‘The Year Everything Changed: 2001’ by Philippa McGuinness

mcguiness

2018, 321 P

The genesis for this book rested in a festschrift [i.e. a collection of papers to honour a scholar] held in 2014 for a recently-retired historian from ANU. The author, publisher Phillipa McGuiness was there because she had published several of the historian’s books. At the same festchrift were a group of historians who had worked alongside the historian on the Fairfax publication Australians: A Historical Library. This series, released to celebrate the bicentenary of European settlement, took a ‘slice’ approach at fifty-year intervals: 1788, 1838, 1888, 1938 and 1939 onwards. Her mind wandered (as minds are wont to do on such occasions) to consider other books that had been published with a chronological year as the title: 1492, 1915, 1968 etc.  The year ‘2001’ popped into her head- a year whose September 11 date is seared into the consciousness of anyone who is fifteen or older- and she began listing the things that happened during that year: 9/11, Afghanistan, Tampa etc.  Her mind turned to the people who she could commission to write such a book. Then with a jolt, she remembered that 2001 was the year that she buried her baby son, Daniel. She decided to write the book herself.

And so this book is part-analysis, and part-memoir.  As she writes in the preface:

My intention is to tell the story of a year. Part of includes my story, with no presumption that it represents a universal truth. Do I really want to make myself a subject in a general history, I asked myself? But I would feel dishonest were I to write a history of 2001 without mentioning my personal tragedy. …I’m no dispassionate observer analysing, assembling and asserting, unencumbered by emotion all the while. I’m no scholar able to eschew the personal and the vernacular, committed to interrogating the existing peer-reviewed literature and little more. (p. 6)

She acknowledges that 2001 is ‘history’, but it’s contemporary history.  I’m not sure that this book qualifies as ‘contemporary history’, although I don’t know for myself where I draw the line between analysis and commentary and ‘history’ as such.  I think that too much of the book is written from the viewpoint 2018 for it to qualify as ‘history’.  Nonetheless, looking at her lengthy list of acknowledgements at the back of the book, it is clear that she has spoken or shared her writing with many well-known Australian historians, many of whose books I have reviewed on this blog: Bain Attwood, Anna Clark, Stephen Foster, Tom Griffiths, Carolyn Holbrook, Robert Manne, Mark McKenna, Henry Reynolds, Zora Simic, Frank Bongiorno and, thanked most fulsomely, Stuart Macintyre.  There’s a wide range of other public intellectuals, writers and public figures as well ranging from Larissa Behrendt, Meredith Burgmann, through to Tom Frame, John Howard, Gerard Windsor and Bernadette Brennan among many others.

The book is arranged chronologically by month, with each month devoted to a particular theme. This is, of course, somewhat as an artifice because events do not restrict themselves to one month only, although often there is often a peak incident (most especially 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan) that crystallize a particular date.

She starts January with the centenary of Federation in January 2001, while noting the inauguration of George W. Bush on the other side of the world.

Her February chapter is titled ‘More icons, myths, legends and heroes than you can poke a stick at’ which starts with the death of Sir Donald Bradman in February 2001, touches on Nicole Kidman and her divorce and ends with the Australian Achievers presentation. This presentation, conducted as part of the Centenary of Federation brought out a list of ‘achievers’  and a discussion of Captain Cook and Ned Kelly.

March ‘Connecting you now’ brings the rise of Google, which made its first profit in 2001, Apple and Wikipedia. This chapter was thematic in nature, with no specific links to the March chapter to which she attached it.

‘A right to rights’ is the April chapter, loosely linked to the inaugural edition of Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s ‘In Denial’ about the stolen generations. It moves to same-sex marriage, which became legal in the Netherlands on 1 April 2001.

May’s theme is ‘Holy Shit’ which explores the role of the Catholic Church in society and in relation to child abuse, then moves onto religion in America and the connection between islamism and terrorism. The chapter starts with George Pell who became Archbishop of Sydney in May 2001.

The month of June is ‘Free money’ which, again, is a broad topic not tied to any one month. She examines the collapse of Ansett and Enron, the rise of Amazon and the rise of global inequality.

