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.
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.
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!
History of Rome PodcastEpisode 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.
The History Listen (ABC). The Benalla Experiment looks at the post-war migrant camp at Benalla in Victoria for single mothers (for whatever reason) and their children from countries affected by war. It was not a transit camp: people stayed there for years. It had a factory next door, and the women worked in the factory to pay back the costs of their voyage, and 24 hour child care was provided. Just as much, this story is about the struggle with Heritage Victoria to get the site recognized for its social and cultural importance, even though many of the buildings are now used by community organizations.
History of Rome Episode 132 In This Sign sees the end of Diocletian who just died after a reign that was important in restructuring the empire but marred by the persecutions and his failure to be able to establish the tetrarchy on a long-term basis. Perhaps that was because a four-headed structure in itself was unstable, or perhaps because none of the others were as good as he was. Meanwhile, Constantine -recognized as the first Christian emperor- was playing a long game. It’s not really clear whether he really was a Christian, or whether he was after the absolute power that it conferred. Christianity didn’t become the state religion for 50 years after Constantine’s death. The story of him painting a cross on his soldiers’ shields is probably apocryphal- he had 40,000 soldiers after all- and it wasn’t a cross, it was a Chi-Ro which certainly indicated Christ but also was a symbol for ‘good’. Moreover, there is no sign of a cross or Chi-Ro on his Triumphal Arch, which is strange.
Episode 133 The Milvian Bridge goes slow-motion into the battle that pitted Constantine against Maxentius. Maxentius wasn’t particularly popular because he had levied heavy taxes for his building projects, which he hoped would shore up his position. Constantine had 40,000 well trained loyal soldiers: Maxentius had 100,000 lukewarm ones. They first met in battle outside Verona, where Constantine triumphed. He then turned to Rome and the two sides met in battle on the Milvean Bridge over the Tiber. Maxentius consulted his soothsayers over whether he should mount a battle and they said ‘the enemies of Rome will be defeated’. (They didn’t specify which side was the enemy though). When Maxentius’ troops realized that they were being defeated, they tried to cross back over a small pontoon bridge and many (including Maxentius) ended up in the water. Constantine marched into Rome, although he did not sacrifice to Jupiter, which suggests that he had found a new god. This wasn’t the real victory of Christianity over paganism that is often depicted. If Constantine had made a genuine conversion, he certainly underplayed its significance amongst the Romans who weren’t ready to have it imposed on them.
Episode 134 And Then There Were Only Two returns to the East which was divided up between Maximinus Daia and Licinus. Maximinius Daia recommenced the persecution of the Christians that Galerius had put an end to. He genuinely hated Christians, and saw Christianity as a real threat to the Empire. Licinus was an ally of Constantine, with whom he signed the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity, and more importantly, returned confiscated property to Christians. Quite apart from any genuine belief in Christianity, this was a way of wedging Maximinius. The Battle of Tzirallum on 30 April 313 saw Licinus triumph, and now there were just two emperors instead of four.
Australia If You’re Listening (ABC)Episode 5: What We Missed While We Were Knifing PMs goes through the political circus where we saw four powerful people lose their jobs six times. I had heard about the failure of the Labor Party to negotiate with the Greens, but I was unaware of the negotiations between Turnbull, Combet/Wong and Ian McFarlane which could have actually eventuated, but everything was upended by Abbott’s ascension. Ross Garnaut had high praise for Gillard’s system, derided by Abbott as being a ‘tax’, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) only survived because Clive Palmer wanted a photo opportunity with Clive Palmer.
Start the Week (BBC) I haven’t watched Bridgerton, but I know that Regency is having a bit of a moment. The Georgians features Penelope Corfield (author of The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th Century Britain), Tristram Hunt (author of The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain) and Professor Philip McCann , the Chair in Urban and Regional Economics at the University of Sheffield. They discuss the change in consciousness during the Georgian era (which actually is the long 18th century) in relation to commercialisation and expertimentalism and ‘can-do’ism (my word, not theirs). Interesting to consider that Australia was colonized within this Georgian/Victorian timespan.
Things Fell Apart (BBC) Episode 4: Believe the Children looks at the spate of satanic child abuse cases in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, spurred largely by Christian evangelists and the media, and drawing on guilt felt by parents for placing their children in child care. It features an interview with Kelly Michaels, who was sentenced to 47 years imprisonment for sexually abusing children, until her conviction was completely overturned. I found this interesting article about the interviewing techniques used in the McMartin Preschool and Martin cases, compared with a Child Protection Services unit. The satanic child abuse conspiracy of the late 20th century has resurfaced with QAnon today.
