Rough Translations There’s much talk of trolling and cancelling online, and the episode Dream Boy and the Poison Fans looks at the story of Chinese celebrity Xiao Zhan, whose fans took trolling to a new level. Xiao Zhan was riding the celebrity wave, earning huge sums for product endorsements, until a story on a fan fiction website prompted his fans to turn on the fan fiction site. Supporters of the fan fiction site then attacked the products that he had endorsed. In the end, it was Xiao Zhan who suffered most. The ‘reporting’ culture of China’s past seems to have revived, now using social media.
99% Invisible How perverse! Ecologically fragile peat bogs are drained in order to plants trees to soak up carbon, thereby releasing the carbon from the bog! For the Love of Peat looks at peat bogs, how they are formed, and ecological programs that threaten or protect them.
Nothing on TV. I do enjoy Robyn Annear with her quirky little podcast program! Deadwood Dick and the Picture Show Panic looks at the moral panic about boys reading comics and watching the picture shows. She then goes on to explain the craze for the ‘movies’, all over Australia, where the audience consisted almost entirely of children under 14 who would save up their bottles and threepences to go to the movies – often! By post WWI, there was more restriction on the morals depicted in the movies. Fascinating!
Dan Snow’s History Hit The title How Deep History Swung the US election sounds pretty out-there, given that Deep History deals with the distant past of human history, integrating archaeology, anthropology, geology, primatology and genetics. What Lewis Dartnell is arguing is that the geological construction of America has encouraged particular industries (cotton growing; iron; coal) which in turn has political implications for party affiliations.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale back in 1997, before I started this blog. I can remember turning the last page and cursing that everything was left so indeterminate. Well, 36 years later, we finally have closure! Of course, in between there has been the enormously successful HULU series which started in 2017, and the red cloaks and white bonnets have been incorporated into protest iconography, especially in response to abortion rights and the Trump presidency.
The Testaments is told in alternating chapters, that are labelled either ‘The Ardua Hall Holograph’ or ‘Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A or 369B’. The Holograph is addressed to an unknown reader, by a writer who does not know if it will ever be read. She introduces herself to us in the second segment:
I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was. In my own present day I am a legend, alive but more than alive, dead but more than dead…. I’m a bugaboo used by the Marthas to frighten small children – If you don’t behave yourself, Aunt Lydia will come and get you!
And so we meet Aunt Lydia again, indelibly cast in my mind as the actress Anne Dowd. We learn more about the Aunts, who now need to recruit young missionaries to cross over into Canada to entice young women across to Gilead. As one of the four ‘founding’ Aunts, Aunt Lydia has power, although the founding Aunts have decided to publicly defer to the Commanders. In the pre-Gilead world, Aunt Lydia was originally a Judge- which is rather uncanny with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a member of ‘People of Praise’ group that used to have a religious rank ‘handmaid’. (This article explains that another Catholic charismatic group ‘People of Hope’ who also used the term ‘handmaid’ may have influenced Atwood’s original book). Through Aunt Lydia’s book, conveyed through Holograph, we learn what her experience was as Gilead became a Theocracy, how and why she became an Aunt, and how Gilead is sustained through the Aunts’ work.
It takes a little while to work out the Witness Testimonies. It becomes clear that there are two witnesses, although their narrative voices are very (and too) similar. I won’t say how they fit into the story, but I became increasingly apprehensive about why they were designated ‘Witness Testimonies’. The ending of the book very much echoed the epilogue of the original Handmaid’s Tale.
The visual imagery and architecture of the HULU Handmaid’s Tale streamed series is so striking that this book seemed particularly devoid of description. I can’t remember whether that was the case for the original Handmaid’s Tale book or not. Atwood has worked as consulting producer on the series, and perhaps she – like us – has internalized the ‘look’ of Gilead so much that there is no need to spell it out.
I bought the hardcover version, which is really beautiful. It has eschewed the red and white of the handmaid’s uniform for dark blue, bright green and white. The endpapers (is that the right word? the inside of the cover) are a clever visual trick that switches between handmaid and girl with a ponytail. It made me remember how much I enjoy reading a real, hard-cover, printed book.
