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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.

Historians on the coronavirus pandemic #1: Frank Bongiorno

As part of my work with Heidelberg Historical Society, I write a column for our newsletter about local events one hundred years ago. During 2019 I wrote a lot about the 1919 Spanish Influenza epidemic, but most of the local information about it was scattered in various newspapers, often in the column advertisements or in reports of council meetings. Our museum holds no local artefacts whatsoever about the epidemic in our collection- no pamphlets, no vaccination papers, nothing.

That’s not likely to happen with this current coronavirus pandemic, with museums and collecting organizations gathering together material, images and reflections right now, for their collections in the future. It’s as if we have a heightened consciousness of being in a historically significant event, no doubt underlined by the constant repetition of ‘unprecedented’, and probably bolstered even more by the news cycle and the ready availability of images worldwide of empty cities and crowded hospital corridors.

I’ve been interested in reading what historians have to say about it all. The factual parallels between this and other epidemics are relatively easy to identify, but I’m interested in what historians have to say about what it all means. And who better to start with than Australian historian, Professor Frank Bongiorno from A.N.U.?

On 29 April Frank, along with Professor John Quiggan  gave a Zoom talk to the Victorian branch of the Australian Fabian Society on the topic ‘Socialism and the Australian Progressive Movement’.

You can access it from the Australian Fabian Facebook page at

Or Inside Story has a very interesting article drawn from Frank’s talk called “Is history our post-pandemic guide?”  He looks back to WWI/Spanish Flu, the Depression and World War II. For those of who hope that perhaps some good will come from of all of this today, he warns that progressive change never comes from conflict, only from bipartisan consensus, however lukewarm. It’s well worth reading.


‘Night Fishing’ by Vicki Hastrich


2019, 246 p.

What a powerful pull holiday places returned to year after year have on our hearts! For me, it’s the family’s time-capsule caravan down at West Rosebud…oops, Capel Sound. Sixty years. We shared in the oft-returned familiarity other people’s holiday places too. There was our neighbours’ fibro house down at Dromana that accommodated three branches of the extended family at one time in the ‘boys’ room’ with three bunk beds, the smaller girls’ room (because girls were scarce in the family).  The house was still owned by Nana, who had her own bedroom and septic tank toilet (when everyone else had to use the dunny). As a nation, we all sighed at “Ah, the serenity!” when Darryl Kerrigan takes his family up to the house under the electricity pylons at Bonnie Doon in the Australian film The Castle.

Then there was my cousins’ holiday house on the Hopkins River out of Warrnambool, in an old electricity power station, rising up out of the river against a steep embankment. Being a power station, it was a cavernous building, with no natural light. But what a spot- surrounded by bush, and with no-one else around.

It was my cousin’s holiday house that came to mind in reading Vicki Hastrich’s Night Fishing although in her case, it was a cottage against a steep hill that could only be accessed by  water on a Brisbane Water estuary at Woy Woy. Her parents and their friends would take six kids, food, ice and pets to Woy Woy and the continual return there each holiday encapsulated her happiest times, attuned to the tides and the water, drawn to the solitude and unpredictability of fishing and ensconced in the familiarity of returning year after year.

This is a series of essays that have elements of memoir, although there is no over-arching structure to tie them together. At first, not quite sure what is was that I was reading, I wondered if it was a bit like a non-fiction version of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge books, where an oblique reference in one story is picked up by another. It seemed for a while as if that was the organising principle of the essays, but then it didn’t seem to work for the last quarter of the book.

What does tie the collection together is, as the title suggests, the theme of fishing and water. The initial and final stories are both about fishing. In the opening story ‘The Hole’, she and her brother Roger return to a fabled family fishing spot as adults, and in the final story ‘Bucket of Fish’ she heads into her little fibreglass boat The Squid to use up the last bits of fish in the freezer as summer subsides into late autumn.  The eponymous ‘Night Fishing’ story appears half way through, where she decides to go out in her little boat for some night fishing, and loses all sense of direction and location in the darkness.  Others are more discursive, but still with a fishy theme. ‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’, she and brother Rog go out in The Squid again, this time with a bathyscope, which leads her into a reflection of Galileo. ‘From the Deep it Comes’ starts about about catching salmon, but then diverges into a discussion of Zane Grey.

