

He highlights that if the 1968 influenza epidemic occurred today, it would be more severe and prompt a lock-down approach similar to the one we are experiencing today because the health system is not as resilient as it was. In 1970 there were 9.3  beds per head of population in the UK, and in 2010 it was 3.1 (and has been reduced even further), spread across the country. These fewer beds are now concentrated in large cities instead.

While warning against thinking that “everything will change”, he predicts the following economic effects:

a severe hit to the supply side of the economy (not the demand side initially) which will probably lead to a severe and U-shaped recession; innovations and changes in things such as consumption and working patterns that were already underway will be accelerated; a major debt crisis (which was in line to happen anyway, sooner or later) has been triggered along with a fall in the value of many assets; there may be higher inflation in a year to two years’ time; there will be a significant pull-back from globalisation and supranational governance will come under serious strain; there will be extensive but complex social and psychological effects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historians on the coronavirus pandemic #4: Pandemic narratives and the historian LA Review of Books

In https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/pandemic-narratives-and-the-historian/   Alex Langstaff, a PhD candidate at New York University convenes a roundtable with a number of international historians to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.

IN APRIL 2020, we interviewed an international group of leading historians of public health, epidemics, and disaster science. Alex Langstaff (A. L.) asked them to reflect on how history is being used in coverage of COVID-19, and how they themselves are responding to the virus in their research, reading, and work life. Who gets to tell the story of epidemics? And more particularly, who gets to decide when an epidemic like COVID-19 ends? Is 1918 really the best parallel? In general, what are the historian’s tools for understanding pandemics?

Each of the historians comes very much from the perspective of work that they have completed previously. The historians are listed below:

Alison Bashford is Research Professor in History at the University of New South Wales Sydney. Her work connects the history of science, global history, and environmental history. Her books include Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (Columbia, 2014), Contagion, w/ Claire Hooker (2002, Routledge), and the edited volumes Quarantine (2016) and Medicine at the Border (2006).  She also wrote Imperial Hygiene: A Critique of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, which is the book that I am most familiar with amongst her work.

Simukai Chigudu is associate professor of African Politics and Fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Prior to academia, he was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service. He is the author of The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, 2020).

Deborah Coen is professor in the Department of History at Yale University and chair of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine. Her research focuses on the modern physical and environmental sciences and on central European intellectual and cultural history. Her books include Climate in Motion (2018, Chicago) and The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (2013, Chicago).

Richard Keller is professor in the Department of History, and Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on the history of European and colonial medicine, as well as public health and environmental history. His books include Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (2015, Chicago).

Julie Livingston, Silver Professor of History and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2013. Her work is at the intersection of history, anthropology, and public health. Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable (2019, Duke) is her latest book.

Nayan Shah is professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California. His research examines historical struggles over bodies, space and the exercise of state power from the mid-19th to the 21st century. His books include Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2001, Berkeley).

Paul Weindling is Wellcome Trust Research Professor in the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University. His research covers evolution and society, public health, and human experimentation post-1800. His books include Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890–1945(2000, Oxford) and Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments (2014, Bloomsbury).

As you can see, they represent different perspectives, which comes through in their responses to the questions posed.

Historians on the coronavirus pandemic #3:History and Policy Special Feature

There is just so much material on this special feature page of History and Policy. Titled ‘Pandemics, Quarantine and Public Health’, it features a number of essays written by historians about current events, with a slant towards the situation in England.  Some of them are policy papers, others are opinion pieces but either way….there’s hours of fascinating reading here!

This is what you can find on this page as of May 24 (and it seems to be updated quite frequently). Even the issues that are being raised at different times mark the arc of concern during the pandemic:

  • COVID and the UK National Debt in historical context
  • The real lessons of the Blitz for COVID 19
  • Call it what it is: supermarket rationing
  • Loosening lockdown: lessons from the blackout
  • COVID is not a Black Swan: predictable shocks need fully-funded, resilient public services
  • The need for a new National Food Policy: food supply problems during National Emergencies
  • Public Enemy Number One: terrorism, security and COVID 19
  • Soldiering a Pandemic: the threat of militarized rhetoric in addressing COVID 19
  • A matter of life and death: football, conflict and the coronavirus
  • Hospital visiting in epidemics: an old debate reopened
  • On infection parties, herd immunity and other half-truths
  • Does Coronavirus spell the end of neoliberalism?
  • COVID 19 and the 1919 Spanish ‘flu’: differences give us a measured hope
  • Epidemic control and Chinese public health: past and present
  • Epidemics and ‘essential work’ in Early Modern Europe
  • Blitz spirit wont help ‘Win the Fight’ against COVID
  • Quarantine – an Early Modern approach.