I finished the original The Handmaid’s Tale thinking “NOW what happens??” Margaret Atwood doesn’t leave her readers so unsatisfied this time – you know exactly what happened. And she has left plenty of space for Series 4, Series 5…as many Series as they want.
This book was awarded the 2019 Booker Prize, even before it was released here in Australia. I don’t know whether it really deserved it in its own right as a literary work, as distinct from a cultural phenomenon. It’s well constructed and satisfying but the writing is rather pedestrian, although that may well reflect the paucity of intellectual life in Gilead and post-Second-Civil-War Canada. I can’t help thinking that it received the Booker through gratitude that there finally was a sequel, and for the perspicacity that created a Gilead that we have more cause to fear now than in 1985.
My rating: 8.5 /10
Sourced from: purchased as a pre-lockdown indulgence.
It’s strange when you read a history that is analysing events that you lived through yourself. The events are familiar, of course, but there’s also an element of surprise at things you didn’t realize at the time, and at the matters that the historian has placed emphasis on, when you weigh them against your own perspectives and memories. It’s also rather disconcerting to realize that your own lifespan is now considered ‘history’.
Of course, histories of a given decade or century do not neatly conform to calendars. Historians speak of the ‘long’ eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in this case, Michelle Arrow sets the start date for the ‘sixties’ with the retirement of Robert Menzies in 1966 (I don’t know if I agree with her here), and ends ‘the seventies’ with the election of the Hawke ALP government in 1983. As she points out, there has been relatively little scholarly interest paid to the Seventies in Australia, especially in comparison with the United States and the United Kingdom. The decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s in Australia have all received book-length treatment, but the only stand-alone study of Australia in the 1970s was Frank Crowley’s Tough Times: Australia in the Seventies. The 1970s, she argues, have either been defined solely in political terms, most particularly involving The Dismissal, or as a gloomy economic narrative leading up to the 1980s and 1990s as a period of economic deregulatory reform (think Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty or George Megalogenis’ work).
Her book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of the decade, but it does emphasize social change rather than political events and economic policies:
Somehow the social movements and social change of the decade sit just outside the frame through which we see the 1970s…This book places them front and centre and positions them as key drivers of change…this book is primarily concerned with the ways new understandings of gender and sexuality transformed Australia, and as a result it focuses on the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement.
And so, having made the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement her main frames of analysis, this book traces these two themes through the 1970s, discussing social and political events of those years along the way. As has been the case with many of the decisions and programs of the Whitlam government (e.g. dismantling the White Australia policy, withdrawing from Vietnam), quite a few had already been set in train in the last years of the 1960s, although not prosecuted with the fervor of the Labor years. This was also true of the women’s movement and the gay/lesbian movement. There had been ‘women’s groups’ of different political hues throughout the twentieth century, pushing for ‘liberalism’ rather than ‘liberation’. The Homosexual Law Reform Association of the Act was formed in 1969, priding itself on the knowledge that ‘no member of our committee is a practicing homosexual’ (p. 30)
What changed in the 1970s was that the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was taken up by both the women’s movement and gay/lesbian rights groups. Consciousness-raising groups brought up individual stories which were then woven into a political analysis of systemic oppression. It’s hard for us to realize now, in our time when everyone has their ‘story’ and their ‘journey’, that 1960s Australia, along with other Western cultures, was content for uncomfortable stories to be kept private, out of the public eye, and certainly not the basis for political (as distinct from individual) action.
However, ‘The personal is political’ did not translate into electoral success for women in the 1972 election that swept Gough Whitlam to power after 23 years of Liberal-Country party government. (An amazing thought: people voted in that election who had never seen any other government than a Liberal-Country party one). There were no women in the House of Representatives, and the only two women in the Senate were from the Liberal Party. As a result, Gough Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid to be his advisor on women’s affairs, from a short list that included Anne Summers, Eva Cox and historian Lyndall Ryan. It was a tough gig. She had no staff but she became the public face of the women’s movement (p.93). Many in the women’s movement objected to her appointment by a man. She embarked on a listening tour and inviting women to write to her, hearing women’s stories- there are those stories again- in order to develop policy ideas to turn the personal into policy. Equal pay for equal work, the introduction of the single mothers benefit, and improving the quality and availability of child care emerged as the most important needs. There was an uneasy relationship between the Whitlam government and the women’s movement, and between Elizabeth Reid and the women’s movement as well.
