• Books and reading,  History

    Fabulous tale of derring do from Australia’s colonial past: ‘Ten Rogues’ by Peter Grose

    I am a lover of history in all it’s forms, though I have sometimes wondered how my interest in Australian history survived my school years in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the dry recitations that passed for history back then. I learnt about early European explorers and their ‘discoveries’, the names of people – usually men – of note, something about the Depression and the World Wars. But not enough – not nearly enough – of the humans who populated these past eras – their strivings, motivations and follies. Where, oh where, were the dramas, the absurdities, the outrageous injustices and outright comedies, the incredible feats of resilience and courage that peppered our past?

    In more recent years there have been some wonderful works of fiction and non-fiction that have brought this human part of history into sharper focus. From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories by Mark McKenna springs to mind, as do excellent podcasts such as Forgotten Australia by Michael Adams or The History Listen from ABC’s Radio National. Fled by Meg Keneally is a novel based on the astounding escape from Sydney by convict Mary Bryant; Esther by Jessica North tells the story of the woman who arguably managed and controlled one of NSW’s first large agricultural estates. And there is now, thankfully, plenty of literature to tell us the stories from indigenous Australia – non-fiction such as Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu; and fiction, including this year’s Miles Franklin awarded The Yield by Tara June Winch.

    Ten Rogues is subtitled The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile. As the title promises, it is both a rollicking good tale, and a well-researched true- life adventure. The convict at the centre of the tale is Jimmy Porter, a man who must surely have possessed the proverbial ‘nine lives’ to have escaped the multiple death sentences he faced over his career as a criminal and teller of tall tales. The author acknowledges that Jimmy’s penchant for exaggeration and blurring the truth made the research more difficult (the book is based, in part, on judicious selection from Jimmy Porter’s own accounts of his actions, as well as other contemporary narratives, convict records and newspapers, and some additional delving in Chile.)

    The book weaves all of these together with information on the history of convict transportation to Australia, the grim conditions in penal stations such as Tasmania’s Sarah Island, the historic links between the slave trade and transportation, and eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about crime, punishment and prison reform. It does so in a very readable way, because apart from anything else, the story of Jimmy Porter and his band of escapees is one of luck and misfortune, unwise choices, incredible feats of endurance and courage, and moments of humour and bravado, that might be seen as very unlikely, if they appeared in a work of fiction.

    These are the stories from our past – the funny, the ugly, the tragic, the astounding – that for me, make history so irresistible. Read this book for a rollicking good tale and to learn more about Australia’s colonial and convict periods. It delivers both in an entirely absorbing package.

    Ten Rogues was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.

    Peter Grose is the author of several other books about episodes in Australian history including A Very Rude Awakening (about the raid on Sydney harbour by Japanese mini-submarines during WWII) and An Awkward Truth (about the bombing of Darwin in 1942). These promise to be just as intriguing as Ten Rogues and are now on my Want To Read list.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic

  • Books and reading

    Identity, secrets, tragedy – and love: ‘The Love that Remains’ by Susan Francis

    This is such a beautiful book. Susan Francis’ debut published book, it is a memoir that tells of her lifelong search for her birth parents, her struggle to understand and accept the circumstances of her birth and adoption, her relationship with her adored husband Wayne, and her grief at his untimely and sudden death. But it is also about secrets that are kept by individuals and within families and asks one of the hardest of all questions: How well can we really know another person?

    The author weaves the two main themes of her story – identity and secrets – together in a way that makes the book un-put-down-able. Along with Susan Francis, I really wanted to know why she was adopted, who her birth parents were, as well as those aspects of Wayne’s past that he sought to keep hidden. The story goes back and forth in time and across continents, new griefs mixing with old, as we accompany the author on her quest to learn, to know, to understand. We feel her unbearable trauma and confusion as she faces some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, challenges that would test any one of us. Challenges that she faces with humanity, humility and a gritty determination. All of this is told in beautiful, lyrical prose that touches the deepest parts of the readers’ own emotional responses and imagination.

    Never was I tempted to ignore this knowledge about my husband’s past. The only way I could be fully me in the present was to know the truth of what had gone before. If I didn’t find out…my story would not be whole. Because you can’t un-know information.

    The Love that Remains

    I won’t say more about the events described in this book because I think every reader should come to it without too many preconceptions or prior knowledge. That way it unfolds fresh for each new reading. It is enough to say that it is a compelling debut. Susan Francis is currently working on her first novel, which I understand is partly inspired by the ‘Balibo Five’ and other events surrounding the struggle for East Timorese independence from Indonesia. I look forward to reading that once published.

    If you enjoy books that touch the heart, that make you think and wonder, and that pose questions for which there are no easy answers, you should read The Love that Remains.

    Just a note: I ‘heard’ this book via the Audible audiobook version, which is why I was unable to give a page reference for the quote above.