 

 

Historians on the coronavirus pandemic #2: Warwick Anderson

Australian historian Warwick Anderson has had two essays published on the Somatosphere website, which advertises itself as “A collaborative website covering the intersections of medical anthropology, science and technology studies, cultural psychiatry, psychology and bioethics.” They are running a series of essays called ‘Dispatches from the Pandemic’. Wesley Anderson, both medical doctor and PhD, is Professor of Politics, Governance, and Ethics in the Department of History and the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney. He is a historian of science, medicine and public health. His book Intolerant Bodies: A Short History of Autoimmunity won the NSW Premier’s General History Prize in 2015.

In the first essay Not on the Beach, or Death in Bondi? he looks at the recent closure of ‘iconic’ Sydney beaches after a weekend of crowded sands.  He juxtaposes that scene of people crowded on the beach on a hot day with the other sight, occurring only a few short months ago, of people huddled on the Mallacoota beach under the violent red skies of bushfire. He picks up on the place of the beach in the Australian imagination  (and I find it strange that he didn’t pick up on Greg Dening’s work on beaches), and as an unstable, ambiguous space that signals freedom and yet is surrounded by prohibition in the form of flags, signs and regulations.

The second essay Epidemic Philosophy he examines the pronouncements of various present-day European philosophers (all of venerable years as he points out in parentheses) on the coronavirus pandemic. He starts with Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who in February 2020 proclaimed that it was no worse than seasonal influenza and that social distancing was a deep state conspiracy. Agamben has since moderated his views. A number of his European colleagues distanced themselves from his stance, with varying degrees of optimism/pessimism over the post-COVID world. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of any of these philosophers, but I guess that philosophy is not my field of expertise. Anderson finishes his essay by observing that perhaps the habit of philosophers to sit quietly before coming to a position is the wisest course to adopt.

Historians on the coronavirus pandemic #1: Frank Bongiorno

As part of my work with Heidelberg Historical Society, I write a column for our newsletter about local events one hundred years ago. During 2019 I wrote a lot about the 1919 Spanish Influenza epidemic, but most of the local information about it was scattered in various newspapers, often in the column advertisements or in reports of council meetings. Our museum holds no local artefacts whatsoever about the epidemic in our collection- no pamphlets, no vaccination papers, nothing.

That’s not likely to happen with this current coronavirus pandemic, with museums and collecting organizations gathering together material, images and reflections right now, for their collections in the future. It’s as if we have a heightened consciousness of being in a historically significant event, no doubt underlined by the constant repetition of ‘unprecedented’, and probably bolstered even more by the news cycle and the ready availability of images worldwide of empty cities and crowded hospital corridors.

I’ve been interested in reading what historians have to say about it all. The factual parallels between this and other epidemics are relatively easy to identify, but I’m interested in what historians have to say about what it all means. And who better to start with than Australian historian, Professor Frank Bongiorno from A.N.U.?

On 29 April Frank, along with Professor John Quiggan  gave a Zoom talk to the Victorian branch of the Australian Fabian Society on the topic ‘Socialism and the Australian Progressive Movement’.

You can access it from the Australian Fabian Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/australianfabians/videos/619066028823088/

Or Inside Story has a very interesting article drawn from Frank’s talk called “Is history our post-pandemic guide?”  He looks back to WWI/Spanish Flu, the Depression and World War II. For those of who hope that perhaps some good will come from of all of this today, he warns that progressive change never comes from conflict, only from bipartisan consensus, however lukewarm. It’s well worth reading.

 

Friday essay: the ‘great Australian silence’ 50 years on by Anna Clark

https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-great-australian-silence-50-years-on-100737

An excellent essay in The Conversation by historian Anna Clark reflecting on WEH Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lectures where he coined the term ‘the great Australian silence’ to describe the occlusion of indigenous people from narratives of Australian history. Her essay comes fifty years after those essays, but also in the contemporary context of the political response to the Uluru statement and  Lyndall Ryan and others’ work on the massacre map.

I encourage you to read it.

