Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Palace Letters: the next step in the saga

Hocking_DismissalI’m absolutely delighted that Prof. Jenny Hocking has had a victory in the High Court this morning, with the finding that the commonwealth had erred in withholding over 200 letters between the Queen and Sir John Kerr in the leadup to the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Some time ago, I reviewed her small book The Dismissal Dossier, to which I gave a 5-star rating. I’ve also been listening to the ABC Podcast The Eleventh which has rekindled my rage anew.

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

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

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

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



‘People of the Book’ by Geraldine Brooks


2009, 496 p.

This book has been sitting on the shelf for a while. Now that my library has closed, I can no longer borrow piles of books that I return unread. Instead I’m having to turn to my shelves full of books that at some stage I felt I simply had to buy and which have remained in their paper bags ever since.  I blame the Little Free Library down in my park too, which calls to me every time I go to the station.


Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book is a Little Free Library find. I’ve read quite a few of her books (all prior to starting this blog), Foreign Correspondent, March and Year of Wonders, which has been mentioned several times recently. I wasn’t too sure about this one. I knew that it was about a Jewish prayer book. I also knew that she had converted to Judaism, and I’m always a bit wary of people writing from a particular faith tradition.

Brooks’ book is based on the real-life story of the Sarejevo Haggadah, a brilliantly illuminated Jewish prayer book that is used at Passover.  It is on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.  It carries a rich and traumatic history.  It was created in Spain around the year 1350 and changed owners after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.  It ended up in Venice, where it was passed by the censor of the Inquisition. It was purchased by the National Museum in 1894 and sent to Vienna for work. It was hidden from the Nazis during WWII and was again threatened during the bombing of Sarajevo in 1992.

Using the actual history of the Haggadah, Brooks weaves her own story around the people through whose hands it might have passed during its turbulent voyage. Most of this is sheer imagination, although firmly within the historical constraints of the real-life story. The frame story is that of an Australian conservator,  Hanna, who is called in to inspect the Haggadah before undertaking conservation work on it. As part of her painstaking inspection she notices an insect’s wing, a hair, salt residue and a wine stain. Each of these fragments branches off into the historical aspect of the novel, telling the story of how they came to rest within the pages of the book, to be discovered hundreds of years later.

And so we meet a young Partisan fighter in Sarajevo in 1940; a syphilitic bookbinder in 1890s Vienna; a 17th century Venetian rabbi; a black female Muslim illuminator in Seville in 1480 and a mixed Jewish/Converso family in the same city as the Jews are expelled in 1492.

The Hanna frame story veers close to being a mystery-thriller which sits rather at odds with the historical montages of people associated with the Haggadah over time. As all contemporary stories seem to have, there is a love interest and a problematic relationship with her mother. Brooks, probably quite intentionally, features women in the historical sections, which would have required some dogged research that at times felt heavy-handed.

But what an wonderful idea to use a real-life object that has such a vibrant story, even with all its gaps and silences. Did she need the frame story at all? I’m not really convinced that she did- but then, it would be a different book.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: my own bookshelves, from the Little Library in the park

aww2020I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 May 2020

Heather Cox Richardson.  Once again, her Tuesday 5 May video looks at current political questions through a historic lens. In this episode she talks about the relationship between the Republican party and the Catholic Church, which only emerged in the Nixon era, when he lost the sympathies of many middle-class parents over the Kent State University shootings. She moves on to a brief history of abortion, and how it has become so politicized. A second question was over the possibility of a Constitutional Convention and her fears should one be agreed to. The final question looked at how the judicial branch of government had changed the political landscape over the last 100 years. She goes back further, to the highly conservative 1890-1908 Supreme Court which passed the pro-segregation Plessy v Ferguson case (‘Separate but equal’) and legitimized the invasion of territories and the creation of foreign nationals.  On Thursday 7 May The American Paradox Part 7 she looked at the Depression and WWII, when big government stepped in during a time of emergency.  However, That didn´t stop the forces that were trying to roll back Reconstruction by denying rights to African Americans (and Native Americans too, although the focus is not on them). She looks at the rise of Big C conservatives and their conceptualization (and demonization) of Big L liberals. Ronald Reagan emerges as a symbol of West Coast conservative, anti-government individualism, and McCarthy attacks liberals whom he links to Communism. Really good.

