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I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 December 2022

Emperors of Rome. Episode XXII What an Artist Dies in Nero finishes off the Julio-Claudian empire. Dr Rhiannon Evans points out that Nero’s reign was essentially performative. Everything was theatre: he acted as if he were low-born; he acted as if he were a criminal. He constructed his Golden House, with a huge golden statue of himself inside – the Colossus of Nero (and hence the Colosseum which was erected on its site later on). The Pisoean conspiracy was revealed at this point, and from here on the generals started moving against him – a change in the nature of Roman politics. He fled Rome and ended up getting his private secretary to kill him. Although his reputation today is terrible, he was not universally reviled at the time, and for some time rumours abounded that he was still alive. But he wasn’t, and the Julio-Claudian empire came to an end. Episode XIII Romans vs. the Christians is a stand-alone episode. Reflecting the views at the time, Dr Evans refers to Christianity as a cult, pointing out that the Romans didn’t really have problems with the beliefs of cults, but they did have problems with the behaviors that sprang from those beliefs. The Christians had meetings (as distinct from the public performances of the Romans) and they refused to comply with the deification of the emperors, which led to fear of treason. So when the Christians faced punishment, it was on political grounds rather than on account of their beliefs. Tacitus has a throw-away line about Nero punishing the Christians after the fires, but there is no evidence that they ever appeared at the Colosseum. The Romans wanted to integrate the Christians, rather than punish them. Episode XXIV- Cicero is another stand-alone episode. He was born to the equestrian ranks (i.e. second rank, rich, noble) and trained in oratory. He became Consul in his own right in 63AD as the first man in his family to join the Senate. After executing the protagonists in the Cataline conspiracy without trial, he then had to convince the Senate that he acted appropriately. He was exiled for a year, but then returned. He had a love/hate relationship with Caesar, and was even offered a role with the Triumvirate (which would have made it a Quadvirate) but he refused and withdrew into writing philosophy. He was a vocal opponent to Mark Antony, who proscribed him and had him killed by a soldier. He is sometimes described as one of the Stoics, but he was more a questioner and nowadays he is more known as a statesman.

History Extra History Extra has started a series on Conspiracies (with a capital C) and it starts off with notable historian Richard J. Evans debunking the conspiracy theory that Hitler escaped to South America after WWII. Certainly, lots of other high Nazis did, but Evans is convinced by the testimony of his adherents who witnessed his body after his suicide with Eva Braun. He points out that Stalin was responsible for quite a few conspiracy theories, and probably started this one too. He reminds us that after WWII people had Napoleon in mind (who DID come back) and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was dispatched to discover what happened in Hitler’s bunker. Evans has written The Hitler Conspiracies

Revolutions Podcast. I’ve been listening to this podcast for years and years, first listening to different Revolutions, then going back to the beginning to listen to History of Rome. It’s still on my Stitcher feed, and when I saw Final Episode- Adieu Mes Amis I just had to tune in. Yes, it’s over but wait there’s more. He’s going to co-host a conversational podcast about history books. I wonder if there’s a market for this one?

Swan Lake Ballet. Free image from Pixabay

Russia If You´re Listening (ABC) Episode 5: Has Putin finally pushed the Russian people too far? They say that intermittent punishment/reward is the most effective form of behaviour management. Putin seems to use it when faced with public dissent. Inconsistency and unpredictability is the key – and so Pussy Riot were imprisoned back in 2012, but the journalist who stepped behind the newsreader earlier this year holding a sign saying that the news was all lies was not. Despite the economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s popularity kept going up and up- until he conscripted ordinary Russian men. At this point, Putin’s attitude towards dissent hardened. Opposition newspapers and television programs were taken off air, choosing to view a scene of ballerinas dancing Swan Lake, a common message during Soviet times that that something’s happening. As Matt Bevin points out, historically the Imperial Family and the Soviet Union both seemed immovable, until suddenly support collapsed. With Putin’s declaration that more troops will be called up, will the same thing happen with Putin?

Lives Less Ordinary (BBC) The secrets of a slave ship in an Alabama swamp. The Clotilda was said to be the last slave ship that set off from Africa in 1860 with a consignment of enslaved people, even though the trade of slavery had officially been abolished in 1807. However, slaving continued illegally, and this last journey was largely the result of a bet. Once the 110 men women and children disembarked, the ship was burnt to remove all evidence, and the people marched through the swamp. However, the owner couldn’t help bragging about it even though he never kept the story straight about where the ship was scuttled, and the formerly enslaved people had their own stories about the burning of the ship. After emancipation, they established Africatown. Journalist Ben Raines decided to search for the wreck of the ship- and thought that he had found it – until it was ascertained that he had not. He kept looking, and….. (you’ll have to listen to it yourself).

