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

Heather Cox Richardson. In her History and Politics chat of 21 July, she addressed two questions. In the first, looking at the use of Homeland Security forces in Portland, she was asked why the Posse Comitatus Act did not apply. This act, and even moreso the military traditions attached to it, prevents the military being used against the American people. Her answer- the Department of Homeland Security (and she, too, bridles against that title, as do I) answers to the executive government and so it doesn’t apply to them. The second question was about the switch in Republican policy to be pro-Russian instead of steadfastly anti-Communist as it had been in the past. Her answer- it happened in 2016 when Paul Manafort took control.

Her History of the Republican Party of 17 July picks up with the election of 1912 and goes through to the election of 1928. With a four-way contest (including the Socialist Eugene V. Debs), Woodrow Wilson the Democrat came through, and many of his actions were not inconsistent with the Progressivist agenda of the Republicans at the time, although springing from a different philosophical base. He was painted as a Communist by the Republican party, and by the time Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge took over, the Republican party was once again championing big business.

Let’s Talk about Sects. The second in this monthly series, The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God looks at a Nigerian sect which is similar to the Jonestown massacre in terms of deaths. Headed by Credonia Mwerinde, who claimed to be receiving messages from the Virgin Mary,  the usual tale of appropriation of resources and intimation ensues, but heightened further by the hundreds of deaths that the cult evoked.

Rough Translation  (NPR) El Hilo: Walking to Venezuela. We all know that millions of people fled Venezuela as a result of the appalling inflation and violence, but now that coronavirus has led neighbouring countries Colombia and Ecuador to make it impossible for them to gather a precarious livelihood with street selling and casual work, millions are now walking the 1300 miles back to Venezuela. This is really good.

Lectures in History. This series of podcasts are recordings of university history lectures, generally relating to American History. In Socialism in Early 20th Century America, historian Eric Foner talks about the importance of the Socialist Party in New York and Milwaukee in particular, and the presidential campaign of Eugene V. Debs in 1912.

Rear Vision (ABC) Heading into the US election, there is a lot of speculation of if and how Trump might ‘steal’ this election. Voter suppression in the United States of America looks at the right to vote in America, pointing out that the amendments to the Constitution (e.g. 15th) have just been to (supposedly) prevent the vote being denied but without actually saying that there IS a right to the vote. With the rise of the Civil Rights Act, southern states have found ways to deny the vote to the black population e.g. voting boundaries, requiring specified ID, strict ruling on discrepancies.

The History Listen (ABC) Manuscripts Don’t Burn: The Master and Margarita revisits Bulgakov’s famous book, which became a cult sensation when it was published in the 1960s, thirty years after Bulgakov wrote it in Stalin’s Russia. I read it in 2004, before I started this blog, and I think that I must have read it at a surface level, because I don’t remember finding the depths that the afficionados interviewed for this podcast discovered. Maybe I should re-read it some day. Or maybe not.

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott


2019, 304 p.

Some writers are noted for the diversity of themes and genres they explore. I’m thinking, for example, of Joyce Carol Oates, where each book seems to be completely unconnected to the one that came before or after it. Other writers, in contrast, have themes that they return to again and again, approaching them from different angles, probing them, teasing them out.

Kim Scott is one of the latter. I haven’t read his first Miles Franklin Award winning book Benang (although I can see it winking at me from my bookshelf), but I gather from reviews that he returns to events and places from that earlier book in this, most recent, one. His second Miles Franklin Award winning book That Deadman Dance (my review here) took us back to the earliest days of white settlement, with a wistful ‘if only’ and regret for lost opportunities. In Taboo those ‘if only’s’ are long past, but like That Deadman Dance, the book does hold out possibilities for reconciliation, albeit with a more jaundiced eye. I think of the two books as bookends of a long history of dispossession, neglect and treachery between the 1830s and 2020.

In Taboo, Tilly has only just recently become aware of her indigenous heritage when her dying father asks to make contact with her from jail. She finds that she has half-siblings, aunts and uncles that she not known about, but she is wary in approaching this community which reaches out to embrace her as ‘Jim Coolman’s girl’. She is a damaged young woman, who has only recently escaped from an abusive relationship, described at first just in fragments, adding to your sense of a dread as a reader. The Wirlomin community invites her to return to country for the opening of a Peace Park, sponsored by the Kepalup Local Historical Society, who hope that the ‘traditional owners’ will add some authentic indigenous flavour to the proceedings.