Dan Snow’s History Hit. The coronavirus pandemic has spared us quite a few  big expensive commemorations:the Captain Cook 250th anniversary, and V.E. day and most probably V. J. day too.  But Dan Snow marks V.E. day in his program with an interview with historian Lucy Noakes, from the University of Essex, who has been working on the early to mid 20th century, with an interest in those who experienced the First and Second World Wars, particularly from the perspective of the history of emotions.  (She did her PhD on the Mass Observation project- something that fascinates me). In this podcast, she points out that the way a war is remembered is largely framed by the current questions and issues of the moment – noting the use of the Blitz as a touchstone for the current pandemic lockdown. You can hear it at

Fifteen Minute History (which often goes over 15 minutes) There have been lots of parallels drawn between coronavirus and the ‘Spanish’ influenza, and this episode looks at it from an American perspective. The guest, Christopher Rose wrote his PhD on a social history of the Egyptian home front during World War One through the lens of public health, which would certainly be a different perspective. The ‘Spanish’ Influenza of 1918-1920 gives a good 15 minute summary.

Revolutionspodcast  At last- we’ve reached the 1905 Revolution.  Well, not quite, because this episode 10.32 The Union of Liberation looks at 1904 when the liberals, who had been pretty quiet for the last 20 years, called for a convention like the Third Estate had done just before the French Revolution. But Tsar Nicholas wouldn’t hear of it, so they held banquets instead in the guise of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the liberal court statues to circumvent the ban on political gatherings. But the Russo-Japanese war is getting worse, and as a calming mechanism on the part of Tsar Nicholas, it’s not going to work. And in 10.33 Bloody Sunday we finally reach the 1905 Revolution. It wasn’t the revolutionaries leading it: instead it was a priest Georgy Gapon who seemed to be playing both sides a bit, and the liberals. He had police protection, and claimed to be supporting the Tsar, but when the army attacked peaceful protesters, all went a bit pear shaped.

NPR I often read the British historian Timothy Garton Ash’s articles. In this podcast from the On Point program, What the U.S. Response to Cornoavirus Says About America’s Role on the World Stage he talks about the great sadness that he feels as an enthusiastic Atlantic historian when he looks at America during the time of coronavirus.  He’s joined by Catherine De Vries, professor of political science at Bocconi University and On Point’s political analyst Jack Beatty. Garton Ash is far more optimistic about America’s potential than the other two commentators, but all agree that if America does manage to redeem itself (after all, US leadership bounced back after Nixon) it will not return to its former prominence.

BBC The Documentary.  Wuhan: the beginnings of coronavirus COVID-19 I started listening to this at 5.30 and missed the start of it. Going back to listen to it by light of day, it was more critical of China’s initial response and coverup than I realized, but I found the description of the rapid and forceful deployment of doctors and harsh lockdown fascinating. There is a backing sound track of people blowing whistles in protest after the death of the doctor who tried to report the outbreak – quite eerie-  I found this Facebook video here but I don’t know about its provenance.


My day at home with the Yarra Valley Writers Festival


On a cold and showery day, I’m rather glad that I’m not in the even colder Healesville for the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, which is being held online instead. I’ve decided that it’s very strenuous attending an online writers festival, even though I’ve barely moved from my desk all day. Perhaps that’s what makes it so tiring: there are no little breaks moving from one venue to another, no distractions of the book displays, no-one to chat with between sessions.  I am absolutely in awe of fellow-blogger Lisa at ANZLitLovers who has not only managed to pay attention far more assiduously than I have but she has even managed to blog the sessions as they are occurring.  Brava Lisa!