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 December 2022

The History Listen (ABC) An Object in Time: The Briefcase looks at the 20 July 1944 plot that saw Claus Von Stauffenberg take a briefcase loaded with a plastic explosive, timed to detonate after about ten minutes. Actually, there were two bombs but Stauffenberg was only able to prime one in time because of his loss of an eye, one hand and two fingers in earlier war injuries. As it was, there had been a last-minute change of location, and most of the force was absorbed by the table leg and so Hitler escaped injury except for a perforated eardrum (although three others were killed). The plot involved military men, who had disdained Hitler from the start for aesthetic reasons, but lent their support at various times. Why 1944? It was clear by now that Hitler was going to lose- perhaps it was, as Stauffenberg claimed, a matter of honour- to prove that there had been resistance within Germany after all.

Travels Through Time. Antony and Cleopatra: Jane Draycott 31/30 BCE You know, I’ve never seen a film or play about Antony and Cleopatra but somehow I gained the impression that they killed themselves together. They didn’t. Instead, it was a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet gone wrong sort of affair and the two suicides were separated by over a week. Jane Draycott starts with 2nd September 31 BCE and The Battle of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra separately made their escapes with their navies in tatters, each ending up in a separate city where they try to work out what to do. Scene 2 takes us to1st August 30 BCE when Octavian captures Alexandria. Cleopatra had been in contact with Octavian, trying to strike a deal that will mean that the Ptolemy dynasty can continue through her children . The rumour gets around that she has killed herself, and so Antony, already deep in depression, disembowels himself. But she’s not dead! Scene 3 is 10th August 30 BCE. Cleopatra had already tried to kill herself twice, stabbing herself after Antony had died, and then trying to starve herself. She gained permission to go to her mausoleum to mourn Antony, so she dressed herself in all her regalia. Draycott thinks that the snake story is logistically unlikely but somehow or other she kills herself, having sent a letter to Octavian telling him that she won’t be part of his triumph. Her son was killed and her other children were sent to Rome. Jane Draycott has written a book about Cleopatra’s daughter called Cleopatra’s Daughter: Egyptian Princess, Roman Prisoner, African Queen.  It sounds good too. Somehow all these podcasts just end up adding to my already enormous To Be Read list.

Emperors of Rome And blow me down, if Dr Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith don’t put out their latest podcast The Death of Cleopatra and Antony at exactly the same time. I was amazed at my misconceptions about this death that were challenged by the Travels Through Time episode with Jane Draycott, and so I was pleased to hear Rhiannon and Matt (am I on first name basis after all this time?) confirming the real story. With a million caveats about the sources, it’s much the same story with a few extra bits thrown in. For example, Cleopatra arrived home in Egypt before the news of the defeat at Actium reached Egypt, and so for a while she was able to spin it as a victory. She had good reason to think that perhaps Octavian might extend mercy to her- after all, King Herod (yes, that King Herod) swapped sides from Antony to Octavian and he survived, and she still had her enormous wealth. Despite their relationship, Antony and Cleopatra negotiated separately with Octavian, who played them off against each other. (As Dr Evans says in this podcast of Octavian “He’s a git, isn’t he?”

History Hour (BBC) The episode Referendums and Teletubbies is a bit of a grab-bag. It starts with Tim Marshall, the author of The Power of Geography talking about the 1995 referendum in Canada over whether the province should declare independence. 94% of eligible voters participated, and although it seemed that the ‘yes’ vote would win, after coming from a very low base, in the end it was only a 1% victory to the ‘No’ vote. Since then, support for independence has declined. But they’re difficult, referendums about independence, with cultural, nationalistic and economic motivations intertwined- see for example, the Scottish referendum (2014) , the Sudan referendum (2011) and the Catalan independence referendum (2017). The program then goes on to talk about the sacking of Gough Whitlam, featuring an interview with Paul Kelly, and Praveen Jain, an Indian photojournalist who witnessed rehearsals for the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu crowds in 1992- something that the government said occurred ‘spontaneously’ but obviously didn’t if they were rehearsing for it the day before. Then there is the cousin of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes who was incorrectly identified as a terrorist in London, and who was shot by police. It finishes with an interview with Anne Wood, who created the Teletubbies as the first television show designed for 2-3 year olds. (I am now more familiar with Teletubbies than I ever thought I would be).

Conversations (ABC) I always enjoy watching Dee Madigan on the Gruen Transfer- she’s smart and sassy and even though I shudder at the world of advertising, she seems a good egg. But in Dee Madigan’s Precarious Early Life we learn about her turbulent upbringing that would have looked quite benign from the outside. Her father had been a parish priest who embarked on a relationship with a parishioner, whom he married after receiving a dispensation from the church when she fell pregnant. In a short time there were four children, but he was a poor father. Although the children received a private Catholic education in bayside Hampton, and the family ran antique shops successfully, he was a bad money manager and businessman. They bought into Bunratty castle with other couples, but when that became messy, they decamped by Gippsland where he purchased the pub. But he did not stay around for long, leaving the family there with the hotel. By 18, Dee was pretty much on her own. How amazing people’s lives are.

