Friday, 7 July 2017

A Lesson in Oral History

This week I almost didn't attend the regular monthly session at the GSV Writers' Circle in Melbourne. This month’s convenor, Jenny Scammell, planned to pass on the lessons she’d learned from the Oral History unit forming part of the course work for a Diploma of Family History. Since I generally write about people who lived more than 100 years ago, I wondered if the information would be relevant to my work. 'I don't do oral history', I thought. 

How wrong I was. I'd forgotten my book Brainboxes, published in 1994. In effect but without recognising it at the time, I’d used most of Jenny’s recommended techniques for that book. Since my school cohort and experience had been fairly atypical, and already historic in the early 1990s, I’d jumped in at the deep end and contacted 25 former classmates to explore their ideas on the impact of our school on our adult life. We were all in our mid-forties by then and we’d not met as a group since leaving Narrabeen Girls' High School in 1962. It wasn’t easy to track individuals in the days before the internet and Facebook but somehow the grapevine worked and married names, addresses and phone numbers gradually emerged. 

The stated aim of my project, put to my old classmates in writing, was to ascertain the effect of our specific high school experience on our personal and professional development. I invited participants to draft their own story based around some guideline questions put to them. I also told them that I would arrange to discuss each story at a face-to-face meeting, where I would also ask them to answer the questions in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, MBTI, which I was qualified to administer. That these women even agreed to participate in this project indicates that there must have been an element of trust in me, someone they’d once known for up to five years. 

Since I live in Melbourne and I attended school in Sydney, almost every ‘interview’ (more like a chat, with direction) required me to travel quite a long distance. I did not use a recording device but took extensive notes and wrote up a draft of the session immediately afterwards. This was posted to each interviewee, who was given ample time and opportunity to review the draft and make whatever changes were desired. Real names were never intended to be used. 

Looking back, I see that some interesting statistics emerged from this fairly-standardised interview process and these had as much to do with the nature of the interviewee as the interviewer: 
  • 3 women were willing to tell me their stories in a candid private interview but stipulated from the start they were not for publication. Dianne had ‘a horror of public self-disclosure’, Elizabeth ‘did not want her life to be public knowledge’ and Patricia was ‘reluctant to commit herself publicly’. 
  • 1 woman, Barbara, was a reluctant participant from start to finish. We met cordially, but she was guarded and prickly and unwilling to provide a story or answer the MBTI. 
  • 4 women prepared their own stories without needing my input although, for Anne, the process of preparing her story ‘had been quite painful’. Carole sent hers from overseas. Nora turned up to our meeting with a delightful and unconventional version of her life and Sandra sent me her thoughts in instalments before subsequently editing these into her completed account. 
  • 4 women accepted my version of their stories virtually intact. Catherine said ‘Thanks – I really appreciate your accuracy & insight’. Olivia said ‘Thanks for my chapter. I really laughed when I read it. It was certainly me talking. You got it word for word.’ Penelope had no issues with her story and Rose was indifferent to hers, saying ‘it will do’. 
  • 4 women made slight amendments to my draft of interview. Eleanor said ‘You have represented what I said very well – my changes are mainly matters of detail and of emphasis’. Irene said that she and her children decided it did not really sound like her talking but her husband, who had overheard our interview, pointed out to her that it was not meant to be ‘that kind of story’ and she was eventually satisfied with a few refinements. Mary responded that the draft ‘contents are very close to what was said, with a few amendments please, as outlined below’. Sarah said ‘It was interesting seeing myself and I haven’t taken fright’. She marked some changes on her draft and elaborated on a point where I’d asked her for more details. 
  • 6 women rewrote their own stories after seeing my draft of the interview. For Frances it was ‘a much more time-consuming task than I had at first envisaged’. Kerry rewrote hers because ‘the facts are right but the emotions are lacking’. Lynette was shocked into taking the exercise seriously when ‘my life experiences suddenly leapt out in black and white from the page’. Margaret said ‘the copy of your story did what earlier requests failed to do – it sent me straight off to write my own version’. Robyn was prompted by my version to overcome her own procrastination, saying ‘I started writing ‘my story’ last year and have had a couple more goes at it recently and think that this is what I’d like printed’. Susan was ‘rather startled’ seeing her life through my eyes and decided to write her own version. 
  • 2 women refused to have their stories used after seeing my draft. Jennifer & Helen wrote me a letter which I printed in full in my book. Some of their comments were ‘your lack of literary style distresses us’ and ‘we feel your personal prejudices show through clearly in our stories, lending your writing a patronising tone’. Helen later apologised in writing, saying that when she re-read her own story it was just ‘too full of painful memories’. 
  • 1 woman, Gail, shouted at me over the phone that my draft of the interview with her contained ‘total inaccuracies and inventions’ which she was not interested in correcting, preferring to criticise my writing style. She also took great exception to my original idea for pseudonyms: ‘everyone in Australia, except you, knows that in the Greek myths women were just waiting to be seduced by men’. I was not seeking conflict and regretfully decided not to use her story in the book. I’d already decided, too, to go with Anglo-Celtic pseudonyms, reflecting the ‘ethnic’ composition of our group. 
Having revisited that era of my life for this article and having reviewed the statistics above, what strikes me is how personally-inhibited we were in the 1990s. We were intent on not letting people know who we were. Even the more extraverted ones tended to be introverts. Was it me, as the interviewer, creating these reactions? Why didn’t we Luceat lux vestra? (Let your light shine.) Did we take our old school motto Facta non verba (Deeds, not words) too much to heart? If I asked those of us still alive to participate again, would we remain such shrinking violets today? The GSV session on Oral History has got me thinking. Thanks, Jenny. 

