Category Archives: What I've been listening to

Podcast: Linda Colley on Magna Carta

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The Magna Carta has had a Big Year Out in 2015, the 800th anniversary of its signing.  A search on ABC Radio National’s webpage will bring up lots of podcasts and programs, and arguably there’s quite enough podcasts about Magna Carta already.

But I was rather taken by this one delivered by historian Linda Colley in 2014 from Backdoor Broadcasting.

Professor Linda Colley CBE (Shelby M. C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, Princeton University) – Magna Carta in British History: Memory, Inventions and Forgetting

Abstract: 2015 will witness celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Yet how this iconic text has been understood, used and commemorated has changed markedly over the centuries, not just in England, but throughout the British Isles and in the one-time British Empire. This lecture explores some of these shifts over time, and discusses how – and how far – the cult that evolved around this text can be related to the UK’s lack of a written constitution.

She explores the nature of the Magna Carta as a written product and physical artefact and juxtaposes it with the American constitution.  It’s delivered very (very) slowly and deliberately, and takes it as a historical and political phenomenon rather than a strictly legal one.  Linda Colley (author of Britons and the excellent The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh which I reviewed here)  is a historian of empire, and so she particularly deals with the influence of Magna Carta on nineteenth century colonies.

ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum: From Invasion to Federation

Last Monday 20 October I attended a panel forum presented by the ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, the first of four that will be conducted over the next year. This first one dealt with the era from Invasion to Federation; the next one planned for March 2015 will look at Federation to 1920; another in August will cover  1920s-60 and in October from the 1960s into the future.  Judging from the first session, the series has certainly got off to a good start.

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Given the time span delineated in this first forum, I expected Henry Reynolds to speak on the frontier wars between settlers and indigenous people, but he didn’t.  Instead, he spoke on the work he is currently undertaking on the Boer War (1899-1902), which coincided with Federation.  His presentation focussed on the Federation celebrations held in Sydney during the first weeks of  January 1901.

Australia had a great deal to celebrate. Along with New Zealand, it had the highest per capita income and better distributed housing and education than anywhere else in the world. It had strong institutions, a burgeoning labour movement that was represented at the political level, and a constitution adopted by referendum twice. It was one of the most advanced democracies in the world.  And yet, it was as if they (we?) didn’t know how to celebrate political achievements.

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Instead, the celebration was trumped by the military.  The Australian colonial troopers were engaged in the Boer War, the newspapers were full of military news, and when the returned soldiers marched in the Federation parades, it became a celebration of military might rather than political achievement.  The mother country had sent out a large contingent of  grandly decked-out imperial troops in what Reynolds suggests was a deliberate statement.  There was an emphasis on the glamour of war, empire and aristocracy, and the largest cheers were for Lord Hopetoun, the Governor-General.  Even then, there was the anxious pride that we be seen to be ‘punching above our weight’- an ongoing trope of insecurity that we’ve heard voiced again recently.  The newly federated Australia gambled on the permanent continuation of the empire, but it was an empire in decline.  We were a nation defined by race and culture rather than continent.  The sad reality is that India was always more important than Australia.

Reynolds was followed by Anna Clark from UTS who has been working for several years on the process of history-making, particularly in schools. Her interest is “historical inheritance”: not just what we produce, but what we consume.  History is to the nation, she says, as memory is to the individual.  The histories we create are inherently selective, speaking to the concerns of the current generation.

She spoke of her own family history, which she had understood to be that of an honorable pioneering family.  It was only when she realized that a massacre of an aboriginal woman and children on the O’Connell plains occured on her family’s property, that she came to question this family ‘truth’. Five men were charged for the massacre, and all were acquitted. This was her family.

Forgetting and the deliberate withholding of history is never benign, even though it may driven by motives of ‘protecting’ the family.  Especially in light of the recent recommendations about curriculum that call for “imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers”, there is a danger that we will forget that histories are always constructed, subjective and incomplete.

Then, Tony Moore from Monash spoke about his recent publication ‘Death or Liberty’ (review to follow when I finish reading it!), which will form the basis of an ABC documentary next year.

