Prize-winning histories 2022

I notice that a few book bloggers have done us a great service by compiling a list of the books that won various literary awards during the year. Doing the same for histories is a little more complex because some awards are for historians rather than histories (e.g. the History Council of South Australia, History Council of Western Australia), while others include histories alongside biographies as part of non-fiction generally. Some awards are for essays, articles, chapters and historical interpretations, with less emphasis on published books. However, here is what I have found for published full-length history books during 2022 (and I know I have probably missed some) :

Ernest Scott Prize – the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year. Administered through University of Melbourne

Dr. Lucy Mackintosh Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland

Emeritus Professor Janet McCalman for Vandemonians: The Repressed History of Colonial Victorians

W.K.Hancock Prize -for first book, awarded biennially

Jason Gibson, Ceremony Men: Making Ethnography and the Return of the Strehlow Collection (exorbitantly expensive! Go for the e-book)

Chief Minister’s Northern Territory History Book Award – most significant historical book about the Northern Territory (NT) published in the last 12 months.

Mark McKenna Return to Uluru (my review here)

NSW Premiers History Awards

Australian History Prize: Alexis Bergantz French Connection: Australia’s Cosmopolitan Ambitions

General History Prize (International) Mina Roces The Filipino Migration Experience: Global Agents of Change

Young People’s History Award Aunty Shaa Smith, Neeyan Smith, Uncle Bud Marshall with Yandaarra including Sarah Wright, Lara Daley and Paul Hodge The Dunggiirr Brothers and the Caring Song of the Whale

Kay Daniels Award – biennial award recognising outstanding original research with a bearing on Australian convict history and heritage including in its international context.

Bill Bell, Crusoe’s Books: Readers in the Empire of Print 1800-1918

Prime Ministers Literary Awards

Australian History Christine Helliwell Semut: The Untold Story of a Secret Australian Operation in WWII Borneo

Non-Fiction Mark Willacy Rogue Forces: An Explosive Insiders’ Account of Australian SAS War Crimes in Afghanistan

Queensland Premiers Literary Awards

Queensland Premiers Award for a Work of State Significance Quentin Beresford Wounded Country: The Murray-Darling Basin a Contested History

University of Queensland Non Fiction Award Claire G. Coleman Lies, Damned Lies: A Personal Exploration of the Impact of Colonisation   

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award Chelsea Watego Another Day in the Colony 

Victorian Community History Awards

Winner Janet McCalman Vandemonians: The Repressed History of Colonial Victoria

Judges’ Special Prize David Rowe About Corayo: A Thematic History of Greater Geelong

History Publication Award Barbara Minchinton The Women of Little Lon (my review here)

Community Diversity Award Alexandra Dellios Heritage Making and Migrant Subjects in the Deindustrialising Region of the Latrobe Valley

‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks

2012, 432 p.

I read somewhere that when considering a film that claims to be “based on historical facts”, you should look for the most momentous, the most memorable part – and that will be the bit that was made up. I’m not sure whether this applies to historical fiction as well (it may) but I didn’t have that sense in reading Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. She has kept herself strictly within established historical and biographical boundaries, which means that there is no momentous, memorable part, and that flights of fictional fancy are strictly curtailed. But I am full of admiration for the research that has gone into this book that rests so lightly in the background, and for the fidelity that such restraint lends to the story.

The book is arranged in three parts. The first two parts take place over a two year period in 1660 and 1661 while the third part is ostensibly written some 50 years later in 1715. The eponymous Caleb is a historical figure: Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, which was then a small, struggling educational institution with more pretension than finance. A Wampanoag man, his father was sacham of his tribe. Caleb and a classmate attended school at Martha’s Vineyard, where he was born, then attended Grammar School in Cambridge, before enrolling and graduating from Harvard. He died from tuberculosis a year after graduation. These, then, are the biographical facts that Brooks needs to write around.

But she is left considerable space to invent her own character, and this is what she does in Berthia Mayfield whom we meet as a young teenager in Great Harbour where her father is a missionary to the Wampanoag. Her family has been at Noepe since her grandfather purchased land – however that purchase was understood at the time- from the Wampanoag. A bright young girl, she finds her future become increasingly circumscribed by the inevitability of her marriage and her mother, aware of this, allows her a short-lived freedom to roam the island. It is on one of these forays that she observes, and becomes fascinated by Caleb – a fascination that he reciprocates. However, when tragedy strikes the family, she blames herself and submits to a plan whereby she will be indentured to the grammar school master to enable her brother, Makepeace, to attend Harvard College. Caleb, and his friend Iacoomes who have been taken under the wing of her father, are to attend Harvard as well.

