The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths (Black Inc, 2016).
The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their craft is a very readable exploration of the writing of history in Australia since World War II. Written by highly respected historian, Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel examines the work of fourteen influential historical writers who have developed the way we understand history in Australia.
Each chapter focuses on a different writer and their most influential work. Griffiths starts with Eleanor Dark’s, The Timeless Land written by the novelist, in 1941. This work of historical fiction is about the Aboriginal man, Bennelong and his first encounter with white settlers in Sydney. The history of first encounters, and particularly the story of Bennelong is a thread that runs through the book.
Griffiths’ has a professional connection with each writer featured. Most of the writers Griffiths highlights are historians, but historians are not the only people who write histories. Included in his list are a novelist, a farmer, a poet and an archaeologist. Tom Griffiths does not merely recount the contribution of these writers, he also weaves in delightful anecdotes about his personal relationship with them and their writing. We read about the experiences of Griffiths as a student of Greg Dening at the University of Melbourne and his later experiences participating in Dening’s guest workshops at the Australian National University. We see some glimpses of Griffiths’ childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn while reading his chapter about the historian of the suburbs – Graeme Davison. Griffiths’ anecdotes throughout the book are carefully chosen and always relevant to Griffiths’ discussion of his chosen writer. Continue reading
Waging Peace by Anne Deveson (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2013).
Anne Deveson was a highly regarded journalist, film-maker and human rights activist who died late last year. Her last book was a memoir titled Waging Peace and was published in 2013. Anne Deveson was a groundbreaker in many ways. She helped Australian society grapple with serious issues that people experienced silently such as mental illness, poverty and abuse. As I expected this book caused me to think.
Deveson was born into a family of the British Empire. Her father lived in the colony of Malaya as a rubber planter while Deveson spent her early childhood in England. Her comfortable life was upturned when World War II was declared. She was nine years old.
France fell to the Nazis in the middle of 1940. England was alone and bombs rained down on the cities and towns throughout the country. Deveson’s father was working in Malaya, far away from the hostilities. It was prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the British still thought the sun would not set on their empire. Deveson’s father urged his family to flee to the safety of Malaya so Deveson, her brother and mother left England on a passenger ship. Their ship was part of a convoy that sailed through dangerous waters hoping to escape the German U-boats circling the British Isles. They arrived safely in Malaya but a few months later they had to evacuate again, this time to Australia. Continue reading
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Jill Roe 1940-2017
It is with sadness we heard about the passing of Australian historian Jill Roe late last week. During her life she made a significant contribution to Australian history. Through her passing Australia has lost a great contributor to our society, but her work lives on and enriches our lives.
Jill Roe is best known for her biography of Australian literary icon, Miles Franklin. Stella Miles Franklin: a biography is the book she is most renowned for, and for good reason. It is not only a literary biography, it provides a window through which we can understand what it was like for an enterprising Australian woman to work and support themselves during the first half of the twentieth century. Stella Miles Franklin took Jill Roe twenty-six years to research and write. It is both highly regarded as an academic work and an engaging read for people wanting to read it for leisure. You can read the review I wrote of this impressive book in 2012.
Jill Roe dedicated much of her life to biography. She was the chairperson of the editorial board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) between 1996 and 2006. During this period the organisation won a substantial grant which allowed it to make the biographical entries freely available online. She is described in ‘The ADB’s Story‘ as “energetic, decisive and knowledgeable” and during her period at the helm observers noted she was an “effective negotiator”. During her life she contributed twenty entries for the ADB either as sole author or collaboratively. Just two months ago the ADB presented her with a medal for her services.