Posts filed under ‘non-fiction’

THE OPTICIAN OF LAMPEDUSA by EMMA JANE KIRBY

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby- see the Guardian’s Review – Was a very detailed and moving portrayal of North African boat people being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, and some of them being rescued by italian passersby – one being the optician of the title.

The book details the impact on the optician and his friends across a full year after the rescue. In this way it gives some insight into what the actual story is behind the news headlines.

The bookgroup was very split on it. One half of the group, predominantly the women, thought it was great. A great insight into one persons experience of a tragic event and an insight into refugee issues. The other half of the group mostly men felt it didn’t deal with the issues at all. They also questioned whether it was actually non-fiction. Feeling imstead that really it was fictional in the sense that it was the journalist imagining what was going on in the head of the optician. Whereas the pro group felt it was the journalist describing what the optician had said to her, and it was real. It was actually what the optician was thinking.

I confess to being in the anti group. My problem was that I’m not sure what the point of it was. We have all seen the headlines a lot and I don’t think it takes much imagination to imagine what the events are really like behind those headlines. What impact it has on the people on the scene. I guess maybe some people don’t make the effort to do that, so maybe for them it will really help imagine what it is like to be involved.

For me I didn’t think it added anything. It certainly doesn’t change the political response, so I’m not sure what the point is of spending time wallowing in the pain and sorrow of tragic events like this, which you do reading this book. It does nothing to really change anything.

To me it feels a little bit self-indulgent to wallow in the sorrow of it when there’s nothing we can really do anyway. There are so many other tragic events in the world every day, many on a much larger scale than the migrant boat wrecks in the Mediterranean. You could easily write a book like this on the sorrow of malaria, diarrhoea, TB, or one of the various wars going on around the world, or just just any neighbourhood of extreme poverty. so why wallow in this particular tragedy in this particular place. it doesn’t seem to serve any particular purpose.

However, it is really well written and it does really take you there in a vivid way and gives you stories about the background and the lives of people involved, and their responses. It’s good to get that level of detail behind a headline.

My reaction to the optician himself was similar to my reaction to the book. I was a bit annoyed at his focus on the individuals. he seemed almost incapable really of seeing the bigger picture and seeing the complexity. Instead he was constantly complaining about ‘europe’ not doing something as if it’s obvious what could be done. The best example of this really was his desire to go back and rescue more when told they are all dead. he seemed vey naive, wilfully so.

A good thing though about the book was the description of post-traumatic stress, the impact on the lives of the optician and his wife, their sleep and so on. Although it was a bit frustrating. They didn’t seem like they sought help for all of that which was the obvious thing to do

Another thing that i found annoying about the book was its focus on the optician and the Italians. it really didn’t say much about what the African survivors went through in the 12 months after the rescue covered by the book. It did not go into at all the reasons why they left Eritrea. it really could’ve said a lot about this issue. It really is interesting and makes the Mediterranean boat people a completely different issue from the Syrians coming into eastern Europe and from the boat people in Australia and elsewhere.

However I think in the end the pro group probably won me over. I think a lot of my issues are criticising the book or something it was not trying to be. In particular it says on the cover that it is a novella. That is the author admitting that it’s a work of fiction. Also inside the front cover it says the book talks about the optician and not about all the other issues, that’s its goal. Those are the answers to me and the other people who criticised it. So I think i could recommend it to people who want an eyewitness account of what it’s like to be involved in those very tragic scenes that you see on the nightly news, but not to someone wanting a broad account of the issues behind those tragic scenes.

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July 20, 2018 at 3:59 am Leave a comment

A WOMAN IN BERLIN by ANONYMOUS

A Woman in Berlin is a first person account of one woman’s experiences, and the women she knew, of men in Berlin as WW2 ends.

A line used in the first couple of pages of the book sums up the view of these women – ‘better a Ruskie on top then an American overhead’. The line is essentially saying that when a women has only two choices, rape is better than death. The more of the book you read the better you understand the detail and meaning of that line, and how in some cases it wasn’t true.

Its a diary covering a few months in mid ’45 as Russian men take over Berlin street by street from the east, while allied forces continue bombing from the west.

As the Russians invaded thousands and thousands of women were raped repeatedly. We now know there was nothing unusual about these Russians. This is what all ‘conquering’ armies do everywhere and have done throughout history. But the book is unusual. It places the reader in the position of the women, a woman, experiencing this. It gives names and faces and feelings and life histories to the women dealing with these events, and tells you what they are thinking as it happens.

And deal with it they do. If you have to, how do you decide rape is better than death? how can you make such a decision? How much pain is bearable, will it be possible to live with the pain afterwards, and if so how? What are the consequences, will life just go on? The book is an amazing first person, written at the time, account of this scenario. One that has occurred in so many places, and so many times, in history, but is really if ever described, especially from a woman’s perspective.

However it is not limited to that one issue. It touches on gender politics more broadly. More correctly, it doesn’t just touch on it, it goes into a lot of detail and provides great insight into the the construction of the role of women. It also touches on all the questions that arise at the end of wars, including justice in relation to war atrocities, reconstruction after war, the role of the victors and the vanquished, the impacts on the defeated population, in particular the relationship between genders with the defeat.

One of the key reasons that the book is fabulous, and everybody in bookgroup enjoyed reading it despite the difficult subject matter, is that it seems incredibly 21st-century. Although it was written in 1945, by a woman who had grown up in the first half of the twentieth century, many of the attitudes in it seem very sophisticated and 21st-century. As if it was written today in 2018. The way she talks about war, women, politics, education and class all seem entirely contemporary to 2018.