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The European historian George Rude estimated that there were 3000 political prisoners sent out to the Australian colonies, and Moore’s work examines these discontents of Empire who are often revered in their source countries but largely unknown here in Australia.  He emphasized the transnational radical scene of which they were a part, with an emphasis on the Scottish martyrs, which is appropriate given that the forum was being held in the Melbourne Unitarian Church (Thomas Fyshe Palmer, one of the martyrs, was a Unitarian minister).  Some of these political prisoners returned home, published and even became public or political figures in their home countries which had earlier sent them to the 19 century equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.  Some chose to stay in Australia.  The post-federation national focus has blinded us to the internationalism of these political figures.

Finally Clare Land spoke about solidarity between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in the indigenous struggle in pre-Federation Victoria.  She focussed on two people: Ann Bon, a critic and then member of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, and John Green, the manager at Coranderrk mission at Healesville.  She questioned what it meant (and means today) to be an ally of the Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia.  Always it is about land, but also constitutional reform (the referendum then, the Recognize campaign today).

The question-and-answer session that closed the evening was interesting. It is a sobering thought that Australia will be spending $325 million on the commemoration of the centenary of Gallipoli.  That’s two hundred times what the UK is spending and twenty times the expenditure of New Zealand on the same event.   Henry Reynolds left us with the observation that perhaps the ease of returning Australian troops to Iraq today has been made easier by this well-funded, twenty-year campaign to glorify war. (Again, I urge you to read his recent article ‘Militarism Marches On’ available here).  This ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, and the ones to follow, is just one step in countering this expensive, swaggering campaign.

The Seymour Biography Lecture: Ray Monk

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“How Can I be a Logician before I’m a Human Being?” The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals, Seymour Biography Lecture, 22 September 2014

“I don’t even know who this guy is….” I thought while RSVPing for the Seymour Biography lecture in Melbourne, held last night.  When I looked the books he’s written, I understand why.  While I’ve read many historical and literary biographies, I must confess to not being overly attracted to biographies of philosophers and scientists.  However, in my own work on Judge Willis, I share the problem of working on a man who has a body of work in the intellectual realm (in my own case, an accumulation of addresses to a jury and written judgements) which, while abstract and de-personalized (in a way that, perhaps, a fiction oeuvre for a writer is not), is also integral to his own identity.

Ray Monk is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, coming from a background in the philosophy of mathematics. Although his four works are based on philosophers and, more recently, a scientist, he does not believe that biography necessarily contributes to an understanding of all philosophers and moreover, that you can’t evaluate the philosophy in terms of the life of its proponent.   However, he was attracted to write about Wittgenstein after reading two very different appraisals of Wittgenstein’s work and concluding that, if these writers had understood Wittgenstein as a man, they would not have developed particular misunderstands in their analysis.

In a very academic-y way, he investigated the methodology of biography writing before embarking on his biography of Wittgenstein.   In effect, he followed Biography 101, commencing with classical biographies,  Samuel Johnson and Boswell, Virginia Woolf, and ending up with Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde and Andrew Hodge’s Turing: The Enigma as exemplars for his own work.

In his presentation, he focussed on Johnson’s own reflections on biography that he expressed through two articles ‘Biography’ in The Rambler in 1750 and ‘On Biography’ in The Idler 1759.  He addressed five questions from Johnson:

1. What is the relation between biography of other genres, most particularly history and fiction?  His answer- there’s an overlap.

2. Who deserves a biography? Many philosophers don’t live sufficiently interesting lives to warrant a biography, he said.

3. What details to include? He mentioned that there were facts that he had omitted from his two-volume work on Russell – a publication that he seemed oddly apologetic about.  He explained that had he included them, they would have completely skewed the response to the book, and so he omitted them.

4. What are the moral responsibilities of the biographer? He identified three- to the subject; to the public and to the truth. Although he nominated the ultimate responsibility to the truth, he noted that surviving relatives often have a stake as well.

5. Can one know the inner life?  Johnson believed that this was not possible: “By conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments”. Monk disputed this very 18th century view, giving examples in his books where he had looked to action as a window on the inner life.

There is a particular challenge, I think, in writing biographies of intellectuals, as opposed to biographies of politicians or literary figures.  There is the content of their philosophy, as well as their own life as part of a familial, historical and intellectual milieu.  Monk noted the tendency of academic biographers, in particular, to give a quote from the philosopher’s work then in the following paragraph to proceed to paraphrase and explain it. Just leave the quote alone, he advised.

He noted that a biography is not just a collection of facts: that the facts need to be shaped, and that the biographer has a point of view. He finished with a very Wittgensteinian idea that is particularly applicable to biography-writing “The understanding that exists in seeing connections”.