    #AussieAuthor2020
    #2020ReadNonFic
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    A (sometimes confronting) personal and social history: ‘A Particular Woman’ by Ashley Dawson-Damer

    I may have only two things in common with the author of this memoir: we are both women, and have both experienced grief and trauma in our lives. I can think of a long list of ways in which we are different: family background, political views, life experiences. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that for much of the time while reading A Particular Woman I felt a certain alienation from its author – or at least, from her representation of herself. Having said that, the book is an interesting read, partly because it’s a journey through Australian life in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s and up to the present time.

    I’ll start with the blurb on the back cover:
    Embracing the excitement and turbulence of sixties Sydney, Ashley is set to make her mark amid uni classes filled with ambitious young males. She imagines her future with a successful career, husband, and a house full of children.
    But life is never quite that easy.

    As a university graduate with a degree in economics (unusual for a woman at that time) Ashley travels to London and Canada, marries, and lives with her new husband as an expat in the Philippines, Singapore, Nigeria and Argentina. Later, as a single parent, she supports her young children through work as a model; eventually find love and security and a country lifestyle, before venturing into a role in the arts world as a member of various boards. Throughout the years she comes up against tragedy, hardship and profound grief.

    I admit to a certain amount of distaste for aspects of her life, or at least for the way she describes them. She recounts jobs with a large tobacco company with no apparent reflection on the evils of this industry. Similarly, her descriptions of her life as an expat in countries with high levels of poverty hint at a limited awareness of the position of relative privilege held by monied, white youngsters in countries previously colonised and often pillaged by the West. Several interactions between various friends and some local people struck me as shameful, but are recounted by the author with no apology or reflection.

    Dawson-Damer seemed to move through the world as a young, blonde, beautiful woman with an apparent line up of men ogling her and wanting to take her to bed. I found this uncomfortable reading.

    However, I decided to regard this memoir as a first hand account of the times in which she lived. Australia, as with much of the world, was undergoing a period of great change; upheavals as economies and societies transitioned from the post-war era to a modern day understanding of issues like imperialism, racism, and sexism. As an example: while completing her economics degree, it was still the custom to hold a ‘Miss Economics’ competition in the faculty! And as the author puts it:

    Work was opening up for me, and yet women in the workplace had to be careful. We knew not to catch lifts alone with certain men; there’s no denying it, in those days we were fair game.

    A Particular Woman p36

    Dawson-Damer’s life did not play out as expected. She was to endure loss and hardship and several transformations of her own life before reaching a place of acceptance and stability. I warmed to her more as she recounted these difficult times and the way she dealt with them. I could admire her hard work, tenacity and commitment to whatever challenges she set herself. Her philosophy is best summed up in these words:

    We must celebrate life. Not just our own, but the life we have with others. Most of us are going to have difficult times dished up to us. The awful times are balanced out by the good times. If we are lucky, we will survive the tragedies that might occur and go on to be stronger…Suffering mellows us. It makes us humbler and wiser. It adds steel melded with compassion to our strength.

    A Particular Woman p235

    The book is illustrated with a collection of photographs from different times in her life. I would have enjoyed knowing more about the people and places in some of these, but they were a welcome addition, helping to bring her story alive.

    A Particular Woman is a story of resilience against a backdrop of a changing Australia, and would hold plenty to interest readers who enjoy first-hand accounts of interesting lives such as
    Ashley Dawson-Damer’s.

    A Particular Woman will be published in July 2020 by Ventura Press.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Another Australian ‘living literary treasure’: Helen Garner and her book ‘Everywhere I Look’

    I’m late to this book (published by Text Publishing in 2016) but I’m an avowed Helen Garner fan, especially her non-fiction, which Everywhere I Look is: a collection of short anecdotes, musings, essays, film and book reviews, and a catalogue of everyday incidents in the life of an author who has made observing and recording a daily habit. In the hands of someone as skilled as this, the everyday become poetic, luminous, full of beauty, humour and mystery.

    These were qualities of other books I’ve read by Garner: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief, The Spare Room, and of course the classic Monkey Grip, among others. How does she do this – write about the ordinary and the extraordinary in ways that make both seem familiar or, at least, understandable?

    The second-last piece in this book, titled ‘The Insults of Age’, should be a must-read for any woman approaching mid to later life (and their partners, family and friends.) Her warning to thoughtless (younger) folk who might presume to act towards older women as if they are invisible, stupid, deaf or helpless, is one of several paragraphs that made me chuckle.

    There were, as well, moments when I gasped in recognition of the situation described and at the beauty and simplicity of the prose, such as in the piece describing her mother and their relationship. ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ also made me weep a little. There is this:

    When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.

    Everywhere I Look, p94

    And these sentences, describing a photo of Helen as a baby in her mother’s arms, which capture the other side of the parent-child relationship:

    I am six months old. I am still an only child. She is carrying me in her arms. She is strong enough to bear my weight with ease. I trust her. She is my mother, and I am content to rest my head upon her breast.

    Everywhere I Look p105

    There it is – the entirety of the complicated bond between parent and child in a handful of understated or pared-back sentences. Who could say more, or more beautifully?

    A wonderful offering from a living literary treasure.

  • Books and reading,  History,  Life: bits and pieces

    All about stories – and identity: Reflections on Survival/Invasion/Australia Day, and Patti Miller’s ‘The Mind of a Thief’

    For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)

    The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.

    For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.

    Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul

    After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.

    At the Vigil at Barangaroo, Sydney Harbour, 25th January 2020

    On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.

    All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.

    Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.

    Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read.  The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!

    Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky,  a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.

    It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.

    In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.

    However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that: 

    There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.

    p. 68

    Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:

    Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)

    Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.

    Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:

    What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)

    Indeed.

    And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)

    Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.

    Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.

    Miller writes:

    Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably.
    … It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.

    pp. 123 & 166

    I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.

    So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.

    The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:

    I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.

    p.233

    This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.

  • Books and reading

    When a book surprises: ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein

    For reasons I don’t quite understand, I avoided this book for some time. When it was published in 2017 (Text Publishing) I read and heard a lot of praise about it, but I didn’t rush to get a copy. I’ve puzzled over the reason why: possibly, thinking it was simply a book about the work of a trauma cleaner, I was reluctant to indulge in what I’d thought of as a kind of ‘morbid curiosity’. How wrong I was!

    This book is so many things. A biography, yes: it tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman who runs a cleaning company that specialises in trauma cleaning. For those new to this term, this includes the obvious sorts of scenarios: buildings in which a murder or suicide has taken place, or where someone has died and been undiscovered for a long time…you can imagine the sort of mess resulting from these situations. But trauma cleaning, I learnt, also includes residences that would be described as sites of ‘hoarding and squalor’, where a council or community service has stepped in to order the removal of rubbish or to offer help to a resident unable to cope with household hygiene and maintenance.

    The author shadowed Sandra on many of her jobs, and describes the scenes into which Sandra and her staff set foot, and the residents/clients, when they were present. We come to understand that there are many, many reasons why people become overwhelmed by the tasks of daily life, frequently involving their own personal traumas, or ill health (physical or mental), or a combination of these things. And we come to understand that these situations are much more common than we may like to think.

    So, that was my first surprise with this book – it taught me about the job of a trauma cleaner in a way that did not titillate or shock, but portrayed the lives of Sandra’s many clients in a manner that was both compassionate and matter of fact – exactly the way that Sandra herself approaches each cleaning job she embarks upon.

    But the biggest surprise was that the book told so much of Sandra’s own story. She is a remarkable woman who has herself experienced deep and profound trauma and loss, and who now draws on the well of her own humanity to offer care and respect to the people for whom she works: families of deceased, people living with severe mental ill health, or in squalid situations.

    Sandra’s story begins with her adoption – as a baby boy into a Catholic, working class family riven by domestic violence and alcoholism (well done, Catholic adoption system of the 1960’s!) and goes on to include her rejection by her adoptive parents when they have two biological children after adopting Peter, as baby Sandra is known in the book. The little boy was dealt levels of cruelty and neglect that were breathtaking, and which spark the uncomfortable thought that such childhood experiences are more common than many of us could know. Peter grew up, was kicked out of the family home, married, had two children, then discovered the gay scene of the 1970’s, and embarked on a path of self discovery (and self abuse via illicit drugs and alcohol), thinking all the while that the ‘difference’ for which his adoptive parents rejected him so vehemently in his childhood, was that he was homosexual.

    Peter eventually realised that the truth was more complicated. He was not gay, but was a female born into a male body. With enormous courage, he decided to do what he could to right that wrong, by beginning a course of medications and hormones to change his outward appearance to a more feminine one, and then to endure sex reassignment surgery – one of the earliest people to undergo this procedure in Australia. Eventually, after numerous iterations, setbacks and new traumas, Peter became Sandra.

    There is so much to the story of Sandra’s life that it is impossible to do it justice in a few paragraphs. What I loved about this book, though, was the author’s way of telling the story, giving the reader gems of information, circling around to the present and weaving back to the past. Krasnostein tells Sandra’s story with lyrical language and a thoughtfulness that befits such a complex, multi-layered life.

    The Trauma Cleaner was the recipient of many literary awards: Victorian Prize for Literature in 2018, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction 2018, the ABIA General Non-fiction Book of the Year 2018, and the Dobbie Literary Award for First Time Published Author, and it was shortlisted for many others. Having overcome my initial (and still puzzling) hesitancy to read it, I can understand why. It’s a wonderfully written book about a remarkable person.

    As a footnote, I listened to the Audible audiobook version of The Trauma Cleaner, (Audible 2018) and the narration by Rachel Tidd was perfect, adding much to my experience of Sarah Krasnostein’s beautiful words.