Category Archives: Uncategorized

‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ by Robert Galbraith

2013 (2014) 560 p.

I’m not much of a fan of detective fiction and murder mysteries, and I don’t read much of it. I do watch it on television, but either I roll my eyes at the predictability of simple murder mysteries like ‘Midsomer Murders’ or ‘Death in Paradise’, or I ending up saying “But what happened?” at more complex and convoluted murder mysteries that demand an inordinate number of hours to reach completion. So, I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to read this book, but it was selected by my CAE bookgroup and I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated I would.

As nearly the whole world knows by now, Robert Galbraith is a pen-name for J.K.Rowling who, as an experiment, wrote a book under a pseudonym to gauge the effect of her name in generating sales. Well, she found out: the first edition ran to only 1500 copies, and it was #4,709th on the Amazon best-seller list until the news that Robert Galbraith was in fact J.K. Rowling broke on 14 July 2013. [As an aside, the question over the effect of her name has had a twist. I volunteer at Brotherhood Books and after noticing several visibly unread donations of Robert Galbraith books over a number of weeks, I wonder if they were given as gifts to former Harry Potter aficionados who either (a) decided without opening it that they didn’t like crime fiction or (b) consciously refused to read it on account of J.K.Rowling’s views on transgender rights. Interesting.] I’m too old to have been caught up in the Harry Potter phenomenon: the only one that I read was in Spanish, which is probably not a good basis for judging its quality.

But whether it’s Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling, I was completely caught up in her story-telling within a few pages. She follows all the reassuring conventions of old-fashioned detective fiction – a murder, a flawed main character with a side-kick, a range of possible murderers, lots of sitting in pubs – but she also developed her private detective with the suitably-implausible name of Cormoran Strike with a physical (as distinct from emotional or psychological) disability and an eager female secretary who brings a frisson of romantic tension. Strike lost the lower part of his leg while serving in Afghanistan in an investigation capacity, his business is failing, and he has resorted to sleeping on a camp bed after his girlfriend evicted him from her flat. Meanwhile, his temporary secretary Robin has recently been engaged to Matthew, an accountant, who disapproves of Strike and wants her to find a more respectable secretarial position- something that is less and less appealing to Robin as she is drawn into the investigation.

Perhaps reflecting Rowling’s own ambivalence about fame in the wake of her Harry Potter success, the death that opens this book is an apparent suicide of supermodel Lula Landry from her Mayfair apartment. His investigation is funded by Landy’s brother John Bristow who suspects a police cover-up. In investigating Lula´s death, Strike becomes immersed in the world of high-end fashion, celebrity and paparazzi. He has a family connection with this world, as his father was a Mick-Jagger-esque rock star, but he brings only trouble to Strike’s life. As part of his investigation in a scene reminiscent of Princess Diana, Strike finds himself in a chauffeur-driven car, blinded by the flash of camera bulbs, as he seeks out interviews in nightclubs, photographic studios and luxury apartments. Apart from the conspicuous consumption and empty vanity of this lifestyle, grubby motivations of ego and revenge play out in explaining Lula’s death.

There is a wide range of characters, of varying wealth and class, who swim into and out of the frame as red herrings. Rowling denotes these variations through dialogue, which at time verges on cliche, but these conversational inflections help to distinguish the characters from each other and to reinforce their social distance from each other. It was a long book, and at one stage when a character re-emerged with a new significance, I found myself having to leaf back through the book to remind myself who she was.

This book consciously stays within the crime fiction genre, with some rather surprisingly dated gender stereotypes, which I hope she subverts in later books in the series. The ending has a whiff of the Agatha Christies about it with its “You’re probably wondering why I called you to the drawing room” type ending, but I was grateful that the murderer was clearly identified, the motivations explained and all loose ends tied up. At least I wasn’t left saying “But what happened?”

My rating: 8.5/10- and yes, I will seek out more Robert Galbraith books and see if I can find the television series somewhere.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-30 April 2023

The Documentary (BBC World Service) Caught in Sudan’s Conflict. It all seems so pointless and unnecessary: an armed struggle by two factions within the same army. As if Sudan hasn’t been through enough already: violence, protest, dictatorship, political instability and upheaval. Sudan borders seven other countries apparently, and ripples are likely to spread to these neighbouring countries. In this episode three women from Khartoum – Dallia, Sara and Enass – share their personal situations and concerns, followed by interviews with a very young doctor. Incessant bombing and sniper fire, electrical failure, lack of food and water, unstable internet- and overwhelmingly fatigue from the stress and 24 hr bombing- what a nightmare.

