Category Archives: Uncategorized

Up in the Land of Increasing Sunshine again

Melbourne has had a dearth of sunshine lately, but there’s plenty in Queensland, so I have popped up there for a few days.  You can read about my brief, and much more local, adventures at my travel blog Land of Increasing Sunshine (https://landofincreasingsunshine.wordpress.com/)

‘I built no schools in Kenya’ by Kirsten Drysdale

Drysdale_BuiltNoSchools

2019, 339 p.

This book leapt out at me from the library shelves as I was walking past – Kenya!! I’ve been there! I didn’t built any schools either: instead I just enjoyed the company of my son and daughter-in-law who were living there at the time, for probably a two month period over four separate visits. And Kirsten Drysdale- I know her! She was on ‘Hungry Beast’ and ‘The Checkout’ on the ABC, and recently on Crikey’s INQ team.  So even though it’s not my usual fare, I snapped it up and found myself devouring it.

In 2010 Kirsten Drysdale had just finished working on the first series of ‘Hungry Beast’ and it was not certain whether there would be a second series. A friend contacted her and invited her over to work with her as a carer for a rich old man in Nairobi. Drysdale’s parents had come from Zimbabwe, and Africa had always been a mysterious part of family lore; the job sounded easy; all expenses and accommodation were provided, and there would be free time to go off on safaris or do some freelance reporting.  So she accepted.

When she got there, all was not as it seemed. Stepping out of the driveway of a fenced, low slung stone house with a large well-cared-for garden, she found herself in a colonial time-warp, as if the Mau Mau were still at the gate and the Brits had never left. [I can identify with this completely. When I was in Nairobi in 2014 we went to Lake Naivasha and visited a conservancy where they filmed Out of Africa. The woman there, beautifully coiffed, white blouse and khaki shorts, seemed to exemplify the old British elite with her clipped English accent and obvious nostalgia for the old Keen-ya and disdain for the new. You can my blog post about her here.]

The old man, Walt, his wife Marguerite and adult daughter from an earlier marriage were locked in a claustrophobic, paranoid battle with each other. The daughter, Fiona, lived in England but micro-managed her father’s care through daily Skype calls and more nefarious surveillance. She was convinced that her stepmother Marguerite was not looking after her father properly, and so charged the ‘carers’ with spying on Marguerite and reporting her shortcomings to Fiona back in England. Walt himself was an old bigotted Kenyan resident, who according to Fiona, would not accept a black carer. Hence, Fiona employed three white women (including Kirsten and another Or-stray-yen) who Walt, in his befuddlement, would think were house guests or perhaps granddaughters. None of these people are particularly likeable, especially Fiona, and it is no wonder that the family dynamics were well known amongst the expats in Nairobi. Walt’s life is very much manipulated by his family and carers, at Fiona’s behest. His condition is worsening, and he exhibits and evokes all of the frustrations associated with dementia.

Alongside this description of life within Walt’s family is Drysdale’s own response to Nairobi itself. I kept feeling little leaps of recognition as she mentioned places and sights that I had also seen. Crime and terrorism are both present, but she also revels in the busy-ness of Nairobi and the dignity and generosity of the Kenyan community that we rarely notice or acknowledge here in Australia.

This is not high literature, and it is not meant to be. I found myself laughing out loud in places, and the whole thing  rang completely true to me – even the dynamics of a family struggling with dementia, which is its own form of madness.  She has an acute eye for the absurd, but also is a keen and thoughtful observer of what is going on around her. Of course, part of my delight in this book was that I was familiar with what she was writing about – a bit like reading a book set in your home town- but I really enjoyed it.

My (admittedly biased) rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

 

Movie: Litigante

Well that’s weird- a Spanish trailer with French subtitles that tells you absolutely nothing about the film. Despite the title – in English, the Litigant- this is not a courtroom drama. The main character, Silvia, is a lawyer, but that’s only one part of her life as a single (by choice) mother. Her own mother, Leticia, used to be a lawyer too and even though she is dying – too slowly- of lung cancer, the two women argue incessantly.  Silvia is compromised by the shady dealings of the government bureaucracy for whom she works as a lawyer, and she is embarking on an unexpected love affair.  She is stressed, stretched and so tired. It’s a real slice of life, and thoroughly convincing.  I saw it as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival in Spanish, with English subtitles.

