Sunday, 31 May 2020

Coronavirus, South Melbourne Style, Autumn 2020

Australians won't easily forget the year 2020. It opened with the 'black summer' of catastrophic bushfires nationwide. Almost immediately the novel coronavirus named COVID-19 caused a global pandemic and the 'lockdown' of societies around the world, accompanied by #StayAtHome and #WashYourHands public health campaigns. So far, everyone living in Australia can be grateful that we live where we do, and not in the many other countries where the virus has raged out of control.

Thanks to the 'lockdown', a sense of community has grown in my street. My lovely neighbours know I live alone, with my daughter and grandkids in far-off Sydney. I'm on 'helping' terms already with three close neighbours but to date the young man living next door has just smiled, said hello and chatted briefly with me in the street. On the first day of the 'lockdown' he knocked on my door, offered help in case I needed it, and asked that we exchange phone numbers in case of an emergency.

Next day it was a 40-ish mother, with kids around the same age as my grandchildren and renting a house a few doors away. She put a note in my letter box, also offering help with shopping, spare toilet rolls and her phone number in case of need. So the 'black cloud' of social distancing required for COVID-19 also offers glimpses of a 'silver lining' by bringing some of us closer, emotionally, via small acts of random kindness.
It's hard to imagine that one day we may need some reminders of how things were during 2020. Just in case I forget, here's a small sample of 'the new normal' I've noticed during my walks to the South Melbourne shops and South Melbourne Beach during the autumn of 2020.
Queues of unemployed workers keeping their social distance
outside Centrelink, York St, South Melbourne, 26 March 2020
People quickly appreciate essential services workers, 6 April 2020
Doctors continue to operate, with strict infection control precautions in place
Trams follow normal timetable but are largely empty.
This tram is about to collect its only two passengers, 15 April 2020
Instructions at the entrance to Woolworths, South Melbourne
Hand sanitiser dispenser outside Woolworths, South Melbourne
Instructions for standing in queues at supermarket checkouts
My neighbour and I continue our regular, socially-distanced walks
from home via quiet suburban streets to South Melbourne Beach, which remains closed
20 May 2020 - Cafes have long since worked out ways to stay open,
organising takeaway menu displays and pickup tables outside their premises
Some cafes have moved their food offerings from the counter to the front window,
to tempt passers by during their daily walks, which are permitted for exercise reasons
No cafe tables with chairs are permitted outside - so cafe customers have to stand around,
well spaced out, to enjoy drinking their coffees in the welcome late autumn sunshine
A bit of pro-active, eye-catching marketing
outside the Hunky Dory fish shop in Clarendon St, South Melbourne
To enter this smash repair shop you first need to ring
the office number displayed on the notice
The Op-Shop for the Sacred Heart Mission at 365 Clarendon St
is still operating under limited conditions
Only the food stalls are allowed to operate inside South Melbourne Market.
Other stalls are barricaded off. The usual 'vibe' is sadly lacking.
'Ghost' stall holders inside South Melbourne Market
Staff holding hand counters control the traffic flow
into the Food Hall section inside South Melbourne Market
Customer control measures apply within the Food Hall of South Melbourne Market
One-way traffic flows apply even for stall holders on the outside of South Melbourne Market
Some residents have retained a sense of humour.
Public authorities are now employing teams of cleaning staff
for high touch points like railings, pedestrian buttons
Meanwhile, life goes on pretty much unchanged for a writer like me,
used to being tied to a desk day in and day out.
My latest book is 'Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', published in May 2020. It can be purchased online here.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Isabella Ramsay, Brave Colonial Woman

Isabella (Bella) Ramsay, a farm servant girl from Cumberland in England, made her mark on Australian history.

Found guilty of stealing wearing apparel in August 1790, sixteen-year-old Bella was incarcerated at the Carlisle Citadel. With English prisons being scoured for women of marriageable age who could be sent to the fledgling penal colony of New South Wales, she was scooped up. Women like Bella were needed as 'partners' for the preponderance of males who'd arrived in the colony on the First and Second Fleets.