The other reason we all loved it is that the author has such a clear voice. I think the best way to illustrate this, and just how 21st-century she is on all of these issues, is to provide a series of quotes.

Any minute I expect sublieutenant Anatol to show up as arranged. I’m worried because I suspect there will be a fight. Petka is strong as an ox, of course, and clean, but he’s primitive, uncouth – no protection. A sublieutenant on the other hand, ought to guarantee a kind of taboo, or so I imagine. My mind is firmly made up. I’ll think of something when the time comes. I grin to myself in secret, feel as if I’m performing on the stage. I couldn’t care less about the lot of them. I’ve never been so removed from myself so alienated. all my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. they shall not destroy me.

I have this repulsive sense of being passed from hand to hand; I feel humiliated and insulted, degraded into a sexual thing.

And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other, by speaking about it, hearing their pain and allowing others to and spit out.

All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.

Are there differences? Yes, substantial ones. But from what I can tell these distinctions are mostly ones of form and colouration, of the rules of play, not differences in the greater or lesser fortunes of the common people, which candy was so concerned about. And the individuals I encountered who were meek, subservient and utterly uninterested in any existence other than the one they were born into didn’t seem any unhappier in Moscow than they did in Paris for Berlin – all of them lived by adjusting their souls to the prevailing conditions. No my current gauge is an utterly subjective one: Personal taste. I simply wouldn’t want to live in Moscow. What oppressed me most there was the relentless ideological schooling, the fact that people were not allowed to travel freely, the absolute lack of any erotic aura. The way of life just wouldn’t suit me.

A man in the rathaus lobby was chiseling away at the relief of Adolf. I watched the nose come splintering off. What is stone, what are monuments? An iconoclastic wave such as we have never seen is surging through Germany. The new twilight of the gods – is it remotely possible that the big Nazis could ever rise again after this? As soon as I have freed my mind a little I really have to turn my attention to Napoleon; after all, he too was banished in his day, only to be brought back and glorified once more.

Incidentally Nikolai doesn’t think there will be inflation or a new currency – I asked this morning. He thinks the money we been using will stay in circulation for the time being, but that the banking industry will be overhauled and drastically simplified. ‘Probably socialised right’? I asked. No, he said ‘not that. These are completely different conditions’. And he changed the subject.

We took advantage of Herr R’s absence for a little female gossip. Ilse is a worldly, discriminating woman, very stylish. She’s travelled all over the globe. What’s her opinion on the Russian Cavaliers? ‘Pathetic’, she said, wrinkling her nose. ‘No imagination whatsoever. Simple minded and vulgar every last one, from everything I’ve heard around the building. But perhaps you had better experiences with your officers?’. No not in that regard’. ‘Maybe they have the latest in socialist planned economies but when it comes to matters erotic this still with Adam and eve. I told my husband that too, to cheer him up’. Then she says with a wink, ‘with food so scarce a poor husband doesn’t count for much. Mine is already getting a complex about it; he thinks that the red army with all its Lady killers really has a chance with us women’. We laughed and agreed that under normal conditions, 99 out of 100 of our worthy enemies wouldn’t have the slightest chance with us. At most this hundredth might be worth a try.

As I’m writing this I’m back in the widow’s apartment, where on spending the last night. It’s an orphans lot to wander, I suppose. The most better thing in the life of a single woman is that every time she answers some kind of family life, after a while she ends up causing trouble: she is one too many many, someone doesn’t like her because someone else does, and in the end they kick her out to preserve the precious peace. And still this page is smudged with a tear.

As you can see its just marvellous. Nevertheless because its so modern sounding questions about the authenticity of the diary have been raised.

I certainly understand the questioning. It seems hard to imagine a woman in that situation being able to abstract from her own situation to generalise so insightfully and articulately as she does. However its also impossible to imagine anyone inventing it. In any case, apparently these questions about authenticity have been dismissed by people who know other diaries of the era well – according to Antony Beevor’s intro to the edition i read – and he appears to be on such expert.

The fact that rape on a mass scale happens in war is not at all surprising. It’s repeatedly referred to in every account of every war that’s ever happened. What is novel about the book is that it’s the first hand account from a woman’s perspective. Normally these accounts are written by male historians years later so they are much less immediate, much less real in their impact on the reader, and really give no details at all of the women’s reactions – how they manage the situation. So the book is a new and interesting take on a really well known situation.

The other thing that’s interesting about it is that this woman’s perspective on mass rape is not just relevant to complete war and conflict scenarios it’s really the situation women have been in for most of history, in particular poor women.

If you imagine the life of a poor woman in the Roman Empire whether they be slaves or Roman they would’ve had no rights and the wealthy man in their lives could do whatever they like with them. Similarly in the Viking times, similarly mediaeval Europe, similarly with the aristocrats and peasants right through history. In the early days of the industrial revolution i imagine women having to resort to similar tactics as those described in the book to manage their landlords and the factory owners, and their rent collectors and foreman. Likewise in many hunter gatherer or other traditional societies i imagine the chiefs, priests and elders in many cases had little on no accountability and used that to rape whoever they wanted whenever they wanted.