We follow her to Cambridge in 1661 in Part II. Her formal education has been sacrificed for that of her brother, but here she can secretly listen to the instruction given to the students. She observes the subtle prejudice directed towards Caleb and Iacoomes and witnesses the sexual abuse of a young Native American girl Anne by the Governor’s son. Once again, men are making decisions about her marriage. There is an unspoken attraction between Berthia and Caleb, but from the outside it appears that she has submitted to the wishes of her employer by marrying his son- only we, as readers, know that Berthia had more agency than it appears. The final part of the book is set in 1751, when Berthia is dying back in her childhood home in Great Harbour. She recalls the deaths of Iacoomes and Caleb, and the tragedy of the King Philip’s Wars as the uneasy wariness and compromises of early contact harden into violence and warfare.

Brooks has adopted an archaic, 17th century language in giving Berthia voice, and she sustains it wonderfully throughout the book. Perhaps there is an anachronistic 21st century feminism seeping through the book, but is framed within a deep religiosity. Brooks knows the line between fact and fiction and she respects it in her writing. So much research must have gone into this book, but it never feels laboured. Instead, through the narrative voice that Brooks has fashioned for Berthia, we feel as if we have been immersed into a 17th century world and worldview.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup

‘Search: A Novel’ by Michelle Huneven

2022, 393 p.

If you’re not a Unitarian Universalist, don’t read this book. You can read my review, but don’t read the book.

I am a Unitarian Universalist, but I’m an Australian one. In Australia there are usually at most two UU churches/fellowships in each state (with one often formed as a conscious contrast in tone and philosophy to the other). Fewer than half have their own building, much fewer than half have a salaried minister and UUism generally has a low profile in a land that is largely ambivalent about public displays of religion. In America on the other hand, where this book is set, there might be multiple UU churches in a large city; most cities would have a UU church; most have their own church buildings; there is a tradition of philanthropic endowment. There is a well of ordained ministers to choose from as they move from church to church in a scheduled ‘season’ of relocations, as part of their full-time career. It is this search for a new minister that is the topic of this book: a topic that would not seem likely to reach to 357 pages, and one that would probably be of little interest to someone not involved in a church community.

Despite the subtitle “A Novel”, the frontispiece declares the book “Search: a Memoir with Recipes by Dana Louise Potowski. A Novel . Michelle Huneven”. If this is the frame-story, then it’s a convoluted one. The preface to this second edition muddies the water even further.

Yes, this is a memoir of a real experience. It is not fiction. I was on a search committee for a senior minister and this is my story of that search. Others might tell it differently. That said, names and certain details have been altered to protect identities. Several of the living have recognized themselves, although sometimes in the wrong character….Some readers- and many who haven’t read the book- argue that I have talked too much out of school, and by exposing the behind-the-scenes machinations of a church and its search committee, I have disclosed too many secrets, certainly more than the average credulous churchgoer cares to know. I believe that the more the average credulous churchgoer knows, the more responsible their decisions will be when choosing a leader. The health and future of their institution depend on it.

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So, accepting the conceit that this memoir is a novel, and yet somehow not fiction, the book is narrated by Dana Potowski, middle-aged food writer and restaurant reviewer. She has recently completed her last book, and is casting around for a plot for her next book. She is a long-time member of her local Unitarian Church, Arroyo Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Altadena California, with its ungainly abbreviation “awk”. It is a church set on three acres of gardens, wealthy, with a congregation of 290-plus of the “highly educated left”:

Caltech and NASA scientists, schoolteachers, entertainment types and hospital workers, college professors, political activists, artists and local soreheads.

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Although she had been a member for more than 20 years, and was a personal friend of the departing minister, Tom Fox, she was feeling jaded by her church and finding herself reluctant to go to services. However, when she was asked to join the search committee to look for Tom’s replacement, she jumped at the chance – not just as possible source material for a new book (this new book) but also as a way of reactivating her own spiritual commitment. She had attended seminary herself some years before and begun following the path to ministry herself until she realized that what she really wanted to do was write.

So she finds herself on a search committee of eight: four women, four men. Together, they were charged with a year-long project to form a short-list of potential new ministers, interview them and evaluate their sermons in a neutral church, then come up with a unanimous recommendation that would need to be approved by 85% of the congregation. Belinda was an 80 year old former church president deeply steeped in the history of AUUCC; Sam was in his late seventies; Charlotte, one of the chairs was in her sixties, gay, and three decades sober. Adrian was Black and in his late forties (and in her writerly moments Dana imagined that he might be the love interest of the story), Curtis was Filipino American in his late thirties/early forties and had been rejected by his past Christian church because he’s gay; Riley was in his early thirties, a polyamorist and aspirational bar-tender, and the conductor of the church handbell choir. Jennie was mixed race (mother Japanese American; father white), in her twenties, a young mother and agitator.