Note: A few copies of Brainboxes are still available via my website. OR, you can check on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website to find the various public libraries which hold copies of this book.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

My Fifty Year 'Journey of the Mind' Concerning Aborigines

Sketch by Julia Woodhouse, the author's mother
Growing up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area as one of the first ‘Babyboomers’, the closest I came to an awareness of Aborigines was at my old secondary school, located at Narrabeen. The suburb's name has aboriginal origins, more than we realised as we were all ignorant, then, about 'Narrabeen man'. He is the oldest aboriginal skeleton yet found in Sydney, forensically diagnosed as a 4,000-yr-old murder victim, his story now forming a history module for schools. 

Narrabeen Girls High School no longer exists. It has morphed into a school with a different name, look and role, but our surprisingly inclusive school song with its 'call to arms' school motto in the last line, lives on in my memory:
Out amid the flannel flowers
Bare plains swept by sea winds clean
Newest, happiest of our high schools
Proudly rises Narrabeen
Where our native people gathered
Where they danced corroborees
Young Australians climb Parnassus
On the plains of Narrabeen
New Australians, old Australians
Proudly loyal to one queen
Work together, strive together
Facta Non Verba, Narrabeen
Without realising it, as kids we absorbed the ethos of our environment, the same environment which 'speaks' to our first peoples: the lake we crossed each day on our way to school, the creek behind our school which sometimes flooded us out, the craggy bushland behind our house where we played, the rhythmic sounds of the surf, the grit of the sand between our toes, the twittering, carolling and squawking of the birds, the ear-drum piercing locusts, the snakes we feared, goannas too, and the annoying ticks we dealt with. Not to mention the power of the sun (sunburn) and those brilliant, mind-blowing star-filled southern hemisphere skies on clear nights. We gradually absorbed the sense of ‘place’, of belonging to this land and its landscape, that indigenous citizens are born with.

We grew up taking for granted the cadence of the aboriginal language. Narrabeen and Bennelong rolled off our tongues. My parents lived for some years in Wallumatta Rd, Newport. In the 1970s I was co-founder of the Cameragal Montessori School at North Sydney – a deliberate choice of name by our committee. I quickly adapted to the renaming of Ayers Rock as Uluru. With my then-husband Bill we developed a paddock at Yea into a farm and we called it "Billalooa Farm". I've never been called 'Lou' in my life but we loved the sound of that name.

Aged 19, I graduated from the University of Sydney on the same day in May 1966 that Charlie Perkins graduated as one of the first indigenous Australians to obtain a university degree. I distinctly remember the huge applause for him. I also remember the claim, on the day itself, that he was ‘the first’ - not ‘one of the first’.

Dubbo Revisited, Jan 1987
The University of Sydney is a big place and I didn't know Charlie personally. I had my first direct contact with Aborigines the following year, teaching mathematics at South Dubbo High School in 1967. (Dubbo is yet another of the countless place names in Australia with aboriginal origins.) At that time a child's IQ was recorded after their name on each teacher’s class roll and beside the name of an aboriginal girl in 1A was the rare high score of 135+. (As was my own, I discovered later.) I wish I hadn’t been so young (twenty) and inexperienced, both as a teacher and a human being. At the time I did pay extra attention to her, somehow recognising her vulnerability but, looking back, I see that she was completely stranded, expected to perform well intellectually in 1A while all of her social life as a young teenager was with her aboriginal friends in 1D. By the start of her second year of high school she’d stopped trying and was coasting along down in the D stream with her friends. She’d chosen emotional comfort over intellectual challenge and the possibilities of a bright future because she had no-one to help her take the leap out of her comfort zone. I left Dubbo at the end of 1968 and have always wondered what happened to that bright young girl.

Voting Poster, 1967
The three year electoral cycle meant that my voting life began during that first year in Dubbo, on this day back in 1967. Like so many others, I can remember being shocked, once it was drawn to our attention, that Aborigines were not counted as people in the census and that Federal Parliament was required to treat them differently and had to make special laws about them. These were the issues prompting the Referendum. One of the leading aboriginal activists for reform was Faith Bandler, who lived in a suburb not far from my childhood home. Regretfully, I never met her.

It was exhilarating to see the vote passed so resoundingly with just over 90% support, astounding to see that it didn’t have 100% support. We felt so proud of ourselves, overcoming that long-held prejudice. I think the most significant, and heartening, comment made on Stan Grant's ABC program ‘Counted’ last night came from Millie Ingram who said “and the 90% are still there”. That's true. We are.

Kainantu, PNG, c 1969
Subsequently I spent five years living at close quarters with a different indigenous population in Papua New Guinea, and I lived in England and Hong Kong for lengthy periods as well as Melbourne and several country towns in Victoria. These varied experiences have definitely pushed me out of my own comfort zone on a regular basis and I think the notion of ‘comfort zone’ is very relevant to progressing the aboriginal cause. Changes in your thinking and your habits come upon you gradually, as you make connections and the pieces start to slot together. Radical change is harder to accept.