Emperors of Rome Podcast Episode LXIV – Q and A III. This Q&A session dealt with:

  • What did the Romans know about China and India? (Answer: They knew a bit through trade. They knew that Alexander the Great got to north-west India, but not the subcontinent, and they knew vaguely about the Chinese through the fabled land of Scythia. The Chinese reported that a Roman envoy had visited them)
  • At what point does someone who is conquered become a slave? (Answer: if the commander of a battle wanted to, he could take everyone into slavery- or he could kill them, or he could leave them alone. Up to him)
  • Where did the colours come from for Roman garments? (Answer: the red came from plants. It was expensive, and so only rich people would wear it – pictures depicting the Roman Empire during the Renaissance were not accurate. Purple, which came from fish, was even more expensive.)
  • What did Romans celebrate? (Answer: Saturnalia, triumphs, the emperor’s birthday (when he would give presents to the people) and their own birthdays)
  • What did Romans eat? (Answer: pretty rank and disgusting things. They covered everything with garum, a fermented fish sauce. They liked disguising one food as another. For the poor people, they mainly ate grains. In fact, nearly everyone in the Ancient World was malnourished).
  • Do we know where Julius Caesar was stabbed? (Answer: no, it’s an internet thing)
  • Who is our favourite Emperor? (Dr. Rhiannon likes Hadrian. So do I)
  • How did the ancient texts get to us today? (Answer: most of them are copies of copies because paper decays unless it’s in the desert, or buried under lava)
  • How do we prepare and do our research for the podcast? (Answer: it’s not scripted but Matt does have some talking points)
  • How did the emperors see themselves compared with other emperors (Answer: they had to walk a narrow line between being a ‘king’ – because the Romans were allergic to kings- and a god – but only once they were dead. The image of an emperor, and their own concept of themselves, changed over time).

Latin American History Podcast The Conquest of Peru Part 7. Now that they had killed off Atahualpa after sitting looking at each other for 9 months, they had lost their main bargaining chip. The Spanish troops were playing cat and mouse with Quizquiz, who had been one of Atahualpa’s generals. Pizzarro had arrived during a civil war between Atahualpa and his brother Huáscar, and now that Atahualpa was dead, he had to decide which side he would throw his support behind as a way of saving his own skin. In the end he went for the south, wanting to base himself in the city of Cusco.

Source: Wikimedia.

In Our TimeReligion. NOT that I am reconciled to the idea of one of my children taking his family to Bloody Cambodia…. but. Angkor Wat was built for Suryavarman II in the 12th Century in modern-day Cambodia. The Sanskrit culture at that time stretched from Afghanistan through to Bali, in a form of colonialism without the military bit. At the time, Angkor Wat was the largest urban location in the world, with 700,000 to 900,000 people. The temple itself is four times the size of Vatican City and almost the same size as Old London at the time. It is a sculpture in its own right, constructed without mortar. It was built as a Hindu temple to Vishu, but in the 16th century the royal family became Buddhist. Unlike European cathedrals, it was built in an amazing 32 years, and the carvings were made in situ, so there was no scope for mistakes. When the French colonized, they put out the belief that the temple had been ‘lost’, but in fact, it had never been abandoned. Melvyn Bragg, who has been hosting this program for decades, sounds very old and quavery.

Hoy Hablamos. This podcast in Spanish, presented by a Spaniard (as distinct from a Latin American) goes pretty damned fast. I bought a year’s subscription, which gives you access to a transcript and some vocabulary exercises, and with the transcript I can just follow it. Fortunately, the episodes only last about 10 minutes which is my limit at such intensity, so I listen first time by myself, a second time with the transcript, then a third time without the transcript once I know what it’s about. Anyway, during February this year he did a four part series a bout the Guerra Civil Espanola (i.e. the Spanish Civil War), with one episode a week, and it’s really good. It had never occurred to me (forgive me if this is self-evident to everyone else in the world) but Franco the right-wing dictator was actually the rebel leader. I’ve listened to three episodes: Episode 1515 Antecedents and Causes; followed a week later by the Episode 1519 Parties (Bandas), then Episode 1524 Developments. The last episode is Episode 1528 Consequences. But be warned: it’s all in Spanish, and it’s fast.