Contesting Australian History: A Festschrift for Marilyn Lake

lake

Strictly speaking, a  ‘festschrift‘ is a book of essays written by colleagues and students that is presented to an honorable person, generally an academic, during their lifetime. Well in this case, the collection of essays may come later in the form of a special edition of History Australia, because the main event here was a two-day celebration of Marilyn Lake’s career and writing at the beautiful 1888 building at the University of Melbourne. What a line-up! Even though I’ve only read a few of Lake’s works, and she wouldn’t recognize me at all, I couldn’t resist hearing such eminent historians responding to the wide range of issues upon which Marilyn Lake has written, held over two days in my own home town!

Marilyn Lake is an Australian historian whose work has spanned the homefront response to WWI (both at the time and recently), feminism and gender, and the White Australia Policy. Her book Drawing the Global Colour Line, co-written with Henry Reynolds, is a major contribution to transnational history internationally and here in Australia. She is a fearless public intellectual, most notably after the Age published an abridged version of the public lecture ‘The Myth of ANZAC’ that she delivered in 2009.  In the bitter and highly personalized response to her book, one angry male writer asked her “What have you ever done for Australia?” Well, this festschrift was a resounding answer – even if he wasn’t there to hear it.

Different speakers took various approaches to the festschrift task.  Some spoke about Marilyn herself and their own relationship with her.  Others engaged with her main academic interests and publications. Some spoke about their own research, and Marilyn’s influence on their own work. Others paid tribute to her as public historian, course convenor, research partner and supervisor. Continue reading

Vale Inga Clendinnen: Re-reading’Tiger’s Eye’

clendinnen2016

I began writing this review of Tigers Eye the other night, after re-reading it for my bookgroup. I was working on it last night, and I wondered how Inga Clendinnen was faring, knowing that she had been in poor health (but still mentally feisty) for some time.  Little did I know then that she had died that very day.  Inga Clendinnen is the historian who influenced me more than any other. I have read much of her work, all before I started writing this blog (Ambivalent Conquests;  Aztecs: an Interpretation; Reading the Holocaust;  True Stories (Boyer lectures); The History Question; Agamemnon’s Kiss and Dancing with Strangers.)  But her presence is here in my blog, in the only book of hers that I have reviewed since (In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath‘) and, more importantly, as the lodestar that has guided my perception of other histories written by other historians. I met her only once in recent years (and was so overcome that I was barely coherent!) but my respect for her is unbounded and my debt to her incalculable.  Vale, Inga Clendinnen.

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tigerseye

2001, 289 p.

 

So this is what I have been doing all this time- by courtesy of a physiological malfunction, taking a journey out, beyond and around myself, and into interior territories previously closed to me.  At the end of it, battered, possibly wiser, certainly wearier and, oddly, happier, I have returned to where I began: to history, with a deepened sense of what peculiar creatures we are, you and I, making our marks on paper, puzzling over the past and the present doings of our species, pursuing our peculiar passion for talking with strangers. (p. 289)

I first read Inga Clendinnen’s book Tiger’s Eye  in 2003 and it changed my life. I had been ill for about three years, able to only work part time, and after reading this beautifully written reflection on illness, memory and writing, I decided that I wanted to return to uni and my first academic love- history. I think that I could confidently say that you wouldn’t be reading this review on this blog if I had not read this book (oh dear, it all sounds a bit too Pauline Hansonish.) Before re-reading it for my bookgroup this month, I would have said that Tiger’s Eye was ‘about’  Clendinnen’s response to her illness.  Returning to it, I find it a much different book to that which I remembered, combining experiments in fiction, memoir and an exploration of the nature of memory.

So who is Inga Clendinnen? After commencing her academic career at the University of Melbourne, Inga Clendinnen was a history lecturer at ‘my’ university, La Trobe, between 1969 and 1989.  I had forgotten completely, until reminded by a friend, that she was the lecturer on the Mexican Revolution in Revolutions IA, the first history subject I did as an undergraduate in 1974. Along with Greg Dening, Donna Merwick and Rhys Isaac she became known as part of a group of historians dubbed the ‘Melbourne school’ by anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  Common to this group of historians is the practice of thick description, reflexivity, a deep reading of events and individuals’ responses, and a celebration of the act of writing. It is the type of history I admire and enjoy most. Clendinnen’s specialization was Mesoamerican studies, most particularly Aztec culture, but she is probably best known  in Australia for her works Reading the Holocaust and most recently Dancing with Strangers.