Tilly has her own unfinished business during this visit too. As a baby, she was fostered by a white couple, Dan and Janet Horton, who live on Kokanarup, a station that was the site of a massacre and thus taboo to the indigenous community. She remembers little of the fostering, but Dan remembers her and wishes that his late wife, who had died only months previously, had been there to see her again. Janet Horton had been one of the instigators of the Peace Park project, aware of the history of Kokanarup, but the Horton family and the white community generally have firm boundaries to the ‘reconciliation’ on offer. For white Australia, actually giving the land back is the ultimate taboo.

Nearly two hundred years of colonization have taken their toll on this community. There are the old stories, handed on from generation to generation, but much of the Noongar language has been lost and now culture has to be consciously taught in programs or, as in this 6 day trip, through camps and activities.  Tilly’s own father, Jim Coolman, had started such programs in jail, and he turns to one of his students, Gerry, to make contact with Tilly once her gets out of jail. It is a community finding itself again, holding tight to the things that have remained, and with a determination to rebuild and hand on to the next generation. There is drug and alcohol abuse and crime, but there is also generosity, humour and laughter. The return to Kokanarup is part of this healing. Language is at the heart of it: learning the old  world, binding together through shared language.

The abuse that Tilly has escaped- and is still escaping- is uncovered in the second half of the book, and it has not finished yet. There are bad people drifting around the community – Gerrard, Gerald’s identical twin, is stoned or violent (and sometimes both at once) and a white prisoner officer and drug pusher, Doug, abuses his power at both a community and personal level. There is also the condescension of the college Aboriginal Support Officer, Maureen McGill, who blithely tells the Noongah kids that she has worked with lots of Aboriginal people, “cultural people, still on their country” (i.e. ‘real’ Aboriginals), and is just as keen for the trappings of Aboriginality – the didgeridoos, the dancing- as the Kepalup Local Historical Society.

The book is beautifully constructed, with a circularity that always appeals to me as a reader. Scott has such a good ear for dialogue, and he writes about the land with love and perception. I think that I probably preferred That Deadman Dance, but that was probably a ‘safer’ book, where  the ‘historical fiction’ genre avoids the question of current-day intransigence and inaction on the part of white Australia. Taboo is quietly insistent that there are questions that need to be answered, and relationships that need to be repaired.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from:  Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book



‘Commonwealth’ by Ann Patchett


2016, 336 p

This book was next cab off the rank after reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. A damned hard act to follow, and so I was pleased to read something contemporary and not too pretentious. And even though the name suggests something Cromwellesque, it is instead a domestic/family novel set in America spanning the 60s to the present day.

It starts in 1964 at a christening party. Bert Cousins turns up alone, without his wife, to the party held by a barely-known work colleague, ‘Fix’ Keating. There he notices Fix’s beautiful wife Beverly. None of them know it, but soon the Keating’s marriage will be ended, and Bert and Beverly will become a couple. There are children from both first marriages, and despite their anger at their respective parents, the children themselves form a group, at time united, at times jealous and resentful. The book traces the blended families over time, as further relationships fail and the now-grown children move into adult life. Their life story is not their own, and instead becomes publicized through a book called “Commonwealth”- the name of this novel. I don’t really know that the book needed this little metafictional twist: it’s only a minor part of the novel, and the title really doesn’t fit with the book as a whole. Unless, perhaps, you thought of the family as a Common-Wealth, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

As in books by Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Strout, this is a book with complex, contradictory, fully-rounded characters. They are not always likeable, but their actions always make sense, at some level, just as we know that our own actions do, however baffling they may seem from the outside.

This is a very domestic, relationship-heavy novel that captures the intricacies and frictions of blended families. It is noticeably American, bathed in a television hue. If perhaps the cohesion of the children seems too good to be true, it does illustrate the way that ties can continue, though sometimes strained, across the various permutations of family as we know it today.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: The Little Free Library at Macleod Station.