Take Me to Your Leader (ABC). I’ve finally finished listening to this series, with the final Episode 8: Narendra Modi. I must confess to being rather wary of Narendra Modi and the BJP party, and I don’t particularly feel reassured after this program. It features Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Journalist and Author of ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times‘.Dr. Bharat Barai and Dr Panna Barai, longtime friends of Modi;  Professor Ian Hall, Griffith University. Author of ‘Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy’.Lance Price, Author of ‘The Modi Effect‘. Modi faced international criticism over the Gujurat Riots in 2002, and several of the guests (except his friends) felt that he could be characterized as anti-Muslim, even though the Indian Supreme Court acquitted him of complicity. As with many of the leaders that Hamish Macdonald has examined in this series, there is consensus that he’s not going anywhere in a hurry.

Rear Vision (ABC) Heading up to the Voice Referendum, this is a two-parter. The first episode looks at the 1967 Referendum- a vote to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People as part of the Australian population. As the presenters point out, there had been Aboriginal activism from the 1930s onwards, but by the 1950s, pressure was building for constitutional change. Holt agreed in 1967. There were two parts to the Aboriginal question. The first was that they be counted in the census which they did not previously, presumably because censuses were used to allocate electoral boundaries and there was little prospect, when the constitution was framed, that Aboriginal people would vote. In fact, Aboriginal people did have the vote by now, but many of them did not realize it. The second was that the race powers of the Constitution, which had been written to support the White Australia Policy by legislating against Indian, Chinese and Islander worker populations, be extended to Aboriginal people so that special legislation could be implemented for them. [It’s interesting to hear ‘No’ voters saying that the Voice will be divisive because it gives ‘special’ treatment, and yet the 1967 Referendum, which had bipartisan support at the time, did exactly this quite consciously]. There was another referendum held on the same day with a question about the composition and size of Parliament, and this was far more politically contentious, and when it did not get up, newspaper headlines said that the referendum had failed. The 91% yes vote for the Aboriginal questions was more or less taken for granted. In reality, little changed immediately following the Referendum, but the clause about race-specific legislation laid the groundwork for later legislation, not all of which was positive for Indigenous people.

Part II Giving a Voice to Indigenous Australians- why has it always failed? goes through the history of different consultative committees, highlighting why the Yes proponents want it enshrined in the constitution, and not just by legislation. After 1967 an advisory committee was established with three white men. Whitlam established the elected National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, but when Fraser got in, he abolished it and established the National Aboriginal Conference. This was probably more an exercise in political fence-marking, because both bodies were elected, with about 35-40 delegates, and Fraser made only modest changes. Both were largely ignored. Hawke abolished the National Aboriginal Conference in 1985, probably because it was critical of the Hawke government’s backdown on land rights, and established ATSIC instead in 1987 after two years consultation. It was formed of 63 regional councils (later reduced to 35), and it had a board of 17 members and a chair. It had two roles: 1. to advise the government (not just the Minister) and 2. to oversee expenditure of money. When Howard got in, ATSIC, its regional councils and aboriginal organizations were heavily audited, and the accusations and ongoing criminal proceedings against the ATSIC Chair Geoff Clarke gave Howard licence to abolish ATSIC, supported by Mark Latham. Nothing replaced it. I really enjoyed both these episodes. I thought that I was relatively well-informed, but I really learned a lot.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 March 2023

