War, Business and Orchids – the Smith Story

 

We did it! I was part of an international research project that has led to the publication of this book. No Substitute for Kindness: The Story of May and Stanley Smith (May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, 2017).

Stanley Smith was an Australian businessman, WWII operative in China and expert horticulturalist. His life took him from a comfortable Brisbane upbringing to the danger of war and finally to a life half-way across the world. His Chinese-born wife, May Wong, grew up during the civil war in China and the fighting against Japanese occupation. May and Stanley met through their work for British propaganda and intelligence in the Chinese wartime capital of the city then known as Chungking (Chongqing).

Together the lives of Stanley and May Smith make a gripping read in the newly published book, No Substitute for Kindness. Commissioned by one of the philanthropic funds established by the couple, a team of researchers and writers from the United States, England and Australia have pieced together a fascinating biography.

I was one of the historians who worked on the book. My principal task was to research the early years of Stanley Smith’s life. He was born in Brisbane in 1907 and was a student at Eagle Junction State School. Stanley then won a state scholarship to the Church of England Grammar School or ‘Churchie’ as it is commonly known. Continue reading

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Topics that Interest Historians in Australia

Coloured words of varying sizes

This word cloud shows frequency of words used in the abstracts of papers delivered at concurrent sessions at the 2017 Australian Historical Association conference. Generated using Voyant.

The annual gathering of historians in Australia is big. This year there were nearly 300 papers delivered in concurrent sessions. Yesterday I blogged about the keynotes and plenary panels. Today I will have a look at the masses of papers delivered by over three hundred historians. Before you recoil in horror at the prospect of a very lengthy post, I assure you that I will be giving a very broad overview with a closer look at a few topics. Continue reading

The Big Sessions at the 2017 Australian Historical Association Conference

Stage taken from the back of the hall

The main venue of the 2017 Australian Historical Association conference was at the Newcastle City Hall Concert Hall. I liked this evocative tweet by Mike Jones.

If you want to know what history excites historians living in Australia and the latest historical research, you should follow the annual Australian Historical Association conference held each July. This year’s record conference Twitter stream together with the conference program and abstracts gives us a peek into the vibrant conference held recently at the University of Newcastle.

Today I will just focus on the keynotes and the plenary sessions at the conference. Continue reading

Debut Author Chat: Jayne Persian and the Beautiful Balts

Today I am delighted to publish a post written by Jayne Persian, lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland, and author of Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians. Her book was published this month by Small Publisher of the Year, NewSouth Books. This post is part of my ‘Debut Author Chat‘ series where authors who have recently published their first history discuss their book. 

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Head and shoulders of Jayne Persian

Jayne Persian, author of Beautiful Balts and lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland.

Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians tells the story of the first mass intake of refugees accepted into Australia: the 170,000 Central and Eastern Europeans who arrived in Australia between 1947 and 1952. Characterised as ‘Beautiful Balts’, they were recruited in Europe by the Australian government, under the slogan of ‘populate or perish’: migrants were needed to bulk up the Australian population, and to solve a post-war labour shortage.

I open the book in Austria’s Drau Valley in May 1945. A 70,000-strong Russian Cossack force was waiting to discover its fate. They had fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union, had surrendered to the British and were hoping to remain in Austria as anti-Soviet refugees. What happened next is now infamous. Many of these men, women and children were forcefully handed over to the Soviets: there are allegations of brutality, automatic fire, suicides. Some people were trampled to death.