Rough Translation “As Russians approach his town ‘the cat must still be fed’.” As a local historian, I grieve the loss of local newspapers. Despite their variable quality and frequent inaccuracies, they give a view of ‘events on the ground’ that are often missed in state and national newspapers. But perhaps the ‘big data’ available on the internet to people across the world means that you don’t actually have to live in an area to be able to write about it. This is what Emily Sachar, the editor-in-chief of a community news site in Red Hook, New York found when she advertised online for an editor. An application landed from Pavel Kuljuk, a Ukrainian journalist, whose obsessive approach enabled him to sift through data to provide a hyper-local take on current events. But as the invasion of Ukraine unfolded, Emily gradually encouraged him to write about his locality, even though some of her readers resented this insertion of international world.

History Extra. I know a couple of people who have undertaken the Camino de Santiago recently, two for religious reasons and one for the ‘bucket list’ challenge. Pilgrimage, past and present features Peter Stanford, the author of Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning. He points out that pilgrimages feature in Islam, Judaism (Jerusalem), Buddhism (the Bohdi tree) as well as Christianity but they are now increasingly a tourist offering.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 November 2022

Emperors of Rome. I wish I had known that this live session was on- it was in Melbourne on 4th October at ACMI. It’s a bit of a re-hash of their much earlier episode years ago when the podcast first started. Cleopatra and Antony (Live in Melbourne) starts off in 41 BCE as Cleopatra joins Mark Antony in Tarsus (Turkey) after a delay to emphasize that she was not at his beck and call. Dr Rhiannon Smith emphasizes the political advantages of their relationship, playing down the romantic element. She points out that Cleopatra was obviously in control of her fertility, as she was not constantly pregnant as many female rulers were, in order to ensure a line of succession.

My Marvellous Melbourne. I haven’t listened to this for a while, and unfortunately there hasn’t been a new episode since March 2021. Episode 8: Sixpenny Restaurants, the Buxtons and Isaac Selby has plenty of variety. It starts off with the murder of Sisto Malaspina, the owner of Pellegrini’s Restaurant in Bourke Street in 2018, then goes on to talk about the Sixpenny restaurants that were established in Melbourne from about 1874 to WWI. They were a fixed price menu, often of three courses, with quite a bit of choice between courses. At first they attracted ‘foreigners’ but from the 1880s onward they began catering for working men, and even working women with the ladies’ restaurant upstairs. Then Peter Yule talks about his book The Buxtons: 150 Years of Developing Melbourne. I hadn’t realized that the Buxtons had spawned so many different businesses over their six-generation history- Becton, MAB as well as the Buxton Real Estate company. They contracted and expanded according to the financial cycle, and managed to shift their huge loss on 333 Collins Street onto the South Australian government. MAB developed Docklands. Yule drew on the company archives, now at Melbourne University, but also historian Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s memoir as a Buxton granddaughter. Finally Isaac Selby was a lecturer in Melbourne and Melbourne historian with a colourful episode where he tried to shoot the judge in an American courtroom after his wife sued for divorce after becoming a Unitarian! The RHSV had an exhibition on Isaac Selby in 2019, when this podcast was recorded. There are sound clips of Geoffrey Blainey talking about his contact with Isaac Selby, who died in 1956.

By Roland Unger – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

History Hit. It’s the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. Did you know that Tutankhamun- or, at least, his death mask – is one of the reasons why I’m a historian? There was a colour picture of his death mask, with all that glorious gold and blue, in my Form I history textbook and I just fell in love with history classes just to look at the picture. History Hit have a four part series on Carter’s discovery of the tomb. Episode 1 Tutankhamun: The Valley of the Kings starts off by describing the valley, which was carved out of the desert by infrequent flooding, leading to deep ravines. Tutankhamun’s tomb was actually in the valley floor, which became covered with small rocks. He was one of the “new” kings around 3000 BCE, as distinct from the “old” Kings of 4500BCE who constructed the Sphinx and the pyramids. There were over sixty tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which was never “lost” as such because it was a tourist attraction even in Roman times. There was an increased interest in all things Egyptian after Napoleon’s invasion. There were other explorers before Carter- including Giovanni Belzoni, the 6ft 7 inch strongman who was responsible for sending the head of Ramsesses II back to the British Museum, and John Gardner Wilkinson, the so-called ‘Father of British Egyptology’ who numbered all the existing tombs at the time. And of course, Howard Carter, who arrived in Egypt at the age of 17.

Episode 2 Tutankhamun: The Discovery of a Lifetime focuses on Howard Carter, starting off in the house that he built in Egypt, in order to be close to the diggings. He became the Inspector of Antiquities, but was dismissed when he sided with his Egyptian workers in a dispute. In 1907 he met Lord Canarvon (of Highclere, the site for Downton Abbey), who went on to sponsor him for many years. Canarvon received the concession to work the Valley of the Kings in 1914, but after finding nothing for eight years, he finally threatened to pull the plug on Carter’s work. But Carter encouraged him to allow one year more. One day a water boy was moving some rocks to set up a water stand, when he noticed a square rock, different from the rest.

