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'. 

Friday, 8 March 2019

International Women's Day

International Women’s Day is a call to equality, so why don’t women in Australia stop adopting their husband’s name upon marriage? Why don't they keep their own? 
Will this 2018 Melbourne bride change her name?
Men don’t have to change their names and assume a new identity when they marry. By changing our names we make an ongoing acknowledgment that we play a secondary role in society. Women learn early to show their willingness to concede ground to their husbands and children so that their family unit presents one united front to the world. It often sets them into a somewhat subservient role for the rest of their lives. 

Yet I know women who keep their surnames while their children carry their husband’s surname. Their husband copes. Schools can cope. Banks can cope. One of my daughter's friends made this choice. She married years ago and has two children but never changed her own name to her husband's. He accepts this. 

I married (for the first time) at twenty and in my day, women were expected to marry and stop working after children were born. We unthinkingly and naively changed our surnames, unaware of the huge cultural change just around the corner, the women’s liberation movement. Back in 1963 I was only vaguely aware of what was to come. I’d earned a Commonwealth Scholarship and when the Commonwealth Bank advertised cadetships for boys interested in a career in banking I rang up and said “What about girls?” Thus, in 1963, I became the first girl to embark on a professional career in banking in Australia. Yet stupidly I changed my name when I graduated from Sydney University in 1966 and married later that year. I began decades of giving up my name and career to suit others.
Me with my maiden name, back in 1966
Decades later my daughter changed her surname to please the man she loved and now, four children later, she regrets it too. She’s divorced and wants to get back into the professional workforce ... but who among those who knew her workforce achievements in her old life will recognise her new identity? Only those who still know her personally, as a friend. She could revert to her maiden name, but she herself has got used to her new identity and it’s a real hassle to change everything. Bank accounts. Passport. Driver’s licence. Council rates notices. Children's records at school. Etc, etc. It’s very limiting. Women find themselves stalled, having to explain themselves, wasting time on unnecessary administration. Men just carve out their name in the world, moving onwards … and upwards, if they’re lucky.

The name-changing tradition doesn’t happen in some cultures in Europe and Asia. And we know that plenty of successful women in Australia are happily married yet have a different surname from their husbands and children.
Will this 2018 bride in Rome change her name?
Some women choose to struggle for a while and maintain two surnames – from the family of origin and the new husband's family. But it’s not easy. Writers well know how tricky it is to have a personal name and a nom-de-plume, bank accounts being an obvious problem, but at least a female writer does not usually adopt another name to please the man in her life.

It’s much easier just to have one name through life, as men do. In our convict era, officialdom got it right – no matter how many husbands a woman had in Australia, she was recorded under the name by which she was transported.

As my contribution to International Women’s Day, 8 March, I’m encouraging my granddaughter to keep her own surname and identity throughout her life, no matter how many husbands she might have! It's one of the obvious ways for women to achieve equality. Governments please note - it doesn't cost anything!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Arthur Phillip - at 19 Bennett St, Bath

Bath has had a year of celebrating the life of Governor Arthur Phillip who lived at several addresses in that city from around 1793-1814, after his return from Australia. Bath recognises him as a great man, very enlightened for his times. He is one of Bath's famous citizens. When I was there a month ago, this is what I found.

He lived in this house at 19 Bennett St, up on the hill overlooking central Bath.

I was happy to be treading in his footsteps at his front door.

The upper commemorative plaque says 'Here Lived Admiral Phillip, 1808-1814' and was unveiled in 2005. The bottom plaque explaining his role as  'Founder of Modern Australia' was unveiled in 2016.

Phillip had a stroke in 1808 and his mobility was impaired. He liked to sit at one of the upper storey windows, looking out. On a summer's day in August 1814 he fell out of the open window, which was a floor to ceiling sash window, of different construction to the windows at the top of the building. He died. Much has been made of the circumstances of his death, detailed more fully here. Since then, small balconies have been added to buildings with windows like this, as a safety feature.