Paul Bushell & David Brown Grave Restoration Event,
Wilberforce Cemetery, 22 Nov 2015
Somehow the significance of the land rights movement passed me by, as the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966 and Whitlam's iconic actions in 1975 all happened when I was preoccupied with other major matters in my personal life. In the 1990s I became involved with Swinburne University and was exposed for the first time to the custom, at official functions, of paying respect to the elders of the land on which we stood. It seemed very strange at first, but now I’ve said similar words myself at a public function. My words meant something to me and my audience too, as we were standing on land at Wilberforce, NSW, site of many interactions between the incoming settlers and the indigenous population in the 1790s. The custom of acknowledging the original landholders has become well-entrenched and well-accepted in our society: two weeks ago my nephew was married at The Spit in Sydney and the celebrant paid our respects before the outdoor ceremony began.

Book published Jan 2009
The 1992 Mabo decision about native title preceded my astounding discovery that I was the descendant of a First Fleeter. Robert Forrester was one of the earliest recipients of a land grant at Windsor on the Hawkesbury River.

In the frontier war which followed, his experiences with the indigenous population are well-documented in my own book about him, and in other books. I had to think long and hard about his trial for the murder of an aboriginal boy in 1794. The discovery of this unpleasant historical fact had a profound effect on me. As my book concludes:
This was indeed a serious matter. He was the first person tried in Australia for the murder of an aborigine. When he shot and killed that aboriginal boy at the Hawkesbury in October 1794, his fear of the physical threat posed by aborigines to the lives of himself, his pregnant wife and his daughter would have been paramount during a frontier war. Generations of Americans have grown up on stories of ‘how the west was won’, replayed in countless ‘cowboys and Indians’ movies, and this was Australia’s version of the same sad tale.
Hopefully Robert’s testimony was correct and he played no part in the boy’s torture. There is no further evidence that he was personally involved in any of the mistreatment endured by aborigines. In the context of cruelties and injustices suffered by the local aborigines, much of his ‘poor press’ was apparently guilt by association.
His descendants no doubt feel a range of emotions at their direct links to the aboriginal land rights issue, and the continuing slaughter of aborigines set in train by the arrival of the British, and may be more than willing to say ‘Sorry’, but there is little that can be done today to reverse what happened back then.
Despite my own connections to what some call 'Invasion Day', I don’t harbour guilt and I don't agree with the notion that we should change the day we celebrate Australia Day. The large number of Australians descended from First Fleeters under the governorship of Arthur Phillip have a lot to be proud of too. I applaud the stance of young Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who believes the future is more important than the past. She’s looking for practical measures to improve the lot of her disadvantaged kinsmen, not symbolism. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I won’t labour the point here. 

This week’s gathering at Uluru, a place I’d love to visit, has prompted me to focus again on the position of our First Peoples. Like everyone else I know, I’ve been dismayed for years at their situation, as reported in the media, and aboriginal politics are as fraught with unedifying division as every other kind of politics in this country. We don’t hear enough about the programmes which are working to improve the quality of aboriginal lives. In this, and so many other aspects of Australian life, we chop and change too much and don’t stick to anything long enough to make it work. Sometimes we need to persevere with a course of action for ten or twenty years to achieve noticeable results, but that timeframe far exceeds the political and funding cycle in this country.

Clearly some programmes are working well, as there is an obvious and growing middle class of educated Aborigines, many in positions of responsibility and effective community leadership. Education has unlocked the doors to opportunity. Aborigines are taken seriously in many fields of endeavour, as state governorpoliticians and public servantsdoctorslawyerswriters and journalists, and sporting stars, for example, and have carved a much more visible place in our society. Who could forget Cathy Freeman at the 2000 Olympic Games? Once heard, how could you ever forget the sound of the didgeridoo reverberating around Westminster Abbey in London?  Artfashionmusic, the performing arts and Landcare schemes now have distinctive themes in Australia because of the creative input of people with indigenous heritage.

For their kinsmen who are still at the margins of modern Australian society, I believe it’s a mistake to have special departments responsible for aboriginal affairs. Doesn't it just perpetuate the original divide in the Australian constitution? If mainstream departments of health, education, housing, social welfare and justice had to be held fully accountable for the welfare of everyone, regardless of their background, we could possibly make more progress in allocating better resources to isolated and disadvantaged indigenous groups. As it is, it seems to be too easy to palm off their problems onto someone else, some other agency.

I have to say that I share what's reported to be 'white' Australia's general agreement with Noel Pearson, who's been saying for years that Aborigines need to take personal responsibility for their lives. ‘Woe is me’ is not the answer. As a woman growing up and surviving in chauvinistic Australia, I’m very familiar with that feeling of disadvantage and unfairness, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. Nor does whingeing about it. You just have to take practical steps, when and where you can, to overcome it.

Reconciliation Walk
The Reconciliation Walk by 250,000 people across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000 proved that people care about the indigenous population of this nation.