Episode 3 The Life of a Boy Pharaoh turns to Tutankhamun himself. On 4 November 1922 Carter wrote to Canarvon, telling him to come over. Tutankhamun died at 19. His reign followed that of his father Akhenaten, who had converted Egyptian polytheism into monotheism worshipping the God Amun. Tutankhamun reversed this, as well as his father’s centralization of power. He died of malaria and a broken leg.

Episode 4 Inside the Tomb is recorded inside the tomb, which was a poor choice because the acoustics are bad. It looks at the politics surrounding the announcement of the discovery, with it being framed as a ‘British’ discovery despite the 1922 Egyptian independence movements at the time. The presence of a photographer meant that people could actually see this intact tomb (although the photographs were staged afterwards). Egyptian regulations meant that an intact tomb had to stay in Egypt, which is why it is still there today) although poor old Tutankhamun himself was pulled apart to register the various artefacts, which numbered over 5,500. It took 10 years to register and clear the tomb. Tutankhamun captured the public imagination instantly, with his androgynous, if highly stylized, features on the death mask and in the wake of WWI, his image captured young, dead boys across time. Canarvon died soon after, as the result of an insect bite, feeding rumours of a ‘curse’. Carter ended up rather embittered by his lack of academic acclaim, and the British focus of the publicity despite the presence and contribution of his Egyptian co-workers.

Latin American Film Festival: El Empleado y el patron

The Latin-American Film Festival is being hosted at the University of Melbourne over the next two weeks- and it’s free!

I went to the opening film last night. The woman who presented the film emphasized the contemplative, reflective nature of Uruguayan films, and mentioned that the ending left open many questions. “Oh no!” I thought “Another film where nothing happens” but El Empleado y El Patron was not like that at all. There are two young men, each with a young baby. The first is the son of the wealthy plantation owner, who is given responsibility for bringing in the harvest of soybeans; the second is a farm worker who puts aside his dream of riding his horse in a long cross-country horse race to help bring in the harvest before the rains come. The young overseer is not your typical overseer: he is vegetarian, modern and desperately worried about his young baby son who is ill. Despite the apparent power imbalance, there is a shift after a tragedy occurs- although, as we were warned, there is no clear-cut resolution. I enjoyed it.

Movie: Emily

In the British Film Festival advertisement, they spruiked this as an “atmospheric tale of infinite creativity”. That’s for sure, except that all the creativity was on the screen writer’s side. All films play with the truth, but this was a complete conflation of author and work. Humph!

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-30 September 2022

Now and Then During the first lockdown, Heather Cox Richardson was one of my mainstays. I really enjoyed her American history podcast series, but they became increasingly specialized for her American audience, and more directed towards current events. She started a new series Now and Then with fellow historian Joanne Freeman, where they talk about current events and popular culture, and link them with historical events. In the episode Nostalgia and Political Power they discuss the role of nostalgia in American political history, from Puritan Jeremiads, to the 1913 Gettysburg and Fort Wagner reunions, to the emergence in the 1970s of a cultural obsession with the 1950s. All of these ostensibly ‘nostalgic’ events were very much framed in the politics of the moment.

Flightless Bird. After the first episode on Religion, I wasn’t sure if I was going to persist with this series, but I decided to lighten up and listen to the episode on Toilets. I must admit that I can’t remember this, but the water in American toilets is much higher than in other places in the world, largely because the system works by suction, and because of delicacy over ‘skid marks’. Germans prefer to be able to inspect their productions, so they use a little shelf in the toilet. America is remarkable for its lack of public toilets, running level with Botswana. The presenters then wade (verbally, thankfully) into the issue of male and female toilets. Not surprisingly, the (male) toilet architect they spoke to wants gender-free toilets, something that I ever hear few women agitating for.

Sydney Writers Festival. Having sat through the Queen’s funeral, and its unapologetic linking of Church and State in a highly ritualized and very polished performance of state power, it seemed an appropriate time to listen to the 2022 Sydney Writers Festival presentation on Church & State. Hosted by Tom Tilley, whose recent book looked at his escape from Pentecostalism, he was joined by interfaith minister Stephanie Dowrick and Elle Hardy, the author of Beyond Belief:How Pentecostalism is Taking Over the World. Dowrick was rather uncontrollable as a participant, and rather amusingly was intent on packing up and finishing up, after rambling on for the first part of the panel. She is in no doubt of the dangers of the pointy end of any religion.

