From February 2008: reading; Mardi Gras event

The first one includes a perennial topic here in Oz: our national day. And yes, I had forgotten all about reading this!

Outside the whale

19 Feb 2008

Flawed and opinionated it may be in parts, but Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land: A New History of Australia (Penguin 2005) is proving a very entertaining and informative read. A retired London banker, Welsh has devoted himself to a number of histories, especially of various outposts of the British Commonwealth. He sits somewhat apart from our “history wars”, evincing an enthusiasm for Australia’s successes that would have done John Howard proud, but at the same time warning us in a footnote to take Keith Windschuttle with a grain of salt.

Something of his tone and approach may be gleaned from this five minute talk on ABC Radio National:

As a reasonably well-informed outsider I find the current fretfulness of Australian commentators and historians over the significance of Australia Day to be puzzling. Newspapers are full of worried questioning, argument and counter argument: does the arrival of the First Fleet really deserve celebrating? Is the country’s progress, remarkable though this has been, negated by the initial dispossession of the Aborigines – or, indeed, by the ecological damage sustained? But then, in the course of writing a history of the country, I have noticed that not all Australians share the opinions of academics or journalists, and I do not know how far their unease is reflected in the community at large. Certainly in the small town in which I found myself on Australia Day this year I didn’t see much anxiety. There was none of the strident patriotism that you would find in the United States, it is true, but rather a quiet pride in being Australian, in barbecues and brass bands, in clean beaches with a minimum of official interference, was evident.

To me at least, the problem that seems to trouble the media hardly arises January 26th 1788 was an epochal event, not only in Australia, but in world history. Australia, hitherto little more than a geographical expression, neglected by the rest of the world, began its development into a nation, and a continental nation at that, just as did France on the 14th July in the following year, or the United States had done eleven years previously. Of course the record of no country is entirely unsmirched. The fall of the Bastille was followed not only by the declaration of the Rights of Man and the eventual overthrow of tyrannical regimes all over Europe and in South America, but also by a bloody reign of Terror, in which the guillotine was erected in every French market place, and by nearly 30 years of warfare in which millions died. The American revolution prolonged slavery for a generation after its final abolition in the British colonies, but the 4th and 14th of July both commemorate days which altered the whole future of the world and which nobody thinks should be abandoned.

Similarly, I would suggest, no Australian government stupidities or neglect of difficult problems – what administration anywhere is invariably prudent, far-sighted and liberal? – should be allowed to obscure the emergence of one of the most successful societies the world has ever seen – and this is not just a prejudiced or personal view. In the United Nations Assessment of Human Development, prepared every year, Canada and Australia almost always figure in second or third place – Norway leading – well ahead of either the United States or Great Britain.

Of course countries celebrate not only their foundation or liberation – England being here an exception – but other events of national significance. Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand has more resonance than either Australia or Waitangi Day. I spent the morning of 25th April last year in a rain-swept field of northern France witnessing wreaths being laid on the memorial to the Australian Imperial Force – and those who complain of Australia’s participation, far from home, in two World Wars should experience for themselves the continued gratitude and goodwill of the Picardy folk. Resistance to oppression knows no geographical limits.

Nations can also admit their own mistakes: Martin Luther King Junior Day, in the United States, commemorates the shameful continuance of black oppression; the Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January, is observed in Germany as well as in Israel – and November 11th stands throughout Europe in remembrance of the major follies of the last century, from which no country can be absolved. Should present day Australians feel that a day must be laid aside to commemorate those things that ought not to have been done and those good things that have been left undone, Anzac Day, which finds the nation in a reflective mood might well fit the need. Or, if like Japan, we prefer to look forward optimistically, we might celebrate Children’s Day, which they do on May 5th, Culture Day, November 3rd and – here I should declare an interest – Respect for the Aged Day, September 18th.

But Australia Day should surely continue to be observed as a proper celebration of the world’s recognition of one of its most distinctive and attractive cultures, at least until Republic Day can be proclaimed, and that may not be for quite a while yet.

Anna Clark reviewed the hardback edition in The Age:

…Welsh self-consciously places Great Southern Land outside conventions of Australian history writing – he is English, not Australian, his approach is general, not narrowly academic – and the book certainly offers a different point of departure.