The heart of the issue really is that in any scenario where there is no rule of law as we now call it, where there is no accountability, people will do appalling things as there are no consequences. People, specifically men, do appalling things if there is no figure of power figure that has the ability to impose consequences on the perpetrator. And if there is a power figure, or if that figure cannot be held to account, then he will do appalling things. So women throughout time have to find a way to manage that, as the author, and her neighbours, in the book did. Women have to do this whenever the social, cultural or legal barriers that impose consequences on the behaviour of men are weak.

I also think you can take a wider lesson from the story. There are no good people and no monsters. Someone can be good one minute and a monster the next, or good in one situation and a monster in another, and that applies to all of us. We should not be so arrogant to think that if we were unfortunate enough to find ourselves in a lawless situation that we would not be a monster.

One of the questions raised by the book is how did the author, how did anyone, survive these experiences and carry on. The book seems to answer that question with the quote I’d like to finish on. This quote seems to sum up the attitude of the author, and also of the whole war generation on both sides of the war. It perhaps provides part of the answer to how they were able to survive the war and go on to build the world as we know it.

‘Let’s just declare the whole thing over and start a new chapter.’

June 11, 2018 at 7:51 am Leave a comment

SAM’S BEST SHOT by JAMES BEST

This is an autobiographical story of a doctor who took his teenage autistic son, Sam, backpacking through Southern Africa. It is what he describes as an n=1 experiment. That is, an experiment with only one test subject. In this case the subject was Sam and the aim was to test whether ‘forcing him to endure’, or if you prefer ‘exposing him to’, lots of variety and chaos in the would, via brain plasticity, help his brain develop more connections and give Sam his ‘best shot’ at being ‘more normal’ as his dad puts it at one point in their book.

The author came along to the bookgroup so we were able to ask him about the book directly. Unfortunately I could not attend so i asked bookgroupers to send me their thoughts. Although i could not attend i did read the book and i think the bookgroupers have covered most of my thoughts below. I definitely liked the travelogue aspect.

Bookgrouper 1

As another bookgrouper reminded everyone, we normally talk about the book for about 45 minutes before the conversation descends (or in some cases elevates) to the subjects of politics, religion and sex. But having the author present changes that dynamic entirely. We were all very pleased to engage and be engaged by James for three hours straight. Sam was not able to attend but with James’ assistance made a video about his African experience specifically for the bookgroup. This was of special interest to us as it gave the bookgroup something more of a first-hand exposure to the unique way that Sam observes and negotiates the world. Also it provided insights into the dynamic that exists between Sam and James and places the events of the book in a more intimate context.

Fundamentally the book tells the story of James and Sam’s expedition to Africa for the purpose of exposing Sam to high levels of new and unpredictable experiences, without many (but not all) of their daily supports. Their travels took them through many countries over six months and presented them with constant daily challenges to not only simply negotiate their movement through, and experience of, Africa but also to complete a number of neuroplasticity exercises that would increase the flow of traffic across Sam’s corpus callosum (the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the hemispheres). Learning to play chess, boxing, writing, engaging in prolonged conversation with the general public were all exercises that extended Sam through this time. And all the while their experience was being recorded on video to document the project and also to produce a movie that might be broadcast on TV. In fact a month or so ago this video was shown on Australian Story.

It’s interesting that everyone in the group was so engaged with the broad subject of how we interact and work with people who have disabilities. It seems that everyone in the group either had a family member or friend who had a disability of some sort and were eager to discuss the subject of how our perceptions leads us to reach conclusions about what life must be like living with a disability (particularly an intellectual disability in this case) and how we can best interact positively and productively.

Of course travelling through Africa can be quite a challenging experience, and the regime that James set himself and Sam in order to test if Sam’s neuroplasticity could be expanded seemed on the surface like it would make the whole trip so much more difficult. And in many aspects that’s exactly what it did. However they could not have anticipated how generous people they met on route turned out to be, from fellow travellers, to local identities, to just people that they met in the street. Everyone seems to resonate with the effort that Sam and James were putting in to the project and were keen to participate and further the experiment in whatever way they could.

Autism still remains a big mystery for me even though I have met Sam on a few occasions and have also met other autistic children and adults in my daily experience. Someone like Sam seems to have so many capabilities alongside a kind of emotional myopia and the mix leads to a confusion on my part whether to step towards him or away from him. Fundamentally though he as a very friendly boy (nearly a man) even if at times outspoken and lacking in normal social graces. I appreciated the chance to get alongside both Sam and James’ experience and watch how this great experiment unfolded.

Bookgrouper 2

I’m still reading the book in drubs and drabs – ie it hasn’t captivated me but it has amazed me as to what they planned and endured together. Certainly demonstrates a father’s commitment to see if a strategy which has a reasonably strong scientific rationale but not strong evidence might make a difference to his son’s development and independence.

It is hard to imagine the real daily challenges of the minute by minute, hour by hour behavioural and situational challenges they both experienced and then have the energy to keep a diary, take videos, do the regime of physical and mental exercises and sustain this commitment for six months. Quite an achievement. I also have a better understanding of autism on a day to day basis with ongoing examples dotted throughout the book. I am certainly enjoying some of the vivid descriptions of the African countryside, animals and people.

More than just a book for parents of children with children autism.

Bookgrouper 3

One of the questions I asked was about why he chose Africa and could the trip be duplicated locally particularly for people without the resources to travel. James indicated that for him it was useful to have travelled outside Australia because if he had stayed within Australia he might have been tempted to return home when things were tough. Being in Africa encouraged him to deal with the difficult times. That said he was of the view that the tools and interventions he used could be duplicated in other environments.