The History Listen (ABC) One of the pleasures of my lockdown years has been playing the ukulele: such a happy, silly little instrument that cannot take itself seriously. In Play Your Way to Happiness, my favourite podcast historian Robyn Annear looks at the Hawaiian Steel Guitar which, like the ukulele, promised quick results and instant popularity! The Hawaiian Steel Guitar has a darker history. Invented in the 1880s in Hawaii, after American annexation music was the only way in which the indigenous Hawaiian language could be spoken and passed on. It spread across the world, coming to Australia in 1911, spurred by the highly entrepreneurial advertising and activity of Hawaiian Clubs, established throughout Australia (and the world).

History Extra. The Napoleon of Fleet Street is about Lord Northcliffe, the press baron who came from an impoverished background to dominate the British media of the early 20th century. Capitalizing on the literacy engendered by the 1870s education acts, he introduced snappy headlines and short paragraphs that revolutionized newspapers. He had very definite views on the way that England waged its First World War and meddled in politics. Sound familiar? Yes, because Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father) was one of Northcliffe’s proteges. Features Andrew Roberts, who recently released The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe, Britain’s Greatest Press Baron

Emperors of Rome. I’m missing my dose of Rome, so I’ve turned back to the very first episode of Emperors of Rome, produced by my alma mater La Trobe University. The series starts off with Julius Caesar. Episode 1 The Early Years of Caesar goes through the little that we know about his childhood. Unfortunately the first chapters of the two biographies of Caesar are missing, so it’s not much. But he was born into an elite family and given an elite education. Episode 2 Caesar the Politician sees him move into a political role, forming the First Triumvirate with Crassus (who was bankrolling him) and Pompey (to whom JC married his daughter, making Caesar Pompey’s father-in-law). Then he became Consul for his statutory year, then moved to Gaul as Pro-Consul. Gaul at that time consisted of Provence, a little bit of northern Italy and a small bit of Croatia. Episode 3 Caesar and Gaul looks at Caesar’s more expansive view of Gaul, which encompassed all of France, the Netherlands and Belgium, and eventually people took on this view as well. Vercingetorix tried, but failed, to unite the Gauls against Caesar, so he just marched on through and then turned to Britain as well. As far as Britain was concerned, the conquest of the sea in getting there was more important than the actual conquest itself. Episode 4 Caesar’s Triumph was really interesting, pointing out that a Triumph was actually a religious ritual to thank Jupiter for the victory, and difficult to achieve because it was the one moment when an emperor displayed both civil and religious power at the same time. Caesar extended his triumphs out over time, as a form of propaganda over his tussle with Pompey.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 September 2022

Witness History (BBC) Leading up to the bicentenary of independence in Brasil, Witness History has a series of three short episodes about Brazilian history. The murder that shocked Brazil looks at the 2002 murder and torture of investigative journalist Tim Lopes by a drug gang in Rio de Janeiro. The episode features an interview with Lopes’ son in 2014. A second episode looks at the capital of Brasil, Brasilia. It was designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer and opened in 1960 (even newer than Canberra and a lot weirder). Building of Brasilia features an interview with Osorio Machado, an engineer who worked on the city’s construction.

The History Listen (ABC) Fanny Smith: The ‘genocide survivor’ whose voice will echo through the ages If you asked most people who the last Tasmanian aboriginal was, the answer would be Trugannini. But Fanny Cochrane Smith, who died in 1905 proudly proclaimed that she was the last Tasmanian Aborigine. In 1899, twenty-three years after Trugannini’s death, she recorded songs and language for the Royal Society of Tasmania, the oldest voice recordings made by an Aboriginal person and added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register in 2017. In this episode, you can hear the recordings and interviews with her great, great grand-daughter, who along with other Palawa people, was encouraged by Michael Mansell to see themselves as a ‘people’ rather than ‘descendants’. Well worth listening to.

99% Invisible Who-ever thought that a dingbat was a THING? For the 500th episode of 99% invisible, they embark on a three part series on Vernacular architecture. So what’s a dingbat?- it’s one of those two or three storey apartment buildings with parking underneath, apparently very popular in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. They also look at A-frame houses in Vermont, and the phenomenon of the front porch in houses in the South, which can be used as the site for story-telling but also a barrier to stoop people (especially black people) entering your (white) house.

The Documentary (BBC) Samburu: The fight against child marriage looks at the Samburu county, in northern Kenya, where it is normal for girls as young as 11 to be married, often to men more than three times their age. To add to the trauma, the day before the wedding the girl undergoes genital mutilation. Josephine Kulea, is a remarkable Samburu woman on a quest to stop these practices deeply embedded in her culture. Interestingly, they take the girls away for a few years, give them an education, then return them to their villages once the impetus for a child marriage (and the early delivery of cattle in exchange) has passed

Conversations (ABC) Richard Fidler really is a very good interviewer. The Fall of Kabul through Andrew Quilty’s Lens is an interview with photographer Andrew Quilty, who returned to Afghanistan as the US, UK and Australian troops withdrew. It’s a really thoughtful, articulate, raw interview- and it makes me want to read his book August in Kabul.