If you’re rolling your eyes a bit at the care with which this committee has been constituted to represent every possible age/colour/ethnicity/gender/sexuality combination (irrespective, perhaps, of the actual bums-on-seats profile of the congregation), so was I. In fact, there were many times when I was rolling my eyes at the earnestness and intensity with which people approached a myriad of lifestyle decisions over food eaten, relationships and issues of identity. It almost seemed like a parody of Unitarian Universalism and UUs, but if parody is going to work, it has to have a kernel of recognizable truth – and all this rings completely true, while written with a gentle humour. The book would not have been written with this purpose, but I felt as if I had been given a glimpse into the life that I would probably be leading had I been picked up and transported into North America.

The requirement that their recommendation be unanimous meant that this committee, comprised of flawed people with their own agendas, would have trouble reaching consensus. “Consensus is not just everybody agreeing” cautions an older member of the search committee, but as the committee splinters along age lines and is pulled in different directions by opposing strong characters, the decision does seem to be framed as “winning” and “losing”. At times I wondered: is this really the stuff of a whole, full-length novel? – but then I remembered just how much of our working lives (and recreational lives too, if you’re someone who volunteers as part of your community involvement) is spent finessing the politics, creating alliances, back-stabbing, and soothing the egos of colleagues. This search committee is no different, and Dana herself seems oblivious to her own strength and obstinacy on the committee. In fact, the whole act of writing the book which was ethically dubious from the start is weaponized as an act of “I told you so” by the end.

Along the way – and this is where secular readers would bail out- the search committee and we as readers observe a range of preaching/ministering approaches as Skype interviews are reported and sermons are reproduced. Dana as narrator is too invested in her own choices to give an unbiased account, but I did find myself wondering how I would have responded had I been on the search committee. Would I even want to go to this church? I wonder.

The second part of the title ” A Memoir with Recipes” raises red flags for me, given my deep aversion to books that describe food. As I was fore-warned, I just let the emphasis on food slip by… but it still really grated on me and seemed to be of a piece with the affluence and privilege of this educated, wealthy congregation.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did but I know that many other readers would not. It’s a bit like a Marilyn Robinson novel with its small-town, American religiosity, but with spikes. For something as mundane as a series of committee meetings amongst the everyday life of a group of flawed, very human characters, it was strangely compelling and I wanted to read to the end to find out who was their final selection. But if you’re thinking of seeking it out, go back to my first sentence before you do.

My rating: for me – 7.5. For you- who knows?

Sourced from: a UU friend and read on her recommendation.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 December 2022

The History Listen (ABC) An Object in Time: The Briefcase looks at the 20 July 1944 plot that saw Claus Von Stauffenberg take a briefcase loaded with a plastic explosive, timed to detonate after about ten minutes. Actually, there were two bombs but Stauffenberg was only able to prime one in time because of his loss of an eye, one hand and two fingers in earlier war injuries. As it was, there had been a last-minute change of location, and most of the force was absorbed by the table leg and so Hitler escaped injury except for a perforated eardrum (although three others were killed). The plot involved military men, who had disdained Hitler from the start for aesthetic reasons, but lent their support at various times. Why 1944? It was clear by now that Hitler was going to lose- perhaps it was, as Stauffenberg claimed, a matter of honour- to prove that there had been resistance within Germany after all.

Travels Through Time. Antony and Cleopatra: Jane Draycott 31/30 BCE You know, I’ve never seen a film or play about Antony and Cleopatra but somehow I gained the impression that they killed themselves together. They didn’t. Instead, it was a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet gone wrong sort of affair and the two suicides were separated by over a week. Jane Draycott starts with 2nd September 31 BCE and The Battle of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra separately made their escapes with their navies in tatters, each ending up in a separate city where they try to work out what to do. Scene 2 takes us to1st August 30 BCE when Octavian captures Alexandria. Cleopatra had been in contact with Octavian, trying to strike a deal that will mean that the Ptolemy dynasty can continue through her children . The rumour gets around that she has killed herself, and so Antony, already deep in depression, disembowels himself. But she’s not dead! Scene 3 is 10th August 30 BCE. Cleopatra had already tried to kill herself twice, stabbing herself after Antony had died, and then trying to starve herself. She gained permission to go to her mausoleum to mourn Antony, so she dressed herself in all her regalia. Draycott thinks that the snake story is logistically unlikely but somehow or other she kills herself, having sent a letter to Octavian telling him that she won’t be part of his triumph. Her son was killed and her other children were sent to Rome. Jane Draycott has written a book about Cleopatra’s daughter called Cleopatra’s Daughter: Egyptian Princess, Roman Prisoner, African Queen.  It sounds good too. Somehow all these podcasts just end up adding to my already enormous To Be Read list.