Not all the stories are about fishing.  In ‘Things Seen’ she reflects on the act of being a witness to things seen, recollecting a family story about Uncle Ev, a returned WWI soldier with PTSD, and moving on to Goya’s 82-plate work The Disasters of War, drawn during the Peninsula War between 1808-1814. The theme of ‘seeing’ is taken up in ‘My Life and the Frame’, where she discusses her work as an ABC camera operator, merging into a discussion of Tiepolo’s painting Allegory of the Planets and Continents, and her sense of failure over writing what she describes as a ‘baroque Australian novel’. Her ‘History of Lawn Mowing’ starts with a tribute to the late Australian writer Georgia Blain, who had her first seizure in her backyard. It then shifts to a reflection of the dirt under the house where she keeps the mower, where asbestos and the shellfish midden of the indigenous people of the place mingle in the dusty dark.

I always find it hard to review short stories, and I guess that books of essays fall into the same category. Explaining them makes them sound flat and trite: they are better read on the page rather than in a review. I do confess to becoming a little bored of the fish, but I loved the sunlight that suffuses her memories of childhood and a treasured place.  I liked that when starting a story, you were not ever quite sure where you were going to end up. And I loved her eye, that was caught by the beauty of the ordinary, and the way that her writing captured it so sharply that you could see it too.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.



I have included this on the database of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.


‘Lost Letters from Vienna’ by Sue Course


2019, 250 p.

When I finished this book, it seemed to me that it spoke much about legacy.

First, there’s the legacy of family heirlooms, letters and stories that filter through from one generation to the next.  Sometimes they are dispersed amongst many members of the family, or more often, deposited with the family member who cares about them most (often much to their own children’s chagrin when faced with the problem of what to do with them). Some families are richer in such legacy than others, and that is certainly the case with Sue Course’s family. If you’ve seen the furniture from the Viennese apartment of Jakob and Melanie Langer and the Gallia furniture in at the National Gallery of Victoria, then you’ve seen the physical legacy of this large, wealthy Viennese family that, as part of the diaspora during the Nazi era, ended up dispersed across the globe.  Then there are letters, and these lie at the heart of this book, written between these separated families over the years and eventually relegated to the top of a cupboard in a modest Melbourne suburban home where they sat undisturbed for 31 years.

When her favourite aunt died in 2000 , the now-retired Sue Course assuaged her grief by cleaning and clearing.

So there I was, getting into the cupboards, pulling out old bags, books, hats and clothes, my husband Laurie’s briefcase, missing since 1962, and there was the cookbook I was looking for in 1965. Squashed in behind all this were hundreds of letters and war accounts, some handwrittten and some typewritten, and all written in German.  The cardboard box collapsed as I removed it from the cupboard, the letters dropping like shot birds falling from the sky.  I began leafing through the skin-thin airmail papers. My German was rusty; I could read it but not scan it. However, what I could determine was that the letter I was holding was written by my mother, Hertha Langer, in 1938, and that others were from her parents, Arthur and Sofie Kary, from that year forward. I was completely overwhelmed. (p.2)

On both her maternal and paternal side, Sue’s family were wealthy industrialists, owning multinational corporations. On her mother’s side there were the Bohm family, who owned one of the biggest hat manufacturing companies in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Kary family who were the biggest manufacturers of silk textiles in Europe. On her father’s side, the Gallia family were influential in the gas lighting business and keenly involved in the Secession art movement in Vienna. There were writers, musicians; her great-aunt is preserved in a Klimt portrait. Four generations of Sue’s family lived on the Ringstrasse, in a palatial building divided into large apartments for members of the family.  Her parents were secular Jews, and Sue herself was baptised in an Anglican Church in Vienna, just as described in Elon Amos’ The Pity of It All. But in March 1938, when the Nazis invaded Austria to unite it with Germany in the Anschluss, all this changed.

Sue, who was at that time four years old, and her family escaped early, in September 1938, bound for Australia. Others went to America; others again to England and France. Others stayed, resisting the inexorable stripping away of the privilege they had enjoyed. Theirs is not a story of cattle trucks and concentration camps (although one uncle did end up in Thereseienstadt). Through contacts and planning, the family was able to deposit money in branches of their enterprises in other countries, so that when they finally admitted defeat, and submitted to the wealth-stripping of the Nazi government, there was sufficient money placed elsewhere that they could start again in a much more straitened, safe but hostile environment.

The stories of different groupings in this tightly-woven family network are told in fairly short chapters, arranged thematically whilst moving forward chronologically.  Several members of the family might be dealt with in the same chapter which I found at first a little disconcerting, until I realized that I was listening to someone tell family stories, which often jump between generations and family branches.  The family tree at the start of the book was a welcome addition, and I found myself consulting it frequently. Of course, because she knew it best, she spends quite a bit of time on her Melbourne family, which was probably most distant from the rest of the extended family and most removed from European culture. It’s a perceptive, and faintly damning account of suburban life in the 1950s and 60s, in a society that was wary and hostile towards ‘foreigners’, from the perspective of a family that had known -and no doubt expected to continue to enjoy – a much more privileged and comfortable lifestyle and significance.  As Sue becomes a nurse, marries an English academic, has children and becomes a 1950s housewife, the book becomes a picture of suburban life and changing roles, especially amongst women. She is surprisingly candid in some places, more diplomatic in others. The shift to the 1970s and 80s is a change of direction in the book, and one that moves away from the letters and the family diaspora into the realm of memoir. That brings its own problem of how to finish a memoir- something which could perhaps have been avoided if she finished her book with the arrival of the NGV furniture in Melbourne.