While we were at the front door, taking photos, one of the residents of the house came home. We asked if we could look inside the front door. She kindly agreed and this is what we saw. The entrance hallway is very plain and contains very few original features.

The plaque on the wall hints that this house must once have been open to the public and it's a continual reminder to its current occupants that this building occupies a place in history. Erected by a Queensland group in 1964, the plaque proves that Arthur Phillip's significance is recognised by Australians living well beyond the shores of Sydney Harbour, where Phillip anchored his First Fleet on 26 January 1788.

His house (where my sister is standing) is virtually opposite the Assembly Rooms (large building in left background).

On the corner of the Assembly Rooms there's a small courtyard. It's been made into a stylish memorial site for Phillip.

 There's the inevitable story board.

 And a more permanent bronze plaque, set in stone, which says:

In tribute to and in memory of
Admiral Arthur Phillip Royal Navy (1738-1814)
First Governor of New South Wales
Founder of the modern nation of Australia

I like the Georgian elegance and simplicity of the site. The globe is a perfect choice of symbolism for a naval captain who led the First Fleet from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, on the opposite side of the planet, in 1787-88.

I took photos of the wording on the circumference (equator) of the globe. Walking in an anti-clockwise direction, here's what those words say. The first statement was a long one, needing three photos:

Captain, Governor and later Admiral Arthur Phillip, Born London 11th October 1738, Died Bennett Street, Bath, 31st August 1814, Buried in St Nicholas Church, Bathampton
Appointed Commander of the First Fleet, Governor-Designate of New South Wales in 1786



The remaining messages are more compact and highlight his significance in history. They say:

Arthur Phillip commanded the healthiest convict transport voyage ever.

"The finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand Ships of the Line may ride in perfect security."

"There will never be any slavery in this land."
Phillip ensured that this, his precept, would prevail.

He strove to live amicably with the Aborigines, establishing friendships with them,
and instructing that all settlers should treat them with respect.

In a despatch from Sydney Cove on the 3rd July 1788 to Lord Landsdowne,
Phillip demonstrated his vision and prescience:
"this country will hereafter be a most valuable acquisition to Great Britain".

If Phillip was still sitting at his window, above the yellow car parked opposite, he could see this memorial site and take comfort that, two centuries after his death, people still appreciate what he did.

Phillip is lauded at Bath Abbey and buried in Bathampton, the parish church about a mile from Bath Abbey. I'll write separate posts on both these places, so if you can't get to Bath yourself this 'virtual tour' of them will be the next best thing! For more details of Phillip's life, see his online biography. My own book 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' pays homage to him as well.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Adding 'Interest' When Writing Family History

'Family history' is one of the most difficult of writing genres. At the very mention, eyes glaze over. People start to yawn and change the subject.

The task generally involves telling a cradle-to-grave story for someone.  You focus a spotlight on the main character, as distinct from the bit players. Word count is a driving factor for the 'output' at the end: extensive research might generate so much useful detail for one individual that it limits the number of people you can cover in any one article or book. You might end up with a biography and not a family history.

The sheer number of courses in how to write non-boring family histories says everything. It's hard to do. Recounting 'the facts' in an interesting way while avoiding the excesses of creative licence or pure invention without any supporting evidence can be a challenge. There is generally no room for purple prose. The key word is 'story'.

Recently, for a meeting of family history writers at the GSV in Melbourne, I had cause to consider how I handle this story-telling challenge and I came up with a few examples from my own published writing. Here they are:

Example 1 - Robert Forrester’s wedding in 1791, from my book ‘Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’.