July ‘Demography is destiny’ likewise doesn’t have a particular chronological reference point – indeed the Census night that she identifies in the opening paragraph occurred on 7 August 2001. Here the personal enters into her story as she, her husband and toddler daughter shifted to Singapore, where unlike multicultural Australia, identity is viewed through the lens of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. As a white Australian, she was Other.  A rather disjointed chapter, it moves onto AIDS before returning to the question of whether demography is destiny.

At this point, the connection between chronology and themes becomes sharper. The month of August  examines ‘A boat called Tampa’ and its political implication. Drawing heavily on David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book Dark Victory and Peter Mares’ Borderline: Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers she revisits Tampa (and after 17 years, the details have become fuzzy) and its political fallout.

September is, of course, 9/11 where again a recounting of the events is valuable. There are things that I don’t think I ever did know – for example, that a flight attendant on Flight 11 which smashed into the North Tower was in phone contact for twenty-three minutes before the plane crashed. She then moves to Bush’s political response immediately following the tragedy, drawing frequently on Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (written in 2006 and making me pause about whether indeed history can indeed be written within just years of a event).

‘Afghanistian, America and the Alliance’ are the theme of October, where Australia followed America’s lead. In particular she examines Howard’s actions immediately following 9/11 and so, just as the ill-fated military campaign itself, 9/11 and Afghanistan are intertwined in this chapter.

In November, elections occurred in a whole long roll-call of countries, including Australia and the USA (she lists all 73 of them). She pauses to mention East Timor, Italy, Israel and Nepal, but focuses on Australia and Howard’s unlikely victory. Now resident in Singapore herself, she closes the chapter looking at the Singaporean election.

And in the December chapter, her own life comes to the fore with ‘Death and birth’, a chapter still rather too raw for me, as she loses her son in a foreign country.

In her conclusion ‘What happened next happened’ she returns to take stock “not of my tiny life in the world, but of the world itself”. She turns to the confident title of her book (The Year Everything Changed) and questions whether, indeed, everything did change in 2001.  It’s a wide ranging chapter, written very much from 2018 rather than 2001. [Interestingly, when I looked for the book cover image to put on this page, there were two other ‘year’ books that claimed to be the ‘Year Everything Changed’, Fred Kaplan’s 1959 and Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969]

I enjoyed this book and its interweaving of the personal and the political. It is very much a mainstream left-leaning analysis (think The Monthly or Saturday Paper) I read it more as commentary than history, and I think that its 2018 presentism will  render it outdated within a few years.  Nonetheless, for now, it’s a good read that ranges across a huge amount of territory in an engaging way.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Putting a price on dispossession

highcourt

Today the High Court of Australia will begin hearing a case that will consider the question of compensation for the loss of traditional land rights. This article in The Conversation explains it well.  According to the article, it’s an appeal case following two earlier decisions made by the Federal Court on the first compensation claim since the passing of the Native Title Act.  In the first of these decisions (the first Timber Creek decision) Federal Court Justice John Mansfield developed a methodology for working out how much money should be awarded as compensation for loss of native title rights. It had three steps:

  1. The value of land rights in plain economic terms, discounted by 20% because native title often brings constraints on how the land can be used economically
  2. How to compensate for the loss of  non-economic aspects of the land’s value e.g. spiritual and cultural harm (What a question! Where would you start?)
  3. Interest to award the passage of time (in this case back to the 1980s when the Northern Territory government granted land and undertook public works near Timber Creek)

The decision was appealed and the amount of compensation reduced, but the methodology for working out compensation was not challenged. But will the High Court follow the same methodology? It’s an interesting article- well worth a read, with good links.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Where Am I Now?’ to ‘Sex and Suffering’

A few of the blogs that I follow join in with the Six Degrees of Separation meme, hosted by Booksaremyfavouriteandbest .  I gather, if I’ve read it correctly, that everyone starts off with the same book. Participants then make mental leaps to name six other books that they’ve reviewed on their blog. [See Sue’s comment below – it doesn’t have to be reviewed on your blog]. This time the meme starts off with Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now?

Well, I hadn’t even heard of the starting book, or of Mara Wilson. But the little girl on the front looked familiar- and of course! It’s Matilda!

Her surname is Wilson, and she shares it with Rohan Wilson whose book The Roving Party fictionalizes John Batman, the putative founder of Melbourne as he bashes his way through the Van Diemen’s Land bush to ‘conciliate’ the remnants of the Plindermairhemener people in 1829.