Emperors of Rome And blow me down, if Dr Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith don’t put out their latest podcast The Death of Cleopatra and Antony at exactly the same time. I was amazed at my misconceptions about this death that were challenged by the Travels Through Time episode with Jane Draycott, and so I was pleased to hear Rhiannon and Matt (am I on first name basis after all this time?) confirming the real story. With a million caveats about the sources, it’s much the same story with a few extra bits thrown in. For example, Cleopatra arrived home in Egypt before the news of the defeat at Actium reached Egypt, and so for a while she was able to spin it as a victory. She had good reason to think that perhaps Octavian might extend mercy to her- after all, King Herod (yes, that King Herod) swapped sides from Antony to Octavian and he survived, and she still had her enormous wealth. Despite their relationship, Antony and Cleopatra negotiated separately with Octavian, who played them off against each other. (As Dr Evans says in this podcast of Octavian “He’s a git, isn’t he?”

History Hour (BBC) The episode Referendums and Teletubbies is a bit of a grab-bag. It starts with Tim Marshall, the author of The Power of Geography talking about the 1995 referendum in Canada over whether the province should declare independence. 94% of eligible voters participated, and although it seemed that the ‘yes’ vote would win, after coming from a very low base, in the end it was only a 1% victory to the ‘No’ vote. Since then, support for independence has declined. But they’re difficult, referendums about independence, with cultural, nationalistic and economic motivations intertwined- see for example, the Scottish referendum (2014) , the Sudan referendum (2011) and the Catalan independence referendum (2017). The program then goes on to talk about the sacking of Gough Whitlam, featuring an interview with Paul Kelly, and Praveen Jain, an Indian photojournalist who witnessed rehearsals for the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu crowds in 1992- something that the government said occurred ‘spontaneously’ but obviously didn’t if they were rehearsing for it the day before. Then there is the cousin of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes who was incorrectly identified as a terrorist in London, and who was shot by police. It finishes with an interview with Anne Wood, who created the Teletubbies as the first television show designed for 2-3 year olds. (I am now more familiar with Teletubbies than I ever thought I would be).

Conversations (ABC) I always enjoy watching Dee Madigan on the Gruen Transfer- she’s smart and sassy and even though I shudder at the world of advertising, she seems a good egg. But in Dee Madigan’s Precarious Early Life we learn about her turbulent upbringing that would have looked quite benign from the outside. Her father had been a parish priest who embarked on a relationship with a parishioner, whom he married after receiving a dispensation from the church when she fell pregnant. In a short time there were four children, but he was a poor father. Although the children received a private Catholic education in bayside Hampton, and the family ran antique shops successfully, he was a bad money manager and businessman. They bought into Bunratty castle with other couples, but when that became messy, they decamped by Gippsland where he purchased the pub. But he did not stay around for long, leaving the family there with the hotel. By 18, Dee was pretty much on her own. How amazing people’s lives are.

Rough Translation “As Russians approach his town ‘the cat must still be fed’.” As a local historian, I grieve the loss of local newspapers. Despite their variable quality and frequent inaccuracies, they give a view of ‘events on the ground’ that are often missed in state and national newspapers. But perhaps the ‘big data’ available on the internet to people across the world means that you don’t actually have to live in an area to be able to write about it. This is what Emily Sachar, the editor-in-chief of a community news site in Red Hook, New York found when she advertised online for an editor. An application landed from Pavel Kuljuk, a Ukrainian journalist, whose obsessive approach enabled him to sift through data to provide a hyper-local take on current events. But as the invasion of Ukraine unfolded, Emily gradually encouraged him to write about his locality, even though some of her readers resented this insertion of international world.

History Extra. I know a couple of people who have undertaken the Camino de Santiago recently, two for religious reasons and one for the ‘bucket list’ challenge. Pilgrimage, past and present features Peter Stanford, the author of Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning. He points out that pilgrimages feature in Islam, Judaism (Jerusalem), Buddhism (the Bohdi tree) as well as Christianity but they are now increasingly a tourist offering.

‘My Accidental Career’ by Brenda Niall

2022,293 p

Brenda Niall is one of Australia’s best known biographers. I first ‘met’ her on paper in a course on children’s literature that I did with Deakin University a lifetime ago, and then again with her biography of Georgiana McCrae which, along with Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass helped fuel my love of Melbourne history. She has written several biographies since then, particularly focussing on literary or artistic biography or biographies of fellow-Catholics such as Archbishop Daniel Mannix or Father Hackett. She dipped her toes into family biography with Can You Hear the Sea? My Grandmother’s Story but here she wades in at least knee-deep with her own memoir My Accidental Career. A biographer knows the tricks and pitfalls of the trade, and she keeps careful control of what she chooses to reveal.