‘Bedtime Story’ by Chloe Hooper

2022, 288 pages

Illustrated by Anna Walker.

How do you tell a six year old that his father is gravely ill with cancer? Or his four year old brother? What does a child do with that information? When Chloe Hooper’s husband, historian Don Watson, received the diagnosis of a rare and aggressive form of leukemia, she turned to what she and her husband knew best: words and stories. Humans have drawn upon stories for time immemorial- indeed, it may be stories themselves that make us human- as a way of explaining the world around us and containing fears. Cancer, that very adult fear, is often described as a “journey”, drawing on ideas of the hero who inhabits both children’s and adult literature. As adults, we may think of fear of the dark as a childish fear, but it seeps through the pages of this book in Anna Walker’s illustrations that capture the inkblot of fear and death, the brush with spiders’ legs and the oppression of the deep, dark wood.

Hooper pores over the children’s literature shelves of bookshops and libraries, buying but ultimately rejecting the books written especially for children whose lives or families are touched by cancer. Instead, this book is presented as her story for her unnamed elder son, who is addressed as ‘you’ throughout. At one level it is an almost abstract, dispassionate survey of children’s literature from its “golden days” of the nineteenth century but, underneath her summary of the themes and biographies of authors like Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, L. Maud Montgomery is a more plangent question for her: what pain or trauma drove these authors to write for children?

These digressions into children’s literature are a way of avoiding the more immediate threat. Hooper traces through the early diagnosis and initial chemotherapy treatment, then the long, leaching period of ongoing chemotherapy and its side effects. The eye of the writer is always looking. As they drive in silence towards St Vincent’s Private Hospital for the initial chemo, the hospital where her young children were born (as, indeed were my own, more than 20 years earlier), the traffic is stopped on account of a young psychotic man up on the roof of the adjacent public hospital, threatening to commit suicide. The irony of suicide juxtaposed against people like them, desperate to hold onto life, is not lost on her. They sit in their room on an upper floor of the hospital, decorated in an intense purple, waiting, waiting, waiting – as much of the next year will be spent waiting. She reflects:

Is this what everything has been leading to? All the business that fills a life- two marriages, two divorces, a daughter, three stepchildren, a year later two young sons- was the fucking and the fighting and reading and the writing all leading to this high, purple room?


“Don” as his children call him, was very much an older father – he was aged 62 when the son referred to as ‘you’ in this book was born- and nurses sometimes mistake him as the children’s grandfather. I can only think that it was the presence of this young life around him that gives him the strength to face the chemotherapy regime which extracts its own toll in the time he has left to him (the oncologist Ranjana Srivastava addressed the issue of ‘time toxicity’ in an excellent recent article in the Guardian). The book is, too, a tribute to “Don’s” own achievements with his degree in history from (my own) La Trobe University (pointedly but accurately described on p.105 as “a newly built institution set in a dust bowl between two mental asylums, a cemetery and a drive-in movie theatre”) through to his work as speech writer for Paul Keating, leading to his wonderful biography/reflection Recollections of a Bleeding Heart and later books on the use of language in politics. But it is almost as if she is watching Don from behind glass: it is his struggle, on his own. The world closes in on them, as the family becomes transfixed by the nesting of a pair of white-plumed honeyeaters in their garden, and as the house becomes the centre of Don’s fight. She continues her work on completing The Arsonist, published in 2019 but it is as if all this is happening in another universe. Meanwhile, what they fear most is played out in front of them as the father of her eldest son’s friend dies of cancer too. Books may not be able to tell how to get through this: seeing another family doing so, does. The pages become drenched in black, and the upper-case text shouts “TEAR IT ALL UP” “STORIES AREN’T HELPING” “THEY ARE ONLY MAKING THINGS WORSE” “NO STORIES, NO MORE”

As she notes, readers often jump to the end of a book to find out how it finishes. I won’t tell you.

I finished this book feeling quite wrung out by it, and almost as if I had invaded their family territory. Hooper herself, of course, has invited us to draw close, but I still couldn’t help feeling as if I had somehow trespassed into someone else’s pain. I did find myself wondering about the logistics of writing this book – it followed a chronological thread but it was not a diary. At what point was it decided that it become a publishable piece? Do the commercial decisions of cover, illustrations and editorial shaping undercut its authenticity? What do you do with such an intimate piece of writing? Does the author climb onto the publicity treadmill, numbing herself to rehash the same conversations over and again for an audience?