The day started with David Lindenmeyer Saving the Environment: It’s Not Fire & Brimstone, It’s Science. Using a Powerpoint slide-based format, which felt a bit too lecture-y for me (especially when he was in effect just reading the slide), he mounted a strong argument that the major fire threat  to Australia lies in its logged forests,rather than in old growth forests. An old growth forest regenerates better and more quickly than a logged forest, is less likely to have canopy fire in the future, and by their very nature, logging plantations are likely to be closer to houses and infrastructure. Salvage logging in already-burnt fires is the most damaging act of all – and one which is championed by the timber industry. And, as he points out, despite continual demands for access to old growth forest, 92% of forestry employment is in logging plantations.  But check out Lisa’s report for a much more coherent summary of his presentation than mine!

Leading on from David Lindenmeyer’s talk, the next session was called Fire and Climate. The focus on fire was a deliberate choice in planning the writers festival, first because the Yarra Valley is often wreathed in smoke from hazard reduction burning, and second because the 2009 fires surrounded Healesville (where the festival is held) devastating towns in the surroundings, but leaving Healesville untouched- for now. Tony Birch wrote an essay for Meanjin in 2017 (Two Fires – you can read it here) describing accompanying a friend to Christmas Hills after the 2009 Black Saturday fires. The daughter of that friend was Alice Bishop, who was one of Tony Birch’s creative writing students and here on the panel, having written her own book of short stories A Constant Hum, which explores the psychological consequences of bushfire- something that she experienced herself. The last speaker on the panel was Prof. Tom Griffiths, who has written on bushfire with Forests of Ash: An Environmental History (2001) and Living with Fire (co-authored with Christine Hansen, 2012) which emerged from a community history project in the wake of Black Saturday.  Griffiths in particular warned that because of the engulfing media response to coronavirus, we have not yet worked through the emotional and environmental consequences of a fire season – not a specific day that can be identified with a capital letter- that affected the whole continent. There was an interesting interaction near the end of the session where Alice Bishop rather defensively rebutted the question of whether people should rebuild in fire-prone areas, arguing that power lines should be put underground and that it’s a simplistic response. Somehow, I don’t know if Tom Griffiths would agree. Again, Lisa on her blog has done a much better job of this than I.

HastrichContinuing with the environmental theme, Writing About the Natural World featured Chris Flynn whose recent book Mammoth has been receiving quite a bit of coverage, Vicki Hastrich whose Night Fishing I reviewed here and Lia Hills who wrote The Crying Place, which I hadn’t heard of. The session was chaired by Robert Gott, who is almost intimidatingly articulate and intelligent. Apparently there is a huge amount of research in Mammoth, and although Flynn was guided by some historical facts, he gave up trying to direct the narrative along factual lines. Very different types of environments were dealt with by Hastrich (the sea) and Hills (the desert). Hastrich spoke about the landscape of the imagination, while Hills talked about the process of recording her narrative quickly and using voice recognition software that also picked up the sounds of the leaves, wind and birdsong, which she wrote into the book.  And here’s Lisa….

The-Glad-Shout-Alice-RobinsonI’d actually read books two of the three authors featured in the next session Place in the New World Order, although it has probably turned out to be a very unexpected “new world order” than when they were originally planning this festival. The moderator, Elizabeth McCarthy asked them how they were responding to the pandemic, which perhaps was not the best use of the time available, as I’m not sure that any one person’s experience of this strange time is any more momentous than any one else’s. Alice Robinson wrote The Glad Shout  (reviewed here) which is set in the middle of a climate change emergency.  Meg Mundell writer of Black Glass (review), released her 2019 book The Trespassers  which has a pandemic as its premise. I’m not familiar with the four books released by Karen Viggers. Only Meg Mundell starts with ‘place’ when she is writing (in her case, prompted by the Point Nepean Quarantine Station for her most recent book), whereas both Viggers and Robinson used ‘place’ more as an influence on ‘character’. All agreed about the danger of avoiding becoming didactic over social justice issues- Viggers referred to “hovering above”, using the perspective of different characters to explore issues. And again,the indefatigable Lisa….  (How does she have the energy??)