In 1972 with Helen Reddy’s ‘I am Woman’ ringing in their ears, the UN General Assembly declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year. In the leadup, Spectrum research had conducted a research report into the status of women that both provided a snapshot into women’s lives but also revealed a widespread lack of interest in feminist issues and the women’s movement more broadly. A grants program set up as part of IWY further exacerbated this schism (although many of the projects and women creators who were supported through these grants have stood the test of time). The headline event was the week-long Women and Politics conference in Canberra, which was opened by Gough Whitlam on the evening of the 31 August. Arrow notes that in many ways it was an exemplary feminist project, with subsidized fares for low-income participants and free child care. But it also highlighted the fractures in the women’s movement between white feminists and migrant women, working class women and particularly Aboriginal Women, led by Marcia Langton, many of whom had different priorities to the largely middle-class white feminists. But as the political temperature rose in 1975, Reid’s power was reduced; there was a suggestion that she be moved into the bureaucracy, and she tendered her resignation.
‘The Personal is Political’ was writ large in the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, headed by Justice Elizabeth Evatt, journalist Anne Deveson and Brisbane Anglican archbishop Felix Arnott, which was established by the Whitlam government in late 1974. By the time it reported on 28 February 1978, the Fraser government wanted no part of it. It was not the first government inquiry into human relationships – the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales of 1903-04 was a world-first – but unlike that earlier commission which mainly heard from men, the 1974 commission actively sought the views of women. The files of this Commission form the heart of Arrow’s book, where she describes some of the evidence collected in the submissions, both in relation to women’s issues and homosexuality, and traces through the muted response once the government had changed.
Australia had become a “nation of bank tellers” in the second half of the 1970s, as the role of women’s adviser became circumscribed, the Women’s branch had its resources cut, and funding for refuges dried up. The National Women’s Advisory Council was established in 1978 ‘to assist in policy making’. Chaired by the vice-president of the Victorian liberal party, Beryl Beaurepaire, it included an Aboriginal woman, a migrant woman, a representative of the ACTU, the President of the Family Planning Association, law lecturer (and later Governor General) Quentin Bryce and a representative of the CWA. Only Wendy McCarthy, the Family Planning president, was part of the women’s movement. Arrow argues that it replicated much of the work of the Commission on Human Relations, and although it developed a comprehensive policy agenda, none of the initiatives came to fruition until the Hawke Labor government. There was backlash over abortion reform (think Margaret Tighe and the Right to Life); religious conservatives became more organized (think Festival of Light) and groups like the Women’s Action Alliance and Women Who Want to be Women formed a visible anti-feminist front. Sex education became bitterly contested, especially in its approach to homosexuality. The first Mardi Gras parade, held in June 1978 opened up a new more confrontational phase in gay and lesbian politics. (p. 220)
Reflecting the ‘long’ Seventies that Arrow deals with, the book closes with the Women Against Rape collective protests at Anzac Day commemorations in the early 1980s – a reassertion of the ‘personal is political’ trope into national affairs. In her Afterword Arrow picks up on the Hawke Labor government, and the emphasis on the economy that has largely obscured the importance of using individual story-telling as the basis for political action. But there is no great triumphant ending here. Perhaps the most important legacy is the continuation of the recognition that the personal is political, as seen in the Human Rights Commission Bringing Them Home report in 1997 and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017. But, as Arrow points out, too often “personal stories are told without political activism to animate them…the political is all to often reduced to the personal.” And there is still much unfinished business of the 1970s.
This book won the Ernest Scott Prize for 2020, awarded annually “to the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” It is carefully footnoted and researched, but it maintains a light tone which is personal at times. It is well-structured in a narrative sense with chapters divided into discrete sections, and ‘hooks’ at the start and end of each section to drive the argument forward.