The title My Accidental Career of course triggers associations with Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, but there is no brashness or boasting here. Instead, the book is perhaps a little too self-effacing and deferential but even this is of a piece with the life she is presenting. Written at the age of 91, she justifies her biography, and its choice of title like this:

Looking back over more than sixty years of work as academic and writer, I see a pattern of surprises. For better and worse, fortune’s wheel kept spinning. Am I right in thinking of an ‘accidental’ career? Freud said that there are no accidents, and it’s easy to look back and see inevitabilities in events that seemed random. In the following pages, I’ve tried to show how it felt at the time, when each turn of fate appeared to me as unpredictable. To be born in 1930 meant that I entered the adult world well before the sharp, fresh breeze of the women’s movement. With my own inner wars of independence to fight, I had little awareness of the public world as a shaping force…My Accidental Career is the story of a 1950s consciousness gradually waking up to a new world in which opportunity and equality were within a woman’s reach. And that I wanted them.

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Born in 1930 as the youngest of three children, her father was a prominent cardiologist and she lived in a wealthy enclave in Kew, attending Genazzano college, one of Melbourne’s prominent Catholic Girls’ schools. Her Catholicism permeated her life. Living in their large house in Studley Park Road, one of her neighbours was Archbishop Daniel Mannix (whose biography she would later write), and her first job was with in Bob Santamaria’s Catholic Action office, a research position in which she seems to have been particularly naive and unsuitable. She was no political warrior: instead, she had imbibed the values of quietness and gentleness from her education. (I must admit that the women I know who had a Catholic Girls’ School education, admittedly younger and who came to adopt leadership positions in education, were neither quiet nor gentle but did have a quick, direct and rather distinctive confidence and articulateness exemplified by Geraldine Doogue or Susan Ryan. Perhaps this reflected post-war change in Catholic Girls’ education? Or was it the effect of Vatican II?) When her father died with a brain tumour at the age of 53, there was an unspoken assumption that marriage would be the escape from the ‘caring’ role often visited upon an unmarried daughter, and this was something that she was quietly but implacably determined to avoid.

On the one hand, Niall is clearly aware of her privilege but by reverting to the self-effacing declaration that her career was ‘accidental’, she seems unconscious of its effect on her life. Her family was financially comfortable; her childhood neighbourhood was affluent; she attended private school throughout, and her Catholic connections led to her first job. She was clearly brilliant: she was one of only five girls to win a Special Exhibition at Matriculation, and the only one from a Catholic Girls’ School to do so. She enrolled in English Honours in post-war 1949, just after an influx of older ex-servicemen on veterans’ grants and when women lecturers were rare. She won the exhibition in English language and literature in 1950 but missed the First Class Honours she was on track for after her father died. This was the first of a number of false starts where she was progressing towards academic prominence (dare I say “A Brilliant Career”?) only to find herself almost frozen to immobility by external events or her own diffidence. A broken engagement with ‘G’ prompted her mother to fund a round-the-world airline ticket in April 1958, leading to the first of the journal entries that Niall includes in the book.

There are five of these journal entries, distinguished from the rest of the text by a stylized corner at the top and bottom of the page. They mark out her various overseas sojourns in Limerick (1958), Ann Arbor (1967-68), Yale New Haven (1975) and two research trips undertaken as part of her work on the Boyd family in 1985 and again in 1999. Drawing on a journal does solve a narrative problem for the auto/biographer – you can go straight back to the source material- but I found myself wondering about the authenticity of these remarkably lucid and self-explanatory entries.

However, they do highlight the opportunities that opened up for her, even though she describes them rather diffidently. After moving to ANU in Canberra for postgraduate studies, she wrote her thesis on Edith Wharton and was offered jobs at Melbourne, Monash and ANU universities. She accepted a tutorship at the four-year old Monash, and her thesis was awarded first-class honours by both the internal and external examiners. She was later to embark on a long-term relationship with Grahame Johnson, the internal examiner at ANU and her mentor, but because of their shared Catholic faith, divorce and a second marriage was impossible, as Niall explains rather clinically. Grahame was to become the deputy director of the newly established ANU Centre for Research in the Humanities when he died suddenly in December 1976, aged forty seven. She does not expand on this, although she notes the “feeling of emptiness” and the “kindness of people who didn’t know what to say to me.” (p. 171) Not one to push herself forward, she remained at Monash, mainly working in teaching and administrative roles. However, she was feisty enough when another female academic began to muscle in on work that she had commenced on Martin Boyd, suggesting that they could be co-authors. She wrote back, saying that her work would be a biography, and that there would still be sufficient space for a critical study, should her colleague choose to write one. She didn’t. Niall’s solo-authored biography Martin Boyd: a Life won several awards in 1989, and marked a turning point from a tenured academic to an independent writer.