It was a very enlightening and interesting bookgroup.

Bookgrouper 4

Just a few thoughts as I said yesterday…mostly

-I am a bit inhibited when the author was there

-he explained the there was no intention of a book or film until suggested by patients or friends who had a connection with a film mob and publishing mob

-went to Africa instead of Australia as he would have tossed it in, too easy to give in locally

-offered other sons the trip as well but they didn’t want to go, not because they wanted to have a break from Sam, just had other stuff on.

-he said it was really tough a lot of the time

– Sam did a video for us as he negotiated his way out of coming ” as he does”, very generous of James to come

– met some amazing people especially people like Morton who could look at their situation objectively and have an empathy with Sam

bookgrouper 5

You can¹t really tell the Author what you thought of the writing but it was good to discuss the issues of Autism and travel.

I asked questions relating to the issue of labelling people and what that does to them and everyone else and their relationships.

Also what the concept of NORMAL is. How its a socially constructed human and cultural invention.

Its was interesting to hear The writers research on what Autism might occur and how it develops to affect parts of the brain.

Of course the discussions about Africa and its beauty was also great.

Bookgrouper 6

Sam’s dad is a man of energy and purpose. He was generous in taking about his concern that the book not be read as ‘proof’ or a ‘cure’. We talked about the role of single case studies as building blocks in the long road of research and documentation.

He described how his practice had already focussed on children when Sam came along.

The book was aimed widely at everyone with an interest in and concern for autism. While James had written non-fiction before it was a fresh insight into the writing process; sitting up late any night he could to record the day, happenstance connections leading to the filming and the publication. James knew that his editor was supportive and skilled but I don’t think he knew that Jane Palfreyman is considered by many people I know to be the best in the country.

James must think that Don is (a) his favourite patient and or (b) an excellent cook because he went all out bringing his photos from the trip to share with us and recording a video with Sam specifically for the book group.

Oh and if the soup were to ever be reported to the Nobel academy I reckon its a shoe in!

bookgrouper 7

Sams Best shot was an interesting read for me. To be honest it’s one of those books that but for (a) bookgroup I would not pick up.

That’s because of its assumed intent. Who is this book primarily targeted to? Medical circles? Well the author is a doctor. The “autism community”? Well the author is well and truly inside. The “general population”? How could I consider myself one of these?

Well into the book the author uses and repeats a phrase “this is autism”. If he had produced a thirty page brochure with the same title I reckon fewer people would have read it. A travelogue with some family dynamic and personal struggle is more likely to take a general reader (like me) beyond page 3. So if it’s trying to reach me it worked.

Still it did leave me with questions;

What’s the intent of the book?

Who is the primary target audience

Why choose the format and genre used?

Should he have included more method – academic analysis? If yes why not and if no why?

At the end I did not feel compelled to read or look for more. What does that say about me, us, and maybe the book?

December 24, 2017 at 6:51 am Leave a comment

DARK EMU by BRUCE PASCOE

dark emu

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black seeds: agriculture or accident? makes a claim on all Australians. It wants us to reimagine pre-colonial Australia. It wants us to look again and see something new. On the basis of the words in the first white explorers diaries, it wants us to acknowledge that our landscape, ‘the bush’, is a cultural artefact, a product manufactured and maintained by the oldest culture on earth. It is a strong claim and convincingly made. It argues that what the explorers report is clear. There was no ‘wilderness’ here in 1788, and there hasn’t been one here for 60,000 years. Instead there was a group of cooperating nations applying a shared technology and law, to meet their economic and cultural needs.

In a way it throws white Australia’s words back in our face. It seems to say, in a very polite way, we don’t know why but you seem to thinks its important to believe we were nomadic hunter gatherers that didn’t plant crops, build houses or use pottery. The problem with that is that on many occasions the descriptions of us written by your own people at the time of first contact describe us planting and harvesting crops, and living in villages with houses, cemeteries and food storage facilities. So why is it that you have paid no attention to the words of your own people? Is there a reason you want to think of us as hunter gatherers only? if it was to help you justify taking our land and murdering us – where does that leave you now?

The message and the method of the book can be illustrated by an example from pages 204 and 205. They contain a quote and a drawing from Major Mitchell describing an Aboriginal cemetery he saw on the Darling River. Both the description and picture of the cemetery make it sound absolutely beautiful, and extremely familiar to european eyes of either the 19th or 21st century. After describing it and drawing it he says

With all our art, we could do no more for the dead, than these poor savages had done

This quote sums up the book’s message, and method, because it uses one unedited sentence, directly from a famous explorer (in this case Mitchell), to show us:

  • Aboriginal people had cemeteries, of a kind we would recognise
  • they were constructed with paths and gardens and therefore Aboriginal society had all technical the skills and the organisational power needed to produce a manicured landscape on a large scale for a ceremonial purpose
  • the explorers knew of them, recorded them, and recognised the technology and organisation required to make them but managed to maintain their belief in the ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal Australians
  • historians, and anyone else that has read the explorers diaries, must have known about these observations and knowingly chose not to tell anybody else about them
  • there must be reason for this selective and wilful forgetting.