“Illness made me a writer” she says at the end of this book (p. 288). I think that she’s underselling her own earlier writing, but certainly Tiger’s Eye is an exploration of writing outside the history genre, while still drawing on the historian’s skills.  Ill in hospital, feeling trapped, helpless and under surveillance, she remembered a childhood story about a wizard who looked through the eyes of various animals- wolves, jaguars, ants- to see the world from their perspective.  On hearing the rumble of a tiger from the nearby Melbourne Zoo, she adopted the tiger’s eye as her motif:

… I too was in a cage, with feeding times and washing times and bars at the sides of my cot, and people coming to stare and prod, but the kaleidoscope of the horror of helplessness ceased to turn because I withdrew my consent from it.  Thereafter, whenever I felt the threat of the violation of self, I would invoke the vision of the tiger and the freedom that vision gave me, to be at once the superb gaze, and the object of the gaze: an incident in a tiger landscape. (p. 21)

She directs her gaze towards herself as patient, telling the story of the progression of her illness, observing her fellow patients and recounting the steps towards the liver transplant that halted her decline. She spends a considerable time ( perhaps a little too much time?)  recounting the hallucinations that electrified her befuddled post-surgical consciousness.  Once their vividness had abated, she realized that the hallucinations wove together memory and sensation from her own childhood and experience.  Much of the book is devoted to unpicking these experiences, testing the robustness of memory as a factual as distinct from emotional construct, and knitting her experiences up again into fictional experiments.

More of the book than I remembered is turned over to exploring – or as she puts it- ‘reading’ her parents.  Here I find myself conflicted.  I’ve commented on several occasions recently in this blog about my discomfort with children ploughing their parents’ lives, wanting to uncover the ‘real’ man or woman inhabiting the carapace of the parent figure. Clendinnen certainly does this, particularly with her mother, and her judgment is harsh. She directly links her curiosity over her mother, in particular, with her later career as historian:

… I can see that my pursuit of her has been a lifetime activity; that my early fascination with her impenetrability, and my pleasure in that impenetrability, has a great deal to do with my long happy life as a historian spent in pursuit of other more distant,less impervious impenetrabilities. … Now, when I am not many years younger than she was when she died, I am still sifting my handfuls of sand, still trying to make them stand and hold a shape I could call ‘my mother’. And still, for all my gatherings and pattings, she continues to fall apart like a sand lady.  If she is on the beach at all she is a mirage, an eye-baffling dazzle fleeing before me, receding faster than I can run. (p. 237, 238)

I was also surprised to find, on re-reading this book, how seriously she grappled with the issue of fiction-writing versus history writing.  This was, of course, the juxtaposition that roared into life in her argument with Kate Grenville over the writing of The Secret River, and which Clendinnen explored in more detail in her Quarterly Essay The History Question. But it’s here in this book too, five years earlier, as Clendinnen experiments with the two genres, finally admitting an element of defeat:

After years of doing it I think I am beginning to understand the work of writing history- the how of it, the why of it- but I still don’t understand the work of writing fiction.  There is a Spanish saying of which I am unreasonably fond: ‘No hay reglas,.’ ‘There are no rules here.’  That is the way fiction seems to me.  If there are rules, I don’t know them.

Engagement with professional history imposes rules.  One of those rules is that we must represent our chosen people as justly and completely as we are able.  We must try to understand them, and for that we need a supple imagination, but that is imagination’s only role.  With history I am bound like Gulliver by a thousand gossamers: epistemologically to the deceitful, accidental record, morally to the dead men and women I have chosen to re-present, and to the living men and women I want to read my words and to trust them. (p.244)

Finally, in re-reading Tiger’s Eye I was stopped again and again by the sheer beauty and power of her writing.  Here’s her description of visiting her aunt’s outhouse at night:

I liked the outhouse best on moonlit nights, because then the moonlight would come slicing through the slim black gumleaves like hard silver rain. (p.59)

Here, in one of her fictional pieces, is a mother putting on lipstick to visit her sister:

…she would draw her stumpy lipstick straight across her stretched lips and rub them hard together, so that when they showed again they were red with little spikes of deeper red running out along the wrinkles…(p96)