She arrived in Sydney in July 1791 aboard the Third Fleet vessel Mary Ann, three months short of her eighteenth birthday. She was 'selected' by the First Fleet marine settler James Manning and in 1792 she married him but in 1793 she apparently exercised her free choice of partner. Manning gave up farming and returned to soldiering and she took up with Robert Forrester, an industrious First Fleet convict and a former member of Sydney’s night watch. Bella and Robert had nine children together.
Convicts in New South Wales, lithograph, 1793, Juan Ravenet,
from wash drawings collected by Felipe Bauza on the Spanish Scientific Expedition
to Australia and the Pacific, 1789-1794, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW
By August 1794 Bella and Robert were settled at the Hawkesbury where Bella was among the first white women pioneers to live on the frontier of settlement, unguarded by the soldiers living at Parramatta and Sydney Cove.
Detail from 'A View of the River Hawkesbury, NSW, c 1810’,
Watercolour drawing by John William Lewin,
Image a3531001, By Permission State Library of NSW
In October 1794, in the first case of its kind, Robert was ‘interviewed' at Parramatta by John Macarthur over the killing of an Aborigine at the Hawkesbury but no charges were laid.

In September 1799 Bella enters the history books in her own right. In front of her five young children, she played a prominent role in standing up to her neighbours (a group estimated to involve nine men including the local constable Edward Powell, her next-door neighbour) against the execution of three Aboriginal boys in her home. Robert Forrester was away at the time. Her neighbours ended up taking the boys away from her home and killed two of them while the third escaped.
Original sketch by Julia Woodhouse
The ensuing court case in October 1799 led to the first policeman in Australia’s history being charged and found guilty of killing an Aboriginal person. Powell was initially demoted but was eventually pardoned, as were the other four men charged. Despite many Aboriginal deaths in custody after that, his charge was the last for several hundred years, until a Queensland case in 2007.

Bella was rescued from the March 1806 floods at Windsor and was still alive when Marsden’s Muster of Women was recorded in August 1806 but seems to have died by early 1807, as her youngest child, an infant born in March 1806, was raised by foster parents (the Second Fleet convict Paul Bushell and his wife Jane Sharp).

Bella stands out as an early example of a courageous woman willing to stand her ground in a tough man’s world. In May 2020 she was accepted as a nomination for the Australian Dictionary of Biography's 'Colonial Women' project. It's to be hoped that she makes it through to the finals of the selection process.

Read her full story in 'Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', available from BookPOD.

Monday, 4 May 2020

My 13-yr-old granddaughter’s text diary of a COVID-19 experience?

Last week my granddaughter rediscovered in her phone a text diary sounding suspiciously like a COVID-19 experience. Everything she writes below, as a 13-year-old, came weeks before the world knew anything about COVID-19. If so, it shows the symptoms suffered by children and the transmission issues.
18 Dec 2019 - Leaves Sydney for Hong Kong to see her father. (She’s an unaccompanied minor, but she has made many international flights since infancy and lived in HK for eight years.)
23 Dec 2019 - Visit with father to Disneyland, Hong Kong. Disneyland is a major attraction for tourists from mainland China, many of whom travel via the transport hub at Wuhan. It is winter, people are coughing, standing in queues at Disneyland and gripping the rails and handles on all the rides.
26 Dec 2019 - Father sick.
27 Dec 2019 - ‘dad sick again so can’t do anything again today, he has a really high temperature and rlly sick so we didn’t do anything yesterday we just stayed home and he slept and I watched tv but he still sick today’
29 Dec 2019 - ‘maybe change my flight and stay in hong kong because dad's been sick and he’s only getting better now’
30 Dec 2019 – Li Wenliang warns his colleagues at Wuhan Central Hospital about possible outbreak of an illness resembling SARS (Source: Wikipedia)
31 Dec 2019 – Granddaughter getting sick? (very irritable in text exchanges with her mother)
31 Dec 2019 - Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, China, reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province. A novel coronavirus was eventually identified. (Source: WHO website)
2 Jan 2020 - Father out and about again but still unwell
3 Jan 2020 – The following was written on plane back to Sydney, so my granddaughter could tell her mother when she got home. She doesn’t ask the flight crew for help, or ask for a supply of tissues! Rediscovered in her notes on 28 April 2020 (with a few commas added by me to aid the reader):
so snotty!!!! whole jumper drenched, whole flight nose was leaking
short of breath, hard to breathe (feels like no oxygen, and shorter faster breaths) head feeling a bit warm all around with a headache mainly at front of head
random sneezing attacks – sneezing like 10 times in one minute, happened about 5 times on the flight, everyone a little pissed off
really tired, not like tired because of sleep but just really not there and can barely walk to bathroom because i feel so tired
sore throat and flemmy, not aching, just like coarse and dry but not dry because covered in flem and yucky snot 