Facts utilised:
  • Parish Records, St Philip’s, Sydney, SAG Film 90, Mitchell Library
  • The identity of Robert Forrester’s wife remains obscure and this is explored later in the story.
  • There are many spelling variations for Robert’s surname, explained elsewhere in the book.
  • The website of St Philip’s Church notes that the first church service in a building did not take place until 25 Aug 1793, in a wattle and daub chapel built at what is now the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets. ‘A T-shaped building, with a thatched roof and an earthen floor, it could seat 500’. After the original church burnt down in October 1798, a new structure was commenced in November 1798 and completed in 1809. In turn, it was replaced by today’s old stone church in March 1856.
  • Entry for the First Fleet’s chaplain Richard Johnson in Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.
  • McAfee, Dawes’s Meteorological Journal, Microfiche 2, State Library of Victoria
Sydney, 1793, after Robert's wedding, first church building on left, from Collins' diary
Noting that most of the information about the early history of St Philip’s Church was not relevant to 1791, this is how I eventually utilized my ‘facts’ to embellish the bare bones of Robert Forrester’s wedding ceremony.
On 19 October 1791 the marriage of a Robert Forster to a woman named Mary Frost was recorded in the parish registers of St Philip's Church of England in Sydney.
There being no church structure as yet, Robert was more than likely married under ‘the great tree’ used by the Chaplain, Richard Johnson, for services in the first few years of settlement. The weather for an outdoor wedding that day was very pleasant, being fine and hazy, with a temperature of 73.2° Fahrenheit at noon (around 23° Celsius).

Example 2, from my book ‘Southwark Luck’


Facts utilised:
  • In December 1821 Charles Homer Martin (Charlie) was en route from Sydney to Newcastle as a prisoner, sentenced to serve a 12 month sentence for his part in the building scam at St Matthew’s Church, Windsor.
  • As part of his farewell tours of the colony prior to his departure in February 1822, Governor Macquarie made a trip to the penal colony at Newcastle in December 1821, coincidentally on the same ship as Charlie. This fact was discovered by chance. I'd searched for the name of Charlie’s ship on Trove, discovered the Governor's name associated with this ship at this time and then matched up ‘departure from Sydney’ and ‘arrival in Newcastle’ dates for both men.
  • In January 1822 Charles Martin was being held as a prisoner in Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, proving he was brought back early from Newcastle.
  • Robert Forrester’s daughter Ann married Charlie at Windsor in April 1822
  • The Martins’ first child was born at Windsor in July 1822, so Ann was in the early stages of pregnancy when Charlie was first arrested.
  • Local magistrate William Cox much later mentioned his long-term next-door neighbour Robert Forrester as a man who had ‘raised his family to habits of industry’
  • All the pictures of early houses at the Hawkesbury show a front verandah as a minimum, often a verandah on two or more sides of the house. Temperatures regularly hit 40F in summer and are subzero there on winter mornings.
Hyde Park Barracks, source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Sputniktilt

This is how I developed the timeline and imagined the likely turn of events and wove this into my story about Ann’s father Robert Forrester in his final few years of life:
The affairs of his children would have absorbed much of his attention, as he sat with Jane on the verandah on warm summer evenings, or by the fire in winter, reviewing the day’s events. Such a discussion involved his daughter Ann. As Macquarie prepared to sail home to England, Ann had finally admitted to her father and step-mother that she was pregnant. With the baby’s father serving time at Newcastle, Robert and Jane probably decided that the crisis warranted an approach to their neighbour and Chief Magistrate, William Cox. His influence was needed to get Charles Martin back to Windsor.

Example 3, from my book ‘Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’


Facts utilised:
  • After he’d taken produce to market in Sydney in September 1822, Robert’s eldest son John Forrester used his musket to kill one of three bushrangers who held him up when he was travelling alone in his cart on an isolated section of the road back to Windsor. John had to explain himself at the ensuing Inquest.
This was in the same year as Ann’s ‘shotgun’ wedding, so I wove the movement of the seasons into the introduction to this incident:
As the wattles bloomed in the spring of 1822, Robert and Jane had another family crisis to worry about.
Wattles

Example 4, from my book ‘Southwark Luck’

This book covered the couple Charles Homer Martin and his wife Ann Forrester (in Part 1) and their 12 children (in Part 2).  Not much could be found on their youngest child Henry Edward Martin, 1848-1939, so his was the shortest chapter.