And in the same story, an unnerving description of an aunt’s ‘little game’ that mixes sensuality, intimacy and transgression.  The mother and her daughter visited Aunt Lall, who was bed-bound:

…sooner or later my mother would say she would die without a cup of tea and she would whisk out…and while she was out of the room Auntie Lall and I would do our secret thing.  She’d give me a little nod and a wink, and I’d climb up onto the bed, carefully, so I wouldn’t joggle her legs, and she’d take my hands into her warm soft ones and lace her fingers tightly with mine so our palms pressed together and I’d feel the hard bands of her rings…Then she’d slide the rings off, the ones that could still come off, and spin them on my fingers, and give the tip of each of my fingers a little kiss.  They were marvellous rings, heavy ones, old, all of them gold, with rubies and diamonds studded all round them. She’d stack them on my thumbs, raise her pencilled eyebrows and laugh silently, and I’d trace the pencilled line along the line of bone to the puckered skin and the harsh orange-red hair at her temple, and she would lift my limp hair away from my forehead as if it were precious.  As if it were beautiful.

We would do all these things silently, listening to my mother banging about in the kitchen.  Then the kettle would scream and the boiling water would crash into the teapot and I’d slide back into my chair just as my mother came in and banged down the tray so that the milk flew out of the jug and the teaspoons trembled… Carnal knowledge.  Whenever I come across that phrase now I think of Auntie Lall, because carnal knowledge was what she taught me: that there is a special love which sleeps in the flesh, and that special fingertips can waken it. (p. 104)

And so, on re-reading Tiger’s Eye, I find it a different book to what I remembered.  I’m perhaps more critical of the ‘Reading Mr Robinson’ section which takes up a large part of the book, now that I, too, have read Mr Robinson.  I can see the emergent shape of the Kate Grenville dispute, and I am surprised that so much of this book is fictional writing. But most of all, I celebrate Clendinnen’s artistry as a writer, thinker and historian: one of the best ones I know.

aww2016

I have included this book towards my tally on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016

 

 

 

Vale John Hirst

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Australian historian John Hirst died on 5th February.

I remember seeing his name on his door in the history department when I first did undergraduate history at La Trobe in the 1970s, but I sailed through a B. A. without encountering him.  It was to Dr Hirst that I had to make application, forty years later, when I decided to return to university after a prolonged period of ill-health, determined to do something that I really wanted to do instead of working in a cut-down capacity in my present job. I had addressed my email of inquiry to “Dear Dr Hirst”, and as he opened the door to his office he exclaimed “I knew you’d be a mature-aged student! None of this ‘Dear John’ stuff!”  Dear John was, however, rather stringent in admitting me to the post-grad program at La Trobe, with his eagle-eye detecting the single ‘C’ mark in second-year history back in 1974 (given to me, ironically enough, by the lecturer I ended up working for as a research assistant some years later!) in amongst a CV that included good results in many other post-grad courses.  He enrolled me in an honours course, just to see how I went, and had the grace to quickly waive the requirement after the first assessment task.  By that time, however, I no longer wanted to leave the honours class. I had enrolled in a readings course with John, and I ‘grew up’ as a historian in the six months I sat in his tutorial room.

We read one Australian history book a week, starting with colonial history through to a range of ‘shist’ (Short History) compilations.  I learned to read for the overarching argument as well as detail, to uncover assumptions, to weigh evidence, to notice structure.  Some of my fellow students flagged a bit at one book per week, but I loved it.

I went on to tutor for John in his final presentation of first year Colonial History before retiring from lecturing- a subject he had taught for many years and had honed well.  Each lecture was a tightly woven argument, with none of this trailing-off half finished because time had got away.  You came out, not necessarily agreeing with him (in fact, I often did not agree with him), but having witnessed a historical argument being constructed, and supported, in front of your eyes. At the end of semester, I mentioned to the students how fortunate they had been to have had him, and I sat at the back of the room, proud of these 19 and 20 year-olds who spontaneously gave him a standing ovation at the end of the last lecture.

John wanted me- he wanted all his postgrad students – to write big history, and I’m afraid that I probably disappointed him in that regard.  John had a long-standing interest in the Australian character, republicanism and the democracy of manners.  In recent years as ‘John Hirst’, rather than ‘J. B. Hirst’, he moved out of academe into the public sphere, where he published a number of books under the Black Inc impress.  Although some of his recent books combined span with brevity (e.g. The Shortest History of Europe) several of his other recent publications  were compilations or reworkings of articles he had written in academic journals over the years, and were marked by his trademark punchiness in both language and logic.  He argued with his brain, without rancour or oneupmanship.