Prime Minister Rudd’s ‘Sorry’ speech of 2008 was long overdue and smoothed a balm over many troubled spirits.

Our history is being re-written. Amazing books like The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage, and Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, are changing our thinking on the true history of this country. Films like the ABC's screening of The Secret River have made me angry at the careless distortions of our history since 1788 which keep old wounds festering. Broad-ranging scholarship is re-examining other aspects of our colonial history and I'll be incorporating the correct name for the aboriginal tribes of the Hawkesbury, the Darkiñung, when my Forrester book is next reprinted.

As I look back over fifty years of my own 'journey of the mind', I see that our First Peoples have made giant strides forward in gaining both community acceptance and community recognition of, and pride in, their impressive achievements. Australians generally have embraced the aboriginal 'story'. But for further progress to be made with closing various socio-economic gaps in life outcomes experienced by sections of our indigenous population, the old motto from my Narrabeen days continues to apply – Facta non verba. Deeds, not words. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - a classic in the making

Earlier this year I posted to my Facebook page ‘What were the Americans thinking when they elected this creature? Or didn't turn up en masse to vote against him?’

Of course I was referring to Donald Trump, the man who has behaved very badly in so many ways in his private life, the aggressive man who heaped outrageous statement upon outrageous statement during his public campaign, the man who appeared blithely ignorant of the duties of the Presidential role he coveted, yet was adored by so many of his countrymen and women. 

After reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance I think I now understand why. Millions of voters in vast swathes of America think Trump’s style of behaviour is okay because extreme behaviour, much worse than his, is their daily norm. They know no better. Trump is one of them, one of their tribe. Experiencing daily conflict in their own lives, they 'get' him. You feel that Vance too self-identifies with Trump's style, although Trump isn't mentioned in the book, published in the middle of 2016.

Vance is clearly intelligent and intuitive but I was impressed that such a powerful memoir could be so well written by someone just past his 30th birthday. He acknowledges large numbers of people providing helpful input to the manuscript, but his own insights into his cultural origins, his own life and himself are quite amazing for such a young man. He paints an indelible picture of place, although I had to get out my atlas to understand the locations of the towns and roads he mentioned.

Vance ventured into territory I would never dare to enter, as a  family history writer myself. My characters are all long dead and buried. He writes about his sister, his mother and other living relatives, providing very personal details of their lives. But you get the feeling, as you read, that they have given him explicit or implicit permission to reveal their lives, as if they understand and approve of the potential influence of his book on their wider society. 

When you contemplate how the lifestyles Vance describes can ever be improved or, dare I say it,  ‘fixed’, you can’t get past several fundamental ideas. The first is the transformative power of at least one stable, loving adult during your childhood. By the time Vance came into the world his maternal grandparents had matured enough to act as his ‘rock’, in their own extraordinary way. However they’d failed their own children and Vance’s mother spent her entire adult life looking for love in all the wrong places and finding consolation in chemicals. 

The second is the power of individual temperament. Siblings experiencing the same atrocious circumstances in a family will often handle them quite differently, so that some survive, like Vance’s Aunt Wee, and some go under, like Vance’s mother. The importance of ongoing outside help and support in adulthood became obvious in this book. The only members of Vance’s extended family who developed stable, happy marriages were those who married people from other places and other socio-economic groups, people who expected something different and better from the relationship patterns prevailing in the author’s family. Vance's Aunt Wee and his sister Lindsay found supportive partners and Vance himself married a San Francisco girl from a South Asian, Hindu family, a girl he met at Yale. 

The third is that knowledge is power. Poverty is portrayed as an engrained way of thinking and Vance's journey to Yale Law School and beyond is a case study in itself. Vance’s family were not shirkers and did not lack brain power but did not know how to work ‘the system’. At least his grandparents pressured him to take school seriously. He eventually saw that education and mentoring and the contacts he made as he reached adulthood created his pathway out to a calmer, better, happier life. 

The book reminded me of two other searing depictions of life in the underclasses of society, ‘Manchild in the Promised Land’ (Claude Brown writing about childhood as an African-American in Harlem, New York) and ‘Angela’s Ashes’ (Frank McCourt writing about his miserable Irish Catholic childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland). I couldn’t help but think of this story translated to an Australian setting, where the most obvious disadvantaged cultural group would be our Aborigines. Vance's story of one man’s life has wide applicability. 

This book is a page-turner. I read it in one sitting. Hillbilly Elegy will surely become a classic.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A Realist on 'The Crown'

The Crown, Series 1 – irresistible, binge-inducing TV. Full marks are due to the writer, Peter Morgan, for the convincing intellectual component and brilliant dialogue in this gripping series on Netflix, covering the young Queen Elizabeth’s life. Although it is superbly cast, memorably acted, lavishly set and beautifully filmed, his intelligent script made the series.

Its ten episodes have reignited my enormous respect for the Queen. The burden laid on a young woman’s shoulders when the English crown landed on her head was heavy. The way she handled her sudden responsibilities was understandably hesitant at first, but always admirable. The show has generated my enormous sympathy too, for the marital pressure placed on the Queen and her husband when she inherited the monarchy in her early days as a wife and mother. Now that I better understand the indignities suffered by Prince Phillip, he has gone up in my estimation as the loyal supporter of his wife in her role for more than six decades, despite his own high-testosterone nature. In a world obsessed with self-gratification and ‘rights’ rather than responsibilities, The Crown should be mandatory viewing for today’s young people.