All the book groupers loved the book. We were amazed we had never heard of all these observations before. The existence of the diaries and writings of all the famous white ‘exploerers’ was very well known to bookgroupers, as it is to all Australians because we have heard of people like Mitchell and Sturt, and read their quotes, our whole lives. But until now we were never told these writings included detailed descriptions, even drawings, of Aboriginal houses, crops, cemetaries, and large scale permanent fishing and and farming enterprises. Bookgroupers felt it was embarrassing and extraordinary that we didn’t know about any of this.

The book is very short and easy to read, which is a good thing, but in my case I found it a bit frustrating. Its argument is so convincing and so important i would have liked a lot more. Often it refers to other books and academic parers, just giving the reference and saying, ‘it reported this or that..’ but i often wanted the detail because i was so interested. However, I have to acknowledge the book is fully referenced, like an academic article, so i can go and look up all the references if i want to.

The first chapter deals with agriculture. Like the rest of the book, its full of quotes from the explorers. What these quotes clearly demonstrate is that Aboriginal people in a large part of Australia (a map of this region is provided on page 63) cultivated grain for processing, manufacturing and storage, while in other regions they cultivated various root crops generically called yams.

One of the quotes about grain crops is from Major Mitchell (p39)

the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest, 

One of the quotes about yams is from George Grey in Western Australia in 1839

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [the yam plant, Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles [5.6 kilometres] traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.

A key point to make about this chapter is the difference between it and what we have heard from other previous authors about Aboriginal land management. Tim Flannery talked about firestick farming in ‘the future eaters’ and Bill Gammage got a lot of press for the ‘the biggest estate on earth’ which made a similar argument to Flannery. That argument is referred to in this book and summed up with a quote it uses from Gammage saying ‘people farmed in 1788 but were not farmers’.

In my view though the quotes above, which are just a fraction of those in the book, seem to show that such a distinction is worthless. Whether you call them farmers or not, it seems clear that these people were doing agriculture, and that is not what we have been told.

The next few chapters of the book move on to what archaeologists call material culture – the stuff people make.

Remarkably, for those of us that grew up being told Aboriginal people did not build anything or live in one place, one of these chapters deals with housing. Two quotes from Major Mitchell illustrate its point in relation to housing

some huts… being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.14

In crossing one hollow we passed among the huts of a native tribe. They were tastefully distributed amongst drooping acacias and casuarinae; some resembled bowers under yellow fragrant mimosae; some were isolated under the deeper shades of casuarinae; while others were placed more socially, three or four together, fronting to one and the same hearth. Each hut was semicircular, or circular, the roof conical, and from one side a flat roof stood forward like a portico, supported by two sticks. Most of them were close to the trunk of a tree, and they were covered, not as in many other parts, by sheets of bark, but with a variety of materials, such as reeds, grass and boughs. The interior of each looked clean, and to us passing in the rain, gave some idea, not only of shelter, but even of comfort and happiness. They afforded a favourable specimen of the taste of the gins, whose business it is to construct the huts.141page 83

Another quote talks about stone houses big enough and strong enough to ride a horse over, which sounds extraordinary – and a little dangerous.

The book includes a lot of examples of material manufacture other than housing such as fish traps, wells, irrigation systems for harvesting water, and battues for harvesting wildlife, and food storage such as granaries.

Page 84 talks about the remains of a battue in Euroa in Victoria

This particular drive brought kangaroos from a huge flat area to the foot of the range and then shuted them into a series of holding pens where narrow apertures could direct animals designated for slaughter one way and those to be released in another.

The stone works and nearby housing associated with these drives represents an incredible labour investment and a move towards sedentism comparable to that represented by the fish traps at Lake Condah and Brewarrina. Sites such as these are begging for further investigation.

And on page 87 another quote from Mitchell talks about fishing nets

the net, which, even in quality, as well as the mode of the knotting, can scarcely be distinguished from those made in Europe

The final three chapters move on to what these observations mean. The discussion covers two issues:

  • what it says about white society that these observations have been ignored; and
  • what these observations say about the nature of pre-colonial Australian society.

On the first issue the book makes a number of hugely important points. Firstly it says we need to rewrite our history (p144)

the observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material. In this book I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.

As a natural resources person i think it also means we need to rewrite our science because it means the landscape we are seeing is not ‘nature’ its a farm. It reinforces the point Tim Flannery made 20 years ago that the idea of ‘wilderness’ is nonsense. This book reinforces the message. There has been no wilderness here for 60,000 years

Most importantly though, as the last chapter points out, we need to admit the obvious reason why the writers of white Australian history have wilfully ignored these specific passages of texts that they have analysed and reanalysed. All over the world colonisers have found it to be in their interests to present the people and the places they colonise as ‘primitive’. Its the ‘warping of history and archaeology…to justify extermination..’ (p348) and dispossession. That is what has gone on here. Its obvious and we need to admit it.

To his great credit Pascoe also acknowledges that an additional reason that we have not heard more of Aboriginal agriculture and material culture (beyond racism, colonialism, war and dispossession) maybe that it was women doing the agriculture and the building. All Pascoe’s quotes have the explorers saying it was the women building the houses, harvesting the grain and digging the yams.