nose and sore throat/chest main issue, nose dripping while i write this!!'
At Sydney Airport, 3 Jan 2020
3 Jan 2020 - text from queue at Sydney Airport Immigration to her mother waiting in the Arrivals Hall ‘i am [expletive] sick and i have to stand here for like 40 minutes i reckon'  Her mother asks ‘did you get a ticket for the automatic one?’ and granddaughter replies ‘no u have to be 16 … literally like heathrow … god I miss hk’
Returns home and sleeps for 24 hours. How many people did my granddaughter infect with her ‘bug’ on this flight and at Sydney airport? She said later that her Dad was much sicker than she ever was.
4 Jan 2020 - On social media WHO reports a cluster of pneumonia cases – with no deaths – in Wuhan, Hubei province. (Source: WHO website)’
4-9 Jan 2020 – In following days, granddaughter too sick to go to rowing training. One of her three brothers becomes noticeably unwell, while her mother and two other brothers feeling very tired. One brother sleeps for days.
10 -12 Jan 2020 – whole family at Rowing NSW Summer Regatta at Taree. A few days later my granddaughter’s rowing coach (fifty-plus) becomes ‘sicker than she’s ever been in her life’. Another girl who rowed with my granddaughter is also very sick.
12 Jan 2020 - China publicly shared the genetic sequence of COVID-19. (Source: WHO website)
13 Jan 2020 - Officials confirm a case of COVID-19 in Thailand, the first recorded case outside of China. (Source: WHO website)
16 Jan 2020 – My daughter and her four children have driven from Taree to visit friends in QLD and shortly afterwards one woman, in her forties, complains of being unwell and then also becomes ‘sicker than she’s ever been in her life’.
25 Jan 2020 – First reported case of COVID-19 in Australia – man returning to Victoria from Wuhan. (Source: Wikipedia)

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Quirky Genealogy

Every writer knows that the title of a book and the picture on the cover is crucial in attracting readers. Family history writers, too, are in the business of attracting readers, although their genre is a difficult one. A widespread view that family history books are 'boring' means its authors are too often bashful, humble and self-effacing about their work.

Stop right there .... we could be injecting a bit of fun into our titles.

Here are some witty examples from some published genealogical material:
  • A Lot about a Little, edited by John G Jennings
  • Over-Halling the Colony, George Hall - Pioneer, edited by Russell Mackenzie Warner
  • The family of Mann, by James Dargan
  • Pickett lines : descendants of Samuel Piggot/Pickett and Mary Thompson, by Penny Ferguson
  • Sailing on .... The Hibbs Line, by Allen Maunder
  • Lore of the Roses - Thomas and Jane Rose Family Descendants
  • In Morse Code: tracing the family histories of James, Charles & Edwin Morse who migrated to Van Diemen's Land between 1842 & 1855, by Alan F. Dyer.
  • Unravelling the Code: The Coads and Coodes of Cornwall and Devon, by Dr Joe Flood
  • Can't See the Woods .... for the Woods, the search for one Henry Woods, by Catherine Meyrick
Think of the fun you could have with book titles for the following family names:
  • Case Studies
  • The Wide Brown Land
  • Keen & Able
  • White Lies
  • Black Humour
  • Ridge Lines
  • Farr Horizons.
We family history researchers already know how to inject a bit of fun into, and find joy from, our work and how to share a bit of humour with others. For instance residents of Australia who were born overseas, yet the details of how or when they arrived can't be traced, are called ‘the swimmers’. Australians do love irony.

