Review: The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith

Cover of the Anzacs

The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith, (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1985)

The fog rolled down the river and engulf our house. The cold and damp penetrated the walls and windows. Our only view, an opaque whiteness. Through the stillness, the sound of a lone bugler playing the Last Post reached us from the nearby cemetery. Another old soldier had died.

This was the house our family was living in when Patsy Adam-Smith published The Anzacs, her iconic history of Australian participation in World War I. Adam-Smith recognised that the 1970s were the last chance to talk to many of the surviving soldiers, so she interviewed veterans for her book as well as reading copious letters and diaries written during the War.

The Anzacs sold over 100,000 copies after it was published in 1978, at a time when Australia’s population was 14 million. But like other popular books, publishers were not very keen on it when Patsy Adam-Smith approached them seeking a contract. “It won’t sell. It’s about war,” one publisher said. This was the era of the peace movement and revulsion about the war in Vietnam. Compared to now, war histories were not prominent in bookshops. Continue reading

Maybanke Anderson: suffragist and social reformer

Change in a culture often occurs in fits and starts, in confusing whirls of ideas and protest followed by quiet periods where old orthodoxies percolate through society again but in a different guise. Reform digs in its heels. New form orthodoxies flex their muscles and then we find the times of protest, ideas and reform are upon us again. As we cycle through complacency, protest and reform injustices are gradually addressed.

This has been the life of the quest for equality of women and men. Undoubtedly enormous progress has been made over the last two hundred years. Yet despite hard-won gains, there is still so much that can be improved. An important aspect of the movement to equality is reviewing the history of human achievement and telling the stories of women’s achievements which have been forgotten over the passage of time or never properly recognised and told in the first place.

Book Cover of Maybanke Anderson bio

Maybanke Anderson 1845-1927: Sex, suffrage & social reform by Jan Roberts, published by Ruskin Rowe Press. This review is of the second edition published in 1997.

In writing the biography of Maybanke Anderson, Jan Roberts has ensured that the contributions of a leading educationist and prominent leader of social reform in New South Wales continue to be recognised. Maybanke Anderson was a leading public figure in the debates about the problems women and children faced in New South Wales during the 1890s and the early twentieth century. She established a school known for its high standard of education, was a leading light in the campaign for women’s suffrage, spent years working to establish free, high-quality kindergarten education and was the founder and editor of a feminist magazine.  She was one of a small group of women and men who pushed the issue of a better life for women to the front of public debate time again.

Jan Roberts has written an illuminating biography about Maybanke Anderson but Roberts faced a struggle to cover the early years before Maybanke became a public figure. A biography ideally covers the entire life of a person and accounts for the time before the subject became well known. Yet the documentary record before a person comes to prominence is often sparce  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

Islamic Museum of Australia

White building with large grey Arabic writing on it

My mother outside the Islamic Museum of Australia in Melbourne.

“I would like to visit the Islamic Museum,” said my mother when I visited her in Melbourne last year. My mother likes visiting art exhibitions, but she doesn’t visit many museums. Her request surprised me. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like many people she has been appalled at the anti-Muslim rhetoric which is too often heard nowadays. She has always been interested in other cultures. Why wouldn’t she as a Christian be interested in learning about Islam?

Things intervened but we finally visited the Islam Museum in time for its third anniversary. The building is a striking design which declares the Australian roots of the Museum and its place in our modern world. It is adorned with an Arabic excerpt from the Quran which translated reads:

So narrate to them the stories so that upon them they may reflect

And we certainly did a lot of reflecting inside. 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

The Professional Sceptic

mess-of-books-c2This blog post introduces something new to Stumbling Through the Past. I want to help authors at the start of their book-writing careers but I can’t possibly review every debut history or biography that is published. So I hope to post the occasional post written by an Australian or New Zealander author who has just published their first history or biography to help them connect with potential readers. I hope that readers of this blog will enjoy reading interesting posts about histories that they might not otherwise have known about.

If your first history or biography has been published recently and you are interested in submitting a post, check out my guidelines and make me a pitch. I encourage women, indigenous people and those who are from a culturally diverse background to take me up on this.

The first post in this occasional series is from Avan Judd Stallard whose book, Antipodes: In search of the southern continent was published by Monash University Publishing In November 2016.

Enjoy!

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