This is beautiful, honest, human writing, but I really don’t know how to honour it without cheapening it. Do I give it a ‘score’? Stars on Goodreads? Do I listen to the interviews that she is giving (e.g. with Richard Fidler on ‘Conversations’) while I’m driving along in the car? Will it win literary prizes, with all the accompanying hoop-la? I feel as if she was compelled to write this book, as the only thing that she knew how to do. I felt that I wanted to keep reading it, to acknowledge her humanity and generosity in sharing it. But I still feel as if I am intruding.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

AHA Conference 2022 Day 1.5

Geelong Foreshore 2015 Source: Flick Russell Charters

Am I in Geelong for the AHA (Australian Historical Association) conference? Why no, I’m right at home here in Macleod. During lockdown I was craving the whole conference experience: the plenaries, the decision about which session to attend, the regret at not attending the other session instead, craving stewed coffee, muffins, sandwiches. But somehow when the AHA conference rolled around again this year, I just didn’t think that I could be bothered going down to Geelong- it’s too close but it’s also too far. So I opted for the online ticket instead, and am squeezing it in between lunch with friends, online exercise classes, grandchildren and Spanish conversations. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to carve out much time, but I’ll catch what I can.

And what’s the .5 day, you ask? Well, it’s the Presidential Address given on the first evening of the conference, after a day of sessions for Early Career Researchers etc. This year the address was given by outgoing AHA President Melanie Oppenheimer, who after talking about the achievements of the AHA in a suitably presidential style, then went on to talk about volunteerism which has been a long-term research interest of hers. She mentioned that she had written a book about volunteerism years ago, where she had posited that there was an Australian way of volunteering, drawing on our British origins (where there was a tradition of voluntarism) and informed by Indigenous concepts of obligation and reciprocity. She pointed out that many in the audience were volunteers and that despite the ageist, gendered view of ‘volunteers’ being little grey-headed ladies (like me) or Lady Bountiful or Mrs Jellyby-like women, the largest group of volunteers are in the 39-45 age group. However, when she started her research, many historians saw volunteerism as a ‘light-weight’ topic, and the third-sector is still under theorized and at times seen as in conflict with feminism, or seen as unproductive. She recalled her early research into volunteer organizations in WWII, and it was only when she stumbled on the term ‘patriotic funds’ that the wealth of resources opened up before her. She finished by talking about the changes to concepts and locations of work (especially casualisation), and speculating about how that will change volunteering especially when people are less willing to make a regular volunteering commitment, oting instead for episodic volunteering.

Then this morning (my Day 1) I started off with the Keynote address on Historicizing Domestic Violence given by Zora Simic. She is part of a team working on an ARC grant on domestic violence, with her area of interest in the 1970s onwards, with an emphasis on the 1980s and 1990s. She noted the opening of the Elsie Women’s Shelter in 1974 and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships between 1974 and 1977. She identified important books like Tor Roxburgh’s ‘Taking Control’ in 1989 which was written for women escaping violence or to protect their children; O’Donnell and Saville’s survey on Family Violence in Australia which emphasized the relationship between financial dependence and violence, and Jocelynne Scutt’s ‘Even in the Best of Homes’ in 1983 which pointed out that domestic violence was not only physical. A survey by the Office of Women in 1988 found that 22% of respondents saw domestic violence as justified in a range of situations, and the Personal Survey has illustrated the intractability of domestic violence. (And then a grand-child arrived, so that was the end of that for me).

The grandchild left with his grandfather to go to Bunnings, so I was able to catch Rebe Taylor talking on ‘Extinction, survival and resurgence: European Imperial and Indigenous Histories‘. She started by talking about cultural diversity loss, especially through languages, which is even more stark than species diversity loss. However, as language reclamation projects have shown, languages can be recovered, and the reported ‘extinction’ of cultural groups is instead a history of resurgence and resilience. She went on to talk about four ‘last women at the end of the world’ – none of whom really were last women: Fanny Smith in Tasmania, Santu Toney in Newfoundland, Dolly Penreath in Mousehole, Cornwall, and Christina Calderon in Patagonia. She noted the role of gender and geography in these cases. She finished by talking about the way that ‘extinction’ on account of climate change is now being framed as something that faces us all (however ‘us’ is defined).

The next paper in the session was Annemarie McLaren talking on ‘Indigenous Intellectual History? Black People, White People and the Process of Racial Estrangement in early Brisbane‘. Unfortunately it was really hard to hear her, but I did understand that she drew on the diaries of German missionaries who were working in the Brisbane area. These missionaries, who spoke a heavily accented English, noted beliefs about skin colour – i.e. the belief that when Indigenous people died, they would go to England and become white- and the bestowal of ‘brother’ relationships between blacks and whites. However, when strychnine-laced flour was distributed in the Kilcoy Massacre, this led to a hardening of indigenous attitudes towards the profound differences between those with white skin and those with black. But it was really hard to hear what she was saying – wouldn’t you think after two years of Zoom, that sound would be better (I often think that when listening to podcast interviews conducted over Zoom too.) Then it was time to go meet a friend for lunch, and the grandchild had been joined by his sister, and a Spanish Conversation session beckoned…so that was it for me!