There’s a very good review from the Guardian (10/11/12) of his Oppenheimer book which also discusses Monk as a biographer. You’ll get a good taste of the lecture from this article.

More:

I’ve been frustrated in the past that the Seymour Biography Lecture has been delivered in Canberra and, as far as I’m aware, not in Melbourne as well. But I’ve just found podcasts or transcripts of recent lectures on the NLA site. Ah, isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?

RHSV Conference: The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front

[A personal reflection]

A good  conference has a scope broad enough to bring multiple perspectives to the topic, but it is also defined closely enough for the threads and themes that emerge out of individual papers to weave something larger.  The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) conference on Friday 8th August and Saturday 9th August 2014 succeeded on both counts. Continue reading

AHA Rethinking Indigenous Histories podcast

You might remember that I blogged about the Rethinking Indigenous Histories panel at the recent AHA conference that I attended in Wollongong.

The podcast of the session is now available at Radio National’s Big Ideas page.

The panel, chaired by Richard Broome, Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University  included:

Professor John Maynard
Director of the Wollotuka Institute of Aboriginal Studies, University of Newcastle. He is a Worimi man from the Port Stephens region of New South Wales and currently holds an ARC Australian Research Fellowship (Indigenous).
Professor Tim Rowse
School of Humanities and Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney
Professor Marcia Langton AO
Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne
Professor Ann McGrath
Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University.

Happy 200th birthday Redmond Barry!

Oooffggh! I’m all “Barry”-ed out after celebrating Redmond Barry’s birthday on Friday 7th June (well, 200 years on) by visiting the exhibitions and attending a symposium to celebrate one of Melbourne’s worthies.

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First stop, the exhibition at the Supreme Court.  This display is a chronological account of Barry’s life and is mounted along the length of a long corridor in the Supreme Court building, with further historical artefacts along adjoining corridors.  I entered from William Street, where you need to go through airport style security, but once in you can wander around the corridors quite freely. The display is clear, well-laid out, and probably gave the best overview of his life of the exhibitions I saw.

I’d never been inside the Supreme Court building and I’d always assumed that the dome visible from the street covered the courtrooms inside.  I was wrong: the domed building is actually the Supreme Court library and what a beautiful building it is.  You can go in (despite the gold lettered sign on the door that says that you can’t) and it’s spectacular.  Their website has information and a brief history of the library.

Redmond Barry was instrumental in establishing the library which was, and still is, funded by the fees that lawyers pay to be admitted to practice in the Supreme Court.  The library he established was situated in the old, since-demolished Supreme Court building on the present site of the old City Court (now owned by RMIT)- (the court that Judge Willis was so proud of but never sat in because it opened just after he left the colony).  So, too, although Redmond Barry was deeply involved in the design of this library, he didn’t get to see it, because he died before it opened.

Next stop the State Library to see their ‘Free, Secular and Democratic’ exhibition, which is on display until 2 February 2014.  The library was initially established as the Melbourne Public Library, and unlike many other libraries of the time, there was no vetting process and “every person of respectable appearance is admitted, even though he be coatless…if only his hands are clean”.  Redmond Barry was the driving force in establishing this library too, which at the time consisted of the Queen’s Reading Room at the Swanston Street frontage, designed in the style of the libraries that Redmond Barry had frequented in Ireland and England before coming to Australia.  The display has a heavy emphasis on the architecture of the “The Institution” which eventually came to include the library, the museum, the National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition explores the idea of ‘display’ more broadly, with a section on Exhibitions as well- a real cultural phenomena of industrialised nations, empire, patriotism and competition.  There’s a good slideshow on the SLV site.

I bid farewell and ‘Happy Birthday’ to the man himself out in forecourt and caught a tram up Swanston St to Melbourne University for the symposium in the Baillieu libarary

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There were four speakers at the symposium, each exploring a different facet of Redmond Barry.  Stuart McIntyre,  Ernest Scott Professor of History, University of Melbourne started with an exploration of Redmond Barry as the inaugural university chancellor.  He portrayed him as a hands-on administrator, with a strong ceremonial presence.  He made the study of the classics compulsory for all student, which was rather old-fashioned at the time, but as the basis of a broader curriculum in the professions like law and medicine.  He battled with the professors and with the university senate, and insisted  that the professors not comment on religion, and later politics, for fear of sectarianism.