Facts utilised:
  • His early life at Wilberforce was no mystery, and his life from 1869 to 1872 was discoverable through various 'wild west' droving events and court cases in outback NSW and western Queensland.
  • Otherwise I could track him only a handful of times and in the briefest of ways: in 1877 electoral rolls with a residence at Cunnamulla; in 1888 when he signed a document in Wilberforce after his mother's death there; in 1890 droving a mob of sheep from Congie Station to Bourke; in 1891 electoral rolls with a residence at Thargomindah; in 1905 droving 4,000 sheep from Winton to Roma; in 1919 as a station hand at Banchory in Queensland; in 1925 as a labourer at Cunnamulla; in 1930 and 1936 (now aged 88!) as a labourer at Whyandra, between Cunnamulla and Charleville. 
  • None of his written words
  • No wife, no children.
These findings were mentioned in the book, but this is how I tried to convey him as a man:
After his brushes with the law between 1869 and 1872, Henry kept a low profile as far as the police were concerned. He simply kept on droving. 
His lifestyle is drawn perfectly in the famous poem ‘Clancy of the Overflow’. The scenery and the colours in the landscape satisfied the spiritual needs of men with an intense inner life, communing with their physical selves and with nature. Such men could enjoy Australia’s laconic style of outback mateship, when the barest minimum of words and a few yarns around the camp fire would suffice as communication.
Sunset at Welford, Outback QLD

Example 5, from ‘Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory’


Facts utilised:
  • Frank Flockton (then aged sixteen) and his three older brothers were in Melbourne in August 1852, four rich kids on an adventure from London
  • Margaret Flockton with her parents Frank and Isabel arrived in Sydney in 1888 aboard Massilia
  • As was the custom of the day, descriptions of the Massilia’s passage from London via various ports to Sydney were included in The Argus, Mon 17 Dec 1888, and SMH, Sat 22 Dec 1888
  • The ship spent 3 days in Melbourne and, this being Australia's centenary year, I looked in Trove's newspaper file for events of likely interest happening in Melbourne at that time
  • I was raised in Sydney and have made many trips on the Manly Ferry.
In ‘Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory’, this is how I dealt with the time they spent in Melbourne:
During this three day stopover in Melbourne, Frank would have taken the opportunity to show his wife and daughter the site of his boyhood adventures. He would hardly have recognised the frontier town he had visited almost forty years earlier, during the frenzy of the gold rush. Melbourne’s wealth from gold meant that it was now one of the great and stylish cities of the world, with an international reputation as ‘marvellous Melbourne’. The Centennial International Exhibition was in full swing, marking one hundred years since Australia was settled by the British.
The published timetable for the ship, the time of year and, again, the centennial year of settlement meant that I could add some unexpected ‘minutiae’ to the Flocktons’ arrival at their destination as follows:
The final stage of their voyage of seven and a half weeks from London to Sydney took another two days:
Yesterday the Peninsular and Oriental Company's R.M.S. Massilia arrived from London, via ports. The passage out has been an average one as to weather, and the good name of the boat always ensures her a liberal support by the travelling public … Arrived at Melbourne on the 16th, and left December 19 for Sydney. Passed the Heads at 8.15, and at 4.20 p.m. Wilson's Promontory was abeam. December 20, at 7.40 a.m., Gabo abeam, and Sydney Heads were entered at 4.25 am. 21st.
One hopes that Margaret and her parents were up on deck, absorbing the magical dawn of a summer’s day over ‘the finest harbour in the world’. Thus it was described by Governor Arthur Phillip when the First Fleet arrived only one hundred years before the Flocktons.
S.S Massilia
I hope you agree that my choice of careful wording remained factual but escaped the 'boring' tag so often applied to family histories. For more details of these three books, and the other five books I have written, see my website. If you'd like to keep up to date with my posts on different topics to various blogs, you are invited to 'Like' my Author page on Facebook.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Australia's Pivotal Role in First World War

Sometimes we can't see the wood for the trees. When we Australians commemorate ANZAC Day each 25 April, that's often how I feel. The big picture, 'macro' story can be lost within the mire of various platitudes and the deluge of  'micro' commentary.