But, having lived through the seventies myself, I do wonder about the difference between the historian’s view and the perspective of those who lived at the time. In Arrow’s book, a documentary archive (i.e. the correspondence of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships) takes on an importance for a historian that I’m not really sure it had for the general public at the time. Was I even aware of it? I certainly didn’t contribute to the commission- in fact, did I know anyone who did? Maybe my obliviousness to this Royal Commission reflects nothing more than my own sheltered, middle-class, conservative, politics-free life at the time.
But perhaps even the visibility of, and participation in, inquiries then and now signals a change. I think of inquiries held today into what would previously been seen as ‘personal’ matters, most especially the Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse inquiry, and I think that there is a high level of public buy-in (e.g. the animus against George Pell; the ribbons on church railings) that I don’t recall existing in the 1970s. But perhaps the importance of an inquiry doesn’t rest in its creation or impact at the time, but the use that is made of it in the years and even decades following.
I’ve had enough of America. All my listening this week comes from anywhere other than the Disunited States of America.
The History Listen (ABC). This is fantastic! The Scholar’s Hut is about Thomas Shadrach James, a Mauritian born school teacher who worked with indigenous students at Maloga Mission (about 15 ks from Moama) in 1883-8, and after the mission closed, he reopened his school at Cummeragunja. The program featured a restaged roll-call of students, and at first I thought that it was just for effect, because it’s a virtual who’s-who of 20th century southeastern Australian aboriginal activists : Bill Onus, Doug Nicholls, Jack Patten, William Cooper, Margaret Tucker. But it’s not just for effect: Thomas Shadrach James taught them all, and encouraged them to use ‘leading and writing’ (rather than ‘reading and writing’) to agitate for change.
My Marvellous Melbourne Episode 13: St Kilda Main Drain may not sound very exciting, but for a Melburnian who likes sticky-beaking, it’s just the thing – especially as the lockdown has prompted us to walk our neighbourhood more than we ever have before. Andy May starts off with a reflection on Darebin Creek, then Sophie Couchman talks about the St Kilda Main Drain. Living on the other side of town, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the streets that she mentioned, but she has a blog with maps and pictures.
Rear Vision (ABC) In July 2020 during the COVID lockdown here in Melbourne, suddenly the Housing Commission residents of high-rise towers in Flemington and North Melbourne found themselves quarantined, with chaotic service delivery and a heavy police presence. Cruise ships in the sky- the story of public housing and high-rise towers looks at the move across the world during the 20th century to build multi-storey housing, at first of relatively good quality, and the political decisions that resulted in its later success or failure.
And here’s one of my favourite historians, Graeme Davison, among others, talking about petrol stations in Fill ‘er up- the history of the Australian servo. After talking about the history of servos, the program talks about the future of petrol stations. If and when electric vehicles are more common,petrol stations will be leisure stops while you rapid-charge your car – or at least, that’s what they’re planning to do. And did you know that the best selling product at petrol stations with convenience stores attached (i.e. nearly all of them) is not petrol but 500 ml energy drinks?
The Documentary (BBC) I often listen to the BBC in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep and wish days later that I could remember what program it was that interested me. I did find these ones again- The Burning Scar is about the dodgy deals that Indonesian palm oil companies are making with traditional owners in Papua. Don’t trust that Forest Stewardship Council accreditation you see on packets of printer paper: they have accredited Korindo, one of the worst offenders. Here’s a video by Greenpeace about recent burning.
India’s Missing Children is about the selling and kidnapping of children in India to work in factories, as domestic labour and in brothels. It’s estimated that a child goes missing every eight minutes, and the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse.
In 1608, who would have thought that India – with a population of 150 million and the source of one quarter of the world’s manufacturing – would be devastated by a small joint-stock company from England, a country that had just 5% of India’s population and contributed only 3% of the world’s manufacturing? But over the next 250 years, that is just what happened, as the East India Company steadily drained India’s wealth in goods and precious stones and cash, pouring it into the Company’s coffers for its shareholders. This is the story that William Dalrymple tells in his The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.