A non-fictional approach to that same John Batman (and yes, that really is his name) is taken in Bain Attwood’s Possession, which closely examines Batman’s ‘treaty’ with the indigenous people of Port Phillip, and the uses to which the Batman/Fawkner ‘discovery’ story has been put in Melbourne historiography.

A more famous book called Possession, written by A. S. Byatt won the Booker Prize in 1990.  I’ve read it, of course, but that was before I started writing this blog. Hilary Mantel was one of the judges and so naturally we mentally leap to Bring up the Bodies, her not-yet-completed trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

The topic of bodies is linked to death, but death seems to evade the old colonel in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, as he wanders his decrepit palace, wanting to die but somehow waking up again the next morning to start all over again.

Two other patriarchs, on different sides of the American ideological chasm over abortion in present-day America are found in Joyce Carol Oates’ A Book of American Martyrs.  Dr Gus Voorhees is shot for his pro-choice activities, and Luther Dunphy, an evangelical Christian, is the man who shot him.

The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne delivered babies, but it also tried to save the lives of women whose abortions had been botched or incomplete. Janet McCalman’s Sex and Suffering is a history of the hospital, from its earliest days in Melbourne.

What an odd place to finish up! That was rather fun.

I Hear With My Little Ear: Podcasts 23/8 – 30/8

I’ve taken to walking from home to the museum in Heidelberg on Mondays, and to and from the library in Watsonia for Spanish on Wednesdays.  Plenty of time to listen to podcasts! This week I listened to:

In Our Time (Stitcher)  The Salem Witch Trials . Featuring Susan Castillo Street (King’s College London); Simon Middleton at the (University of Sheffield); Marion Gibson (University of Exeter). Gives an interesting economic perspective on why Salem Village generated these trials, as distinct from Salem Town. And the girls were only 11 and 9 ! Quite a different view to ‘The Crucible’!

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC Listen). I love listening to Matt Bevan on RN Breakfast each morning as he does a round-up of local and international news (that’s why I get up at 6.45 a.m.- I wait until his segment is finished before I get out of bed). Ever since Trump was elected, he’s been fascinated by events in America and now he has his own podcast that goes right back to the beginning. This week, episode 15 ‘Felix Sater: Criminal, informant, developer, spy.

The History Listen (ABC Listen). Not as good as Hindsight, but still a good listen. This week I listened to the four-part series Gone Mallee, a flat, marginal area in north-west Victoria. My favourite episode, dealing with a small town population 7,  was #3 The Mantung Yearbook

Rear Vision (ABC Listen). This week Radio National are featuring Australia’s relationship with China, and this program Modern China and the Legacy of the Opium Wars looks at the Opium Wars, and their lingering effects on how China views its own history and future.

Duolingo Podcast These podcasts are about 2/3 English and 1/3 Spanish, slow enough for me to understand straight off. You could follow it even if you didn’t speak Spanish, and there’s a transcript on the website.Episode 10, Los guerrilleros is about a journalist who meets with the FARC guerillas in their jungle camp.

News In Slow Spanish. A paid program that has a weekly round-up of news and commentary. I listened to Episode #492 dated 16th August. It dealt with the tensions between Turkey and the US; the World Rankings study where Melbourne slipped to second after Vienna; a study about the strategies to get someone to respond to your message on dating sites, and a snail race in England.

Movie: Summer 1993

 

This film, set in Catalonia and directed by Carla Simon, is autobiographical, telling the story of six-year old Frida whose mother has died. She is sent to live with her uncle and his wife and young daughter in the countryside, even though she is very close to a single aunt who remains in the city.  The young actress Laia Artigas is excellent, capturing both the deep sadness and passivity of a young bereaved child, and the joy of just being alive and feeling loved. The film is very much taken from the child’s point of view, and yet you can so easily empathize with the uncle’s wife who has most of the care of her husband’s niece; with the aunt who loves Frida so much, and with the grandparents who are now so distant. The movie is in Catalan with subtitles, and it’s a very quiet film where things move very slowly, with a sense of impending danger.  The sadness at the end snuck up on me -just as it did the characters in the film- and I found myself crying again when telling my husband about it.