Some of my own earliest memories are of the Queen. Perhaps it’s no wonder, as she was the spur for the one-and-only excursion ever organised by my primary school. That was on a hot summer’s day in 1954, when we lined up behind barricades at North Sydney Oval, waving our paper flags. That fleeting  glimpse of the Queen is recalled by Miles Farwell who was present on that day. That 1954 day, imprinted on my memory, came to life again in 1981 when Prince Charles' engagement to Diana Spencer was announced. Because I happened to be working in London at the time, I took my own young daughter to stand with the crowd outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, as a once-in-a-lifetime experience which she still recalls. (The two of us waved no flags, though.)

I remember, too, 5th class in Sydney in 1956, when we kids fearfully looked out the windows of our classroom, waiting for the bombs to start dropping on us, as the Suez crisis took over the news of the day. And I remember the front page stories and newsreel items at the local flicks about poor Princess Margaret and her ill-fated romance with Peter Townsend. After watching The Crown, the Church of England into which I was baptised and later confirmed has lost even more of my once-held affection.

True, there have been moments in the Queen’s long reign when she has looked stern, disapproving and unsmiling in public and she has not been my favourite human being – but never have I doubted the magnificence of her achievement as the archetype of duty, often performed under fire but always with steadfastness, grace and total discretion. This series provides everyone with a useful role model for qualities of character which seem increasingly rare in today’s world.

The contrast with her dutiful approach to the job, no matter the personal price she paid, compared vividly with her uncle David's preference for his personal life with Wallis Simpson. Mind you, when you think about the lack of emotional warmth given to him by his parents it's no wonder he tried to repair the damage of his childhood by seeking love in his adult life, paying the price of a lifelong virtual exile from his homeland and a hankering for his former, brief role as King Edward VIII. The Queen benefitted in childhood from a happy family life with her own parents and had a strong role model, her father, to help her chart her own course as monarch although it came much earlier than anyone expected.

As an Australian, I’ve tended to sit on the fence about the monarchy. It's true, like millions in every country around the world, I love to watch the Royal 'show', all those televised royal spectacles demonstrating how well the British do 'pomp and circumstance'. That does not make me a Royalist. Despite my statements in earlier paragraphs, I don’t describe myself as a 'Monarchist'. I recognise that it is an anachronism to have an English person living on the other side of the world as our official head of state, albeit represented in Australia by an Australian Governor-General.

Yet I don’t describe myself as a 'Republican' either.

I’m a Realist. I simply don’t want to rock the boat of my country’s current constitutional status as I don’t trust the proponents who are keen to change it. The previous cheer-leader Malcolm Turnbull has proved he lacks integrity as our national leader. Current champion of the cause, Peter Fitzsimons of red-bandana fame, lacks intellectual status, gravitas and dignity. Australian Republicans seem unable to give us examples of successful republics overseas, and unable to develop a clearly-articulated template which is well-enough considered and formulated that it can be supported by both sides of politics and the general community.

Even if such a template could be agreed, in our current barren and highly-unstable political climate I don’t trust any government-appointed committee which might be charged with suggesting candidates for the job as an Australian head of state. Who would they pick? Who understands the role and is big enough to perform it? In a world ruled by ‘celebrity’, money and the peddling of power and influence, do we even have a suitable pool of contenders? Other than Dame Marie Bashir who is now too old for the job, I cannot think of anyone in Australian public life who comes near the Queen’s example as a role model and who enjoys the respect and genuine affection of a wide cross-section of the public.

Until such a person can be identified, I prefer the status quo and I don’t mind if it continues through the lives of my grandchildren. Lack of trust is my core problem. Should Prince Charles become our next official head of state when the Queen eventually dies, and then Prince William, and perhaps even Prince George, at least I can trust that they will have been well-trained for the job. My admiration for the Queen has been enhanced by her willingness to learn from her own early married life: she seems to be granting 'space' from many official duties so that her eventual successor, Prince William, can develop strong emotional links with his wife and children while they are young, to help them withstand the pressures which will come later in their lives.

This post began with a tribute to a writer, Peter Morgan, and reminds me of several clichés - that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and the right words can ‘move mountains’. Thank you, Peter Morgan, for presenting a story which made me think about something important and helped me to formulate my own views. The right words can be crucial in shaping community views.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hume Highway Addiction

Hume Freeway sign, Melbourne
On the road again - in a few minutes. In another life I must have been a long-distance truckie. Answering the call of family, I regularly drive up and down the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney. Ten times last year. Today's journey will be the fifth time so far this year.

Here's that daunting sign as I leave Melbourne's Metropolitan Ring Road and join the Hume, having already driven about 30km from South Melbourne.

I've flown to Sydney a few times in recent months, due to time pressures (e.g. getting to a funeral in time), but flying is such a hassle! Taxi to Skybus, bus to the airport, hanging around the airport, flying, wait-wait-waiting for bags, walking miles to catch the train at Sydney airport, mucking around in ticket queues topping up my Opal, train to Circular Quay, getting to Manly on the ferry, trailing my bag up the hill to my daughter's. From start to finish it generally takes me about 6 hours. By contrast, driving door-to-door can be achieved in 9 1/4 hours (at best) but .... I can listen to music all the way, petrol costs for my small car plus toll charges are vastly cheaper than the air fare and I have my car to use in Sydney.