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 May 2022

History of Rome Podcast Episode 141: Blood and Water looks at the ten years of co-existence between Constans and Constantius. The religious culture wars were not dead, and the two emperors became caught up in them: Constantius leaned towards Aryanism, while Constans was pro-Nicean. Constans in the west began losing touch with reality, spending all his time hunting and banquetting, and neglecting the army for an archery corps. This isn’t going to end well. It didn’t because he was overthrown and killed by Magnentius. Constantius took on the usurper Magnetius in 350AD, finally triumphing over him in 353 when Magnetius did the right thing and committed suicide. To ensure that a rebellion didn’t break out while he was on the other side of the empire doing this, he appointed Gallus, one of the two survivors of the Massacre of the Princes, which would free him to go after Magnetius. Episode 142: You’ve Earned It. Gallus was unpopular because he cut the food supply to the citizens in order to supply the army instead, and he was persecuting pagans as a fundraiser. In the end, Constantius killed first Gallus in 354 and then Claudius Silvanus in 355. That left him the last man standing, which was good until he started looking for a successor. There was only one male blood relative left, his cousin Julian. Episode 143 Julian the Pre-Apostate traces through the early life of Julian before he became Julian the Apostate. He was a studious lad who had been orphaned when Constantius killed his father, and he was allowed a fairly free education in the Greek-speaking East until he was summoned to Milan so that Constantius could check him out. Constantius didn’t see him as a threat, so he gave permission for him to keep travelling around for his education. When he was 23 years old, he was made a junior Caesar and Julian decided that if he had to be a Caesar, he’d do it well. Despite not being well supported by his generals, he had a good victory over the Germans at the Battle of Strasbourg, which of course made Constantius a bit twitchy again. Never a good thing.

Conversations (ABC) The Caving Time Lord introduces us to Australian geochronologist Dr Kira Westaway who has been involved in archaeological discoveries of ‘the hobbit’ (Homo floresiensis) in Indonesia, and more recently, the molar from a young Denisovan girl in Laos. And to think that for so long, we thought we were the only ones here.

Rear Vision (ABC) Sri Lanka: Failed State When Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1948 it inherited an economic completely geared to British interests. Exports of tea and rubber to Britain brought in foreign exchange but this was directed entirely towards buying in products produced elsewhere (especially Britain). Sri Lanka has teetered on the edge economically for much of its history, forced to take IMF loans with their iniquitous hard-right political policy prescriptions. Politics has been dominated by the Rajapaksa family who dominated all the major political positions, and the war against the Tamils led to a bloating of the army at huge cost. Recent events like the abrupt suspension of imports of fertilizer, the collapse of tourism, and the decision to reduce (!) taxes has led to acute shortages of food and fuel. Although many accuse China of increasing Sri Lanka’s indebtedness, the major creditor is in fact Japan.

Things Fell Apart (BBC) Most of the issues of the culture war just wash over me, but I find the issue of the relationship between transgender rights and feminism less comfortable. I’m troubled by how quickly any discussion becomes sharp and painful- but I guess that’s just because this particular ‘culture war’ topic is one that does engage me. In this episode Many Different Lives, Jon Ronson revisits the MichFest women’s festival in Michigan in 1991, where conflict arose over whether a trans woman could attend a women’s festival run completely by women, for women. The issue splintered further- what about pre-trans women? He discusses second and third wave feminism, and the origin of the term TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism), which was not intended to be a term of abuse.


History Hit It’s rather ironic that people pay to go on a treadmill at gymnasiums. This episode The Treadmill features Rosaline Crone, a Senior Lecturer in History at the Open University who has specialised in nineteenth-century criminal justice history. The treadmill goes back to Roman times, when it was used by slaves and labourers as a form of crane for lifting heavy objects. The treadmill in a penal setting was invented by William Cubitt, who saw it as a way of giving work to prisoners in the Bridewell. He had the idea of turning the ‘hamster wheel’ type of treadmill inside out, so that the steps were on the outside. It could be- and was- used as a mill, particularly in Sydney but not in the UK. In the 1830s and 40s there was a backlash against its use, but it was revitalized from the 1860s to the early 20th century, when men could be sentenced to 6 hours on the mill. The movie ‘Wilde’ was wrong in depicting Oscar Wilde on the treadmill: like 50% of other prisoners in the 1890s, he received a medical exemption.

Australia if you’re listening (ABC) It’s not just that Australia has finally rid itself of the Coalition government, but this final episode sees light on the horizon too. The 49-year-old energy prophecy that is finally coming true goes back to 1973 and Professor John Bockris of Flinders University, who saw the dangers in the runaway production of carbon dioxide and predicted that Australia would become an energy exporter in the future, using solar energy to transform hydrogen for export overseas. This episode points out that Australia has been at the forefront of technology that has been picked up by other countries- NASA, China- but that we have sustained reputational damage from the Coalition government’s stance on climate change. In his final words of the series, Matt Bevan notes that nearly everyone he spoke to for this series said that Australia would get there in the end, but that we need vision and consistency over several decades. Perhaps, in the 2022 election, we have finally made a start.