My rating: 4 stars

 

‘The Dismissal Dossier’ by Jenny Hocking

Hocking_Dismissal

Updated edition 2016, 75 pages & notes

Is it only Labor supporters ‘of a certain age’ who remember where they were in 1975 when they heard that the Whitlam government had been dismissed? I was in my second year at La Trobe University, and being November 11, it was in the midst of exams. I remember sitting on the brick steps at the Agora, wondering if the student troops would rally and whether there would be a march on Parliament House. But there was nothing- at least not immediately. I think that people were just stunned.

And, after reading Jenny Hocking’s small book The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, I’d have to add that not only were people just stunned, they were lied to as well. It has taken over forty years for the truth to trickle out, through vendettas, scribbled notes in archives, interviews, and  re-evaluations. The story isn’t over yet: Jenny Hocking, who wrote the celebrated two-part biography of Gough Whitlam, is still pursuing ‘The Palace Letters’ between the Queen and her secretaries and Australia’s then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, which have been designated ‘personal and private’ by Buckingham Palace, and thus out of the reach of Australians.

So- what weren’t we meant to know and now we do, largely through Hocking’s persistence?  We now know that the Palace did know ahead of time that Kerr was planning to sack Whitlam. Through Reg ‘Toe-Cutter’ Withers’ spilling of the beans after himself being dismissed, we know that Fraser was aware of it too.  We now know that  Sir  Anthony Mason  had been involved even before Sir Garfield Barwick (the Chief Justice) was, and that Barwick and Kerr agreed to obscure his involvement at the time and afterwards.  We also know that Kerr, fearful that Whitlam would sack him first, had shored up his position with the Queen’s secretary and Prince Charles in advance.  We now know that Kerr was anxious that a Royal Commission not be held into the Loans Affair because it would have come out that he had signed off on the minutes of the Executive Council meeting that approved the plan.

There’s a lot, too, that we have either forgotten or not realized the significance of.  The Senate had not refused Supply, but the Liberal/Country party refused to vote on it. Whitlam’s poll numbers were improving, while Fraser’s were plummeting over the stalemate in the Senate. Whitlam had already spoken with Kerr about holding the half-Senate election days earlier and had the agreed papers in his pocket, which would have brought the stalemate to a head. The House of Representatives still sat on the afternoon after the Dismissal, and passed a motion of no-confidence in Fraser as Prime Minister by a margin on 10 votes – the ultimate breakpoint in our parliamentary democracy, which should have seen Fraser stepping down immediately.  There were in effect two dismissals on 11 November: first the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, then later that afternoon, the dismissal of the House of Representatives, which Kerr prorogued to avoid having to do anything with that embarrassing vote of no confidence.

These things have been revealed over the last forty years, but because they have been drip-fed, you tend not to see the whole picture. After Reg Withers revealed that Fraser had been in on it before the Dismissal, Fraser admitted that he had lied. How did I not know that? I remember Sir Anthony Mason’s dismissive “I owe history nothing” but I’d forgotten his role. I remember news of a dinner with Prince Charles, but didn’t make the connection. That’s why this book is so important. It’s only short, but it draws the threads together. It re-kindles the rage.

I was fortunate to hear Jenny Hocking speak last week (and a recording of her presentation can be found here). She reminded us that Gough’s exhortation was to “Maintain your rage and your enthusiasm“. Reading this book reminds me why we should maintain the pressure for a republic, and why Hocking’s own persistence and assiduity has been so important.  After the Federal Court dismissed her attempt to have the Palace Letters revealed, just this afternoon she was granted Leave to Appeal to the High Court of Australia. Those letters will and must be revealed one day: I just hope that she and  I live long enough to see them.

My rating: 5/5 because it’s it’s such an important book. Read it.

Sourced from: SLV e-book. (Did you know that you can download e-books from the State Library if you have a card?)