I think he could have been much stronger on this point, but he does cite someone writing on a similar situation in North America and says

One of the further impediments to the revelation of this aspect ,,,was that the gardens were constructed and farmed by women and children — and such knowledge was never revealed to male archaeologists. Even after the engineering of the gardens had been examined by independent scientists, there was enormous reluctance to accept the results

On the second issue, of what these observations say about pre-colonial Australia, the book does get a little romantic at times, but less so than i expected. On page 144 he even anticipates the romanticism problem I was worried about

You can read other theories of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and economy in New Age texts or the books of over-enthusiastic researchers, but often they are making guesses to bridge the gaps in knowledge. Too often they ascribe all sorts of mystical wisdom to their subjects but their earnest romanticism is unnecessary

True to his word he does largely avoid it although not entirely. For example there is a lengthy quote from Bill Stanner on page 283 that paints pre-colonial life in utopian terms.

However he absolutely nails the key message and the key way forward – that is -what do these revelations mean for post-colonial Australia?

Restoring Aboriginal pride in the past and allowing that past to inform the future will remove the yoke of despair from Aboriginal people. Despair is reinforced every day an Aboriginal person has to argue for her pride in the past, for his determination to honour the achievements of the ancestors

In case you think my take on the book might be idiosyncratic. this blog compiles a lot of reviews of the book in the one place, and the quote below which echoes my view is from here

Dark Emu argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession. Accomplished author Bruce Pascoe provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required.

As book grouper Trish put it – In addition to saying sorry we need to say thank you.

April 26, 2016 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF by HELEN GARNER

house of grief

Helen Garner is one of the most respected literary figures in Australia, mostly because she writes books like this one. Very precisely written and minutely observed books, about very unpleasant situations, that draw out all kinds of extreme emotional responses from onlookers.

Based on this book it seems her purpose in doing this is to make us question those responses, and look at them from multiple points of view. What she seems to want us to understand is the diversity of human experience, that none of us can really know how we will behave in any given situation until it happens.

For that purpose her target in this case is well chosen. It is a murder trial that was big news for many years in Australia. A father was accused of murdering his three young boys by driving his car into a dam and drowning them. One of the more appalling things a human could be accused of doing, and an act that elicits strong emotional reactions.

Garner chose to sit through every moment of months and months of trials and appeals over several years. The book reports her observations of the participants and onlookers throughout this process, particularly her observations of herself.

In this process she makes you think about what it means to be a man and a father, what really is a ‘good’ life or relationship, and what should we be prepared to do to get them, or keep them, and how to respond when we lose them.

It’s magnificently written in a technical sense. The sentences are perfectly structured and punctuated. Their meaning is almost never in doubt, despite the complexity of the emotions she is trying to communicate. If you want to learn how to write clearly for professional purposes, you could do worse than copy her style.

Despite the worthiness of the project and its execution, for me it wasn’t worth my while to finish it. I read about a 100 pages then flicked to the end, to make sure the court verdict was as expected. To me it’s not news to learn that perfectly normal people, mostly men, sometimes do perfectly evil things, even in perfectly banal situations. Life is complicated and people can be strange. I didn’t feel I needed to read a whole book, a whole harrowing book, to confirm that.

However bookgroupers felt differently. They were very engaged by the book. They were particularly fascinated by the detail she gave of the court process, how expensive it is, and how difficult it is for the witnesses, even in what seemed like a rather open and shut case. I think Garner would be happy with this reaction as the book title refers to the court system, not the family in the story as you might assume. Bookgroupers were also very impressed by the way she brought all the various participants into the story, and reported on their reactions and feelings.

I agree the book is a spectacular display of empathy. She really makes an effort to take the reader inside the heads of the people involved: the mother; the barristers; the investigating police; the jurors; the grandparents; the accused; and even the journalists such as herself covering the trial. At times she does this with insightful flair like when she describes the effect of the testimony of mother’s lover on the jury, and the watching audience, saying ‘he had that certain glamour that hangs around Australian tradies’.

In conclusion I’d say this is a book for people fascinated with the psychology of crime. If you really want to know why people kill. If you can’t get enough of crime dramas that take you into the world of the accused, the victims, and the justice system this is probably for you. It could be described as a literary equivalent of high quality crime docu-drama, but that would miss a central core of the book, which is garner’s eye-witness account of proceedings. To make the analogy complete you would have to imagine such a docu-drama with a narration by the film maker, describing their feelings and impressions as the footage unfolds.

It’s difficult material, but covered from every angle and so precisely written you feel like you are watching it rather than reading about it.

August 4, 2015 at 8:22 am Leave a comment

FORGOTTEN WAR by HENRY REYNOLDS

 

forgotten war This is perhaps the most important book one can read as an Australian.

The subject of the frontier conflict between the white colonists and the Aboriginal nations of Australia is directly relevant to the life chances afforded their descendants. So much so that it is probably necessary for those Australians, people like me, to make a declaration of interest prior to commencing any comment.

I am from northern NSW. My ancestors mostly came from England and Ireland, mostly arriving in Sydney and Newcastle in the 1840s and 50s. Both sides of the family then arrived in the north of NSW in the first two decades of the 20th century. One side as small business operators in what was then a small coastal country town, and the other as wannabe farmers.

I have often wondered what interaction they had with the local Aboriginal people. Based on the timetables outlined in this book it seems likely that they arrived several decades after the Frontier War in that region. They were mostly therefore direct beneficiaries of the war, because their businesses were based on property acquired from it, though perhaps not direct participants.

The exceptions are the families of my paternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather.

My grandmother’s family were in far west NSW in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Perhaps this means they were present at the frontier, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. She seems to have left that area as a young woman, and with nothing in the way of assets, so perhaps it can be said that she and her descendants did not benefit financially.