When the East India Company was established in 1599 in Tudor England, there was no indication that it was to become the behemoth that it did. Other joint-stock companies had been founded, and it was competing with similar companies from other European nations, all jostling to establish trade routes with the East Indies. Its ports in India were founded almost as a consolation prize when the better-financed Dutch dominated the Moluccas. However, through ingratiating themselves with the enormously wealthy Mughals in India, only to later exploit their rivalries, the East India Company had found a source of wealth even more lucrative than the East Indies. The wealth flowed one way only: straight to London. The precious stones, the golden thrones, the eye-watering amounts of money: this is the pillage that Shashi Tharoor describes in his Inglorious Empire (my review here).
But England was not the only nation involved in India, and the amount of European activity and interference in what England saw as its own market surprised me. Technological changes in warfare technology added to the European-based rivalry between Britain and France throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This rivalry played out in the Carnatic Wars between the French and British armies stationed in India, using Indian troops, paid for with Indian money and lives. European technology also weighted the scales when the British extended their ‘assistance’ (at a price, of course) to different rulers vying for supremacy in India. I was surprised, too, by the involvement of European soldiers who adopted Indian names and headed various armies of Indian soldiers, on both the French and English sides.
Dalrymple tells his history through individuals, most particularly the East India Company merchants, the governors from England, and the Mughals, Nawabs, Rohillas, Sultans and Marathas whose assets were steadily stripped by the EIC. In telling his story, Dalrymple has his goodies and baddies. Robert Clive (yes, he of the Curry Powder) was a baddie, who had three stints in India, amassing huge personal wealth, facing (and staring down) a Parliamentary enquiry, and finally committing suicide. Warren Hastings, the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal) in Dalrymple’s eyes was a qualified goodie – and now I understand the nuances of Barry Jones’ response to the question ‘Who was the the first Governor General of India?’ Hastings, who was not beyond enriching himself either, was undermined by Sir Philip Francis -certainly a baddie in Dalrymple’s eyes (and incidently thought to be the author of the ‘Junius’ letters, much discussed in 19th British legal history). Francis was appointed to the supreme council of Bengal during Hastings’ Governor-Generalship. On his return to England, Francis began agitating for the impeachment of Warren Hastings which, after seven years, led to Hastings’ acquittal. Then there are the historic figures who are better known in other arenas. There’s Wellington (just plain old Arthur Wellesley at this stage) who led a number of battles, under the governor-generalship of his brother Richard. There’s General Cornwallis, who arrived in Calcutta in 1786 to replace Warren Hastings, after his surrender of the 13 Colonies to George Washington. He was determined to ensure that a settled colonial class would never emerge to challenge British rule in India as it had in America, and so he introduced a “whole raft of unembarrassedly racist legislation” (p.327) ensuring that the children of British men with Indian women would never be employed by the Company.
Dalrymple’s emphasis on individuals extends to the Indian protagonists in the story too. I’m ashamed to admit that as a European reader, I struggle to distinguish Indian and Muslim names. Dalrymple has gone to some lengths to support the reader in this. The narrative is prefaced by a lengthy list of Dramatis Personae, helpfully arranged more or less chronologically into categories: the British, the French, the Mughals, the Nawabs, the Rohillas, the Sultans of Mysore, the Marathas. Maps in the preface show the main cities, with the areas of influence by various chieftains, peshwahs and emperors identified. A paragraph after each name summarizes the main points of their story, and gives each one a distinct personality. The beautiful illustrations, inserted in three places in the book, also have an identifying paragraph. Most clearly defined of all is the Mughal Prince, Shah Alam, handsome, intelligent, and culture, who was tortured and blinded by the Rohillas. In fact, the violence in this book – who knows how accurate it was, depending on the chronicler – is really chilling.
The subtitle of Dalrymple’s book is “The Relentless Rise of the East India Company”. While it was certainly relentless, the rise was not without its setbacks. East India Company troops were defeated by the French-led troops on several occasions, and the company needed to be bailed out of bankruptcy in 1772 in exchange for greater British government oversight. This was always likely to be light-touch regulation, and many Parliamentarians had East India Company shares. And still the Company kept churning on, stripping Indian assets in order to distribute them for its British shareholders.