Some family history researchers actually make you laugh out loud. At an archives office in Sydney I’ll never forget one woman who discovered something unpalatable, a lie told to her by her father. She slammed the microfiche slide reader shut and shouted ‘If he was alive, I’d kill him'. Lovely black humour.

I'm trying to practise what I preach with my next book, 'Sentenced to Debt', due out in a few weeks. It's much more than a family history and is intended for general readers of Australian history. I've found a relevant cartoon-like picture to work into the cover. It depicts a scene at the Old Bailey in 1807, where a famous barrister named William Garrow was a noted defence counsel from 1783.
More miseries. Being nervous and cross examined by Mr Garrow, 1 Apr 1807, one of 49 etchings by Thomas Rowlandson, published on 1 Dec 1808 in ‘The Miseries of Human Life’ by R Ackermann, Repository of Arts, 101 Strand, London
While the book's title is not humorous, neither is it boring. It's somewhat quirky, as it has three meanings.
  • It's a play on words for the First Fleet convict Robert Forrester who was 'sentenced to death' at the Old Bailey in 1783. 
  • It describes the outcome of Robert's life in Australia, virtually sentenced to debt, resulting in a unique case study of an archetypal 'Aussie battler' coping with a string of natural disasters, and 
  • It recognises the debt all Australians must acknowledge as Aboriginal land was claimed by the Crown according to the terra nullius principle and given away, sold or leased to incoming settlers.
To purchase this forthcoming book, due out on 18 May 2020, click here.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Radar's and Thea's Running Away Book

About 40 years ago a little 'Mr Happy' booklet came home with my young daughter Thea after she'd spent the weekend with her Dad. The handwriting belonged to her stepsister Radar, a year older. I opened it with trepidation. Was I going to discover some unpleasant truths?
The lack of apostrophes on the title page was quickly ignored when page 2 proved they had no intention of getting lost. Radar helpfully provided her home address and phone number.
Thea wasn't quite sure of hers:
It was pleasing to see that the primary safety lesson instilled in both girls had been absorbed - 'stay together'. And it seems they were a bit scared of the dark.
They planned to keep warm:
And they did not intend to starve:
Hmm, we must have done something right as the parents of young children, as their food preferences were encouraging:
No squatting on the ground for this pair - chairs would be much more comfortable. I heaved a sigh of relief at this point as the 'pads and pencils' item proved they intended to stay in touch, even if they were running away.
They'd keep boredom at bay with a spot of reading, planned to keep themselves clean and, being good little Aussie kids, they knew they had to be Sun Smart.
No finger food for this pair - tableware was needed. By now it had almost reached the stage where a removalist would be needed to transport the load:
They paid impressive attention to personal grooming issues and first aid supplies:
They'd learned to count without making a mistake, even if their spelling was a little haphazard:
Craft activities were in order, with sticky tape, a pencil sharpener, a rubber and glue on the list. And last but not least was the most important thing, made evident during this COVID-19 pandemic:

It was a relief to reach the end and discover that they just wanted an adventure. No mention of wicked stepmothers or stepfathers.

This little booklet remains one of my treasured possessions. I love it. Thank you girls. Now that COVID-19 has struck and you're confined to barracks with your own children, I hope this story will amuse them for a moment or two. 

Monday, 16 December 2019

Writing Family History to be Read

'Writing to be Read' was the focus of a talk on 15 November at the GSV by Richard Broome, Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University. The author of many academic works, he is also the co-author of 'Entwined Lives', a family history for his wife's family.