The family of my grandfather’s mother were on the far south coast of NSW from somewhere in the 1850s onwards. So again, they may have been present towards the end of the Frontier War, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. However, in their case they were farmers, so whether they were involved or not, they were direct beneficiaries. Therefore, it could be the case that the benefits that the family gained from the frontier improved the life chances of my great grandmother and her sisters, and this my have somehow in one or more indirect ways benefitted my grandfather, my mother and me in turn.

And so to the book.

Reynolds begins by reminding us of the history wars that raged in the Australian media in the 90s and 2000s. He observes that during this time all sides of the debate, which was about how to talk about the colonisation of Australia, agreed on the importance of reconciliation, but none of them said what we needed to be reconciled to. It is hard to disagree with him. It does seem strange that we were silent on why there was a need for reconciliation even though we were happy to agree there was a need.

After this he returns to the familiar ground of the history wars in order to settle the key issue that was disputed at that time – what should we call the violence that occurred on the Australian frontier. Inside the first 50-60 pages he provides so many direct quotes from the highest British and colonial officials possible, one governor after another, that any doubt about whether the colonists thought they were at war is removed.  I had expected Reynolds tot go through the massacres one by one or detail deaths region by region, perhaps because this has been done elsewhere, so much so that it can now be accessed on wikipedia.

It’s clear they considered it a war. One that was unfortunate, but necessary in their view to bring violence to a swift end rather than prolong it. The governors also supported this view with all the legal, military, political and logistical measures they could manage at the far end of the empire.

The result was the Aboriginal peoples resisted occupation violently, as any people would, but we’re defeated by a more numerous, better armed, and better organized opponent.

From a white perspective I think it’s hard, though disturbing, not to conclude this approach was a huge success. It allowed waves of migrants to fill the nation up and exploit it’s resources, in the very effective way that capitalism does. They built a modern successful multi-cultural nation. If not the best in the world, very close to it.

However all that came after the Frontier War, and relied on perhaps Reynolds chief target in book. It relied on forgetting. It relied on a nation’s worth of energetic optimistic migrants, in search of a better life, to fill the place up with their energy, dreams and desires. An easier task if property is handed to you as sole vacant possession, rather than as tenants in common with people traumatized by decades of officially sanctioned violence. Violence sanctioned by the same institutions, if not the same people, now encouraging migrants to make the most of this large, and supposedly empty, land of opportunity.

From this perspective the logic of what Reynolds calls a national cult of forgetting is compelling. He draws attention to many examples of the effect of this cult. The one he seems particularly upset about is the Australian War Memorial. For example, he points out that the War Memorial is is recording the name of every known person who died during a time of war since 1885, regardless of the location of the death, or whether it was from combat, accident or disease (p45). This means Aboriginal and Islander families are encouraged to remember those who fought for the British Empire but expected to forget those who fought against it, in defence of their own land (p46).

Towards the end of the book he returns to the issue of commemoration. He spends a lot of time on it, which I initially found frustrating, but ultimately found rewarding, so I will also return to that issue at the end of this piece.

Most of the book from Chapter 3 onwards can be seen as a way of explaining to us – denizens of the cosmopolitan 21st century – what the Frontier War was like for the people involved, white and black, and how and why they could have done what they did.

He first tackles this challenge by using quotes from sources written at the time describing the state of mind of whites on the frontier. They seem to be as you might imagine people today in Gaza or Syria – constantly stressed  and in fear of their lives; never sure if or when attacks might come. As a result they fight back with overwhelming force – a reaction common in present day conflict zones, from the better armed side.

A question Reynolds does not really address was ‘why stay?’. If it was so dangerous why did they persist. They were the invaders why not go back? Particularly those who had brought wives and families – why not send them back? This makes you think they thought victory was certain, and it would be swift, they just needed to get through it. Alternatively perhaps where they came from was just as bad?

Apart from this issue, I found this first account of the frontier quite satisfying.

However Reynolds goes on to give an alternative. In this one, also based on quotes from officials of the time, the blacks or savages as they called them, were seen as having a “wanton and savage spirit’, that was ‘impelling them to mischief and cruelty’ (p102).

As Reynolds points out this is consistent with global colonial attitudes at the time and got reinforced throughout the 19th century by the rise of ‘scientific racism ‘.

I was pleased to see on page 167 that he also acknowledges ‘they were fully conscious of the fact they were invaders, and proud of it, believing they were participants in a crusade that was thrusting outwards the borders both of the Empire and of civilisation’.

As a young man I had always thought the British Empire was a massive exercise of arrogant acquisitive racism.  However when I went to Westminster Cathedral it became clear that at one level people of the day did think it was the right thing to do, because it was spreading god and ‘civilization’. Obviously this is a convenient self justification from our modern perspective, but to them it probably was real at some level. This really fits into the second version of the story that Reynolds tells about the people of the times – they saw the Frontier War as an unfortunate but necessary evil.

In chapter 5 he introduces a third version of the story. In this legal interpretation of events the key turning point is British claims in the earliest days of the colony that the continent was unoccupied. This resulted in the continent as a whole being claimed as property of the Crown, and meant the process of settlement proceeded in a different way from other colonies in the Empire where purchases and negotiations took place along with wars and killing.

The difficulty for modern Australians, which Reynolds points out on page 135, is that we no longer have this ‘armory of ideas that protected colonial Australians from irritating introspection’ the ‘whispering in our hearts’. Science has declared ‘scientific racism’ dead, god and the empire are dead, and the courts have declared terra nullius dead.