Welsh’s voice is present throughout. He frequently moves out of the narrative to give judgement on aspects of Australian history and history writing, offering his own opinions and answers with a degree of interest and authority.

Sometimes this authorial tone appears a little condescending, but it can also be illuminating. Welsh rightly argues that there has been a tendency by Australian historians away from comparative studies and his persistent attempts to situate this history within a broader context are certainly instructive. His comparisons with South Africa, for instance, expand the domestic Australian narrative to include a wider history of the British Empire.

This insistence on a broad historical focus makes the book more complex and engaging.

Great Southern Land is a strong general political and economic history. Welsh’s account of the 1890s depression encapsulates the great shifts in employment and economy, the cycles of Australian industry and the fate of the pastoral industry as part of a growing international economy. As the turn of the century approaches, he turns his attention to the movement for federation and nationalism, which he analyses with care and insight.

Welsh has a real grasp of the political sensibilities that have helped shape Australian life and it is impressive how up to date his history is. His interpretation of the conservative ascendancy over the past decade, especially his account of the rise of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party, is perceptive. And his analysis of John Howard’s dominance of Australian political life is equally compelling. Political debates over refugees and Australia’s relationship with the US since September 11 are covered, as is the recent dispute over frontier violence in colonial Australia…

I was fascinated to read that the Colonial Office in London in the early 19th century administered the British Empire with a staff of just seventy, “including filing clerks, doormen, messengers and ‘necessary women’” from “cramped and evil-smelling headquarters” at No 13 Downing Street. More than other histories of Australia that I have read, Welsh is able to relate what was happening in Australia to what was happening in British, indeed world, affairs. That is a big plus. He punctures quite a few of our romantic myths, including the green shamrock view of Australian history which has probably been more influential than the famous black armband. He is a bit obtuse on the prehistory of Aboriginal Australia, but rightly points out how fluid and conjectural much of our knowledge still is in that area.

I can forgive much of a man who writes this:

Macquarie’s Bank [of New South Wales] still exists, seemingly disguised as a frozen food store under the absurd name of Westpac.

Or Wetchex, as a friend of mine said at the time of the change, evoking condoms rather than frozen food.

AFTERTHOUGHT

This book is in fact much better as an introduction to Australian history than the dramatic if one-dimensional The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (1987) and is obviously, twenty years on, much more up to date. The research Welsh undertook is most impressive.

Well now, that’s my Mardi Gras event for this year

28 Feb 2008: WARNING — links may have expired.

courthouse After coaching tonight I caught the slow bus from Chinatown to arrive on a cold and wet Sydney night at Newtown’s rather wonderful Courthouse Hotel for the blogger meetup. That’s not our group in the picture on the right. I was late, so I missed Marcellous.

Even before I had settled into the group for an hour I met of all people someone I had taught English with at Dapto back in 1970, one of the Spender sisters, Dale and Lynn, the former a rather well-known feminist writer, the other no slouch either. It was Lynn I saw, though initially I thought it was Dale. We both contemplated the years that had flown since then with some amazement, though I have to say I am a minnow compared with what those two have done with that time. (See also When I was a twenty-something conservative in transition…)

Back to the blogger meet: it was great to put a face to Panther at last. James O’Brien I knew instantly, though I had never met him before, and I discovered why The Other Andrew is so called.

Someone whose travels eclipse M’s trips in duration, if not quite in exotic destinations but he comes very close, is this person:

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I’m an Aussie who has just spent 2 1/2yrs roaming around Europe with my dog, a very large Alaskan Malamute by the name of Bondi. Our adventure began in May 2005. So far we’ve travelled around much of UK, including a week-long walk across Scotland; spent 2 months each in Spain & Paris, plus a 5 week circuit of Ireland; done a load of family-tree research; a coast-to-coast crossing of England on foot along Hadrian’s Wall path, and a side-trip to dive wrecks in the northern part of the Red Sea. Most recently we completed a 20,000km 20-country tour of Europe by car, and 3 months in Scotland.

I also discovered what the wonderful header on Dancing About Architecture is all about.

Check here to learn more about what this meet was and who was there. I imagine a relevant post might appear before long too. Topics as various as knitting, historical reenactments, and Number 96 — that site was especially referred to — were being talked about as I, noticing that it was getting dark out, decided I had to set off home, which I did via an excellent Chinese noodle shop in King Street.