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 July 2020

Heather Cox Richardson. In her Tuesday History & Politics Chat of 14 July, she discusses campaign funding- its introduction through the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 which actually established a civil service (as distinct from one that depended on direct political patronage and hence changed with each president), the establishment of a Federal Electoral Commission after Watergate ( and which Trump is trying to strangle by not making appointments) and the effects of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which allows unions – and more importantly – corporations to contribute to campaigns.  She then goes on to talk about the history of abortion as a political issue. Did you know that in 1972 the Southern Baptist Convention actually voted that abortion was a matter between a woman and her doctor, and for abortion to proceed for specified reasons (e.g. foetal abnormalities, the welfare of the mother, rape etc)??

In her History chat of 16 July, she talks about the switch in the Republican party where the progressives wrested control of the party and the idea of ‘liberalism’ changed from individualism to protecting the little man against big business.

The Thread This podcast series advertises itself as various strands.. woven together to create a historic figure, a big idea or an unthinkable tragedy. ” In recognition of Black Lives Matter, they are replaying a series about violent and non-violent protest. In Episode 1 The Pride and the Power, they look at the Montgomery Bus Protest and the early political life of Martin Luther King, who knew that non-violence had to attract media attention, or else it would be useless. He also relied on armed guards until he was convinced about non-violence by an older Quaker activist, Bayard Rustin, who is the focus of Episode 2 An Angelic Troublemaker. Barak Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, because he stayed very much on the sidelines during the 1960s because he was gay.

BBC The Documentary  Embankment Baby. In wartime London in 1942, a baby was found abandoned on the Embankment. Named ‘Victor Banks’ because he was found on Victoria Embankment, he was adopted and renamed Tony May. Now in his 70s, he has decided to look into the circumstances that led to his abandonment. He enlists the help of a DNA detective genealogist , who uses Ancestry and other genetic testing databanks to track down his parent.

Let’s Talk About Sects. This first episode looks at The Family, the Melbourne-based sect headed by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who at that stage was still alive (she died in June 2019). What a far-reaching sect that was, with psychologists and doctors embroiled with it.

‘Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse’ by Cassandra Pybus


2020, 336 p.

The front cover of Cassandra Pybus’ biography of Truganini shows Peter Dombrovski’s photograph of the sinuous, black ribbons of kelp at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania. It’s a beautiful and yet unnerving photograph that is just right for this story of a black, evil period of Australia’s history that still congeals and clogs our sense of ourselves as Australians.

Truganini is a story based on historical sources, but Pybus has chosen not to write history here, with footnotes and forays into the historiography and secondary source material about Tasmanian indigenous history. As a historian, I regret that.

The approximately 250 km of Bass Strait that separates Victoria and Tasmania is not a wide expanse of water, but Victorian and Tasmanian histories have tended, until recent years (e.g. James Boyce’s 1835; Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners ) to have been told as two separate histories of development. This is particularly true in the consideration of Truganini,  for a long time wrongly described as the “last Tasmanian Aborigine” as one story, and the story of the “Van Diemen’s Land Blacks” (as they were described at the time) who accompanied the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson to the Port Phillip settlement in 1839 as a separate story. I have read of Robinson’s activities in Tasmania through Plomley’s work (most recently revisited in Johnston and Rolls’ collection of essays in Reading Robinson, and in Leonie Steven’s beautifully written Me Write Myself) and I have also read in more details of his activities in Victoria ( most particularly in Auty and Russell’s Hunt Them, Hang Them). But until now, I haven’t read another work that sees the Tasmanian and Victorian experiences as a unified event, part of this unfolding ‘apocalypse’ that swept away all the certainties of a long-established lifestyle in an environment that could be bounteous, but also unrelenting.

Cassandra Pybus’ own life story is tied up with that of Truganini. Her family history in Tasmania starts with the grant of Neunonne land  on North Bruny Island  to her great-great grandfather Richard Pybus, thus implicating her own family directly in the dispossession of Truganini’s own land. She had heard family tales of an old woman picking her way across the land – her traditional Neunonne land, (although the Pybus family wouldn’t have seen it that way) and Pybus herself  purchases and lives in her uncle’s house built directly adjacent the old convict station at Oyster Cove where Truganini spent the last thirty years of her life.