Stephen & Nigel Boulton - Brothers in Arms
Should I confess that I was largely ignorant of Australia’s overall role in WW1 when I sat down in 2015 to ‘do something’ with the Great War letters written by my grandmother’s two brothers? The letters cover the whole war, from start to finish. They were saved by their recipient, my great grandmother, who had them typed in the 1920s. She presented a typed copy to the Australian War Memorial (AWM). The originals were immediately requested and have been preserved in Canberra ever since. As a serving Australian, Stephen Boulton's letters were deemed significant enough to be among the first digitised on the AWM website. (His brother Nigel's letters didn't qualify for digital release, as he served as a doctor with the British Army.)

The Boulton letters offer a wonderful primary resource for the times, largely free of today’s interpretations. Working with them I gained a dramatic new insight - that in the Spring of 1918 Germany's 'Spring Offensive' made a Big Push forward and Germany nearly won the Great War.

It was the Australians who played a major part in our side ‘winning’ in the end.

It’s an insight we rarely, if ever, hear in Australia, obsessed as we are with the Gallipoli story.

This week I discovered that I was not alone in my conclusions. The following statement by Dr Ross McMullin on the website of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne refers:
The immense German onslaught in March 1918 led to Britain’s gravest crisis of World War I. The Australians were rushed to the rescue in this climax of the conflict. The significance of what they did in 1918 is under-recognised today, but they were influencing the destiny of the world more than Australians have done in any other year before or since.
Australians remain largely ignorant about the huge role played by the Australian First Division near Hazebrouck in Flanders in stopping Germany’s Spring advance on the crucial Channel ports, then holding and ‘shoving back’ that front line through the summer of 1918. My Brothers in Arms book referred several times to this practice as 'peaceful penetration', which is explained further below.

We Australians are generally more aware of events down in the Somme valley in 1918. On ANZAC Day that year, other Australian soldiers recaptured the crucial high ground at Villers-Bretonneux. In the late summer and autumn of 1918, with Monash at last in charge of all the Australian Divisions as a combined force, the Australian strategy turned the German advance into a rout in the Somme Valley, pushing them back well beyond St Quentin. Negotiations for the Armistice began.

Lucas Jordan - Stealth Raiders
Today, at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, I heard yet more evidence about the under-recognised significance of the role played by Australian troops in 1918. The evidence came from historian Lucas Jordan, speaking about his new book Stealth Raidersa descriptive term he picked up from researching the first-hand accounts written by soldiers directly involved in these raids.

Stealth raiders went far beyond the standard activities of the 'peaceful penetration' described in WW1 military history books.  Several hundred low-ranking Australian infantrymen took it upon themselves over many months in 1918 to seize the initiative, without any orders from above, and set forth in small groups, often in daylight, to seize enemy positions, guns and troops and push the German front line back.

To me their actions sounded like a prelude to the daring exploits of our highly-regarded SAS forces today, but Lucas Jordan did not make this specific claim in his talk.

Today, once again, I asked myself the question: why are we Australians so scared to claim credit within the 'big picture' narrative of the Great War? Why don’t we hear more big-picture stories at our Dawn Services on ANZAC Day? Why do we focus on the trees and not the wood, dwelling on the successes and more often the failures of individual battles? We continue to seek glory in defeats such as at Gallipoli, often paying scant attention to what various battles meant, strategically.

Maybe this year, one hundred years after 1918, we'll begin to change the narrative. Historians like McMullin are starting to make this point. Today I exhorted Lucas Jordan to do the same when next he gives his talk on Stealth Raiders, as he agrees with me that we've undersold the role we played in the final outcome of WW1.

Nearly everyone I know has made a pilgrimage to the war memorials on the Western Front. The terrain and the futile loss of life on individual battlefields, demonstrated so starkly by the endless rows of war graves, makes an indelible impression. No doubt this will also hit home to me when I visit the Western Front region for the first time next month. However those relentless rows of headstones won't come as a complete shock, as I lived in PNG for five years and at Bomana War Cemetery outside Port Moresby I cried over the thousands of young men's graves. Born just after WW2, I knew their story, I knew the strategic significance of what they had done.  When I visit France and Belgium soon, I'll be grateful that the Boulton letters jolted me into understanding the overall significance of the role played by other Australians in world history, exactly one hundred years ago.