John Waugh Honorary Senior Fellow, Melbourne Law School spoke of Redmond Barry’s contribution to legal education. In England  (and in many other places throughout the empire)  at the time, a  legal education was part of being a gentleman, but it was not professional training as we know it.  Lawyers would undertake an apprenticeship with other lawyers and undertake self study. Barry derided the practical, technical nature of this system, although he was later to exhort law students to simplicity and logic in their arguments- something rather at odds with his own love of rhetoric.  In 1857, in his dual role as chancellor and sitting first puisne judge, he ensured that law students from the University of Melbourne were exempt from sitting the examinations of the Board of Examiners. In 1872 university education was made compulsory for barristers, thus in effect delegating entry to the profession to the universities: a very unusual practice that was found only in South Australia.

The Chief Justice, Marilyn Warren spoke about Barry as a Judge.  She noted that Barry’s reputation as a harsh, conservative judge is dominated by the Ned Kelly trial.  She described him as a detached, black letter lawyer, who was a judge of his times.  She suggested that in the Ned Kelly trial, he saw Kelly as symptomatic of an ignorant, ungovernable youth culture that needed to be stamped out.  In other cases, e.g. the Eureka case, he was more liberal. She noted that contrary to popular belief, he was only ever first puisne judge and never Chief Justice. He had good reason to believe that he would be appointed to replace William a’Beckett when he retired, but he was overlooked.  She suggested that this was because he aggravated people; the government could not be quite sure of how he would act in the position, and because his long-term liaison with Mrs Barrow was a matter of scandal.

Finally, Sue Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in IT and Logistics at RMIT spoke of Redmond Barry’s contribution to the four main libraries that he has been associated with: the Supreme Court library, what is now the State Library of Victoria, the Parliamentary Library, and the library at the University of Melbourne.  She has written a book about the early years of the Supreme Court  library called  Books for the Profession.  Barry was a prominent member of the board for each of these four libraries, and very much involved in the sourcing and  purchasing of books and production of catalogues. Being so involved in each of them, he was able to guide the development of their collections to reflect the unique purpose of each one and its relationship with the others.

And so, talks presented and cakes eaten, it was time to head home. On the way out of the Baillieu library, I stopped to look at their display which was drawn from their own archives and which reflected Barry’s wide range of interests.

Time for one more- the small display in the Law School library situated- how appropriately, on the corners of Barry and Pelham Streets in Carlton.

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Ye Gods! What is this excessively palatial university building???  (Not from the outside- go inside to the foyer.) I’d seen the beautiful Supreme Court library that day, and I’ve been into Queen’s  Hall at SLV and they too are lavish buildings in their pompous, 19th century way, but this one just seemed too slick, too “look at us-we’re world class”, too corporate- especially compared with the often overcrowded and primitive accommodation given to other faculties.  Needless to say, when I arrived home and saw the three ‘begging’ letters from the University of Melbourne addressed to the three Melbourne Uni alumni who reside at this house, they went straight into the bin.

I wonder what Redmond Barry would make of the building?  I really don’t know. Anyway, happy birthday Sir Redmond.

‘Thinking for yourself’ Robert Manne

Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

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I learned yesterday that these were Steve Jobs’ last words but I want to use them for something closer to home:  a conference entitled ‘Thinking for Yourself’ held at La Trobe Uni on Thursday and Friday to honour Robert Manne, who has resigned from La Trobe University where he has been since 1975.  Strictly speaking, I guess that it was a Festschrift but I don’t know that we’re particularly good at this sort of lionization in Australia.  It paid tribute to a man who has made a broad contribution to public discourse in Australia. As the publicity blurb for the conference notes, he has been at the heart of many of the large debates in Australian public discourse:

During his almost four decades as a university researcher and teacher and public intellectual he has been involved in a series of bitterly contested controversies concerning the interpretation of the Holocaust, the nature of Communism, the Cold War, social democracy and its neo-liberal critics, the dispossession of the indigenous population of Australia, multiculturalism, the state’s responsibility for asylum seekers and, most recently, the politics of climate change.

He’s a man who has moved from the left to the right, and to the left again.  I don’t see this as indecision or wishy-washiness: instead I see it as the use of intellect and information in action.