The interpretation of the Frontier War story that Reynolds does not tell, understandably I think given how much controversy he went through during the history wars, is one that I think is true everywhere in history and around the world. It is that in times times of war and lawlessness a certain type of men (it is always men) often become prominent and take control. The situation that I’m most familiar with was Northern Ireland towards the end of the troubles, as that conflict was called.

At that time people in Northern Ireland commonly described the paramilitary on both sides as gangsters, rather than as politicians. They used to describe it to me as a self-perpetuating wave of crime, where the para-militaries on both sides were effectively running protection rackets for the money.

It’s easy to imagine that in the Australian frontier environment that Reynolds describes its men such as these gangsters that would have flourished, perhaps with the tacit approval of more respectable folks back in the city. Once they had done their work they moved further out to the next frontier and the more respectable types took over, and they could reasonably claim they did not take part in or know a lot about what happened.

Towards the end of the book Reynolds spends a lot of time on what seems to be a semantic debate about whether the frontier violence was war, and on complaining about the War Memorial not commemorating it. I initially thought this was sidetracking, a diversion from the key issue as I see it – the killing, acknowledging what actually happened, not what you call it or how you commemorate it.

However on page 235 he makes the case that over the last 20 years the Australian Government has funded a campaign to memorialize overseas wars that ‘is designed to replace two other versions of history while appearing to be innocent crusade of remembrance”.

The older of the two alternative stories he is referring to is the bush workers, and the other one is the so called black arm band view of history. It is easy to see the political importance to the conservative side of Australian politics, which has been in power almost throughout that time, of refuting both these views. So In the end I was persuaded that this discussion was useful not just semantic.

However what was even more persuasive, and important, for me was the last few pages of book. In these pages he gives us a vision of two sides fighting for all the grand things that men (to the cost of women) have always fought for – freedom, nationhood, land, resources, a future, and family. Clearly the Aboriginal fighters had a noble cause, defending their nations, and the whites were invaders stealing the livelihood of those nations for their own benefit. But like all wars Reynolds points out that it is also possible to see a more complicated picture. No doubt there would have been some cruelty on the Aboriginal side – innocent whites killed and maimed. Likewise some nobility on the white side – those who sought to reduce the violence, those who, however wrongly, thought they were bringing civilisation, and those trying to escape violence and poverty where they came from.

In many ways it’s an actual real world for example of exactly what is so often portrayed, and glorified, in popular entertainment like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings. A complicated mix of good and evil characters on both sides fighting for enormous stakes – in this case a whole continent. Some of these characters are fighting for the survival of their family, history, culture and nation; some for money; some for power; and some just because they like fighting.

And so what next? It seems clear there was a consensus on killing in the 19th century, among the ruling class at least, and that there has been a consensus on forgetting in the 20th. What should the next consensus be?

Strangely perhaps Reynolds points to his key target, the Australian War Memorial, for a way forward.  He points out that its two key slogans are equally, if not more so, relevant to the Frontier War than the overseas wars to which they refer.

The first slogan is ‘lest we forget’. It is perfectly appropriate for the Frontier War. The second is “here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they love, and here we guard the record which they themselves made’. It is hard to think of a better line with which to commemorate the black dead of the Frontier War.

September 2, 2014 at 7:39 am 1 comment

DIal m for Murdoch by Tom Watson

‘dial m for murdoch’ provides all the detail about the phone hacking scandal. it is written by one of the victims who pursued the perpetrators. it was published before the Leveson inquiry concluded, and to me it is a depressing confirmation of the overwhelming influence that power and money can have on societies such as ours.

The book however has a much happier, even celebratory tone. It gives you the impression that at the time of publication, Tom Watson the co-author in whose voice the book is written, felt vindicated. After years of cover ups, you get the impression he feels Rebekah Brooks et al will get their come-uppence.

Unfortunately I was reading it at the time Leveson published his recommendations. Their weakness seemed eerily predictable based on the history of cover ups and cop outs that characterise the previous inquiries documented in the book.

For readers that want to believe in democracy, that never wanted to buy the Marxist take on the power of capital, or that want to believe the press is an important foundational pillar of a free society, the book is devastating.

For readers that believe there is a need for a strong bureaucracy and independent regulators, including of the press, the book is further confirmation of both the need for these institutions and the reasons why they dont exist.

Strong civil society institutions don’t suit the rich and powerful or the politicians that live off them.

A big question raised by the book for readers outside the UK is why have there been no reports of similar behaviour by the press in other countries. The Murdoch press is huge in other countries, as it is in the UK, and presumably is under the same pressures of circulation and profit.

Have there been no reports in other places because it doesn’t happen or because it hasn’t been discovered? If it doesn’t happen is it because of regulation or the ethics of the press? Both are non-existent so neither is a good explanation. Perhaps it’s more likely to be to do with the way mobile voicemail works in the uk – it may be easier to break into than elsewhere.

Whatever the case, this question does give us an antidote to the depression causing poison offered by the book. it offers some hope that despite the gutter press, the power of money, and the do anything to win attitude of politicians, this situation is not inevitable. The fact it hasn’t emerged elsewhere suggests its a choice individuals made, sanctioned by their organisation, in the UK whereas similar individuals, in similar situations in similar organisations, have not made that choice elsewhere.

That can be read as a message of hope.

December 30, 2012 at 5:58 am Leave a comment

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