How It Happened: Putin’s InvasionEpisode 4: The View From Russia challenges the idea that Western sanctions are going to pressure the Russian people into turning against Putin. A Russian commentator points out that 50% of Russians are hard-core Putin supporters. Another 1/3 would be conditional supporters. Only about 20-25% oppose Putin, but they are not necessarily prepared to come out and protest against him. This is largely generational: older people remember much harsher sanctions than the current ones, and younger people have largely fled. Alexei Navalny is Putin’s most prominent opponent, but currently facing charges and imprisonment. His supporters are taking a long view, hoping that in about five years time, when Russia faces an inevitable crisis, they will be ready.
Rear Vision (ABC)The Marcos Revival- from pariahs to the presidency in the Phillipines. Despite his parents embezzling $5-10 billion dollars from the Phillipines, Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos is in a winning position in the Presidential elections this coming week. The outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte is still very popular, despite killing 30,000 Phillipinos, most of whom come from the lower classes. However, his government has spent generously in social welfare programs directly aimed at these same lower classes. Presidents can only serve one six year term, and Duterte had hoped that his daughter Sara would contest the election. However, she decided to run for vice-president in an arrangement with Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, instead, incurring her father’s ire. President Duterte is making lots of insinuations that Marcos is a drug addict. The Marcos family, meanwhile, has had a long-term strategy for decades to rehabilitate the family reputation and entrench its power.
“What’s she doing in Bunbury??” you may ask. Well, you know those COVID figures of cases and hospitalizations?…they’re real and some of those patients are aged 38 instead of 98- and one of them is my son. So, there was a quick scramble onto a plane and over to Western Australia. He’s much, much better now, and I’ll be heading home on Monday. But in the meantime, there’s walking to do and places to see, other than a hospital ward.
I decided that I’d walk to the hospital and went via the Big Swamp, which was absolutely teeming with wild life and birds. There has been lots of building development on what must have been swampland in the past. There are South Western Long Necked Turtles in the swamp, which cross the road to nest in a dry watercourse on the other side of the road. In a bit of an evolutionary blip, they can’t withdraw their necks into their shells, so they are pretty defenceless against predators.
I wonder if this is the last Civic Video store (now closed) still standing? Someone had a sense of humour with the parking bays.
I visited the Bunbury Museum and Heritage Centre in what had once been the Boys School, built in 1886 to replace an older convict-built structure. They had a nice little exhibition about ‘The Blind Man of Bunbury’- K. C. Lewis who ran a canvas goods store in Bunbury between 1955 and 2021.
Then up to the Art Gallery in the former Sisters of Mercy Convent School. There was a little exhibition called ‘Museum of Loss’ which attracted my attention. They had left one of the nun’s rooms intact. A pretty sparse life.
Then a walk up to the Pioneer Park, which had been the site of the first cemetery. Most of the paperwork over who had been buried there had been lost, so they don’t really know who is buried there. I had hoped that there might be gravestones, but there were only interpretation panels telling of the history of the graveyard itself.
Then across the road to the beach- absolutely beautiful. I was fascinated by the Back Beach Sea Baths which were built in the 1930s, but only lasted a few years before being destroyed by the waves. Still, those foundations have held on for nearly 90 years.
My phone tells me today I walked 8 kms but it feels much more than that!
I hate driving over the Westgate Bridge. It’s a real white-knuckle drive, what with the steep drop over the sides and all the B-doubles thundering past. But if I’m a passenger, that’s a different matter. I always look down at the park below and think that I must visit it one day- and today, on a warm, still Anzac Day- I did. Click on the images to enlarge them.
The lake, a former sand mine, turns a brilliant pink at the end of summer, but there was no colour in it today. There were no noisy miners, and so there was lots of bird life: wrens, honeyeaters, wattlebirds, mudlarks, magpies. It’s hard to believe that it was ever the blighted place it was forty years ago. The Age described it in 1979 as ‘scrofulous scenery indeed … dead water, swamp, sick factories, dead wood, haze, gasping barges, wretched refineries, wheezing chimneys, dead grass, institutional putrefaction’. It’s not like that now. There’s been lots of hard work done here by the Friends of Westgate Park since 1999 – a real gift to the people of Melbourne.
I have read this book twice and both times, to my regret, I have failed to write about it in any detail immediately after reading it. Perhaps it’s because the book itself is so complex and masterful that I have barely known where to start. I still don’t. There were more than twenty years between my two readings, so on my re-reading, it was as if I were coming to the book for the first time. I was just as impressed the second time as I had been the first. After reading some pretty mediocre writing recently, it was like handing myself over to someone who can really write. I love books that have a circular structure, where the actions in the opening pages are mirrored in the last. The book opens with Robert Smith, the insurance agent, jumping from the roof of Mercy Hospital in 1931, and it ends with Macon Dead Jr. making his own leap. In between these two flights, Morrison takes us on a Quest novel from the northern states of America to the south in Virginia – the opposite direction to the flight from slavery- and across American history from Reconstruction through to the Civil Rights movement.