It’s interesting that Dalrymple chooses to end his book with the Battle of Delhi, with the defeat of the Marathas, in 1803. This left the Company the dominant military force and “the sinews of British supremacy” now established (p.382). He finishes at the high point of East India Company power, rather than with its removal from power after the Indian Mutiny as it is known in Britain, or the First War of Independence as it is known in India, and the final expiry of its charter in 1874.
Dalrymple’s purpose is not a ‘Rise and Fall’ story. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about corporations and power, as he makes clear in his epilogue. When corporations become too big to fail, as the East India Company was; or when they have Parliaments in their thrall through lobbyists and parliamentary shareholders; or when they can just buy military might and other people’s bodies – then much is at stake. As he says in his closing sentence: “Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current.” (p.397)
Heather Cox Richardson. Her podcast on Thursday 29 October was the last one before election day. If you haven’t listened to her before, this would be a good catchup one, because she went over things that she has said many times previously (hence, it was a little repetitious for rusted-on listeners like myself). Her podcast on Thursday 5th November was before the results had been announced, and she was soothing about waiting for the process to play itself out.
History Workshop. The Violence of Empire was originally broadcast in May 2019 and it features Kim Wagner – author of Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre. His book argues that colonial violence didn’t start after the war, and he draws a link between the Indian Rebellion/Mutiny/First War of Independence (it has various names) of 1857 and the Amritsar Massacre or Jallianwala Bagh Massacre where at least 379 (and some say 1000) were fired upon in a confined area by members of the British Indian Army. He rejects the politicized anti-British feeling of Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire (my review here) and likewise pro-Empire British historians (like Niall Ferguson, I guess), arguing for a more nuanced approach. His book seems to take a thick description, microhistory approach to the Massacre. Both the author and the interviewer assume that the listener knows about Amritsar (I had to look it up) and a bit more backgrounding wouldn’t have gone astray.
Sydney Writers Festival. Did you know that the Sydney Writers Festival has a site with podcasts by writers who would have participated in the Sydney Writers Festival in a COVID free world? I listened to Cassandra Pybus being interviewed by Jakelin Troy about her book Truganini which I reviewed here. She spoke about lots of things that I don’t remember from the book- I wonder if she was talking from her familiarity with the sources, or whether I just forgot?
The Last Archive. This podcast series is presented by American historian Jill Lepore whose book These Truths: A History of the United States I must read one of these days. In it, she poses the question “Who Killed Truth?”. In episode 1 The Clue of the Blue Bottle, she looks at a murder case from 1919 in Barre, Vermont where a young woman was strangled. Instead of crimes being seen as acts of god, there were now clues, and facts and photographs. It’s a case that was reported in great detail as far as the body was concerned, but the press reports of the trial itself glided over facts that were deemed “unfit for publication”.
Heather Cox Richardson The History and Politics Chat on Tuesday 27th November talks about the opinion polls. She points out that polls are useful for highlighting the issues that people are concerned about, but not for how people vote. She cautions that only Associated Press are in a position to ‘call’ a poll: the other polls are going unofficially on projections from exit polls. She points out that Americans can recall their votes- how weird! I am so grateful to live in a country with compulsory voting.
In Our Time BBC. A few episodes from their ‘Religion’ series. The Thirty Years War pitched Catholics against Protestants, Lutherans against Calvinists and Catholics against Catholics, although it wasn’t a war that the soldiers necessarily believed in from an ideological and political point of view, as 20th century wars are. Instead, it was pretty much soldiers for hire as various kingdoms fought themselves to a point where it was possible to sue for peace.
Papal Infallibility traces through the history of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility from its origins as a means of cementing the authority of the Bishop of Rome, through the Franciscans wanting to ensure that arrangements granted under one pope couldn’t be withdrawn by the next, through the Reformation- and most importantly the Counter Reformation- then the Enlightenment and more recent papal history. If you were Pope, you’d want to keep a handle on what the ‘infallible’ Popes before you had said, because if he could be wrong, so could you.