A Writer’s Lot: 50 years but who’s counting was a discussion between two playwrights of different generations, David Williamson and Hannie Rayson. It was a retrospective look at Williamson’s career, where he emphasized the importance of hearing Australian voices on the stage – something that rarely happened up until the 70s and 80s.  At this point, Lisa went for a walk….

I really enjoyed the session How Weird Does Your Family Have to Be? It was moderated by ABCRN presenter Michael Mackenzie, who has his own fascinating life story with a Jewish father who escaped Germany and died just after he was born. The panel comprised Alice Pung (Polished Gem –read before I started this blog ), Richard Glover who wrote Flesh Wounds (which I haven’t read and now want to) and journalist Rick Morton One Hundred Years of Dirt (also unread).  Alice Pung’s family was not ‘weird’ but as Cambodian/Vietnamese refugees, they were traumatized. Glover has emphasized the ‘weirdness’ of his family with a laugh, but his story of an alcoholic father and an absent mother who completely invented a false identity to her family actually reveals sadness and deception. Rick Morton’s father was a brutal man, but his father in turn was abused by Rick’s grandfather who seems a truly malevolent man.  Lisa is back from her walk, so here’s her much better summary.

_tsiolkas_ damascusI’m flagging now- and I’m not even writing lengthy blog posts. Where’s afternoon tea? I’m bailing out after Christos Tsiolkas’ Road to Damascus (my not very favourable review here). Tsiolkas wrote the book to answer his question “How did this religion come to change the world?” He talks about his determination to write something “heretical but not blasphemous” and describes his own story of how he came to write this story about Paul. He also talks about the importance he places on structure when he writes, something which he displays with this book and The Slap with the point of view alternating between chapters. Actually, I liked him much more in this interview than I imagined I would. And Lisa? She has skipped this session and is coming back for Charlotte Wood and The Weekend, which I haven’t read.

I don’t have to drive home, but I think that I’ve had enough for one day. Ooooff. The technology worked well enough in this brave foray into online writers festivals. There was only really a problem with David Williamson, whose broadcast was delayed ironically just after Hannie Rayson admitted that the technology was going well and hoping that she hadn’t “put the mockers on it”. (She did.)  Along with many who were following it on Twitter, I quite enjoyed seeing everybody’s book-lined  studies in varying degrees of tidiness (David Williamson wins the prize for most untidy). I wish that there had been a break between sessions for people who were in for the long haul, rather than back to back sessions with barely a 3 minute break between them. In fact, a short lunch break wouldn’t have gone astray.

But well done, YVWF for being brave enough to forge ahead, and for putting together a rewarding day’s watching and listening. And Lisa? you’re a legend.


‘Time Song’ by Julia Blackburn


2019, 284 p.

Disappeared places have their own special allure, especially when they have sunk to a watery death. I think of towns shifted or submerged during the building of a reservoir (like, for instance Bonnie Doone which was covered by the Eildon Dam or Tallangatta which reappeared when the Hume Reservoir sank so low). Then there are the ‘lost’ lands covered over by the waves. Think Atlantis, or the Theosophists’ Lemuria: huge land masses, supposedly supporting sophisticated civilizations, which are now the stuff of legend.

Rather less legendary, however, is Dogger Bank, which is mentioned every morning on that strange, soporific radio item, the Tide Report on the BBC in England. Dogger Bank is the last remnant hint of Doggerland, which existed in the North Sea and English Channel 18,000 years ago, making what we now know as the United Kingdom a contiguous part of Europe. It was not a land ‘bridge’, which suggests a narrow and tentative link between UK and Europe. Instead it was a fertile plain, with its own coastlines and rivers, with humans roaming across it. It was not a route from one place to another, but a territory in its own right.