We tend to lionize prodigies and youthful success, and it was interesting (and encouraging) to read of a career that only found itself near the end, at the age of 59. At the age of sixty she was admitted to the Australian Academy for the Humanities. She was invited to write reviews of biographies, reviewing one book a fortnight between 1997-8 and several other biographies followed with Georgiana (1994), the group biography The Boyds: A Family Biography (2002) (my review here), Judy Cassab: A portrait (2005), The riddle of Father Hackett : a life in Ireland and Australia (2009), True North: the story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (2012), Mannix (2015), Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers: Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson (my review here). She wrote about the craft of biography in Life Class (2007), and wrote her grandmother’s story in Can You Hear the Sea in 2018. This is a woman who has found her strength.

It is hard to believe that Brenda Niall and Dale Kent (author of The Most I Could Be – my review here) were working in Victorian universities at the same time, albeit in different disciplines. Kent’s academe is a ferocious place where you had to fight for your position; Niall’s “accidental” career is helped by colleagues, mentors and champions – mostly men- to whom she acknowledges her debt. Kent’s biography is hormone-driven and personal; Niall’s is almost ascetic.

I sensed throughout this book Niall’s control in what she was telling, and what she was choosing not to tell. It is a quiet biography, where she is applying to herself the techniques she might use in narrating another’s life. There is a reluctance to brag, a readiness to cede credit to others, and a sense of almost incredulity that these things occurred unbidden and so generously. The nuns taught her well.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: borrowed from my friend Patricia.

‘How to Make Gravy’ by Paul Kelly

2010, 549 pages

It’s the 21st of December, which makes it Gravy Day and what better day to review Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy. Actually, I’ve had this book beside the bed for the best part of six months and I just dip into it now and then, partially because I didn’t want it to finish. I bought it at the op-shop ages ago and it’s the best $2.00 I’ve ever spent.

Paul Kelly is a brilliant Australian singer/songwriter – he’s Australia’s Bob Dylan. While there are better singers around, no other Australian songwriters captures masculine vulnerability and love of country as well as Paul Kelly does. The book is a written version of his A-Z show, a four-night performance that he first wrote for the Speigeltent in Melbourne in 2004. Each night he would sing 25 songs from his repertoire of over 300 songs (at that stage- there would be more now), arranged alphabetically, with a different setlist on nights 1, 2, 3, 4. Some people just came to see one night; others came for all four. In his introduction he says that he realized that he just couldn’t sit there and play 25 songs one after the other, and uncomfortable with stage-patter, he wrote a script to go along with it. He released the songs as a CD collection, and then wrote this book based on the songs and his show notes. He’s typically self-effacing about it:

Before too long a mongrel beast appeared. Was I writing an idiosyncratic history of music, a work diary or a hymn to dead friends? There were lists, letters, quotes, confessions, essays and road stories. Could I get them all to fit? Could I make the architecture sing? And what kind of megalomaniac would assume that setting his lyrics down and writing commentary around them – a kind of Midrash- would be interesting to others?

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The book is in four parts, reflecting the four nights of the performance. The songs are presented alphabetically and the lyrics precede each chapter, bolstered at times by poetry by other poets (Yeats, Donne, Shakespeare), quotations from books, and definitions. Some of the chapters directly relate to the song; others are a form of mental riffing on his childhood and adolescence, a succession of marriages and breakups, drug addiction, diary extracts while on the road, reminiscences of concerts seen and performed. The index of people and bands at the end of the book stretches to eight pages, and he cites movies, books and other people’s music. It’s an erudite, generous memoir by a gifted, intelligent man- and one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

Let me leave you with the video of the eponymous How to Make Gravy. Happy 21st December, Gravy Day.

Movie: She Said

I feel as if I should have enjoyed this film more than I did. Once again, because it is ‘inspired’ by real events, we all know the outcome before the movie even starts. The film is based on the book by the two New York Times investigative reporters Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey who broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s history of abuse and sexual misconduct. It shows them following up multiple leads, but none of the women are prepared to go on the record, and secretaries and accountants also protect Weinstein. The movie was a bit like All the Presidents Men or The Post but with female journalists instead.