Robert Manne has been closely associated with Morry Schwartz, who publishes The Monthly and the Quarterly Essay. The lineup of people who paid tribute to and reflected on Robert’s interests was almost like a roll-call of regular contributors to these publications.  Hugh White, Mark McKenna, David Corlett, Clive Hamilton, Anne Manne.  But wait- there’s more: John Hirst, Dennis Altman, Tim Soutphommossane, David Ritter, Patrick McGorry, Raimond Gaita, Pat Dodson, Mick Dodson, Ramona Koval, Ghassan Hage …. it just went on- top-flight commentators and academics (albeit of a largely but not exclusively) left-ish persuasion.  Each of the speakers was introduced by a short paragraph that Robert Manne himself had written about them, and they of course reciprocated with comments about him.  There were participants from all over the globe, on a wide range of topics.

The presentations were grouped around a number of themes that reflect Manne’s work: The Cold War and Intellectuals; Australian Political History and Culture; The Public Sphere; Universities; Multiculturalism and the Republic; European History and Politics; Asylum Seekers and the Rule of Law:  Contemporary Social Democracy/Left and Right, and Culture and Politics.   Several references were made in passing to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt and Tony Judt- writers and thinkers who have had a deep influence on Robert Manne and  in whose tradition he himself fits.

There was just so much to think about that I really can’t do it justice.  Have you ever been in the audience of something and thought “How lucky am I to be hearing this?!” It was like watching a particularly good edition of The Monthly played out live in front of you, and I could have listened to nearly all of them for hours.  Oh wow.

The pipes, the pipes are calling

One of the joys of living in Macleod is the sound of bagpipes that drifts up the hill on Thursday evenings as the local bagpipe band has its weekly practice.  Up past Ferguson St, Strathallan Rd, Erskine Rd, Argyle St, Munro St it comes, borne on a hot summer breeze or cutting through the cold air on a still, brittle, frosty night.

But what was that rattle of the drums this morning?- and the pipes- lots of them! There they were on the basketball court at the local high school at 9.30 on a hot Tuesday morning

I’m not quite sure what it was: it may have been a camp for a band perhaps because people were wearing nametags on lanyards around their necks.

It was really encouraging to see such a wide range of musicians: young, old, male, female, Asian, Indian.  Somehow I think there will still be Scots Pipe Bands in fifty years time.  A thoroughly good thing too.

The great Great Melbourne Telescope

When I hear the term ‘GMT’, I automatically think of Greenwich Mean Time.  Those of an astronomical bent, apparently, think of the Giant Magellan Telescope, four times more powerful than existing telescopes, and scheduled for completion in 2018.   But there’s another GMT too- The Great Melbourne Telescope, which I heard about at a lecture at La Trobe last week given by Richard Gillespie, the author of a recently-released book of the same title.  And a great little story it is too.

John Herschel, the son of the inventor William Herschel, first turned the telescope to the southern skies at the Cape of Good Hope in 1834-8, and in 1849 the British Association for the Advancement of Science called for a large reflecting telescope to be erected in the southern hemisphere.  Four years later they teamed with the Royal Society to create the Southern Telescope Committee to assess designs and seek funding.   The Cape of Good Hope, Sydney and Tasmania were considered as possible sites, but thanks to effective lobbying by William Parkinson Wilson of the University of Melbourne and support from the Victorian Government flush with post-Gold Rush wealth, the telescope was placed in Melbourne.  It was not the largest telescope in the world- that honour went to Lord Rosse’s ‘Leviathan of Parsontown’ in Ireland until 1917 but it was the second largest telescope at the time, and more importantly it was the largest steerable equatorial telescope, scanning not just up and down but across the skies as well.

It was the pride of Melbourne- and why shouldn’t it be.  The Irish-built telescope opened in a purpose built house in the grounds adjacent to the Botanic Gardens in June 1869. Its close proximity to Government House meant that the governor and visiting dignitaries and their ladies could pop in for a squizz (literally).  A brilliant image of the moon captured by the camera attached to the telescope in the 1870s was distributed to schools, libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes  throughout Victoria.  The “Great Melbourne” referred not only to the telescope, but to the self-image of Melbourne itself at the time as a centre of learning and civilization in an international context.

But technology and invention does not stand still, and other telescopes were devised with superior design and capacities surpassed the GMT.  Its lens became tarnished and by the 1940s the telescope was dismantled and moved to Mt Stromlo Observatory where it formed the skeleton of a new improved telescope, overlaid with new technology and materials.  This updating was an ongoing process and more than half of the original telescope was harvested in 1984 by Museum Victoria as a historical artefact.  The GMT was barely recognizable, visually at least, as the technology that had evoked such pride seventy years earlier.