If he writes family history even half as well as he speaks, we audience members were lucky to be the beneficiaries of his advice.

He began with the assumption that your writing needs to have an audience – not just you. You need to decide who your real or imagined reader will be and write for that reader.

You also need to decide how you will position yourself within the story. Will you be an anonymous story teller, objective and distant, or will you make this story personal to you?

To engage others with your story, you need to find the fire, rekindle the delight and the spirit of enquiry that you felt at the start of your journey into family history, before you spent years bogged down in the digging process.

As you begin the serious business of writing down the story you've finally excavated from various sources, you need to decide how to begin the story. At the end? At a watershed moment? At the time of a significant encounter? You need to imagine your story with a stimulating title, a table of contents containing interesting chapter headings and a desired word count and completion date. This overview approach will help retain your focus as you write. Professor Broome told us that once he commits to the actual writing of history he treats it as a 'project management' task.

We all know that writing is not easy, with different genres of writing containing their own challenges. He compared the writing of History and Genealogy with the writing of Fiction in the following way:
History and Genealogy is easier than Fiction in that
  • writer’s block is easier to avoid, 
  • facts exist to be explained and 
  • the storyline is more evident.  
History and Genealogy is harder than Fiction because
  • you cannot make it up, 
  • you have to be able to see the wood for the trees, needing to create order out of chaotic facts, like solving a jigsaw puzzle, and 
  • you need to provide evidence for your narrative.
Genealogy has rigour but it creates the 'tyranny of evidence', or 'death by certificate'. To make it more digestible, the family history writer has to go further and create a narrative, give the story context, use themes to drive it forward. The Professor admitted with a grin that after he’d finished helping his father-in-law David Donnan write 'Entwined Lives', he realised he'd inadvertently ended up with the structure used in the romance genre: The encounter, The yearning, The barriers, The estrangement, The lost chance, The circuit breaker, The new beginning (Happy Ever After).

The ideas in Professor Broome's one hour talk resonated with me. I definitely write with the desire to be read, the desire to engage my readers in something interesting. Long ago I worked in the finance sector and realised that I quite enjoyed explaining complicated topics in international finance like the Euromarket to the general public. Some of my colleagues sneered when several articles were picked up by what they called 'the gutter press' but it pleased me to reach 'the man in the street'.

Since then, my personal writing quest has shifted to learning the craft of telling a good non-fiction family story. I've been a member of the Writers Circle of the Genealogical Society of Victoria for many years. As there are many love stories in family histories I also joined Romance Writers of Australia for some years and more recently the Historical Novel Society of Australasia.

In these groups I've learned much, including the need for good openings and conclusions. For example, my book 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' opens with:
'When Robert Forrester moved to London in the early 1780s, he was a ‘nobody’ in terms of documented history. The events of one night in April 1783 turned him into a ‘somebody’. 
Several hundred pages and forty-odd years later, the concluding lines say:
'Robert Forrester struggled to make much impact in his world during his own lifetime. He would have been startled to think that a book would ever be written about him. He would have been a ‘nobody’ had he remained among the masses at home, but he ended his life as a ‘somebody’, one of the resilient if inadvertent European founders of modern Australia.'
The Forrester book has been popular and has been reprinted twice since it was first published in 2009. It has now been completely overhauled and will soon be republished as 'Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', still with the original opening and closing lines. These lines have proved to engage the interest of the reader from the start to the finish of this particular book. Trying to 'write family history to be read' is well worth the effort involved.


Sunday, 10 November 2019

Lessons in Writing Family History

The recent Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference in Parramatta, NSW (University of Western Sydney, 25-27 October 2019) was well–organised, well-attended, reasonably-priced and a great way to meet congenial people who like history and like writing about it. 