My rating: 3 and a half stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 December 2022

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC) Episode 3: Why It’s So Hard to Fight When You Don’t Know Why. The episode starts with Matt Bevan reminding us that the beautiful rich soils of Ukraine turn to mud twice a year, and now that the war is extending to 9 months, the soldiers there will have experienced this phenomenon twice. In fact, they experienced it earlier than they would have because this year the muddy season came early. He tells the story of two men: one Ukrainian and the other Russian. ABC reporter Isabella Higgins met 52 year old “Dad soldier” Taris as he was enlisting in the Ukrainian army from the reserves. The Ukrainian army had been modernizing since 2014, when Russia invaded the Donbass region. The Russian army, on the other hand, was poorly trained, corrupt and poorly provisioned. The second man, Vadim, is a 21 year old Russian boy who lives five days away from Moscow who is now imprisoned for 15 years for war crimes committed when he shot a man on a bicycle. He, and his fellow soldiers, were told that they would only be in Ukraine for three days, and that their mission was to terrorize the Ukrainians and their authorities sufficiently that they would surrender.

Emperors of Rome Episode XV The Assassination of Caligula takes us further in to the strange world of Caligula. Was he mad, or was he just taking the mickey? He certainly seemed to be: he faked a battle with the Germani; sent his troops ‘over the seas’ and got them to bring back shells and seaweed, and later brought his uncle Claudius into public view after his family had kept him away, (perhaps because they were ashamed of him?) Caligula brought back the treason trials with a vengeance, and there were admittedly a lot of plots against him. He was attacked at the theatre and killed, and this time the plot went beyond the Senate to men of different ranks opposed to him. Episode XVI Claudius the Unlikely Emperor sees Caligula’s uncle step into the breach when Caligula is killed, along with his wife and baby daughter (just to make sure that there was no heir lurking around). Claudius does seem to have had some sort of physical disability and a stutter, and Dr Rhiannon Evans suggests gently that perhaps, had he been born to any other family, he might have been exposed at birth. He was a scholar, and was friends with Livy. When Caligula died, the Senate could have reasserted their authority, but they dragged their feet. Claudius didn’t subject Caligula to “Damnatio memoriae” (i.e. expunging his memory) but he didn’t pursue the assassins either. Episode XVII Claudius Conquers Britain (or as Dr Rhiannon Evans prefers, Brittania) celebrates Claudius’ big moment in returning to Brittania for the first time in 100 years. Augustus had been more concerned about stability in the empire, and there was no great hunger for the resources that Britain offered (even though the Romans were happy to take them later). At first Claudius sent Plautius over, but then he himself crossed the Channel, even though he wasn’t particularly well known as a soldier. He got his triumph in Rome after the successful invasion, but even here he showed mercy to Caratacus who led the residence, by allowing him to live in peace in Rome. Episode XVIII The Life of Claudius looks at how Claudius was received by the Romans, once he became emperor. The Senate was ambivalent: they were still a bit piqued that they weren’t consulted about who should follow Caligula. Claudius put their noses further out of joint by bringing Gauls into the Senate, and appointing freedmen (i.e. former slaves) into acting as a sort of ministry with a secretary, treasurer etc. He became involved in the law, forbidding slaveholders from killing or torturing their slaves at will, and famously allowed flatulence. His building activities mainly involved repairing shabby buildings and constructing infrastructure like the Aqua Claudia aqueduct (which still stands). He had four wives, and was criticized for liking being married too much and under his wives’ influence. He had to execute his third wife Messelina because of treason in her affair with the most handsome man in Rome Gaius Silius. He then married his niece Agrippina the younger who possibly murdered him to promote her son Nero. After his death, Claudius was deified, and his 20th century reputation was resuscitated by Robert Graves’ I Claudius.

The History Listen (ABC). Fitzroyalty- a short history of Brunswick Street. This episode looks at the transformation of Brunswick Street Fitzroy during the 1980s and 90s. As a child, I remember Brunswick Street as being rather noisy and rundown. My mum, who used to assiduously note down all the supermarket specials in the paper on a Tuesday, would go to Sims Markette which was either in Smith Street or Brunswick Street. I remember her leaving us in the car while she ‘nicked in’ for a few specials, and the smell of Weetbix or some other cereal and roasted coffee wafting in through the windows. Somehow I don’t think that parents would do that now. And as for when Brunswick Street became cool? I think I must have been off having babies and toddlers at that time and I missed it- although I met my current husband at the Fitz, and I always loved the Brunswick Street Bookstore. But I rarely go there now, because parking is just too hard and as they say in the episode, Brunswick Street is a victim of its own success, being largely just a promenade of coffee shops now.

Conversations (ABC) Niki Savva’s brutal assessment of Scott Morrison. Knowing that she used to work as Peter Costello’s press secretary, I’ve never really trusted Niki Savva, seeing her as a Liberal Party apologist. However, I’m relishing her takedown of Scott Morrison in Bulldozed: Scott Morrison’s Fall and Anthony Albanese’s Rise . As usual, Richard Fidler asks good questions and I feel as if there’s no need for me to read the book (which was probably not Savva’s intention at all!)

‘Kiss Myself Goodbye’ by Ferdinand Mount

2021, 272 p.