I did a search of this blog under ‘Hirst’ to see how many of his books I had reviewed. There was only one, Convict Society and its Enemies, but many, many posts came up where I had referred to him by name.  His own work in Australian colonial history was big history, even though in his chapter-length articles the canvas he worked on may have seemed to be small.  He influenced me deeply as a historian, even though I found his politics frustratingly difficult to pigeon-hole.  He was a man of the mind and  generous in his attention.  Vale, John.

‘In My Mother’s Hands’ by Biff Ward

ward_biff

2014, 288p.

Look carefully at that front cover. A well-dressed, attractive woman stands in front of a suburban house, her hair permed, in a stylish dress with white gloves.  Those gloves are important: they encase the gouged, ravaged hands of Biff Ward’s mother Margaret.  Despite the nostalgia-infused image of Margaret Ward on the cover, this is the story of a troubled and desperate woman and mother, told by her daughter.

Biff ( a childhood rendering of ‘Elizabeth’) Ward is the daughter of Russel Ward, the noted Australian historian who wrote The Australian Legend. This book was a hugely influential study of the Australian Character (the question that keeps on giving), published more than fifty years ago. Although perhaps not so well known today, The Australian Legend and its author were examined anew at a symposium in 2007 (proceedings found in the Journal of Australian Colonial History 10.2 (2008) with a summary here) and re-addressed each year through the Russel Ward Annual Lecture  (see Babette Smith’s lecture here)

Although Biff’s memoir focusses on her mother, it is just as much a study of her father and of the family dynamics that operated when dealing with mental illness, shame and fear in the context of  the 1950s and 1960s. Biff and her brother Mark had always known of the existence of an earlier child, Alison, who had died at the age of four months,but the conditions surrounding Alison’s death were murky. What was clear, though, was that their mother Margaret was a deeply disturbed woman.  Those gloved hands, torn and rubbed raw by Margaret herself, also throttled Biff as Margaret crept to her younger daughter’s bedside one night, and it was when Margaret threatened the lives of her two remaining children while her husband was absent at a conference, that Russel Ward finally had her committed. Although Biff felt that they were dealing with the nightmare of their mother’s illness in secrecy,  many people were aware of it, as Biff herself recognizes later.  In reading a short story ‘Friends in Perspective’ published by Gwen Kelly in a Meanjin article  in 1990 (available for Victorian readers through SLV), Biff realizes that  both Russel and Margaret were the topic of gossip and judgment throughout the small academic communities at ANU in Canberra and UNE in New England.  She has the maturity and grace to recognize that the academic wives may well have been reaching out to her mother as well, instead of just gossiping about her.

She captures small university-town life well, and places her father within the academic milieu of the  communist-phobic 1950s and 1960s.  She draws on Russel Ward’s own letters to his parents and sisters that documented Margaret’s progress, and to a lesser degree on Ward’s own autobiography which largely elides Alison’s death and Margaret’s illness. I found it interesting to read about the smallness of the Australian History fraternity at the time, and the intellectual isolation of local academics in a  world where international conferences and networks were luxuries.

Biff did not write this memoir until both her parents had died. She is well aware that she is exposing her mother, and perhaps from a sense of moral even-handedness, she exposes her father’s sexual addiction as well. Even writing as an adult, as Biff does, it is impossible to tease out cause and effect in this addiction, but it does raise the issue of omission in memoir. Is there more? or less? of an imperative to reveal the flaws of a public figure, as distinct from someone unknown? (I’m reminded here of journalist Laurie Oakes’ exposure of politican Cheryl Kernot’s extramarital affair when she omitted it in her own autobiography).  Although Ward’s revelations about both parents are startling, the tone is wistful rather than vindictive, and while she censures both parents at times, her compassion shines through.

There’s a fairly lengthy extract from the book here, which will give you a taste of the easy  narrative that, at the same time, reveals so much darkness and pain. You’ll spend quite some time turning to that image on the front cover.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums and Jonathan at Me Fail? I Fly! have written sensitive reviews of this book

aww2016 I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book . Read in one sitting on an international flight!