Yes, all this fits in my small car
And this here's another reason why I often drive rather than fly - I need to transport lots of miscellaneous 'stuff' up and down. This is what came back with me last time! Some of it mine, some for other people.

Most people think the Hume is really boring but it's a great road and I never fail to find something of interest. The beautiful cloud formations and colours in our big skies at various times of day are amazing, especially at twilight and dusk. I don't have any sunset pics of my own (solo drivers can't take shots out the window at 110kph) but here's someone else who lives close to the Hume and loves these skies.

I'd forgotten how dry is the landscape between the two cities until I drove from Melbourne to Port Macquarie and return recently, a distance of 2,500 km. On the Hume you cross three 'major' rivers, the Murray at Albury/Wodonga, the Murrumbidgee at Gundagai and the serpentine course of the Nepean several times near Sydney. All  have big, culturally-significant names ... but small flows, except in rare flood-times. Apart from the signs on the bridges, you scarcely register the presence of these rivers as you hurtle across them at 110kph.

(P.S. After a subsequent trip to Sydney, during a very wet winter, a few extra rivers in Victoria reminded me of their existence - the Goulburn, Broken & Ovens, all of which were overflowing.)

Hastings River at Port Macquarie
North of Sydney it's a different story. The Hawkesbury River and sandstone country give way to the Hunter River and all the majestic rivers and lush valleys north of Newcastle. You barely emerge from one river catchment before the next vista astonishes you. Even the minor rivers and creeks, with names unfamiliar to me, were bountiful. At Port Macquarie, the Hastings River becomes a broad estuary as it reaches the sea. All that water. At the time, it was a beautiful sight for parched eyes.

Water beside Hume Highway, June 2016
Last time I drove to Sydney it was late in June. For a change we've had a wet winter, gumboot weather. The water lying in paddocks alongside the Hume was a view so rare that I even stopped to take a photo. Ten weeks later the farmers are cursing this year's non-stop wet winter.

'Broad Leaf Wattle & Honey Flower', Margaret Flockton
I wonder what I'll see on my journey today. Lots of wattles in bloom, I expect. It's a specutacular sight all along the Hume at this time of year., worthy of tourist promotion. The ocasional gaps in the display need attention by local councils or the Main Roads Dept.

One of the reasons for my trip this time is to give a talk on Thursday at the Stanton Library in Sydney about my forthcoming book on the botanical artist Margaret Flockton. For details of that book, click here. Let me know if you'd like to join the waiting list for the book, due out in November 2016.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Fromelles and Pozières, 1916

Paying Tribute to Fallen Soldiers,
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
We are about to commemorate the Battle of the Somme, that horrendous five month period of 1916 when 1.1 million soldiers were killed or wounded on the Western Front – lives wasted, for no appreciable gain by either side.

My grandmother's two brothers (just) survived this experience, so naturally I was attracted to Peter Fitzsimons' latest publication: 'Fromelles and Pozières: in the Trenches of Hell'. These two battles were the two definitive experiences for Australian troops in 1916 and far exceeded the horrors of 1915's Gallipoli.

On 9 March 2016 at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne the author spoke at length on this topic … without notes, an impressive performance as a feat of memory. He emphasised that his goal with the book was for his team of researchers to find every possible bit of evidence which would show, not tell, what it was like to be in those trenches. My gentlemanly great uncles had often glossed over the ‘showing’ bit in an amazing set of wartime letters they wrote, so I bought a copy of the Fitzsimons book.

For someone looking for more information about an important moment in our history, the book was worth reading although frequently irritating for its over-the-top blokiness. The author tried to give a day by day account of developments, with the Australian war correspondent Charles Bean clearly the author’s personal hero and guiding light. Inclusion of German archival material added interest. It was disappointing that, as usual, the focus was almost exclusively on the exploits and experiences of various infantry units. The overall role of the artillery in that appalling was frequently mentioned but quotes from, and recounting the experiences of, individuals in the artillery units were scarce. The book’s military unit jargon, its relentless blood & gore and the 'rah rah, Aussies' content so beloved of a vehemently-Republican author, became so overwhelming that, when I reached the end of the 689 pages of text, I needed to deconstruct it.

The first 272 pages traverse the first six months of 1916. After the Australian troops were evacuated from Gallipoli (in December 1915) they were regrouped, reinforced and ‘prepared’ for service on the Western Front. Lost within the book’s myriad details is their underlying structure. This is important to understand, as Fitzsimons spends much of the book castigating senior military leaders.  To summarise, Australian forces in 1916 were organised as two armies:
  • 1 Anzac Corps, commanded by the English General Sir William Birdwood, comprising the experienced Gallipoli veterans of the 1st Division (led by Englishman General Harold Walker) and 2nd Division (led by Australian General James Legge).
  • 2 Anzac Corps commanded by another Englishman, General Alexander Godley, comprising the newly-formed 4th Division (led by Englishman Major-General Sir Herbert Cox) and 5th Division (led by Australian Major-General Sir James McCay).
(The Australian Brigadier-General John Monash’s new 3rd Division did not arrive in France until November 1916, long after the battles at Fromelles and Pozières.)