But there’s a second aspect of legacy in this book, too. Sue Course does speak about her work with the Darebin Parklands, but probably only a resident of Alphington/Ivanhoe would know just how significant this work is.  For all of my childhood, the stench from the Alphington tip permeated the suburb, drifting in through train windows, and lying heavy over the Darebin Creek. Through Sue’s work, and that of other Darebin residents, that blighted place is unrecognizable today with trees, billabongs and grasses.


There’s a subtle irony that Sue’s own legacy will be bushland, while her extended family’s legacy has been beautifully worked woodwork. Both legacies have moved into the public realm, in different ways.

Sue is not an academic; she was a nurse. Her telling of the story of her family is told through relationships, with an increasingly suburban, Melbourne-based perspective as the book moves on. Cultural historian and  environmental lawyer Tim Bonyhady, who is Sue Course’s cousin, also wrote about their shared family heritage  in his book Good Living Street. I haven’t read his book (and I want to, once I’ve let this one settle for a while), but I should imagine that they are quite different books.  For a family whose sense of place in Vienna and its bourgeois society was ripped away from them, their granddaughter is very much interwoven into a less constrained, less affluent and less illustrious community in suburban Melbourne. Using the family letters, she paints a rich picture of a Vienna world that is lost, but she also paints a domestic picture of a family re-establishing itself in a newer world, very close to my home.

Sourced from: A friend

My rating: 7


I have included this as part of  the Australian Women Writers Challenge



My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #17: Lake Titicaca

Puno doesn’t look the most prepossessing town in Peru.  Like all other Peruvian cities, it has a Plaza de Armas, and taken from this drone footage, it has more high-rises than I would have imagined. I wonder how they would stand up in an earthquake- do they have earthquakes there? Oh yes, they do-  they had a magnitude 7 on 1 March 2019.

But the real appeal of Puno is that it is the gateway to Lake Titicaca. You can do a tour which includes a night on Taquile island in a homestay. I must say, viewing all these videos from the comfort of my desk, that there is a much stronger emphasis on the tourist economy here than other places that I’ve been to. I know that people’s livelihoods depend on the sales they make, but it seems to have such a distorting effect on the economy.

So how would I feel about a homestay? Here’s an interesting article about the experience.  I think I’d probably do it- I don’t envisage that I’d be coming back here.  Do they speak Spanish, I wonder? Or Quechua?

My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #16: Cusco-Puno

Would I really subject a 15 month old baby to a 10 hour rail journey? Probably not. But as I’m not really doing this, let’s enjoy the train trip from Cusco to Puno

or if you want a 3 minute video instead (although it is travelling in the reverse direction)


My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #15: Machu Picchu

The reality is that if we had gone to Peru in April 2020, we would have had to miss this whole Machu Picchu leg because we were advised that we shouldn’t take 15 month-old Nina to such a high altitude area.  But given that we didn’t go…… let’s go now.

You could hike for four days…or you could catch the train. I’d catch the train. There’s a few options, but I think I’d go on the Vistadome with the windows in the roof.

Why are all these people called ‘Cody’ and ‘Rory’? Here’s Cody, rudely interrupted by advertising exploring Machu Picchu. What I liked was how he showed the train trip up, waiting for the bus, then puffing and panting to be one of the first people on the peak (my eyes are rolling). Anyway, he got some good shots.

And a slightly more formal National Geographic video. I just can’t imagine what Hiram Bingham would have thought when he saw it for the first time.

My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #14: Q’enco and Maras

I’m still working up to Machu Picchu- leaving it to last.

Quite close to Cusco are the ruins at Q’enco.  It is one of the largest huacas (holy places) in the Cusco region, and like other huacas, it was built amongst naturally occurring rock structures. It is believed that sacrifices and mummification took place there.  ‘Q’enco’ or Q’inqu  is a Quechua word meaning ‘maze’, but it was the Spanish conquistadors who named it that: it is not known what the Inca actually called it. The name refers to the zigzag channels carved into rock where it is thought that the priests poured the sacred chicha, which they drank during the sacrifices.