My rating: 4.5/5

‘The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia’ by Christina Twomey

twomey

2018, 320 p

Over the last few years, there has been a steady flow of books by historians written to counter the tidal wave of WWI centenary ‘celebration’. The ANZAC legend, which has been contentious for some decades, has been given a good working-over, and there will probably be further retrospectives once the various centenaries are over.

But although it’s not yet possible to know how and if opinion about the ANZACs will be resolved, there are some other questions about the relationships between the Australian military overseas and broader society ‘at home’ where the tide of opinion has already swung.  In her book The Battle Within,  Christina Twomey focuses on the WWII  prisoners-of-war, particularly those imprisoned by the Japanese, and traces through the changes in society’s reception and recognition of them. Unlike the WWI re-evaluation still under way, the trajectory of opinion about POWs can already be discerned and has probably settled, although who knows what a centenary in 2039-45 will bring. Her title The Battle Within is a neat one. Not only did individual POWs have their own own internal battle, but there was a public-relations and repatriation battle among POWs themselves too.

It is the POWs of the Japanese who most starkly captured the Australian imagination on their return after the war. Cameras captured their skeletal frames and their 36% death rate was much higher than WWI POWs (9%) or those who had been taken prisoner in Europe during WWII (3%).  Donald Trump’s 2015 jibe at John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”) goes to the ambivalence about the reception of the returning POW back in 1945. Even though it was broadly recognized that the Australian forces in Asia had surrendered as a consequence of decisions made by British and Dutch commanders, there was still an internalized and tacit suspicion that POWs were ‘second-class’ soldiers.  As prisoners, they were removed from the masculine arena of aggression and valour; they were unable to protect the women who were taken prisoner too, and worse still, they were humiliated by being taken captive by Asian forces. WWII propaganda had depicted the Japanese as small, short sighted, simian and Asian (p. 27).  To be treat as a ‘white coolie’ triggered resonances of slavery and indentured Indian and Chinese labour.

Twomey’s book has four sections. In Part I she examines official attitudes to Prisoners of War; in Part II she looks to the former-POWs themselves as they tried to rebuild their lives and take up marriages. Part III ‘Coming to Terms with Asia’ looks at post-war Australian relations with Japan and Asia in general, and Part IV ‘The battle resolved’ traces changes in official and public perceptions of the POW experience.

The authorities were determined not to make a special case of the POWs, as distinct from other soldiers and the post-war campaign for a subsistence allowance for each day of captivity failed. Nor did medical understanding following the war help their cause. After WWI, governments and psychiatrists had largely abandoned ‘shell-shock’ as a way of understanding the psychiatric casualties of war, instead defining it as ‘neurosis’ that arose among people predisposed to mental illness through existing weakness, imprisonment or not.  If pre-existing mental weakness did not exist, then medical problems were explained as tropical bacterial and intestinal illnesses.

In this, POWs were not served well by those other POWs from the officer corps who had the ear of government, who strongly resisted the idea of ‘barbed wire disease’.  This class aspect comes through strongly. The death rate of 37% in ‘other ranks’ of POWs of the Japanese dropped to close to 10% among  officers, many of whom spent their war years separated from other prisoners. Through pre-existing networks and dynamics of education, opportunity and wealth, it was men of the officer class who were appointed as the spokesmen of POWs and served as their representatives on different consultative bodies.  Some of the most prominent, e.g. Ted Fisher from the Council of the 8th Division, were dismissive of ‘sob stuff’.

The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was established by Prime Minister Menzies in October 1950, after the failure of the campaign for subsistence payments. It was open to former POWs from both the Pacific and European theatres of the Second World War.  The Repatriation Department held the line that POWs were not to be treated as a ‘class apart’ from other ex-service personnel, but there was constant pressure from ex-service organizations and parliamentarians to take some action towards former POWs. The Prisoners of War Trust Fund was more like a charity than a government service, with rigorous vetting of applicants and no avenue of appeal.  The board of the fund, which oversaw its distribution, comprised two senior public servants and three former POWs, all from the officer class.