 

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24 – 31 July 2019

13 Minutes to the Moon continues. In Episode 6 Saving 1968 they look at Apollo 8, which was the break-through journey leaving Earth’s orbit and entering that of the moon, and travelling to the ‘other side’. Shame about the Bible reading on Christmas Eve though. In Episode 7 Michael Collins: Third Man they examine the career of Michael Collins, who stayed behind when the lunar landing craft sailed off into the darkness. Much of it is read from Collins’ autobiography

Today in Focus (Guardian UK) The Story of Grenfell United takes up the story of the survivors of the Grenfell Towers fire, two years on, who still feel that they have not been heard and that there will be other Grenfells.  It finishes with a ‘roll call’ of those who died, at a memorial ceremony. It’s chilling to hear how many of them have the same surname.

Revolutions Podcast Episode 10.5 looks at the life of Mikhael Bakunin, the ‘father’ of collective anarchism. He met Karl Marx before the 1848 Revolution, and hung around in similar circles. He was imprisoned for many years, then escaped to Japan and ended up travelling the globe before finally joining the International Working Mens Association. Episode 10.6 is very good, explaining collective anarchism. After abolishing the state, heredity wealth, the army, the police etc. a collective society would share the wealth amongst those who share the labour (i.e. no free ride here)

The Documentary (BBC) The Documentary has a series on language learning. As you know, I bumble along learning Spanish, and it was rather daunting to hear about  The Superlinguists: The Polyglots  who speak multiple languages – 15, 20 of them.  In The Superlinguists: Multilingual Societies they travel to India, which has a huge diversity of languages with people able to speak several, depending on purpose and audience, and Luxembourg where there are three different languages that children are educated in simultaneously and were people seem to be able to swap effortlessly between. How depressing.

Queensland_Native_Police_1864

Queensland Native Police 1864 Source: Wikimedia

The History Listen (ABC) The Native Police was a police contingent composed of indigenous men who were used by settlers and the colonial government to ‘disperse’ (i.e. round up, murder) other indigenous people in lands coveted by the settlers. It makes for an unsettling family history among indigenous people today – to have forefathers who massacred other indigenous people- sometimes among other branches of their own family. This series of two programs Queensland’s Native Police: the Frontier in my Family and Queensland’s Native Police: Grappling with the Gaps explores how present-day indigenous families deal with this uncomfortable knowledge

Movie: An Unexpected Love (El Amor Menos Pensado)

Very much an over-60s film, this Argentian movie looks at a long-term marriage that breaks up after the only son leaves home. Like all good comedies, it has a bit of an edge to it, as these middle aged characters negotiate Tindr, Instagram and the complexities of pulling apart two lives that have become integrated after years of marriage.  I guess you’d call it a rom-com, which is not my normal fare, but I really enjoyed it.

Spanish with English subtitles

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

 

‘How Australia led the way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage’ by Myra Scott

Scott_how_australia_led

2018 reprint (original 2003 Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women), 120 p.

This book was originally launched in December 2003 at a ceremony in Parliament House Canberra where two crucial documents of Australia’s democracy were put on public display. The first was the Australian Constitution and the second was the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which gave the vote at Federal elections and the right to stand for Parliament to white Australian women on the same terms as men. Placed adjacent was the “Trust the Women” banner, made by Dora Meeson Coates in 1911 (which can be seen here) which, 77 years after its creation, was purchased from the Fawcett Library, London by the National Women’s Consultative Council as a Bicentennial Gift to the Women of Australia in 1988. In 2002 it was donated to the Parliament House Gift Collection for permanent display (although it sometimes travels to other museums).

This small book tells the story of the banner, its creator Dora Meeson Coates, and the context in which the banner was produced. Its author, art historian Myra Scott, had already written a thesis in 1992 on George James Coates and his wife Dora Meeson Coates where she described their role in founding a group of expatriate Australian artists in London, which became the base for successive generations of Australian artists seeking to establish themselves internationally. She was well placed, then, to write on Dora Meeson’s activities amongst the suffragists and suffragettes in England, where parliamentary approval for women’s suffrage lagged behind New Zealand and Australia’s pioneering legislation. The book has the British political system as its setting and focus and describes how, after the success of the Australian suffrage campaigns (even in laggardly Victoria) Australians travelled to ‘the mother country’ to encourage the British Parliament to pass similar legislation.