Close to these ruins are eucalypt forests- yes, eucalypts! Apparently there are very few native trees left in Peru. Eucalypts were brought from Australia especially during the agrarian reform programs of the 1960s and 1970s. They were first promoted as a source for mine supports,  and then as a source for fuel and building materials. They have since discovered that eucalypts dry out the soil and are highly flammable (we could have told them that), and there are now reafforestation projects to replace the eucalypts with Queuña and Chachacomo trees, native to the area.

Well, this is all rather close to Cusco, so let’s venture a little further afield to the Maras Salt Mines, about 40 kms out of Cusco. There are over 5,000 salt ponds, some unused and some owned by families. There is a subterranean spring  which is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels that run down onto the ancient terraced ponds, none of which is more than 30 cm deep. As the sun evaporates the water, the salt precipitates on the walls and floor of the ponds.

The ponds are owned communally, and new families tend to get the outlying, disused ones at first. The size of the pond assigned depends on the size of the family. Last year tourists were banned from walking around the ponds because of people throwing contaminants into them, and now they are restricted to an observation deck.

My non-trip in the time of coronavirus #9: Arequipa

Arequipa is known as the “Ciudad Blanca” (White City) because many of its public buildings are made of a beautiful white volcanic stone. It is the second most-populated city in Peru. It is surrounded by snow-covered volcanoes and it looks stunning.  As usual, there is a Plaza de Armas, built on the Spanish template. This one was built in the 17th century and has much more architectural unity than some of the other Plaza de Armas. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

This video is in Spanish, but you’ll get the idea:  (actually, it’s nice clear Spanish)

The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa takes up the whole of one side of the square. It has been damaged several times by earthquakes, and after the most recent one in 2001 the  left tower was completely destroyed and the right tower was badly damaged.  The altar and the twelve pillars are made of Italian marble, the brass lamp in front of the altar is from Spain and the pulpit was carved in France. The organ was shipped out from Belgium, and is said to be the largest in South America, but it got damaged on the way out and doesn’t sound the best, apparently.

It looks spectacular at night


Source: Wikimedia.   Creator: Bruno Locatelli

Historically, the Spanish population retained fidelity to the Spanish crown, even when the independence movement was afoot elsewhere.  In 1805 the Spanish crown gave the city the title “faithful” by Royal Charter. It remained under Spanish control under the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824 (which was later than many other cities). There has long been rivalry between Ayacucho and Lima.

Apparently, there is even a distinctive dialect, where they elongate the last vowel of the final word in every sentence.  And, unusually for South America, they use the ‘vos’ form of ‘you’ (replacing ‘tu’ and ‘usted).  They seem to use ‘vosotros’ too. I’d be doomed: I never bother learning the vosotros form.  Life is too short.

You’ve got to love a city that has the Chili River running through it. Unfortunately, all the city’s waste water is dumped into it.


Flickr: Santiago Stucci

You can go white water rafting on the Rio Chili, about 20 minutes out of the city where I should imagine the water might be cleaner. It advertises itself as being for “all ages” but nah-  you young ones go ahead and I’ll mind the baby.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 April 2020

Heather Cox Richardson. Heather Cox Richardson is an American political historian who has been posting daily blogposts about American politics. Like the rest of us, she is shut in at home, so she has decided to do two weekly videos. The first is, I suspect, a quick run through of her American History 101 and a tie-in with her recent book How the South Won the Civil War. The other weekly video is a Q&A about recent political events in America. Given that I never studied American history, I’m interested in her Thursday (US time) American history series.  She just sits there and it all spiels out, so she’s obviously done this before. Now that I am actually on a phone plan that gives me plenty of data, I just stream it while I’m walking because there’s nothing to see other than a woman sitting in front of bookshelves.  But she’s very fluent, and clear and engaging. You can get the videos through her Facebook page. Excellent listening.

Rear Vision (ABC) Of course, I’m far more interested in Latin American history now that I’m learning Spanish. Rear Vision has a really good podcast from May 2018 that gives a summary of Latin American history in the twentieth and twenty-first century, especially in view of what seemed to be in 2018 a return to right wing government. (It hasn’t completely turned out that way, Jair Bolsonaro notwithstanding). Latin America makes a right turn is an excellent, if somewhat outdated, summary.

Somewhat more recent is the program A destructive mine and a civil war: Bougainville’s path to an independence vote.  Well, after the referendum they were supposed to go to the polls to elect their regional council in May this year- I doubt that will happen.  And the program Protests in Lebanon, also from November 2019 is about the protests against the sectarian carve up of politics in the Lebanese constitution.  It’s strange to listen to these programs now that the world has been turned upside down by coronavirus, but of course the issues won’t go away.