I read this in an e-book version, so I didn’t really have an opportunity to pour over the front and back covers. Without the little telltale identifier ‘biography’ ‘memoir’ or ‘non-fiction’ that some books have on the back cover, I found myself wondering exactly what I was reading here. Was it really a memoir written by a rather arch, conservative, class-conscious Englishman, or was this a masterful frame story for what was essentially fiction? Well, it seems that it is indeed non-fiction and a memoir, which places it back in the pack as being just another family-history-as-search type book, a genre of which I am not particularly fond.

Ferdinand Mount starts his memoir by recalling the various houses in which his Aunt Betty and Uncle Grieg lived. There are quite a few of them, in varying degrees of opulence, and the opening chapter starts, as the rest of the book continues, as a type of roll-call of the significant people to whom his aunt and uncle have tenuous links. It is Aunt Betty who suggests that instead of calling them such prosaic names as “Betty” and “Grieg”, her nephew and niece call them “Munca” and “Unca” after the two mice in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. At the time the author thinks that this is a childish suggestion to come from an adult, and inaccurate too, as there was actually only one mouse called Hunca (with an H) Munca. However, he acquiesced at the time, and continues to do so during the book, varying between “Munca” and “Betty”. The title of the book comes from a pre-war song with the lyrics:

I’m going to kiss myself goodbye

Oh goodbye, goodbye

I’m going to get on my wings and fly

Up high, Up High

This is more appropriate, because this is the story of the deception undertaken by several members of his family as they accelerate their climbing of the social ladder in Britain, breaking through the famed class system by the adoption of different names and shady dealings.This is not necessarily an unique story: Robyn Annear did it better with the Tichborne inheritance in The Man Who Lost Himself and Kirsten McKenzie adopted a more scholarly approach to false identity and deception in A Swindler’s Progress (my review here). However, while distance and the colonies provided good coverage for false identity, there is a certain brazenness about Aunt Betty’s story, slipping through names and marriages without moving out of England.

The book is structured around his family history search for the truth about his Aunt Betty, whom he always found evasive and mysterious. It is a search driven by documents and he is a particularly inept family historian, naive about sources, and unusually reliant on other people finding things for him. He uses his search for a particular member of his family as the rationale for a new chapter, which means that there is a certain amount of back-tracking and foreshadowing, and he weakens his book considerably by including updates on his searches at the end which diffuses, rather than tightens, his ending.

The book is not just about his Aunt Betty/Munca, but he infuses it with a lot of his own memoir as well. He is an undisciplined narrator, launching off into long descriptions of tangential information, and drawing links with minor royalty and celebrity figures. I don’t think that I would particularly like this man personally. He is certainly well-connected with the literary scene and Conservative Party politics: head of the Policy Unit during Thatcher’s time, the holder of a hereditary baronetcy through his uncle, contributor to the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement for eleven years, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. I can only assume that it is these latter connections that landed him Hilary Mantel’s saccharine and very prominent front-cover blurb that the book was “Grimly funny and superbly written, with a twist on every page”.

The book is well written, but there is a gaping vacuum at its heart where he fails to interrogate or even imagine the nature of Aunt Betty/Munca that led her to such contradictory and often callous actions. It is as if he has traced the steps but never stopped to ask “why”. This would, of course, require speculation but he has not resiled from speculation and guesswork elsewhere. Given the wreckage that she left behind her in terms of marriages and adoption, his tunnel vision suggests that perhaps there is more of Aunt Betty/Munca in him than he would like.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book; read for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

Movie: The Lost King

The University of Leicester is not at all pleased at how they were depicted in this film, which tells the story of the discovery of the grave of Richard III in a car park. Using maps and original sources, amateur historian Philippa Langley becomes convinced that Richard’s body was buried in what had been Greyfriars Priory. She is confirmed in her ‘feeling’ that the body is there by frequent apparitions of Richard III himself. After joining the Richard III Society, she approaches the archaeology department at University of Leicester who initially dismiss her claims, only to pick them up again when it seems that their university funding is going to be cut. When a body is not found immediately, her funders drop out and she turns to crowdsourcing instead among Richard III aficionados world wide. However, the University of Leicester is quick to take credit when a body is found that turns out to be Richard III. The dispute between Langley and the University of Leicester continues.

It must be hard to tell a story when right from the start everyone knows that the body was found and that it was Richard III. Lee Ingleby plays a suitably greasy university administrator and bean-counter, and Sally Hawkins plays a vulnerable but driven young woman. But certainly the University has been damaged by this film: I found myself raising an eyebrow at the recent news of the discovery of a Roman mosaic in Rutland- something that I would never have taken notice of previously. But I found my credulity stretched by the apparitions scenes and the baddies seemed over-written.

My rating: 3 starts