West Midlands HistoryBeatrice Cadbury: The Heiress Who Gave Away Her Fortune is really good. It’s based on the book by Fiona Joseph. Born into the wealthy Quaker Cadbury family, Beatrice became increasingly uncomfortable about her unearned wealth, and after becoming a Christian Socialist, she tried to give it away. A peace activist, philanthropist and a woman who lived her faith and her politics.
Journalism has long been described as the first draft of history and that’s certainly the case with Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. The arrangements for the Quarterly Essays are usually locked in a year ahead of time, and Katharine Murphy thought at first that she would be writing a profile of Australia’s unexpected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. But in this Year of Madness, events overtook her and instead of writing an essay based solely on his personality, she interweaves it with a chronology of the unfolding of the COVID pandemic and the politics it has engendered.
No matter where she stopped this essay, things would have continued to change. As it is, her essay starts with her interview with Scott Morrison during “some of the last hours in which Morrison hoped the second wave in Victoria could be avoided”. Events have moved on since then, and so too the civility that marked the for-public-consumption ‘unity’ of Morrison’s National Cabinet of Prime Minister and Premiers, which has sidelined Parliament, the Opposition and the usual cabinet processes. The gloves are off now. Since she wrote this essay, Victoria’s second wave has quite rightly come in for criticism, but Morrison is now cheerleader for opening borders and patting the head of Liberal-run NSW, suggesting that deep down Morrison really is Prime Minister for New South Wales. She doesn’t mention the COVID Commission Advisory Board, headed by none other than resources businessman Nev Power, and its championing of a gas-led recovery.
If her aim was to paint a portrait of Scott Morrison, even she would admit that she has not been particularly successful. The emphasis on the pandemic has pushed any further consideration of Morrison’s character offstage. I have learned nothing about his education, his life before politics, or his position in the party. His route to the Prime Ministership is left unexamined. Apart from his Pentecostal faith, which is off-limits for reporters, the Morrison she portrays is a pragmatic and transactional shape shifter. He learned from his much-criticized inertia with the bushfires, where he couldn’t actually do anything. He’s certainly into doing now, but curiously absent when things go wrong.
So much has changed for us in the last nine months that it’s hard to keep track of the trajectory, and her tracing through of the early response to news of Wuhan is valuable as history. But her essay ends, as the title suggests, in an uncertain way. Pragmatism, in the absence of anything else, is amorphous.
Murphy doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Morrison is more ideological than she suggests, and I think that we will see it in the budget that awaits us. But for that, and for any real sense of how this pandemic has changed us, we will just have to wait.
It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. The rules of the meme are here. In October the starting book is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw which I confess to not having read. But I gather that it’s about a governess – and I have read about governesses, so off I go!
The first governess I thought of was Caroline Newcomb, who shifted across from Hobart to Port Phillip in 1836 to act as governess for the (in)famous John Batman’s family in the very early days of Melbourne’s settlement. She ended up in Geelong, where she met Annie Drysdale, and together the two women formed a partnership to run sheep on the the 10,000 acre Boronggoop property on the Barwon River as women squatters – certainly a novelty at that time. Their lives are described in Miss D. and Miss N. where Bev Roberts edits and annotates Anne Drysdale’s diaries.
Sometimes I’m a bit of a purist with my historical fiction, but I love it when a novelist does the research then subverts it completely. This is the case with Peter Mews’ Bright Planet, which takes its name from a real ship that often appeared in the Port Phillip Shipping News columns. It’s set in a Melbourne known as Bareheep in the early 1840s, complete with a mixture of historic and fictional characters, and like Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass , it’s a real hoot.
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries uses astrological principles as an organizing structure for her sprawling (and too long, in my opinion) book about the New Zealand gold rush in Hokitika. It’s a bit like a great big Victorian door-stopper of a book with myriad characters. I thought that it was technically clever, but just too long-winded.
Think New Zealand, and think Janet Frame. Owls Do Cry was her first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography, and it is often considered to be New Zealand’s first modernist novel. It’s a startlingly original book, dealing with mental illness and it still packs a punch after more than 60 years.