Newtown at night is, I have to say, far more interesting and far more pleasant these days than Oxford Street.

 

 

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Christos Tsiolkas speaks my mind…

In conversations with friends I have in recent months expressed some disquiet about the series of accusations of sexual harassment, bullying,  and/or sexual assault that have so dominated the media, social and traditional. Part of me keeps harking back to those terrifying scenes in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. You know the ones.

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Today we have the news that Rugby League legend Graham Langlands has died. I did not know him, but a friend here in Wollongong, where Langlands came from, was a lifelong friend. We have been talking over the accusations made against Langlands, as you might expect. It troubles me that so often accusation seems to become fact, even when it is untested. In the case of Langlands it never will be now. Today’s piece by Andrew Webster is, based on what I know from Langlands’s childhood friend, accurate enough.

…many of [Langlands’s friends]  are convinced the St George icon died in his sleep over the weekend at the age of 76 unaware of the serious sexual assault allegations levelled at him in November last year.

Langlands was charged with six counts of indecent treatment of a child under 16 on the Gold Coast, which was related to one alleged event in 1982 between the March 25 and June 30…

Now, the allegations just hang in the air; a sad full stop on his muddled life after football.

Now to Christos Tsiolkas last Saturday. It is a long essay, very much worth reading. An extract:

We don’t suspect that there are reds under the bed any more but maybe we believe that there is a ped, a paedophile, under every third or fourth one. Or if not a paedophile, possibly a white supremacist. In the 21st century these have become our monsters. Of course, our rage and hatred of the child sexual abuser, of the rapist, of the violent racist, all makes sense. I have experienced a glee at watching Harvey Weinstein come undone. I did not know of his sexual crimes but I had hated him for years, because of how he had destroyed careers and reputations in the film industry for decades, and how he had purchased films to never release them so that his own productions would saturate the market and that the labour of love of some poor filmmaker went unseen.

The revealing of the long history of abuse in the Catholic Church has been one of the momentous political moments of the past 25 years. The exposing of sexual harassment across media, business and politics is long overdue…

But I can’t forget the lessons I learnt reading about Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. I subscribe to a few left-wing news sites that come out of the US and straight after the riots in Charlottesville over the removal of a Confederate statue I read with increasing unease the comments pages, where people gleefully boasted of having found the names of racists who marched in support of retaining the statues, revealed them to employers as white racists, got them sacked from their jobs….

I am nervous of writing this. Of course I am. I don’t want to be seen as excusing harassment or sexual and racist violence. But I think it is fundamental to a functioning and democratic civil society that perpetrators of sexual and racial violence are indicted in the law courts, not on social media. And I don’t think an opinion equates to an action. That is what McCarthy and Hoover believed. I think in that conflation something truly monstrous is born.

I don’t understand those whose righteousness and conviction makes them believe they have the right to play God with people’s lives and reputations. The criminal needs to be held to account and to be punished and also, crucially, to be given the opportunity for rehabilitation. But those so pure that they believe they have the right to toss the first stone, those so certain that they see any doubt as vacillation or compromise, those so furious that they abhor dialogue as co-option and condemn mercy as weakness, I don’t trust them at all. They believe they have the right to play God. I just see them as another form of monster.

Christos Tsiolkas has perfectly captured my own gnawing unease.

The real story on China: Linda Jaivin

There is an absolute MUST READ on The Monthly right now! I have long admired Linda Jaivin’s reportage/analysis on China. See most recently Death of a hero: Liu Xiaobo 1955-2017.

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A sample from the new Monthly article.

One of the earliest slogans of the post-Mao reform years that began with Deng Xiaoping’s ascension to power in 1978 was “Look to the future.” The CCP began scrubbing its history of the awkward bits: the horror of the anti-rightist campaign that condemned hundreds of thousands to labour camps, the three-year famine that killed tens of millions, and the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began with an orgy of violence and ended with China’s society in trauma and its cultural heritage in tatters. As a result, the nearly 53% of the Chinese population (731 million people) that was born after 1976 know little of these things or even about the events of 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army crushed the massive student-led, pro-democracy protests in Beijing and elsewhere with extreme violence. They are a fortunate generation that has grown up amid a constant rise in living standards, social freedoms and economic opportunity….