The creator of the banner, Dora Meeson was born in Melbourne in 1869. Her father, the founder and headmaster of the now defunct Hawthorn Grammar School, returned to London when Dora was ten years old in order to study law. The family then migrated to New Zealand, and in 1895 moved to Melbourne where Dora studied art at the National Gallery School. There she met fellow artist George Coates, and when he won a scholarship to study art in Paris, Meeson and her family also travelled to Paris. George and Dora married in 1903 and, leaving behind the comfortable economic milieu of her parents, they struggled to become part of the art world in London. After the death of her parents, she became increasing involved in the suffrage movement, most particularly through the Women’s Freedom League where she was founder-member.

Legislation for female suffrage had been presented to the British Parliament several times, but each time was blocked after the second reading. After one of these failures in 1908, they were advised by Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone that the success of the other Reform Bills in 1832, 1867 and 1884 had only occurred after large rallies forced the government’s hand.  It was here that Dora Meeson stepped up.  She was highly active in the Artisans Suffrage League, producing banners, postcards, booklets for womens suffrage – including her “Trust the Women” banner, which featured in the 1911 Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession.

What surprised me in this book that it was not just Australian suffragists who lent their support to their British sisters, but (male) Australian politicians also very publicly supported the campaign as well. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher spoke in support at the International Women’s Franchise Club and at an all-male Labour banquet.   The Australian Senate sent a ‘resolution’ praising the influence of women’s suffrage to the British Parliament in 1910, but it was promptly buried by the British Prime Minister who did not want to publicize it. The proponents of suffrage reform could point to evidence from the Australian experience: women had not been turned into harridans; instead they had influenced important social legislation to benefit women and children. And even though the British Parliament might sniff at the presumption of the colonies to comment on the composition and suffrage of the House of Commons, the colonies and dominions had skin in the game. The proposed Naturalization Bill, whereby a woman’s nationality on marriage would change to match that of her husband’s (even if they were divorced or if the husband had died) was originally planned to extend across the empire, affecting Australia as well. (In the end, the dominions were allowed to grant local nationality under their own terms of qualification.)

The Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession of 1911 was held to coincide with the Coronation of King George V. At the same time the Imperial Conference was held,  bringing politicians from across the empire to London. Margaret Fisher, the Prime Minister’s wife and Emily McGowen, the wife of the New South Wales Premier attended the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession, which took three hours to pass by, with 40,000 women marching five abreast, representing 28 women’s organizations. It was a highly visible march with music, floats and banners. Differences between the varied women’s groups, some of which focussed on parliamentary lobbying while others turned to direct action, were put aside for the march.

Dora Meeson’s banner representing Australia was big, requiring four people to carry it. Unlike other embroidered banners, this one was painted on an olive green background. The image, Scott suggests, references one of the paintings on the walls of the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, created for the Federation ceremony conducted there ten years earlier, which depicted Britannia as Minerva. In what could be- and was- interpreted as ‘colonial upstartness’, the banner depicted a younger woman beseeching a highly unamused Mother England to ‘Trust the Women’ who had received the suffrage in Australia. Far from the ‘aggressive rabble’ as suffragists/suffragettes were often depicted, these are ‘womanly women’, and the image appealed to statesmanship at the highest level.

But none of this agitation, or the urgings of Australian and New Zealand personalities and politicians, swayed the British Government. When war broke out, the campaign for suffrage was suspended and Dora Meeson joined Nina Boyle of the Women’s Freedom League in forming the Women’s Police Force to fill the positions of men who were at the front.  She continued to be a member of the Australian and New Zealand Women’s Voters Association, whose members promoted themselves as the only enfranchised women in Britain. After the provision of  partial suffrage in 1918, it was not until 1928 that Britain finally granted the full suffrage to women.

This book was re-released in 2018. During 2018 another book about the influence of Australian suffragists on the British campaign was also released – that of You Daughters of Freedom by Clare Wright. From my brief perusal of Wright’s book (which I have not yet read), they are two very different propositions. Wright’s book is large, at over 500 pages and weaves a tapestry of many women, told in a warm and colloquial tone. Scott’s book is much smaller, with an emphasis on the banner and its creator, in a more restrained narrative tone.

The story of Australia’s early 20th century progressivism is a good one, and it bears retelling many times, especially in today’s context of increasing conservatism. The actions of Australian women on the international stage, and the willingness of Australian male politicians to champion female suffrage once they found that there was nothing to fear, show Australia as a new nation, bristling with confidence and action.  There’s room enough for many stories celebrating this.

Sourced from: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

AWW2019 I have added this book to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.