Perhaps because it is a story personal to herself that Pybus has decided to write this as a narrative biography, rather than an academic history. As with any other writer working in this area, she relies heavily on the journals of George August Robinson, the self-appointed ‘Protector’ of Aborigines. Written in an almost illegible scrawl, these journals are a mixture of bombast, ego, information, sketches, occasional introspection and frequent obliviousness.  In her introduction, she writes:

In writing this book, I have deliberately confined myself to first-person accounts from people who saw her and heard her with their own eyes and ears, then – ideally- made a contemporaneous record of it. Such sources are very few and they are all culturally loaded. Robinson’s journals, however narcissistic and ideologically driven, are the best sources available , which bestows on this highly problematic man an outsized role in her story that he doesn’t really merit. (p. xix)

She doesn’t hold back on her own opinion of Robinson- an opinion much more critical than many other historians who are alternately repelled but puzzled by him:

Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described. The challenge I have set myself is to somehow release these people from entrapment in a paternalising and self-serving account of the colonial past.  I want to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth (p. xix)

And this is where my regret that she has chosen not to write a history comes in: that without footnotes, and without acknowledging the work of historians with whom she has clearly talked – her friend Lyndall Ryan for just one- as a reader, I cannot tell where Robinson and the other observers end, and Pybus takes up, especially in ascribing Truganini’s motives and responses.

But I am in danger of letting my desire for a different book obscure my pleasure in the book that we do have. In Pybus’ Truganini – as distinct from the ‘last Tasmanian aborigine’ Truganini- we have a flesh-and-blood woman who swims and dives, who struggles through harsh landscapes and complains of having to walk instead of taking the boat, has friendships, loves children, uses her body and her sexuality to get what she wants, and resists being corralled into Robinson’s vision of a compliant, dying race.

I hadn’t realized just how far Robinson and his ‘guides’ walked on the different ‘missions’ between 1830 and 1834. They literally circumnavigated Tasmania, across varied terrains in often appalling weather. Pybus’ writing glows in describing landscape: you can just see them sinking into wetlands, scrabbling up and down rocky slopes.  Then there were the ‘missions’ back and forth, trying to ‘conciliate’ particular tribes – or what was left of them- all part of Robinson’s plan and purpose,  none of which he could have undertaken without them.

By “reading against the archival grain” in Robinson’s journals, you can see how resistant Truganini and his other ‘guides’ were to his mission. There was a whole tribal political and economic network in operation to which Robinson was oblivious and excluded. In a ‘search’, it was dubious who was seeking and who was sought.  Women were ‘rescued’ from the Bass Strait sealers, but refused to go with Robinson, preferring to stay with the sealers. There was a sexual trade in operation – and Truganini was a participant – and Robinson was powerless to stop it.

The two-facedness and betrayal in Robinson’s behaviour is breath-taking. He ‘brought in’ people of the varying nations with promises that he did not keep, often pleading that he had sought permission but been denied.  He promised to rescue daughters from the sealers, but did not (and could not) do so. He held out the promise of fertile land on the north-east tip of Tasmania, near the Bay of Fires, knowing that the eventual outcome was not this rich territory, but instead a windswept Bass Strait island.

His abandonment of his ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ family in Port Phillip, after bringing them over by various ruses, is reprehensible. Robinson had  arrived in Port Phillip well before Superintendent La Trobe arrived, and by then he had virtually washed his hands of their charge, more intent on bolstering his career by building the bureaucracy of the Protectorate in Port Phillip. His ‘Van Diemen’s Land family’ simply just falls out of his journals, and his conscience.

It was Truganini’s longevity that leaves her at the end of a dismal story of betrayal and illness, as gradually the people around her sicken and children are never born. It is difficult to find ‘agency’ in this slow denouement, but there is instead a steady resistance as Truganini refuses to fit into the fairy tale ending of an arranged marriage and a cottage in a simulacrum of “civilization”.

The book closes with a series of short biographies of the various indigenous people who Truganini encountered, either as part of her pre-Robinson days, during the so-called ‘Friendly Missions’ or through their enforced proximity on Wyballenna and Oyster Cove. These are arranged by nation, reflecting the importance of country as identity. They highlight that Truganini, like all of us, played various roles amongst the people she knew: friend, sexual partner, fellow expeditioner on the so called ‘Friendly Missions’. They make daunting and depressing reading.