The two Australian armies were under the overall control of British High Command, the infamous British General Sir Douglas Haig and his various underlings. Their gross failures make me glad not to be a descendant of any of them. Too much blood on their hands.

On their arrival in France (from late March 1916 onwards) the Anzac forces were posted to the so-called ‘nursery sector’ near Fromelles in Flanders. Supposedly, not much fighting was happening there; both sides were just holding their lines. Meanwhile, the Battle of the Somme further south was being planned. It commenced on 1 July. Right from the start, it did not go well. Extra troops were needed. The experienced Australians of the 1st and 2nd Divisions and those in the newly-formed 4th Division were moved down to the Somme, leaving the newly-arrived 5th Division to take their place near Fromelles, around 11 July.

The next 230+ pages cover the debacle of 24 hours at Fromelles on 19 & 20 July 1916. Our rookie foot soldiers and artillery gunners had only just arrived in France, yet they were picked to attack crack German troops, well-entrenched for more than a year, intimately familiar with the territory and in an impregnable position. I reached the end of that single day & night battle feeling as angry as the author. The role played by Haig’s underling, the British Lieut-General Sir Richard Haking, in sending the raw recruits of the 5th Division on his ill-judged mission to inevitable slaughter was criminal, even worse than the orders given at Gallipoli. McCay, the Australian in charge of the 5th Division, was equally despicable for not permitting the truce offered by the Germans so that his desperately-injured men could be retrieved from No Man's Land.

Now for the Somme, where Haig's underling General Hubert Gough was calling the shots at Pozières. Frequently I found myself comparing the Fitzsimons account with that of my great uncle Stephen Boulton, whose letters show that Australia’s six week involvement in the Pozières campaign began the day after the Fromelles slaughter. Bombardier Stephen Boulton's artillery unit (within the 21st Field Artillery Brigade of the 1st Division) began bombarding the German troops at Pozières at 10pm on 20 July. The Australian infantry’s brilliant success in capturing the village of Pozières is quietly confirmed when Stephen’s letter of 23 July is headed ‘in a German trench’. Even General Haig admitted 'the capture of Pozières by the Australians would live in history.' (Fitzsimons, p 597.) Stephen and his fellow gunners participated continuously in the greatest artillery barrage of all time until 7 August when the exhausted, deaf and shell-shocked men were briefly rested away from the front line carnage. The three Australian divisions were rotated ‘in the line’, during which time Stephen received a field promotion to Corporal, until Stephen's artillery unit was relieved slightly ahead of the 1st Division's infantry and sent back to Flanders on 27 August for a 'rest'.
Unveiling the Memorial to 1st Division, Pozières, 8 July 1917. Source IWM 02598
 The Australian troops eventually won possession of the Pozières windmill, the highest ground for miles, although it ‘marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth’. (Fitzsimons, p 661, quoting Bean.) One Australian on this battleground accused the British Generals of murder and blamed the extreme level of casualties on ‘the incompetence, callousness and personal vanity of those high in authority’. (Fitzsimons, p 614.) Pozières was a huge strategic win for the Allies in 1916 and I wonder why so few Australians have even heard about this great victory. It seems that we prefer to celebrate our military failures. Even in Fitzsimons’ massive tome the six weeks at Pozières warranted only 150 pages. Perhaps this was because the author and his researchers were mining the voluminous literature published about the 24 hours at Fromelles.

Fitzsimons tries to follow individual soldiers so that we engage with them emotionally but it’s often hard to keep track of so many characters and so many vignettes. My own book about #WW1 (Brothers in Arms: The Great War Letters of Captain Nigel Boulton R.A.M.C. & Lieut Stephen Boulton, A.I.F.) follows only two men through the entire war. It’s less militarily detailed, less bloody, much gentler, and a much shorter first hand account (although more sweeping in its coverage, from August 1914 through to February 1919 and beyond) but equally sad and moving.

In his Epilogue of 30+ pages, Fitzsimons reviews the fate of various officers and men featured in the story. Needless to say, most of the ‘bad guys’ were honoured and most of the ‘good guys’ suffered.

The underlying story woven into 'Fromelles and Pozières: in the Trenches of Hell' is shocking. Whichever way they learn of it, more Australians need to know it – especially the story of our amazing victory at Pozières, against the odds. 

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Sydney's Orgy Myth - 6 February 1788

All writers of history know how hard it is to swim against the tide of a conventional wisdom repeated over and over in a range of books. Once something is committed to the page, people tend to think of it as gospel.

Take for instance, that famous ‘foundation story’ of Sydney – the story of what supposedly happened on the night the female convicts of the First Fleet set foot on the shores of New South Wales, on 6 February 1788. The orgy story.