Travels Through Time The Great Debate: 1860. This episode features Nicholas Spencer, who has recently published Magisteria, The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion, (no small history, this one) He points out that science and religion were not necessarily in tension: that it was more a question of authority. They are both modern terms, coined in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Science’ prior to the 19th century often included natural philosophy, maths, natural theology while ‘religion’ as a term arose during the Reformation. He points to John Draper’s 1876 book on the conflict between science and religion, published at a time when the Catholic church was asserting its authority and during a time of European immigration. He also points to the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century and the hijacking of evolution by the eugenics movement, leading southern Protestants to become fearful, a defensiveness that was reflected in the Scopes trial. His three scenes were: Scene One: Charles Darwin receiving a letter from clergyman and novelist Charles Kingsley, in November 1859, congratulating him on the Origin of Species, an advance copy of which he has just read. Scene Two: The publication of the most controversial book of the age – not On The Origin of Species but Essays and Reviews, in March 1860, igniting a passionate debate about Biblical texts. Scene Three: The famous Oxford debate between T.H. Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) and Bishop ‘Soapy’ Sam Wilberforce in late June 1860.

Conversations (ABC) The Life of Doctor Norman Swan. During the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Norman Swan and Tegan Taylor were must-listens for a daily rundown on coronavirus and the political policies set in place. In this episode from July 2021 (I’ve been meaning to listen to this for some time!) Norman Swersky (his name until his father changed it after WWII) talks about his family background in Odessa after 1905, and the attempt to emigrate to United States until the ship’s captain learned that the US migration cap had been reached. He studied medicine and unsuccessfully auditioned for the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts- but ended up being a radio celebrity after all!

History Extra Sirens, Succubi and Sex Symbols Featuring Sarah Clegg, author of the new book Woman’s Lore, this episode examines the different myths about female monsters, across time and cultures. Often depicted as a child killer who attacks mothers and babies, these myths reflect the male fears of women’s sexuality and the female fears of childbirth, and as a way of deflecting responsibility for death in times when medicine could offer little escape. She notes that various figures have been adopted by 21st century communities: e.g. Lilith (Adam’s first wife) by the LGBTQI community, and mermaids by the trans community.

Emperors of Rome Frontinus. That’s funny, I thought, I haven’t heard of Emperor Frontinus. That’s because he never was an Emperor but instead was a military man and the writer of treatises especially on military strategy and on aqueducts. He was born in Gaul from Equestrian background, and was obviously very trusted by Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan. He was Governor of Britain betweenn 74-78, and was Consul three times (very unusual). He wrote a technical book on land surveying, then an anecdotal book on military strategies, followed by his most famous work on aqueducts, written after he was made Water Commissioner. He wanted ‘the textbook’ and decided to write it himself, but also to prove that when Senators were given an administrative office, they rose to the challenge. The aquaducts separated water by source and use, and he also dealt issues of fraud and leakage. Episode LII – Hadrian the Little Greek points out his loose family connection with Trajan, although Trajan adopted him anyway as a ward while Trajan was a general. He later married a relative of Trajan, thus forging an even strong link. He was more literary than Trajan, and enjoyed a long period of mentorship. He was never formally adopted as Trajan’s heir (or if he was, it happened just before Trajan died) and there are hints that Trajan’s wife Plotina was behind his accession as emperor. Hadrian quickly deified Trajan, so that he could say that he was the heir of a deified emperor, and he set out finished some of Trajan’s unfinished building projects. Episode LIII – Rome Welcomes Hadrian To cement his position, he had four influential Romans ‘murdered’ before they cause him any problems, although he was careful to distance himself from their deaths. Nonetheless, it was a bad first impression, so he worked hard at dispensing lots of welfare and army provisions and clearing people’s debts. He returned to the Augustan rule of thumb- don’t cross the Euphrates, and divested himself of some of the recently gained territories and installed client kings there. He took the scenic route back to claim his emperorship, taking some two years, and surveying the provinces as he did so. And he started a bit of a fashion trend by wearing a beard- the Greek philosopher look.

Archive on 4 (BBC) Writing Our Mothers. I just loved this episode. Presented by feminist writer Jacqueline Rose, it is structured in 7 ‘chapters’: 1. The Mother as the Angel of the House 2. Mother Looking in 3. Add odds with motherhood 4. The mother as autobiography 5. The Mother, Madness and Rage 6. The Mother and Acts of Violence 7. The Mother and the Erotic. It has readings and archival interviews with a huge range of writers: Arundhati Roy, Edna O’Brien, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Jeanette Winterson among others, and readings from Toni Morrison, Elena Ferrante and others. I really enjoyed this.

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.