Speaking of owls, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a quiet, meditative book about a young priest who, unknown to him, has only a few years left to live. He is sent to minister to a small Indian village, where Christianity, commercialism and the outside world are encroaching on the traditional myths and practices that the villagers share with him. It’s a beautifully written book, but a bit ponderous.
Not at all ponderous is Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing. It is a series of tales set around an Aboriginal mission in far northern Australia with the Mission mob, the Catholic clergy, trying to convert the Bush mob who lived just outside the Mission. The Bush mob move back and forth between the arbitrary strictures and efforts of the clergy and their own more grounded life outside. They are clear-eyed about the hypocrisy and smallness of these white priests and nuns, but they are also painfully aware of the degree of control that the mission has over their lives. It is imbued with a quick, cutting, deft wit that overlays anger and sorrow.
And so that brings me to the end of my chain. It seems that with the exception of one book, I’ve stayed mainly in the Southern Hemisphere this time!
Heather Cox Richardson . In her History and Politics Chat of 15 September, she picks up on the claim that mass hysterectomies were being performed on women in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement_ hospitals without informed consent. She is not absolutely convinced, given that it is just part of a much longer complaint about the COVID response in ICE facilities, and it did not come through established whistleblower channels. Nonetheless, she does go on to talk about the eugenics movement in America, and the use of forced sterilization among indigenous and disabled settings. After answering some other questions, she also talks about why she is so concerned about ICE agents and other forces controlled by the Dept. of Homeland Security
Then on 24 September, with RBG’s death, the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, and Trump’s ambivalence about accepting the result of the election, she tries to soothe things down a bit. She warns not to accept whatever result is announced on Election Night, because it will not be the final result. She also advises that we think about how we, individually, will act on principle and non-violently after the election. She then talks about the Supreme Court and the threats to American democracy.
And in the Thursday History of the Republican Party on 27th August Part 13, she picks up again on Ronald Reagan, who racked up debt, prompted the Great Divergence in wealth between the rich and poor, and drew on the cowboy, individualistic motif as imagery, especially with the Iran/Contra affair- whoever thought THAT was a good idea? (She explains it well). George H. W. Bush, who was really more of a traditional New Deal type of Republican was forced to court the Movement Conservatives to be elected, even promising ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’ (a cowboy trope again).
The Real Story (BBC) What everyone wants to know: When Will We Get a COVID-19 Vaccine? An epidemiologist, the chief executive of the Wellcome Trust and the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, the Senior Vice President responsible for Research & Development at Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, California, and a familiar voice, Chris Smith, Consultant virologist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge and presenter of ‘The Naked Scientists’ podcast
The History Hour (BBC)Prohibition in India. How Indian women in the 1990s campaigned to stop the sale of alcohol in the state of Andhra Pradesh to protect women from domestic violence and safeguard family finances. The history of America’s healthcare system, how the UN was eventually persuaded to apologise for the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti and the horror of being caught up in one of the most notorious hi-jackings of the 1970s, plus the birth of Reddit, one the world’s most successful websites.
Start the Week (BBC)‘The Radical Agenda’ has Rachel Holmes, the author of a recent biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, Owen Jones who has recently published a book about the Corbyn election and why it went so wrong, and Conservative columnist Danny Finkelstein (although he says that he argues for ‘moderation’, not ‘conservatism).
America if you’re listening (ABC) One of the things we have to grudgingly admit is that Trump hasn’t launched America into a war yet, even though North Korea and Iran have both looked pretty dicey. How close did Trump get to nuclear war looks at the influence of John Bolton whose recent book might have provided comfort for anti-Trumpers, but Bolton himself always was a war-mongering official.
Science Friction (ABC) has a three part series Click-Sick about medical misinformation on the internet. Part 1 Why Sharing isn’t always Caring looks at the family friction that can arise when some members of the family trawl dodgy medical pages. A bit ho-hum.
In Our Time (BBC) Oh good, new episodes! I don’t really know much classical history at all, so I was interested in this podcast about Pericles. He was seen as a bit of a class traitor at the time, as he came from one of the best families, but really promoted democracy. He was elected fifteen times, gave a famous speech at our version of Anzac Day, and ended up dying of the plague, which broke out under his watch.