A Convivial Gathering at Dinner, HNSA 2019
Among the offerings of the HNSA’s three-day event, I was attracted to the workshop ‘Writing Family History’. The blurb for this session said ‘Writing family history demands curiosity, research, interviewing, writing, and critical thinking. How do you develop the research skills of a researcher, the investigative skills of a journalist, and the imaginative empathy of a creative writer? How do you deal with dead ends, false leads, and too much/too little information? This practical workshop with Paula Morris will address how to approach researching and telling true stories, with writing and research exercises, and discussion of excellent published examples.’ 

Prof Paula Morris at HNSA 2019

Paula Morris was also the keynote speaker for the weekend, wittily remarking that ‘history is slippery’ (the local Rugby League team is known as the Parramatta Eels). Three other useful comments from her keynote speech were: ‘History is a spiral – we carry our pasts into our future’; ‘History is people – not abstract, but personal and particular’; ‘History is Point of View’. 

Professor Morris teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland and her published works include ‘Rangatira’, an award-winning account of a Maori aspect of her family history. (I bought a copy of the book but haven’t had time to read it.) In the workshop session she did not disappoint us. For a start, she admitted what all of us family history researchers know: the research process is often much more enjoyable than the writing part. 

As writers our only tools are language and imagination. The way we use our words matters. In the current ‘information age’, people are deluged with written words and spoken sounds but don’t necessarily grasp and absorb their meaning and a ‘knowledge age’ eludes us. Writers have to try to convey meaning for the stories they wish to tell. 

History is made up of a lot of fallible people but something drives us, as an author, to make a choice about who and what we write about. Central to the story is its Point of View (POV), through which everything is filtered. Which character will tell the story and will that character write in the first person, as ‘you’ (very distracting), or in the third person (either close or limited, or as an omniscient narrator)? Once you’ve decided, stay with it. The next important decision relates to the story’s structure, that being the great challenge in how to tell the story. 

In her workshop, Paula Morris focused mainly on two types of family history writing, Creative Non Fiction and Memoir. Creative Non Fiction books based on research (like ‘Rangatira’) are very different from Memoirs, which rely on personal memory, often partial and faulty. As an example she pointed out the significant discrepancies in the accounts of childhood given by siblings close in age and growing up in the same family. As authors, our ethics count and we have to make clear whether the story is fact or fiction. In Creative Non Fiction she emphasised the importance of truth telling. Do not make things up. Focusing on a character and a setting for the story you are trying to tell does not mean lying or making things up, especially dialogue. Paula emphasised that last point. 

To write an engaging family history, we have to be able to make an imaginative leap into the past. We have to enter ‘the dream of the story’, as Paula Morris put it. As a writer, how do we get close to that experience? 

Authenticity is important: when writing about the past you need to get the details right. You also need to keep the story going without stopping to explain things with an info-dump: just bring in historical texture as part of the story. Texture includes demonstrating social class, which had a big impact on people in the past. To aid reader understanding you need to choose between authentic vocabulary versus modern language, but use language believable for the era. Idiom is quite a useful way to jump-start creating another era in a convincing way. 

Dr Kelly Gardiner. who chaired several sessions including ‘Learning from History’, asked her three panel members ‘what is your story about?’ They answered. She promptly asked them ‘what is it really about?’ Again they answered and then she asked her third question ‘what is it really, really about?’ After a bit of head-scratching came reactions like ‘quite a lot of anger at what happened in the past’, ‘a sense of rebellion at what we’ve lost’, ‘the resonance of place’. 
Dr Kelly Gardiner (left) with 'The Silver Screen' panel, HNSA 2019
By the end of the Conference, the reflections of these and other speakers brought out the interesting observation that it is often our grandmothers who have subtly influenced our view of the world and what is important to us. What’s more, we need a good emotional connection to a place in order to write about it, as we can’t help our feelings coming out in our choice of words and the reader picks up on this. 

To conclude, I learned on the weekend from Paula Morris and others that you need to embark on your family history writing project with ‘a violent curiosity’. Otherwise, as a writer, you cannot sustain the effort and time required to complete your story. This sentiment resonates with me as I reach the end of a long road re-writing the story of 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter'. Almost a different story now, it will soon be republished as 'Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter'.