People have known about Doggerbank for centuries. Particularly low tides have exposed the remnants of old forests, and the continual calving of the eastern English coastline reveals an ongoing array of fossilized remains and flints. But recent developments like windfarms and extractive industries tell us more today about Doggerbank than we have ever known before. Huge machines have been scooping up the ocean floor, bringing up bones and artefacts, and oil exploration companies have made their geological surveys available to academic archaeologists and palaeontologists, a source of information that they could never, ever have afforded themselves. (So maybe there is something to be said for oil exploration after all).

Julia Blackburn is not a geologist, palaeontologist or archaeologist. She is a poet and author, but in this book she walks the Suffolk and Norfolk coastland of the eastern UK, picking up stones, shells, bones and flints as she walks. She is not alone in this: people have been picking here for years. She talks to these collectors, who show her their hoards, giving her bits and pieces. They exist in a wary relationship with academics, who they often perceive as being too keen to sweep up artefacts to store them away in universities, where they may remain almost as hidden as they were under the ocean for years. But sometimes there are finds which transcend this uneasiness, when the collectors realize the significance of what they have found for the human story, and it becomes a shared endeavour between collector and academia.

This is a beautifully presented book, which has colour plates showing the ice, coastline and river formation of Doggerland 18,000 years ago; the receding ice and flat plain, fractured with rivers and tunnels at 15,000 years ago; the gradual encroachment of water 13,500 years ago; the emergence of a recognizable UK at 10,000 years before present; and the remnant Dogger Island in the middle of the North Sea at 7,000 years ago, the connection between UK and Europe severed. It’s a human story too, that stretches back 1.8 million years, through Homo Erectus, Homo antecessor, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, some signified by a few stone tools or human footprints fossilized into the land surface.

There seems to be a spate of beautifully written environmental histories and essays that have been published recently. I’m thinking of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, David Sornig’s Blue Lake (my review here) and Vicki Hastrich’s Night Fishing (review here).

But it’s also a very human story because of the way she tells it. Her search is narrated almost as a conversational journey, as she meets with this person and that, and as she relates her own reminiscences of places and items she has herself found. Collectors and academics share their enthusiasms with her, and indirectly with us too. There is a lot of science in this book (and her list of acknowledgments at the back of the book demonstrates her debt to academia) but it’s written very much in layman’s terms. Her response to the academic literature is expressed in 18 ‘Time Song’ poems, which intersect the text, each preceded by a black and white drawings by Enrique Brinkmann.

There’s another story here too, a deeply personal one. She tells us in the preface that her second husband died a few years ago. We learn that she had met him when she was eighteen. He was Dutch, and for four years they crossed from one side of the North Sea to the other. They broke up, she married someone else and had children with him. After an absence of 27 years, they met again and married. During their first year of married life they again criss-crossed that North Sea to each other, him living in Amsterdam, her in Suffolk. Like Doggerland he was present, then disappeared; reappearing again and then absent for ever. In many ways, this book is a love poem to him and he is always just below her level of consciousness, just below the surface. Her final, beautiful Time Song is written to him. ‘Time’ is elapsing, but her exploration of Doggerland shows her that things can pass and yet persist, and that the universe has its own rhythm and trajectory, quite independent of us.

There was a pale and almost transparent moon in the sky this morning. The air has become very autumnal. It will soon be my husband’s second death year but because of the strange mathematics of absence, his age no longer increases with the passing of time. At night I sometimes stretch out my hand towards him and wait until I am almost convinced that an answering hand is there, even though I cannot feel it. I’m sure this is quite usual. It’s what people do. (p.11)

This is a beautiful book, contemplative and wise.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Off to the Writers Festival

I’m off to a Writers Festival tomorrow (Saturday). A marquee or two; rows of plastic seats; people lining up; sound systems that crackle; the book shop selling all the books talked about…..

Nup. It’s online. It’s the Yarra Valley Writers Festival. I bought my ticket some weeks back, when it seemed as if the prospect of a writers festival  of any type was far distant. Who knows- it may still be far distant. But good on them for making the decision to go online early and I hope it’s successful for them.