In its original form it goes like this, thanks to the transcription of pp 94-96 of the journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, on the website of the State Library of New South Wales:
abt. 6 O'Clock p.m. we had the long wish'd for pleasure of seeing the last of them
[Page 95]
leave the Ship -- They were dress'd in general very clean & some few amongst them might be sd. to be well dress'd. The Men Convicts got to them very soon after they landed, & it is beyond my abilities to give a just discription of the Scene of Debauchery & Riot that ensued during the night --
They had not been landed more than an hour before they had all got their Tents pitched or anything in order to receive them, but there came on the most violent storm of thunder, lighteng. & rain I ever saw. The lighteng. was incessant during the whole night & I never heard it rain faster --
Abt. 12 o'Clock in the night one severe flash of Lightg. struck a very large tree in the centre of the Camp under wh. some places were constructed to keep the Sheep & Hogs in: it split the tree from top to bottom; kill'd 5 Sheep belonging to Major Ross & a pig of one of the Lieuts. -- The severity of the Lighteng. this & the 2 preceeding nights leaves no room to doubt but many of the trees wh. appear burnt up to the tops of them were the Effect of Lightening --
The Sailors in our Ship requested to have some Grog to make merry wt. upon the Women quitting the Ship indeed the Capt. himself had no small reason to rejoice upon their being all safely landed &: given into the Care of the Governor, as he was under the penalty of 40£ for every Convict that was missing -- for wh. reason he comply'd wt. the Sailor's request, & abt. the time they began to be elevated, the Tempest came on -- The Scene wh. presented itself at this time & during the greater part of the night, beggars every discription; some swearing, others quarrelling others singing, not in the least regarding the Tempest, tho' so violent
[Page 96]
that the thunder shook the Ship exceeded anything I ever before had a conception of. I never before experienced so uncomfortable a night expectg. every moment the Ship wd. be struck wt. the Lighteng. -- The Sailors almost all drunk & incapable of rendering much assistance had an accident happen'd & the heat was almost suffocating.
It never occurred to me, prior to publishing my book in January 2009, to look further than that quote and the orgy story enlivening the myriad of books already published about the early days of Sydney. Accordingly, this is what I said on page 43 of my book Robert Forrester, First Fleeter. I’m glad I pretty much stuck to the original source and did not embellish it, as most other writers have done:
Within ten days of the arrival of the newcomers, Sydney’s erratic summer weather made its first dramatic statement. A violent electrical storm on Monday 4 February struck a tree and split it down the middle.[1]
Two days later, in the evening of Wednesday 6 February, another of Sydney's violent electrical storms broke. This second storm arrived on the day the women convicts were allowed on shore for the first time. The storm erupted around 7pm, about an hour after the last of the women convicts were disembarked into longboats.[2] The women had left the transports ‘dress’d in general very clean & some few amongst them might be s’d to be well dressed [but the] men convicts got to them very soon after they landed’.[3]
For all intents and purposes, the two sexes had been segregated for months, and as the men pursued the women with but one thought on their minds, the wild storm illuminated a ‘scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night’.[4] It was the most violent storm of thunder, lightning and rain ever seen by one informed spectator.[5] About midnight lightning struck another tree in the centre of the camp, splitting it from top to bottom and killing five sheep and a pig housed in a shelter below it.[6]
Recently I had the pleasure of the company of Patricia Kennedy and her husband John at the annual lunch (in Melbourne) of the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies. We don’t meet often as they live on the Central Coast of NSW and I live in Melbourne. But as descendants of First Fleeters, we have plenty to talk about when we are together. While researching her recently-published book ‘Legacy of Andrew Goodwin and Lydia Monro’ she was forced to confront an important question. Was Lydia a prostitute, as the female convicts on the First Fleet are routinely portrayed? Over lunch, Patricia alerted me to a startling idea – the orgy story is not true.

Trying to understand Lydia, Patricia delved deeply into this orgy story, about which she subsequently wrote (but has not published) a paper entitled ‘Fact or Fiction’. She referred me to the work of historian Grace Karskens (recently published online as The Myth of Sydney’s Foundational Orgy’), who says that the orgy myth was demolished years ago by historian Marian Quartly, the independent thinker from Monash University in Melbourne. When so many officers and men on the First Fleet kept journals, from Governor Arthur Phillip down to John Easty, a seaman on the Scarborough, Marian wondered why only one of them ever thought to mention such a dramatic and salacious event as an orgy. That single diarist was the surgeon responsible for the welfare of the female convicts, Arthur Bowes Smyth, who spent the night of 6 February 1788 aboard the Lady Penrhyn.

Patricia informed me that this ship was not moored in Sydney Cove but well out in the harbour, so the surgeon could not possibly have been an eye witness. His journal entry attests to swearing, quarrelling and singing aboard his ship, but not to any sounds from the shore. No women screaming. (Although such a violent storm might have frightened anyone into screaming. ) Likewise, the surgeon made no reference to drunken convicts  - because they were not drunk - they were not issued with any alcohol until June 1788, as a special treat to celebrate the King’s birthday. It was the sailors aboard his ship who were drunk.

Sigh. I try to be accurate in what I write. This small section of my Forrester book (get your copy here) will now need to be amended, should I ever produce a second edition. Thank you, Patricia Kennedy, for being an interesting and enlightening lunch companion.

[1] Easty, First Fleet Journal, p 95
[2] Smyth, Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, p 67
[3] Ibid, p 67
[4] Ibid, p 67
[5] Ibid, p 67
[6] Ibid, p 67