The Chinese-language China Daily is a state-run English-language newspaper that
answers to the CCP. In 2016, with China’s propaganda chief and Politburo member Liu Qibao present to witness the ceremony, China Daily signed a deal with Fairfax papers to distribute China Watch, a supplement sprinkling hard nuggets of Party line through a fairy floss of panda news, upbeat economic stories and features like ‘Why I Moved to Beijing for a Comfortable Life’.

Here’s a fun translation fact: official Chinese media translated the word xuanchuan, which can mean propaganda, promotion or publicity, as “propaganda” for the first 40 years or so of the PRC – as in “Ministry of Propaganda”. By the ’90s, however, the CCP had come to realise that “propaganda” had a certain “dictatorship”-like odour in the West, and changed the official English name of its Propaganda Department to “Publicity Department”.

China Watch appears in the Washington Post and London’s Daily Telegraph

Not uncritical, as you can see, and very well-informed. Do read it all. It is essential if you are truly to make sense of the Sam Dastayari affair, much of the commentary on which has been more than tinged with hyperbole, in my opinion. Here is an outrageous example from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton:  ‘Labor can’t have a foreign spy sitting in the senate’.

Reading a lot…

I am still not online at home, so am only around the blog when I take my laptop to visit a free wifi somewhere. Fortunately there are a lot around.

Meanwhile I have really been digging back into the e-Books — over 2,000 in my Calibre library. For some reason I am revisiting D H Lawrence in a big way, including just lately the famous Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which actually is rather good. Really! Currently I am reading this:

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Yes, The Rainbow (1915). I suspect it is around fifty years since I last read it.

Also been reading The Book of Mormon. Politeness restrains me from giving too blunt an  opinion, beyond the fact that it must be one of the greatest unacknowledged works of 19th-century American fiction.

Been reading more besides. Alberto Ambard and  Amelia Mondragón, High Treason (2012), which I got free from Smashwords, is well worth discovering.

This passionate novel mixes the recent history of Venezuela, from the moment Hugo Chávez took power until he consolidated power. The novel helps understand the terrible situation Venezuela is experiencing today and it is an intimate image of the emotions felt by Venezuelan society in response to the radical changes the country has seen.                                                   

Ypres 1917: from my e-Books

I have been reading many e-Books lately. More on that later. Today I focus on one: Thomas Hope Floyd, At Ypres with Best-Dunkley .

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Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley VC (3 August 1890 – 5 August 1917) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross. I note he was before the war a teacher at Tientsin (Tianjin) Grammar School in China. At the time of his death he was with 2nd/5th Bn XX Lancashire Fusiliers.

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I found this from Thomas Floyd’s book quite memorable:

We were joined by more prisoners as we went down. German prisoners have only to be told which way to go and they go. They are quite sociable people too—many of them bright-eyed boys of seventeen and eighteen. They are only too glad to carry our wounded men back; they need no escort. We got on very well indeed with them. I suppose that in a sense we were comrades in distress, or, rather comrades in good fortune, in that we were all leaving the field of horrors behind us! Yet they were the very Boches who, an hour before, had been peppering us with those bullets. One would never have imagined that we had so recently been enemies. One of them asked for water to ‘drinken;’ so I let him have a drink from my water-bottle. About half a dozen of them drank, and they appeared very grateful.

“Germans are not half so vile as they are painted…. They are only doing their bit for their Empire as we are for ours. The pity of it is that destiny should have thrown us into conflict. It is a great pity. How fine it would be if we could let bygones be bygones, shake hands, and lead the world in peace and civilization side by side! If we can fraternize so speedily on the battlefield, why cannot those who are not shooting each other also fraternize? It is a cruel insult to humanity that this thing should go on. War is hell, and the sooner some one arises who has the courage to stop it the better. Somebody will have to take the lead some time. I myself believe in peace after victory—but we are not yet going the right way about achieving victory; and, unless Sir William Robertson speedily changes his plans, we might as well make peace. This killing business is horrible. The present policy of the General Staff is: see which side can do the most killing. A far wiser, and far more humane, policy would be to win it by strategy. I believe in out-man[oe]uvring the enemy and taking as many prisoners as possible; make him evacuate territory or surrender by corps and armies; it can be done if we go the right way about it, but this bloodshed is barbarous.