Small groups of Cossacks, including Ivan and Nastasia, managed to escape the round-up. Ivan, a Don Cossack, met Nastasia in 1943, when she was working as a forced labourer in eastern Ukraine under the Nazis. Ivan was much older, around 53 years old to her 17, but had offered her an escape from forced labour if she would marry and join him in his journey across Europe. They left Ukraine on 31 December 1943, travelling with the Cossack Army to Italy via Romania, Poland and Hungary. In Italy, in a shed during a bomb attack, her first son was born. Little Maxim died at 14 weeks of age, of malnutrition. From Italy, Nastasia and Ivan journeyed over mountain ranges, evading Italian partisans, to apparent safety with the Cossack camp outside Lienz.  After witnessing the merciless repatriation of their camp, the small groups fled up the snow-covered mountains and hid in ravines, surviving by killing sheep at night, while evading British patrols. After three months of this, Ivan and Nastasia were caught by Austrian police and sent to Kapfenberg displaced persons’ camp. Continue reading

‘Thank you to my wife’ – unpaid work by women

1 man standing holding paper next to a woman typing

This photo from 1950 says it all. For much of the twentieth-century men wrote and dictated while women typed. Photo courtesy of the Museums Victoria. (Museums Victoria has an excellent open access policy and a large collection online – check it out)

Research and writing involves a lot of repetitive time-consuming tasks such as typing, editing, transcribing and formatting data. All the public hears about is the amazing discovery. The bulk of the work is essential but it can be rather monotonous and certainly not news-worthy.

Over the last few of days #ThanksForTyping has emerged on Twitter to recognise the wives of academics who did a huge amount of this unglamorous and unpaid but essential work for their husbands in the past.  Often the only public acknowledgement they received for this was a sentence noting the debt owed to ‘my wife’ in the acknowledgements of the book or thesis.

Bruce Holsinger from the University of Virginia started the hashtag and found some extraordinary examples:

That woman must have been a world champion in multi-tasking and juggling, but how much sleep did she get? She was a part-time lecturer in chemistry. Has she been properly recognised for her expertise in this field? Continue reading

It’s About Time

Unfilled double page spread from a 1918 diary

History is about time. I have been using old calendars like this to help me construct a WWI timeline. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

In my last post I wrote about Sue Castrique’s conception of history as drama and how it helped me with how I tackle the writing of my book. I am writing about how Australian soldiers reconciled their experience of World War I with their beliefs, whether they be agnostic, adherents to one of the large Christian denominations or held more unorthodox beliefs for the time. Over the last couple of weeks I have been doing a major review of my writing task with the goal of producing a book that you will find is a riveting read.

While I am writing about the inner lives of the soldiers, the context which led to their reflective thoughts is critical. I am mindful of the advice given by the historian of war the historian of war and gender, Karen Hagemann. “Violence needs to be at the centre of the history of war”, she said. The war intruded into every aspect of the soldier’s lives. I cannot ignore the horrific events that punctuated the tedium and discomfort of the lives of soldiers on active service. Some events, such as battles were significant for many soldiers and nations, other events were important only to the soldier writing his diary or letters. Both types of events are important for my book. Continue reading

History as a Cast of Characters

Over the last few weeks I have made great strides with my book and am now starting to write it. My book is about the beliefs of Australian men who fought in World War I. The book will focus on the interior lives of a number of men as recorded in diaries, letters and court martials. There will be mention of attendance of church services but I am more interested in the faith, the spiritual doubts and the religious exploration of men as they were exposed to lands, peoples and situations that they would never have experienced if they had remained in Australia.

I want to write more than a book that reveals things we did not know about the past. I want to write a book that is an engrossing read, that respects not only the men that wrote the sources I am relying on but those many men whose words have not travelled the temporal divide between us and the past. I want to write a book about World War I that the readers of this blog will be eager to read.

One of the problems I have been grappling with over the last two years is how to write the book. I have been dealing with this problem for a couple of years, but I have enough experience as a writer to be patient with myself. I have continued to research, to read, to write experimental chapter outlines and introductory paragraphs. One thing that has been important in this process is to attend conferences and listen to what other writers and researchers have to say.

Book cover

Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839–1869, by Sue Castrique (Anchor Books Australia, 2014)

There have been many aha! moments over the last couple of years. One of these was a talk given by historian, Sue Castrique last year at the fabulous Working History conference hosted by the Professional Historians Association of Victoria. Sue spoke about narrative history and how she tackled the writing of her award-winning book, Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839-1869. Continue reading