The book has excellent maps at the start, which I found myself consulting often. The text rarely mentioned places not shown on the map, and it was easy to locate where the action was taking place. There are two sets of colour plates, but unfortunately no index, which made the biographies at the end of the book awkward to negotiate if you were unaware of the tribal origins of each individual. Her primary sources are cited, but no secondary literature at all.

I come to this book as a historian, and so I regret the lack of footnotes and engagement with the huge body of scholarship and the historical debates. The research has been done and her passion is clearly apparent.  Her work is, as historian Henry Reynolds blurbs on the back cover “of unquestionable national importance” but by her choices she has moved it out of the historiographical realm.

But there is no gainsaying the beauty of Pybus’ prose in describing landscape, and her sensitivity to Truganini’s agency and cohesiveness as an intelligent, resilient woman in a maelstrom of disruption and under a burden of grief. Perhaps eschewing the footnotes attracts readers other than historians, and that is important.

As a reader -whether a historian or a general reader-  you leave the book agreeing with Pybus that after all this dispossession, resistance and sorrow, that the “very least we can do is pay attention and give respectful consideration when the original people of this country tell us what is needed” (p 270).  It is, as she says “not too much to ask”. Indeed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: Difficult to say-  commenting as a general reader, 9/10


I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020


Six degrees of separation: from How to Do Nothing to…..

odell_nothingSo, another month- another Six Degrees of Separation – see the ‘rules of the game’ here.

I haven’t read the starting book, Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing (2019). I think my son read it, but it has really passed me by. I think that the title must offend my Protestant Work Ethic background.

Johnson_cleanstrawBut the title put me in mind of George Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing (1969), the second of his David Meredith trilogy, and the sequel to My Brother Jack. Unfortunately, I read it before I started my blog, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I absolutely loved all three books of the trilogy.

wheatley_cliftSo caught up was I by the trilogy that I became fascinated by Charmian Clift, writer and journalist and, as it happens, George Johnston’s wife. Nadia Wheatley wrote a brilliant biography of her called The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2002) which, again, I read before starting this blog.


australian-women-war-reportersClift was a journalist, although more of the domestic kind, with long-running columns in the ‘women’s pages’ of the newspaper. Jeannine Baker explores the world of Australian woman war journalists in her Australian Women Reporters (2015). She traces through the various wars that Australia has been involved in, identifying women reporters who had to forge their own roles in a journalistic genre that lionized male war reporters.

Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill.jpg

And one of the biggest male reporters of them all is Ernest Hemingway, who is just one of the journalists that Amanda Vaill deals with in Hotel Florida (2014). During the Spanish Civil War, international journalists were based at the Hotel Florida in Madrid, and she traces through the interleaved lives of press journalists Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro and press officers/censors/propagandists Arturo Barea and Isla Kulscar.

mccamishMentioned in passing is the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead, who was also in Spain during the Civil War. Thornton McCamish wrote a fine biography of Moorehead in his Our Man Elsewhere (2016). This book dealt with Moorhead’s experiences as a war correspondent, then his plunge into popular history with, for example, his book Coopers Creek about Burke and Wills.

murgatroyd_digMoorhead wasn’t the only historian to write about Burke and Wills. English writer Sarah Murgatroyd wrote an eminently readable history in her book The Dig Tree (2002), which again, I read before I started this blog. It was quite tragic to learn that she died of cancer just a few weeks after it was published. It has been republished as one of the Text Classics, which is impressive for a book published so recently.

My, I’ve been non-fiction-ny this month.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 July 2020

Heather Cox Richardson. In her History and Politics Q&A of July 7, she spends quite a bit of time on the electoral college, and reasons that the system is broken. She comments on the letter about cancelling culture published in Harper’s magazine, which rather amazing triggers a cascade of trolling in her comments feed while she’s talking! She also discusses whether Trump will accept defeat, and reminds us that Biden is only the presumptive candidate, and that other Democrat candidates are still in the race in order to influence policy.