The letters of application to this fund forms the archival basis of Twomey’s book, most particularly in Part II.   In the absence of  POW repatriation files  (which are not yet available), the application letters to the fund provide her with an available and valuable resource that reflects both how the POWs conceptualized their needs, and the board’s concern for respectability and determination not to be ‘taken in’ by spurious claims. As she notes,

The applicants to the fund were, by and large, from the ‘other ranks’: men of limited education who often had menial jobs and sometimes lives blighted by alcoholism, depression, marriage breakdown or loneliness. Yet many of them took the opportunity, in shaky handwriting or in bold, capital letters, to make known their views about the treatment meted out to former prisoners, their family troubles and their struggles to rehabilitate. (p.xvi)

The ex-POW board representatives were from the officer class, and their class perspective  came through in the rejections and restrictions imposed by the board when administering the fund.

A similar bifurcation, with some class and education overtones, emerged in the decades after the war when some former POWs publicly supported the need for reconciliation with Japan. In some cases, this was for political reasons, especially amongst those from the ex-officer cohort who were politically aligned with conservative parties, when the fear of Chinese communism meant that alliances had to be formed with the Japanese as a way of countering the sweep of communism. Other considerations were economic, especially in the 1970s and 1980s in Queensland with Japanese-oriented tourist developments and with the mooted Multi-Function Polis in Adelaide, where the Japanese were seen as a lucrative market.  Other POWs acted out of spiritual or conscientious motives. However, this only served to throw into relief those POWs who did not feel this way, and who could not forget, much less forgive. This characterization of the POW as bitter and back-ward looking remnant became a trope for exploring Australia’s xenophobic past.

So what changed?  Opposition to the Vietnam War undermined the national mythology of Anzac and questioned Australia’s role in Asian wars. In the 1980s and 1990s a wave of prisoner diaries and memoirs was published, most particularly Arneil’s One Man’s War which was an instant success, praised by left-wing historians as a means by which to complicate the “jingoes and militarists” (p. 219) whom they believed had come to dominate Anzac Day.  In 1980 the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognized post-traumatic stress disorder, and new understandings of trauma replaced the older view of a pre-existing mental weakness. In 1984 the ABC Radio National documentary P.OW. Australians under Nippon was published as a book and has been repeated as recently as February 2017 (listen here).  As Twomey notes:

In this confluence of events, POWs emerged as historical figures capable of expressing contemporary tensions about war, identity, race and region. By the 1970s the POW story could pull in many directions at one: as a metaphor to express ongoing anxiety about the potential for domination by Asia, as evidence that forgiveness and racial tolerance were possible, and as a reflection of outdated attitudes towards racial difference. As a victim of war’s terror, ultimately the POW was perfectly placed to revive interest, in a non-belligerent way, in the military history of a country that had, but for a short period, been particularly attached to war as an essential element of its national story. (p. 215)

I very much enjoyed this book.  It is well written and engaging, and refreshingly clean of military ra-ra. She makes good use of her resources in bringing former POWs to life, while acknowledging the class and political influences that affected their treatment by both bureaucracies and the public at large.  She starts and finishes her book with a personal reflection on the Thai-Burma railway, which has come to epitomize the place of the POWs of Japan in the Australian memory of WWII.  It’s a powerful image:

Just as a visitor to Hellfire Pass can pick out the railway line by glimpsing the sleepers beneath the gravel, as a historian I have dug deep in the archive to reveal the foundations of the POW story in Australian culture. It is tempting to see the current veneration of former POWs as running along clean iron rails, from the past to the present.  This book suggests that the sidings were many, that the tracks were buckled and warped, and that the burden of this difficult journey fell most heavily on the people with the least social, cultural and economic resources to carry it. (p.xviii)

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

[An update: My attention was taken by the recent decision to award the Commendation for Gallantry Award for POWs who were killed escaping or after capture. As Monteath noted in his book Captured Lives on internment in Australia, to seek to escape was seen to be a legitimate act of an imprisoned soldier. Nonetheless, it has taken 75 years for them to be recognized. And is there still an implicit question-mark over those who did not escape? The tension remains.]

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have added this book to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Banyule Homestead- another victory

Banyule Homestead (a)_PeterCrone

Excellent news! VCAT today upheld Banyule Council’s refusal to grant a permit for a function centre at Banyule Homestead in Heidelberg.  The VCAT decision highlighted the significance of Banyule Homestead and the many problems with parking, noise etc. engendered by the operation of a function centre in a quiet neighbourhood area.  The neighbours really took the running on presenting a well-founded, disciplined campaign, and the Council support was staunch. They are certainly to be congratulated.