Footnote: I wrote briefly about this topic, plus Australian mateship and Australian nationhood in a blog post two years ago. My website contains details of ‘Brothers in Arms: The Great War Letters of Captain Nigel Boulton, R.A.M.C. & Lieut Stephen Boulton, A.I.F.’  and the book can be purchased online through BookPOD and the usual international online outlets.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

To have, or not to have, a home library?


I bought a quirky book this week, ‘Looking in to a Library’, written by my fellow member of the GSV Writers Circle, William Barlow, known to us as Bill. Reading his short compendium (72 pages for $20, available by contacting the author direct) made me think, which I like to do. His book prompted me to lift my game in managing my own books.

One of the joys of reading is savouring the experience of opening a door into another person’s mind. Thanks to his book, containing 42 sets of observations on the books in his personal library, I feel that I know Bill a little better. We share the love of picking up a physical book and turning the page, each book with its own shape, texture and smell, but we ask ourselves, will books survive the digital age?

Just like Bill, I’ve been wondering what will happen to my books after I draw my final breath. What will my daughter do with them? Bill has inspired me to create an action plan – at least in terms of identifying the books which should be kept within the family. Note to self - I must attach a list of these books to my will!

I discovered a like mind in Bill’s keeping of a list of the books he’s read. But his lists go back decades, while mine started in 2011. His life has clearly been more settled than mine, enabling systems to be maintained more easily.

Like Bill, I enjoy the luxury of having my own writing room containing a small library, but my little study can’t compare with Bill’s generous space. I need to climb the library ladder to reach the top shelf. Many of the shelves are double-stacked. The little desk you see in this picture is the desk I used as a schoolgirl and now use for sorting paperwork. My working desk on the other side of the room has a view over the street. Built-in cupboards on either side of the window store all my family history folders. A cupboard in another room stores numerous photo albums.

Unlike Bill, I don’t know how many actual published books I own, either in total or by genre.

My own attempts to establish a sorting system for the books on my own shelves always fail because I run out of room on the right shelf. I end up shoving a newly-acquired book into any bit of vacant space. Next time I need it, I can’t remember where I put it. I’m sure that doesn’t happen to Bill.

The only books which are easy to lay my hands on when I want them are my cook books, which are stored in a separate cabinet near my kitchen. Every now and then I consult one for a recipe. My collection of children’s books are also easy to find, on a set of book shelves in the room where my four grandchildren sleep when they visit, but I don’t know why I bothered to keep these books for so many decades. The children spurn them, complaining about the small font size and the lack of white space on the pages. However they loved ‘Seven Little Australians’ when I read it aloud to them.

My reading tastes are as eclectic as Bill’s, if somewhat different in specific areas. Bill is obviously a collector, whereas I would describe myself as a simple devourer of reading material. Being of a similar age, we have traversed much the same reading ground in our adult years- the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, the era of pop psychology, travel books. I also share some of Bill’s rather highbrow tastes – books for wordsmiths, philosophical works, expositions of mathematical theories, history books, art and architecture books. We diverge in other subject areas. For example, finance and economics have a place on my bookshelves but not on his. Many of my novels are ‘literary’, and many are written by Australian authors, just like Bill's, but he would not approve of my collection of Lee Child thrillers, or the Mills & Boons I acquired as a member of a romance-writing group.

We share a love of walking into the world’s libraries but Bill goes further and says he can’t resist a bookshop, whereas I become overwhelmed at having to choose from the deluge of titles on offer. Rather than browse, I prefer to enter a bookshop with a specific title in mind.

Thank you Bill, it was good to read the product of an ordered mind. Your black & white pen drawings add a nice architect’s touch to the pages. Anyone who has a stash of books at home will benefit from reading your book and will be inspired to ponder: 'To have, or not to have?'.