In the History of the Republican party broadcast Episode 5, she takes us from the 1870s to the end of the nineteenth century.  The Republican party has cemented itself as the party of big business, it ‘steals’ two elections where the candidate has lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (each time this has happened, it has been a Republican who comes out on top), and it all sounds pretty corrupt. She attributes (rather questionably, I reckon) the 1890s depression to Republican panic-mongering when the Democrats win both the Presidency and Congress (surely this was a worldwide depression- can American politics have that much influence?) – using the trope that the Democrats (read here in Australia- ALP) can’t handle money. This was all pretty detailed stuff.

The Jungle Prince (New York Times)My son recommended this three-part podcast. What an intriguing story- a family squatting on a Lucknow railway station platform for ten years, claiming to be the Royal Family of Oudh; a crumbling 14th century palace in the jungles surrounding New Delhi; a Miss Haversham-like existence inside the palace and a house in Bradford England with a garden full of garden gnomes. Really worth listening to. I listened to The Jungle Prince via Stitcher.

Rear Vision (ABC)  The U.S. election is drawing closer- coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, ‘law and order’ – it’s like watching a movie. The Religious Right- politics and God in the USA argues that Reagan and Trump both won their victories through a disguised racism (less so in Trump’s case) that dressed itself in concern about abortion.


‘Beyond the Ladies Lounge’ by Clare Wright


2014, 256 p.

My parents were teetotalers, and even though I’m not  a teetotaler by any stretch of the imagination (cue laughter from my husband), I was certainly influenced by my parents’ distaste for the dull roar and acrid smell of beer that emanated from the corner pubs of my childhood. Growing up in the time of the ‘six o’clock swill’, and with the quaintly lettered ‘Ladies Lounge’ etched into the stained glass of pub windows, the pub seemed a threateningly male place. But as Clare Wright reminds us in this book, this was not always the case. Female publicans have a long history, right back to the earliest days of white settlement, and at the end of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, over half of Melbourne’s hotels had a female licensee.

This book, republished by Text Publishing in 2014 has had a longer life than you might think. The original 2003 book was originally drawn from Clare Wright’s PhD thesis from 2002, which itself grew out of her honours thesis which utilized oral histories with female publicans and their descendants. These academic antecedents are still here in this 2014 version of the book, but Wright’s lively writing style, even more pronounced in her later books The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka  and You Daughters of Freedom, ensures that the academic analysis enhances, rather than suffocates, the text.

She starts her book with an evocative pub crawl around Melbourne in 1889, from one hotel to another, where the publican is a woman. Right from the earliest days of convict settlement, the authorities were prepared to condone hotel-keeping by young single women.  During the gold rush, when liquor was ostensibly banned from the diggings, the sly-grog tents that flourished were often owned by women. Some women made sufficient money from sly-grogging to build hotels on the roads to the diggings where they became legitimate, respectable traders.

The legal framework regulating the liquor trade in Victoria was distinctly favourable to women because they were seen to ‘keep orderly houses’, reflected in the language that spoke of the licensee as ‘he or she’.  Most importantly, the requirement for pubs to offer accommodation (something that was not the case in Britain) meant that women were involved in creating a domestic, as well as drinking establishment. Nonetheless, with time, this came under threat.  The 1876 legislation, which aimed at cleaning up the trade after the gold rush, changed the language to ‘he’ and favoured male licensees, and in 1884 there was a courtcase that ruled that married women were prohibited from holding a publican’s licence.  This verdict threw the hotel industry into turmoil, but an Amending Act the next year preserved married women’s rights to renew their licences. Support for married women as licencees came from two unexpected quarters: the Licensed Victuallers Association who were ambivalent at first,  but were swayed by wanting to demonstrate the ‘respectability’ of their profession; and more importantly, the brewing companies who owned a number of hotels outright under the ‘tied house’ system, often using female licensees. In the midst of the temperance campaign around WWI, even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which campaigned vociferously against barmaids, was largely silent about female publicans with whom they probably had more in common than they wanted to admit.

‘Respectability’ was used by women publicans as both an attribute to make themselves valuable as licensees, and as a way of embedding themselves and their hotel as integral parts of the community. It was used as a way of controlling behaviour, too, by insisting that men not swear in front of them, and by not drinking with the men (as male publicans were wont to do) in order to maintain a respectable distance.