In 2003 the Mt Stromlo Observatory was destroyed by fire, including the cannabalized remnants of the GMT. But,- and here there’s a flush of parochial pride- the fire stripped away all the plastic and modern metal, leaving the original cast iron skeleton of the telescope. Alongside the parts that had been harvested earlier, 90% of the original telescope still exists in one form or another.

The original telescope house still exists on the grounds of the former Observatory side, now part of  the Botanic Gardens.  There are plans to restore the house and the telescope and make it available again to the public which involves a balancing act between restoration and the re-creation of a :century telescope.  They won’t, for example, be using a speculum lens again that caused so much grief and expense in the original telescope.  They’re trying to raise a million dollars- which seems chicken-feed in these corporation days- hence the publication of this book (which I assume will be available at Museum Victoria even though it doesn’t seem to be in the bookshop yet).

‘The Civil War of 1812’ by Alan Taylor

640 p. 2010

It’s taken me a while to post this review.  I’d borrowed the book while in Melbourne, hoping to finish it before heading over to Canada, where I would hear the author speaking at the Canadian Historical Association conference.  I wasn’t able to finish it in time and, lured by the cheapness of books overseas,   ended up buying my own copy.  It was too heavy to cart around, so after completing it, I sent it home surface mail.  It hasn’t ‘surfaced’ so far, though.

Living on the other side of the globe, I hadn’t realized the challenge to both Canadian and American histories in the title.  But I had taken this book with me into our communal kitchen, where two American fellow-travellers were making breakfast.  “The Civil War of 1812?” he read from the spine of the book, “But the Civil War was in the 1860s”.  Americans tend to ignore the War of 1812 completely (even though they commemorate it every time they sing the Star Spangled Banner), while Canadians tend to see it in terms of a British/American conflict rather than a civil war amongst erstwhile compatriots.

But I think that Alan Taylor , an American historian, has chosen the title of this book very deliberately.  The full title  is “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies” , a title so long that it almost obviates the necessity of reading the book.  It is a title that sums up his argument very neatly: that the War of 1812 arose from fundamental disagreements about the world view of kindred people- beween Federalists and Republicans in America; between different definitions of “loyalty” in the states that were to become Canada; amongst Irish immigrants, and between the Aboriginal tribes who aligned themselves on either the Republican or British sides.  It was just as much a civil war as the conflagration some 50 years later.

In many ways, this book is a sequel to his earlier book The Divided Ground, and it shares many of the features of that book.  Chapters are headed with single words e.g. ‘Blood’, ‘Crossings’, ‘Scalps’.  As with his earlier book, his focus is on people, flawed as we all are by incomplete and uncertain views of the future, and acting for the best as they saw it, on the  knowledge they had at the time.  There are more players in this drama than in his earlier book, however, and when I heard him speak at the conference, he mentioned his fear that there were perhaps rather too many.  He was right to be concerned: he skates that thin line  but manages not to cross it.  He is helped in this, as he was in his earlier book, by a well-constructed index.

The book is constructed chronologically, but it is not at all a string of battles, written in that laudatory and sychophantic style that many military histories adopt.  Like John Keegan before him, he focusses on the felt physical experience of battle, embodied in pain, blood, smells and fear.  He also highlights the contingency and uncertainty of a civil war, in particular, where ‘loyalty’ can be so easily framed as ‘partisan’ activity with such brutal vindictiveness afterwards.

His focus in almost entirely on the war on the northern border, with only fleeting attention given to the battle of New Orleans and the burning of the White House- the aspects of the 1812 war that, to the extent that Americans remember it at all, are central to the American narrative.  He points out that the American victory at New Orleans was not a turning point at all, but that the the negotiations for ending the war had been set in train prior to this.

Next year will be the bicentenary of the war, and I’m sure that this book has been published with an eye to this market.  It should do well, especially with the paperback version due out later in the year.  It is immensely readable, even for a southern-hemisphere reader with limited knowledge. It mounts a challenge to the American hubris that discounts the war of 1812 as just a skirmish and the accompanying narrative that presents the Revolution as an all-powerful and irresistible phenomenon from the start.  In Taylor’s hands, the contingency and unpredictability is returned to the past- something that we do well to recognize.

You can hear a podcast interview between the author and Lewis Lapham here.

Rating: 9/10

Reason read: Because there was a roundtable with the author at the Canadian Historical Association conference, and because it predates my work on Upper Canada in the 1820s.