Friday, 5 January 2018

More 'Australiana' in London - Matthew Flinders & Trim

Café Trim in Sydney is well-known to researchers who spend a lot of time in libraries, like me. My visits to the State Library of New South Wales and Mitchell Library complex have usually included a coffee and a bite to eat at Café Trim, on the ground floor between both buildings. Named after Matthew Flinders' cat, Trim, the venue and the affection held for its name implies that the cat is almost more famous in Sydney than Flinders himself, the brilliant naval lieutenant, navigator and cartographer! Of course I exaggerate - a prominent statue of Matthew Flinders stands outside the Mitchell Library, which is the repository for his papers.

He was the first man to circumnavigate the continent of Australia in his trusty little H.M.S. Investigator, proving it to be one land mass. Trim was his faithful companion on the famous journey in 1801-1803 and during part of Flinders' subsequent detention by the French Governor of Mauritius, for more than six years, when Flinders called in en route to England. His achievements are well-acknowledged in other places in Australia, such as Flinders St in Melbourne, where there's another statue in his honour, and Flinders University and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.

Beyond Australia I didn't expect to stumble across Matthew Flinders and his cat. Yet on a recent trip to London, outside Euston Station, I discovered a wonderful sculpture memorialising both of them in a very striking way. It's apparently a copy of a newly-unveiled sculpture at Port Lincoln in South Australia. I must say I admired the lean and agile depiction of this admirable naval officer. Afterwards I wondered at the strange coincidence that once again on this trip to the UK I had been unexpectedly Bumping into Joseph Banks. Like Banks, Flinders was a son of Lincolnshire and his naval expedition around Australia was championed by Banks, who was with Captain Cook when the east coast of Australia was 'discovered' by the British in 1770. George Bass, who with Flinders in 1798 proved the existence of Bass Strait, was also a son of Lincolnshire. What that English county has done for Australia!

My first visit to Euston Station happened to be at night. With people watching me suspiciously, I lurked nearby until various partakers of fast food meals stood up from their comfortable seat beside Trim and departed. Then I quickly deposited their left-behind rubbish in the bin so that I could take my photos. 
Trim and Matthew Flinders at night at Euston Station, London

Matthew Flinders (and Trim) at night at Euston Station, London

Next time I passed by it was daylight - and not so busy, or perhaps it was just colder. It was winter time, making the daylight shots pretty grey-toned, while at night the sheen of the lighting added gloss to the scene. I'm not sure which photos I prefer. 

Trim and Matthew Flinders in daytime at Euston Station, London

Matthew Flinders (and Trim) in daytime at Euston Station, London
Why is this statue located at Euston Station? Because Flinders was buried in the cemetery 'under' the station and because it was felt that the English needed to know more about this man, hitherto mostly unfamiliar to them. Read a Londoner's account of the history of this sculpture.

Here is more background about the life and achievements of Matthew Flinders.

Flinders first arrived in Sydney in September 1795 along with the incoming Governor, John Hunter, who already had a long association with Sydney, having been second-in-command to Arthur Phillip on the First Fleet of 1788.  Hunter had departed Sydney by the time my convict forebear Paul Bushell arrived with the infamous Second Fleet in June 1790, but after his return to Sydney in 1795 Hunter gained knowledge of upright citizen Paul Bushell and gave him special treatment. I know it's fanciful but, since Paul was living by Sydney Harbour in 1795, I like to imagine that Paul 'did but see Flinders passing by'.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

On the Trail of Arthur Phillip in Westminster Abbey

Arthur Phillip became a hero of mine as I researched the life and times of my forebears 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' and 'Paul Bushell, Second Fleeter'. Accordingly, I've written two blog posts in tribute to Phillip - as the father of Australia and as an example of the spirit we need on Australia Day.

In London on previous visits I've located his old 'haunts' in and around Cheapside in the City, where he was born in 1738. It's on my bucket list to visit the various sites paying tribute to him in Bath, where he died in 1814. On a recent trip to London, when my time was limited, I restricted myself to viewing the latest acknowledgement of his place in history, a special flagstone inserted into the floor of Westminster Abbey.
Magnificent Westminster Abbey
Some years ago I did the full tour of the Abbey with my then 7-year-old daughter. She even did a brass rubbing (permitted then), still secreted somewhere in my house. With that experience in mind, this time I chose to forego the crowds of tourists flocking to the Abbey and instead opted to attend Evensong, hoping to spot the memorial stone during the service.

Unfortunately the central aisle was roped off on Sunday 26 November 2017 and visitors could not walk that way. After the service I asked one of the ushers to show me the spot commemorating Phillip. She was happy to do so but declined permission for me to take a photo. The remarkably small memorial stone could easily be missed if you weren't on the lookout for it. Still, it gave me a buzz to see it.

A photo could be purchased, my guide said, and I was advised to email the office via the Abbey's website. This I did, establishing contact and explaining my interest.  It led to an unexpected little adventure a few days later, when I happened to be researching at the City of Westminster Archives Centre.

The Centre being located close to the Abbey, I decided to call in at the Abbey's shop and buy my photo, thereby avoiding the hassle of sending a small amount of money in the mail. The shop assistant redirected me to an impressive doorway accessed via the Dean's Yard.
What's behind this door?
I announced my presence into the intercom, heard a click as the lock was released and stepped into a rather Dickensian and very silent space.
Behind the door
The room seemed empty but then I heard a voice saying 'Up here'. A lady stood at the top of the spiral staircase. I climbed up and followed her to a dusty archives room where the photo sale and purchase took place. What fun!
Up the spiral staircase
I opened the sealed envelope - and here it is. The photo I worked so hard to get! I have permission to use it in this low-res form on my blog, with a Facebook link. The memorial's wording seems perfect to me, every bit of it true, and the design is tastefully executed.
Flagstone Tribute to Arthur Phillip
Now I hope that every Australian visitor to Westminster Abbey will be on the lookout for this stone in the floor of the central nave and will say a silent 'thank you' for the example set by a man who showed remarkable qualities of leadership in the face of great adversity.

By the way, my book 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' will shortly be reprinted as a Second Edition. Click here for the latest update about that book.

Friday, 7 July 2017

A Lesson in Oral History

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 May 2017

My Fifty Year 'Journey of the Mind' Concerning Aborigines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 April 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - a classic in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 January 2017

A Realist on 'The Crown'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hume Highway Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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