Because of the requirement for the publican to live on the premises, the pub was a home as well as a business. In the chapter ‘Mapping Elizabeth Wright’, she looks to the inquest records of the aforenamed Elizabeth Wright, who was murdered in her own hotel’s dining room by her business partner. Through these records, Wright (the author, not the victim!) is able to map out the Frankston Hotel spatially, and the dual and ambiguous family/business uses of many of the spaces. Female publicans, bringing up their families within this shared zone, did not have a separate work life but instead their children saw how they operated with authority and efficiency, as oral history testimonies demonstrate. In the final chapters of the book, she brings the female publican into the 21st century, with examples of female publicans in inner-city hotels (e.g. the Curry Family Inn in Collingwood) and  gastropubs (e.g. the Grace Darling, also in Collingwood).

I enjoyed this book. It is written with the same warmth and wit of Wright’s later work on Eureka and suffrage, which tie far more into the bigger historical themes of Australian history. It is not just a paean of praise to female publicans, because it has academic ‘grunt’ as well, although some readers may find this off-putting. There are enough personal vignettes for you to remember that you are reading about real people as well, and the sheer number of examples of female publicans drawn from right across Victoria reinforces that she is writing about a widespread, if overlooked, phenomenon.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book


‘Helen Keller: A Life’ by Dorothy Herrmann


1998, 425 P

This is the biography that I should have read first, before embarking on Kim E. Nielsen’s The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. It is a much longer book, dealing with her whole life, right from birth until death, and it is not overtly written from a particular theoretical perspective. It draws heavily on the  many works that Keller herself wrote, previous biographies, and correspondence between Keller and many correspondents, and between that network of correspondents themselves. Herrmann points out that a fire in 1946 destroyed much of Keller’s correspondence, which is of course unavailable to later biographers.

Although the focus is on Keller, this biography also examines her relationship with the two women who were the most important in tethering Keller to the sighted/hearing world: Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson, and to a lesser degree Nella Braddy Henney, who herself wrote a biography of Anne Sullivan. While these relationships are without question fundamental to understanding Keller, Herrmann at times is distracted by telling their stories at some length, to the extent that you wonder as a reader quite where she is going with this.

She casts a critical eye on Anne Sullivan in particular, suggesting that this complex, suffocating relationship brought limitations to both of them. Neither woman would have attained the fame she did without the other. There was one occasion in particular where I wondered how much evidence Herrmann was operating on when she offered a number of rather startling, left-field suggestions for a ‘secret’ alluded to by Helen Keller.

I like how ’rounded’ this biography is. She explores Keller’s sexuality, her politics, her financial situation and her spirituality. She follows through the full length of Keller’s long life, which demonstrated to me Keller’s resilience once she emerged from her grief at the death of Anne Sullivan, and later Polly Thompson. It is clear that Keller had her own politics and her own religion, quite distinct from the opinions of her companions. Perhaps because I’m getting older myself, I’m increasingly interested in the way that people embrace aging, and Keller certainly was active until she was quite old, and I’m glad that Herrmann has stayed with her to the end.

There’s a video interview with Dorothy Herrman here that demonstrates the richness of this biography.

Sourced from: borrowed from the Internet Archive. At a time of lockdown, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could get this here.

My rating: 8/10


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 July 2020

History Chicks  I’m on a bit of a Helen Keller binge at the moment, so I downloaded the History Chicks episode on Helen Adams Keller– one of their earliest from 2011. I suspect that they have read Dorothy Hermann’s biography because it’s staying fairly close to that. But I like that they spend considerable time on her radical activities, although they don’t mention her spirituality.

Historical Figures also had a podcast on Helen Keller, but it focussed more on her childhood. They do mention her political activities, but most of the podcast repeats the water-pump story.

Heather Cox Richard’s History of the Republican Party Episode 4 looks at the rivalry between Ulysses Grant (ex-military rather than a career politician ) and Charles Sumner (the guy who got bashed up on the Senate floor in 1854) who felt as if he should have been President.   Heather Cox Richardson pushes back against the idea of Grant being corrupt. We see the rise of ‘liberal’ Republicans, as well as the rise of the KKK and the creation of the Dept of Justice. The party splits, and turns to big business, who switch their loyalty to the Republicans. We also get the fear of ‘communism’ and wealth distribution through coloured voters (something we still have today)