The book is too complex, and too much time has elapsed for me to write about it. Suffice to say that it is a book that merits reading and re-reading and reading once again. It combines magic realism with real-life historical events; it is a meditation on naming and the loss of names; it reflects folk-knowledge and music- there is just so much here, layer upon layer. It is magnificent.
My rating: 10/10
Sourced from: Readings. My own print copy
Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle March 2022 book.
I have a rather ambivalent attitude towards short stories, and I find them very hard to review beyond merely summarizing them. Finally, after many decades, I have worked out that I enjoy them most when I read just one story at a sitting, no matter how brief, and leave it to percolate overnight until moving on to the next one. They are also very good for late-night reading when you’re too tired to read anything that involves memorizing actions or characters beyond that one act of reading.
However, I do like Debra Adelaide’s short stories. Flipping through the book beside me now, I can recognize and remember nearly each story on reading a paragraph or two (my test of whether a story has ‘stuck’ or not). The stories are arranged into three parts on the basis of whether they are narrated in first, second or third person, and the final story ‘Zebra’ is more novella than short-story at 121 pages.
First Part starts with ‘Dismembering’ where we see a woman who has a vivid dream that she and her ex-husband dismembered a corpse which they buried in her back garden. She is so un-nerved by the dream that she begins divesting herself of all the possessions that she had brought to her second marriage in what seems to be a steady mental unravelling. ‘Welcome to Country’ sees another form of cleaning-out as a woman, in a near-future Australia, begins gathering together her now-absent son’s belongings from the 1990s to take to ‘Country’, a fenced off, separate outback community where a mean-spirited government holds those claiming ‘sovereignty’ or refusing to conform, in perpetual detention. ‘A Fine Day’ a woman visits her friend Alex, who is trying to get his ex-wife to return to him. His ex-wife Helen, doesn’t want to be found despite her own loneliness. The story has a very Chekhovian ending.
The Second Part starts with ‘Festive Food for the Whole Family’ which I very much enjoyed, given that I was reading it just before Christmas. Given in the form of advice, like a magazine article, it talks about how the successful Christmas host will prepare food to meet all the dietary requirements of demanding guests. Meanwhile, her husband is becoming increasingly familiar with his sister-in-law and so the carving knife comes in handy. ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart’ is a description of the “leaden numbing pain” that sets your body in turmoil and makes even the slightest job, like shopping, an ordeal. ‘Migraine for Beginners’ is obviously written by someone who has experienced migraines (although, for me, my migraines are more of the Hildegarde von Bingen variety- see below). ‘The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise’ is set in an offshore refugee ‘facility’ which is certainly notParadise, where a young boy establishes a barber shop as a way of filling in time until he can move to the mainland.
The Third section starts with a lovely story ‘Carry Your Heart’ where a woman meets a man in a bookshop- what book lover could not respond to a romance in a bookshop? In ‘I am at Home Now’ Debra Adelaide writes from the perspective of Mrs Phillips, who cared for Bennelong, when he travelled to England with another indigenous man Yemmerrawanne in 1792 with Governor Phillip. ‘No Hot Drinks in the Ward’ takes us to the children’s cancer ward of a hospital, where a mother with a sick child has been tossed into a world she never wanted to be part of. ‘Nourishment’ carries on this theme, where a wife is visiting her husband in hospital, where he is fasting before surgery. In ‘The Recovery Position’ Cate is an ex-soldier, now conducting workplace training in First Aid classes. Teaching CPR triggers her memory of returning to Tarin Kowt with Trooper Brad Innes in a helicopter. ‘Wipe Away Your Tears’ starts in a plane over Istanbul as a couple visit Gallipoli. Her husband, Harry, is searching for the grave of his great-grandfather but he has not properly mourned his brother Johnny, who had died in a car accident.
‘Zebra’ is by far the longest story in the book. Set in the Lodge in Canberra, there is a female P.M. who reminds us just a little of Julia Gillard. She is unmarried, calm, unhurried and she finds herself drawn to the beauty of the gardens around the lodge where she discovers that her neighbour, Kerr, has been surreptitiously shifting the fence. Somehow she manages to float above all the political turmoil, and she finds a still point in the gift of a zebra which arrives unsolicited at the Lodge. She is lonely, and attracted to her staffer, but is fearful of being spurned. It is all a bit fey and implausible, and but then again…look at Gladys. Who would have thought that romance could haunt the corridors of power?
So, all in all, a strong selection of stories that I felt perfectly happy to pick up each night. I think that ‘Zebra’ will remain in my mind because it was so strange, and I may think of ‘Festive Food for the Whole Family’ next Christmas (and send up a silent prayer of thanks that my own Christmases are much more pleasant occasions.)
Rating: who knows. I can never rate collections of short stories.
I always forget to do this “I’ve finished!” post once I’ve met my self-selected target for books written by Australian women writers. But this year I have an excuse: I didn’t reach my target of twenty-five books, and I didn’t really read more fiction either, even though I vowed to do so.
Here’s what I did read in alphabetical order by surname: