Tag Archives: Heather Goodall

The Book Group, Goodall and Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience

Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People and Sydney’s Georges River (New South Books 2009)

Before the Meeting: I was the Designated Book Chooser this month, and seized the opportunity to read and discuss this book – Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy (1996) does a brilliant job of un-erasing the long and continuing history of Aboriginal dispossession and struggle for land in New South Wales, and a friend recommended this more localised history. I came to it with high expectations.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Nine of the book’s eleven chapters are filled with stories of Aboriginal people living, working, fighting, building families, organising – being resilient – on or in connection to the Georges River. These stories draw on early settler accounts (in the case of the Bediagal warrior Pemulwuy and the less famous, but charismatic Dharawal man Kogi), petitions to government (beginning with Kogi’s grandson Jonathon Goggey in 1857, and appearing regularly from then on), reports of governmental inquiries (beginning with the colony’s ‘Select Committee on the condition of the Aborigines’ in 1845, where a man named Mahroot told how a number of Aboriginal men and women made livings from fishing on the river, in what the authors call ‘effective cultural negotiation’), the diaries and newspaper articles of white people (including those guided, and fed, on fishing and hunting expeditions by Dharawal-speaking Biddy Giles in the 1860s; and, as transport improved, tourists), the records of the Aborigines Protection Board and other government agencies, and, as the twentieth century progresses, newsreel footage, records of the Housing Commission, Land Rights claims and interviews with Aboriginal people with living connections to the river.

It’s necessarily a piecemeal story, and I can’t tell whether anyone from outside Sydney, let alone outside Australia, would find it interesting. But as a non-Indigenous Sydneysider who has crossed the Georges River many times and walked along the upper reaches of Salt Pan Creek, a tributary that features significantly, my internal map of the world was being radically redrawn as I read.

The opening chapter places the stories in the context of some major ideas about ‘land, indigeneity and change, about environment and about cities’. To give you some idea of this fifteen-page section:

  • The authors reject the idea that ‘Aboriginal “traditional” cultures were unchanging and static, consisting of a closed and fully formed parcel of knowledge and stories which could be handed down intact across generations for thousands of years – and which therefore could not cope with changes’. Even on the Georges River, which flows through heavily industrialised parts of Sydney, they argue, Aboriginal cultural process have been maintained.

  • They argue that the cultural practices that establish strong links to a place need not be effective only for people with a traditional affiliation to that place.

  • Since 1788 and even earlier, mobility has been ‘as much a defining characteristic of Aboriginal cultures as affiliations with meaningful bounded places’. The river has served as an ‘important corridor of mobility’.

  • Discussions of conservation emphasise native local species, treasuring them as national emblems, and paradoxically often ignoring ‘the role of Aboriginal people in the cultural and material work of actively managing, cultivating and changing the native species on the river and its banks’. The declaration of the Georges River National Park, contested among non-Aboriginal people, is even more complex for Aboriginal people.

It would do an injustice to the book to reduce it to a single argument, but there’s a thread of argument running through it: the established way of thinking about sacred sites and Aboriginal people’s connection to land is inadequate. People from many language groups and many parts of Australia have been part of the Aboriginal communities along the Georges River. They have been allocated land, have bought land as individuals and as collectives, and been moved off it repeatedly, sometimes with promises of the right of return, promises that were invariably broken. Because for a long time the land along the river was inaccessible or useless to the colonisers, they were able to make homes and livings there. Whether or not it passes the official criteria for a Native Title claim, it’s indisputably Aboriginal land. The book ends with a quote from the Tharawal Land Council:

Each Aboriginal site has its place; every Aboriginal place has its story in the life of an Aboriginal family. Country is alive with stories.

After the meeting: We had audiovisual aids. Alec Morgan and Rose Hesp’s Australia in Colour is currently screening on SBS, and the second episode includes a colourised version of a 1933 newsreel clip that opens the book, featuring Joe Anderson (‘King Burraga’) standing in the bush near Salt Pan Creek and declaiming in a strangely plummy accent:

Before the white man set foot in Australia, my ancestors had kings in their own right, and I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line … There is plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want … The black man owned Australia, and now he demands more than charity. He wants the right to live!

(You can see the whole episode here. Joe appears at 17:35.)

We opened the evening with that clip. And a group member who is a heritage conservationist who had gone walking in the Georges River National Park on the weekend shared some beautiful photos, including one of a plaque marking the site of Joe Anderson’s family’s home.

We had an animated conversation, though there was less laughter than usual. It’s a heavy subject, and the mildest-mannered of the group said he was quivering with rage at some parts. There was some discussion of what it meant that two white women had written the book: some felt that the authors were very careful not to overstep because of their outsider status – not something I was aware of.

Most of us had got hold of a copy from a library, but one chap get a print-on-demand copy from the publisher – with just a two-week wait.

Rivers and resilience is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group and John Hirst’s Australian History in 7 Questions

John Hirst, Australian History in 7 Questions (Black Inc 2014)

9781863956703Before the Book group meeting: ‘I know that many people find Australian history dull and predictable,’ John Hirst starts his introduction to this book. Invited to lecture on this potentially deadly topic at a branch of the University of the Third Age, he had the thought that if he framed the lectures as puzzling over genuine questions, they would cease to be predictable. I don’t know about the lectures, but this book is lively and has quite a few surprises.

Hirst’s seven questions, and severely truncated version of his answers, are:

  1. Why did Aborigines not become farmers? The real question is why did other hunter-gatherer peoples ever make the transition to farming, when it’s advantages are far from obvious? (He relies on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel a fair bit. It’s not part of his story that Aboriginal people did become farmers, but were ruthlessly driven off their land by the colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – as in Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy.)
  2. How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy? This question is based on a misapprehension: New South Wales was never a penal colony. It began as a colony of convicts: from the beginning the work of the colony was overseen by other convicts, and convicts had substantial rights. The penal reform movement in England led to a failed attempt to turn it into a penal colony in the 1820s and 1830s.
  3. Why was Australia so prosperous so early? The most interesting aspect of Hirst’s answer is that the colony was run by government employees. That is, the people in charge weren’t there to make profit for themselves or their company, but were public servants, and had the resources of the British government behind them.
  4. Why did the Australian colonies federate? This chapter is mainly a rebuttal of two common replies: that Federation happened because of business interests or because of racism. Business in fact opposed Federation until the eleventh hour, and while racism was big and ugly it wasn’t the motivator. You have to ignore the vast amount of bad poetry being published in late 19th century Australia not to realise that the move to Federation was driven by a deep yearning for independence, a powerful nationalistic sentiment.
  5. What effect did convict origins have on national character? Relying on a 1969 essay by Henry Reynolds, Hirst rebuts Russell Ward’s well-established story that our convict origins made us an irreverent lot, free-spirited and suspicious of authority. On the contrary, the ‘convict stain’ meant Australians felt the need to prove themselves among nations by, for example, sending off lots of young men to die in England’s wars. The need to transcend the ‘impure origins’ of the nation may have lain behind the racism of the White Australia policy – Australia would be ‘racially pure’.
  6. Why was the postwar migration program a success? Hirst points to the way the colonies dealt with cultural differences well before the 1950s. The conflicts that were left behind in Britain and Ireland were savage, and though prejudice and mutual unpleasantness continued, there was a general consensus that the old conflicts should not be imported into the new country.
  7. Why is Australia not a republic? The Australian colonies were too far away from England to feel safe if they cut ties, and much more recently John Howard played on people’s distrust of politicians to secure a defeat in the 1999 referendum.

That gives some idea of the book’s arguments. Of course, the story you tell depends on what questions you start from. Ask any Australian historian to come up with 7 questions, and you’ll get a different book. It’s hard to imagine an Aboriginal historian such as Vicki Grieves choosing Hirst’s first, even without the questionable term ‘Aborigines’, or James Boyce, author of Van Diemen’s Land, being so focussed on Sydney and Melbourne. I don’t remember any mention of the Chinese on the goldfields, or of the substantial non-Anglo immigrant communities that flourished before the Second World War – Germans in South Australia, and Southern Europeans in north Queensland, say.

I’m not a historian myself, but I enjoy reading history, and plan to keep my ears open for the discussion this book generates. Hirst has stuck a number of spanners in the well-oiled works of received versions of Australian history, and that can’t be bad.

The meeting: This was our last meeting for the year and was even more convivial than usual. The business of the evening began with ceremonial distribution of  books each of us had chosen from our shelves and wrapped in bright paper. I scored The Atlantic Ocean, a collection of essays by Andrew O’Hagan.

The book turned out to be a fabulous choice for the group. There was a lot of interesting discussion, which included quite a bit of holding personal histories up against Hirst’s generalisations. We are all white, almost all of Anglo heritage, but quite a few of us had our own experiences or those of people we’re close to that resonated with Hirst’s notion of conflicts being left in their place of origin, not dwelt on here. One guy started out saying that he didn’t care for the book much because the writing is pedestrian, giving information but no pleasure – but by the end of the evening, he said he had been converted. We laughed a lot, but I don’t remember what about.

2013 in review (lazily)

Many good things happened in my life this year. Possibly the biggest was that Ngurrumbang, the short film whose screenplay I co-wrote with my elder son, was screened at three festivals in Australia and one in Europe, with Flickerfest still to come. But here are three relatively lazy looks at the year that’s just finishing.

One: The first sentence (or sometimes the first two sentences) of the first blog post for each month:

January: Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it.

February: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book [Hiroshima Nagasaki] at Gleebooks early last year.

March: Geoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of Going Down Swinging was complete, he nicknamed the impending Nº 33 the Jesus Issue.

April: I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like.

May: The launch of this book [Pam Brown’s Home by Dark] last weekend was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub.

June: Sydney has Vivid. Wellington has Lux.

July: I was extremely lucky in the timing of my university studies. I started at Sydney Uni in 1967 when, because of an overhaul of the New South Wales school system, only a very small cohort had graduated from high school the year before.

August: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn.

September: It’s about two and a half years since we moved home. About a year ago, the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) that had stood outside our kitchen window in the old house was ailing in its new location – most of its fronds were brown or browning.

October: This book [Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill] seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing.

November: It’s November, and once again, while all over the world people with stamina take on NaNoWriMo, I’m setting myself the modest goal of 14 sonnets in the month – LoSoRhyMo (Local Sonnet Rhyming Month).

December: As Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95.

Two: Top Ten Movies (in no particular order)

Me The Art Student
Philomena (Stephen Frears) 1p
In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt)
A Gun in Each Hand (Cesc Gay)
Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel)140_wmk
The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)
No (Pablo Larrain)
Barbara (Christian Petzold)1barbara A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)

Three: Notes on the year’s reading

Rather than single out some books as the best, let’s see how I went in reading diversely.

I’ve listed 63 books in my ‘Reading and Watching’ column. I didn’t finish at least five of them and quite a few were journals, not books at all. It looks as if I read 53 books as such.

  • 31 were by men, 22 by women
  • 6 were translations – two from Norwegian, one each from Bengali, Russian, German and Catalan
  • 32 were Australian
  • 24 were poetry books, including substantial anthologies as well as tiny chapbooks
  • 7 were Book Group books
  • not necessarily the best, but 3 books that enriched my sense of what Australia is were Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy, Noel Beddoe’s The Yalda Crossing and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, the anthology edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill
  • the Art Student’s pick from her year’s reading were Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries and her crime fiction discovery, Martin Walker’s Bruno xx series.

That’s it. Happy New Year, all!

The colonial past keeps changing

Brian Elliott and Adrian Mitchell, Bards in the Wilderness: Australian colonial poetry to 1920 (Nelson 1970)

1bwTo judge by pencil notes in the margins, I read Bards in the Wilderness 40 or so years ago, but – such are the joys of age-related cognitive decline – I didn’t remember any of it when I picked it up again recently, looking for information on how white settlers in New South Wales thought about Aboriginal Australians in the first half of the 19th century. The book’s title didn’t bode well – you can only refer to Australia as a ‘wilderness’ if you ignore millennia of prior occupancy: those ‘bards’ were actually living in what Bill Gammage describes as The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Elliott and Mitchell’s introduction explains that poems were selected for what they demonstrate about the colonies’ preoccupations – ‘political, social and moral’, ‘for what they contributed to the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’.

On the evidence of this selection, the settlers didn’t think about Aboriginal people much at all. Up to 1850, which is as far as I read, there are exactly four references:

  • Charles Tompson’s 1826 ‘Black Town’ is an elegy for a failed attempt by Governor Macquarie, ‘the chosen Delegate of Heav’n’, to educate ‘Poor restless wand’rers of the wooded plain’ in the joys of tenant farming – the failure, it is strongly implied, being the result of the Natives’ fecklessness (rather than because, as Heather Goodall puts it in Invasion to Embassy, to take part in the scheme ‘would mean that they would lose control over their children and be denied access to other areas of their country’). Aboriginal people themselves are notably absent from the scenes portrayed in the poem.
  • John Dunmore Lang’s ‘Colonial Nomenclature’ rattles off a list of ‘native names’ as preferable to ‘Downing Street appellatives’, though again none of the people who gave the settlers words like Parramatta, Illawarra and Woolloomooloo are acknowledged.
  • Charles Harpur’s ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ does feature frontier violence and there are Aboriginal actors in its drama, but the poem tells of an unprovoked lethal attack by ‘stript and painted Savages’, who turn out to be terrible at bushcraft as well as mindlessly violent.
  • ‘Tullamarine’, by Richard Howitt, comes the closest to acknowledging a common humanity with Aboriginal people: the speaker is an Aboriginal woman who utters a distinctly Victorian lament for a child who has died – of natural causes, nothing to do with any dispossession.

So what some people these days consider the most interesting thing – politically, socially and morally – about the early colonial period is passed over in virtual silence, sometimes silence of a pretty aggressive kind, as in the common trope that this new land has no history, these plants and animals have never been celebrated in song.

Perhaps one has to look elsewhere than to poets to find the traces I was after: the notebooks of William Dawes (which hadn’t come to the attention of scholars when this collection was published), the journals of early settlers as explored by Inga Clendinnen (in Dancing with Strangers) and others, the journals of explorers like Eyre and Sturt, who had a lot to report. Forget the poets.

But hold on, maybe it’s not so much that the early colonial poets ignored Aboriginal people so much that these editors de-selected poems that didn’t ignore them. The book’s scholarly paraphernalia suggests this might be so. According to the note on ‘Tullamarine’, Charles Harpur wrote unsuccessful ‘poems on elegiac Aboriginal subjects’ (not included here because, presumably, the editors didn’t consider that they contributed to ‘the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’). And William Charles Wentworth’s long poem, ‘Australasia‘, of which no excerpt is included, is quoted in the Introduction as referring to ‘the mournful genius of the plain’, which, the editors gloss, may or may not signify ‘aborigines’ [sic]. ‘Australasia’, it turns out, includes a passage of 64 lines addressed to Aboriginal people. They may not be great poetry, they may include sentiments that make a modern reader of whatever heritage cringe, but they’re there, acknowledging the pre-colonial inhabitants, beginning:

Ye primal tribes, lords of this old domain,
Swift‐footed hunters of the pathless plain,
Unshackled wanderers, enthusiasts free,
Pure native sons of savage liberty,
Who hold all things in common, earth, sea, air

I can only surmise that in 1970 non-Indigenous literary scholars felt that the kind of verse written about contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians was best left undisturbed in its place of first publication.

A quick look at John Kinsella’s 2009 Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry suggests that times have changed: even though this anthology doesn’t have a particular emphasis on colonial times, it includes three poems by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop that indicate a level of awareness not even hinted at in the Elliott and Mitchell anthology.. ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ is similar in tone and form to Howitt’s ‘Tullamarine’ but the mother is lamenting the loss of her man and her firstborn in, according to the site I’ve linked to here, the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838. Her other two poems are ‘The Aboriginal Father’, a transliteration of an Aboriginal song, and the translation of a poem by an Aboriginal man named Wullati.

I wonder if any scholars have taken on a 20-teens version of the Elliott and Mitchell anthology that reflects early colonial poets’ contributions to what we now see as ‘the Australian literary tradition’.

Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy

Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972 (Allen & Unwin in association with Black Books 1996)

I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like. Despite having been correctly described by a commenter on my auxiliary blog as not knowing shit about Aboriginal matters, I was slightly better informed than that in my childhood: I knew there was a lot of frontier violence. But I think I’m like most non-Indigenous Australians in having assumed, complacently enough, that Aboriginal people, at least in this state, were irrevocably dispossessed and driven from their land in the early years of settlement. In other words, all the really bad things were done long long ago, probably by people who were just acting according to the morality of their times. Um, well, mea culpa.

The dispossession of Aboriginal people in Australia has been a long, painful process. It has played out very differently in different states and territories and different regions within states, and been resisted at every phase by Aboriginal people and their allies, using means ranging from armed resistance to eloquent letters to the press. Invasion to Embassy tells the New South Wales history, and although the stories it tells are grim, often heartbreaking, I found it exhilarating: in these dying days of what W H Stanner called the ‘great Australian silence’ – the relegation of Aboriginal experience to footnotes in our history – books like this, where Aboriginal points of view are front and centre, are like doors opening onto the real world. I wish this one could be absorbed into the bloodstream of every non-Indigenous Australian.

Heather Goodall maintains that land has been a key issue in Aboriginal politics from the beginning. ‘There are strong grounds for arguing,’ she writes in the first chapter,

that for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia before the invasion, land was the physical and symbolic base for almost every aspect of life. Social relations were expressed, managed and negotiated through relations to land; political standing was legitimated and authority grounded in landholding. Knowledge was structured by its relation to place, and it was taught, held in memory and performed according to this organisational framework. New experiences were analysed by and incorporated into that oral tradition and so they too became organised within it by place.

In the first decades of the colony at Port Jackson and surrounds, then:

Land was seen by its Aboriginal owners as a central factor in their experience of colonialism. Their sense of invasion, of loss and deprivation of land was expressed clearly and unarguably. It was expressed to whites alongside Aboriginal pain at the deaths of their loved ones and offence at the transgression of their laws.

It’s a book that makes you want to read bits out loud to the nearest available listener, and maybe I should have done the blogging equivalent of that by uploading regular progress reports. But that’s an idea for another time, another book. Until you read the book, here’s a string of dot points, which might be familiar to you but were mostly news to me:

  • Before 1850, owners of the large pastoral properties described Aboriginal men as virtually useless as employees, but after that date, when almost all non-Indigenous workers headed for the Victorian goldfields, those same Aboriginal men, being now necessary, were suddenly transformed into brilliant horsemen, unsurpassed as shepherds and stockmen.
  • In the second half of the 19th century, reserves were established all over the state where Aboriginal people were promised security of tenure, and where many of them cleared land and worked small farms for decades, only to have their tenancies summarily revoked by the government, with no justification that would make sense in the absence of deeply racist, genocidal assumptions.
  • The legal doctrine that Australia was terra nullius, land owned by no one, when the first European settlers arrived, was not proclaimed in law until 1889. Goodall comments that such a judgement could not have been made in 1840 ‘when there was such wide acknowledgement of Aboriginal relations to land’.
  • 154 Aboriginal men from New South Wales volunteered and fought overseas in the First World War. Although there were no discriminatory regulations or laws, it turned out in practice that the Soldier Settler scheme was only for white soldiers – just one Aboriginal man was given any land under the scheme.
  • This kind of thing happened during the Depression (page 185):

By 1933 there was a large camp of Aboriginal people just outside Cumeragunja, refused the dole in Victoria because they were New South Wales residents, but refused the dole in New South Wales because they were ‘too black’, and told they must go to the [Aborigines Protection Board] station for relief. But at Cumeragunja they were met by a manager clinging to the old APB rules, who told them that they were ‘too white’ to receive Aboriginal rations because they were not ‘predominantly of Aboriginal blood’.

The story of the first half of the 20th century is gruelling. When government agencies wanted to move Aboriginal communities from their land, the threat to remove the children was often used to force compliance. Aboriginal children were excluded from public schools in many places because white parents complained and the government gave them what they wanted – and families were again forced to move to places where some form of education, sometimes of a quality that beggars belief, was available. The ‘Dog Act’ – the 1936 amended version of the Aborigines Protection Act – created conditions in which Aboriginal people felt the government could pen them up and shift them around like animals: the reserves, which had been refuges and places where some vestige of traditional connection to land could be maintained, became virtual prisons. Even as benign a project as the creation of National Parks was the occasion of further dispossession and removal – I was shocked to reflect that to speak of wilderness in Australia is to give voice to a genocidal worldview, that is, it denies the existence of the people who lived in that part of the world for millennia.

Here are some more dot points, people and events that in any sane world would be as much part of general Australian lore as Ned Kelly, Phar Lap and the Eureka Stockade:

  • Pemulwye and Windradyne,  the two most famous leaders of armed resistance to colonisation, around Port Jackson and Bathurst respectively
  • William Cooper – if you haven’t heard of him, and even if you have, read his Wikipedia entry. He was an extraordinary leader, who wrote to his local parliamentarian in his 20s, calling on the government to secure a ‘small portion of a vast territory which is ours by Divine Right’, and in his 70s organised the Day of Mourning on the sesquicentennial Australia Day. He is honoured in the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum in Israel as the only person in the world to have organised a private protest in response to Kristallnacht. As Goodall says, he ‘had personally experienced the whole process of demanding land and winning it, farming it in relative independence, and then facing the bitter years of dispossession and violet repression on the station [of Cumeragunja]’
  • The Cumeragunja Walk-Off, in which 200 Aboriginal men, women and children crossed the Murray River into Victoria in protest against conditions at the New South Wales station. Among other things, this is the subject of Deborah Cheetham’s opera Pecan Summer
  • The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association – the first Aboriginal political organisation to create formal links between different communities, whose chief spokesperson was Fred Maynard, a Hunter River Koori. It took shape in the early 1920s and found allies in the right-wing nationalists of the day.
  • The Australian Aboriginal League, formed in the 1930s with a close focus on Cumeragunja (can you tell the Cumeragunja story made a deep impression on me?), but also asserting broader Aboriginal unity: ‘We should nail our colours to the mast, … making our slogan “Full equality for the dark race with the white race, and no differentiation between the full-blood and those of mixed blood”‘
  • Political alliances between Aboriginal and other organisations – ranging from the Communist Party of Australia, which saw the unjust treatment of Aboriginal people as an extension of class struggle, to PR Stephenson’s right-wing nationalists, for whom Aboriginal issues were emblematic of White Australia’s need for independence from England and English cultural domination. When different Aboriginal groups accepted help from such disparate sources, it caused serious rifts.

I could go on. Read the book! You won’t regret it.

Invasion to Embassy was published in 1996, four years after the Mabo decision had laid to rest the legal fiction of terra nullius, and the same year as John w Howard said, disingenuously, ‘Injustices were done in Australia and no one should obscure or minimise them.’ The book would have to be an example of what Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard labelled black armband history. I’m sure Keith Windschuttle could find, perhaps has found, any number of errors. But those critics miss the point. Telling these stories doesn’t deny or diminish anyone else’s story. And it’s not about handwringing, collective guilt and shame – rage, perhaps, and a profound respect for those who held out for justice and dignity through it all.


This is the third book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

End of year lists 2012

As if it isn’t enough to be shopping and wrapping and cooking and unwrapping and eating and searching for lost dogs and blocking our ears to keep out the piped carols, it’s the season for drawing up Best-Of lists.

The Art Student’s best five movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi 2011): ‘Definitely the best movie this year. We got to see how complex it all is for secular Muslims in Iran.’

Lore (Cate Shortland 2012): ‘Up there with A Separation. You don’t believe you can watch yet another film about Jews and Nazis, yet here it was, original and fresh. I hope it wins an Oscar. I liked Somersault too.’

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar 2011): ‘Creepy,’ she said, ‘but good.’

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino 2011): ‘I loved the great humour, the art, the spectacular musical event.”

The Sessions (Ben Lewin 2012): ‘I liked having nudity and sex without it being voyeuristic.’

My best five movies, chosen fairly arbitrarily (with arbitrary reason given) from a short list of 19 that included all five of the Art Student’s picks:

Liberal Arts (Josh Radnor 2012) features a main character who walks around the city reading. I identified. It also reminded me of the pleasures of Eric Rohmer movies.

Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle (Lian Lunson 2012) pips The Sapphires (Wayne Blair 2012) at the post for my musical of the year. It’s a concert movie that invites us into extraordinary intimacy with a brilliantly musical family. Martha Wainwright sings ‘First Born’, which her mother wrote for her brother, and which we played a lot when our firstborn son was being ‘the first to crawl’.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki 2011) made me feel irrationally pleased with myself or recognizing the oddly deadpan directorial style from Drifting Clouds, which I saw and loved decades ago.

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius 2011) was a moderately enjoyable film until the final moment, which resolved a plot point I had been half-awarely worrying over, and vastly expanded the movie’s meaning.

Weekend (Andrew Haigh 2011): In spite of the phenomenal consumption of alcohol and other drugs, which would normally be enough to put me right off, I loved the unsentimental, unprurient portrayal of two characters who are completely taken with each other, including sexually.

The worst movie: We both picked Sophie Lellouche’s bland, self-indulgent Paris–Manhattan. But don’t take this as a solid judgement on the film as it might have miraculously picked up after the first hour, which is all we could bear. If we had to name a movie we stayed the course for, the Art Student would pick Skyfall, which she just plain hated, and I might have to pick Bernie, because Jack Black’s creepiness and the creepiness of the subject matter were from different universes.

The Art Student’s best books (she wouldn’t be limited to five), listed here in no particular order, with links to my blog entries or the book’s LibraryThing page:

1bmMartin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (2011): ‘Full of surprises and delights, about the way an artist sees the world.’

090787181XIrfan Orga, Portrait of a Turkish Family (©1950, Eland & Galeri Kayseri 2004): ‘Compellingly tells of the transition from a feudal society to modernity as a result of war. Also wonderful was the insider child’s view of life under the veil.’

20120704-175516.jpgHilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012): ‘I’m glad it won the Booker. I’m completely hooked on the story, and looking forward to the third book, although having fallen in love with Cromwell I’m not looking forward to his death.’

1920898581Heather Goodall, From Invasion to Embassy (1996): ‘A must-read for all Australians, especially those who think the dispossession of Aboriginal people all happened in the distant past.’

1ccStephen Gilchrist, editor, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (2012): ‘I’m only half way through this but it’s a great, accessible introduction to the complexity of Australian Indigenous art.’

Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (2012): ‘I read this in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down even though a lot was uncomfortable.’

0007149530Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008): ‘Fascinating portraits of scientists in the late 18th century, when science and romanticism were closely joined. Particularly good on Banks and the Herschels.’

0670033804Sebastian Barry, The Long Way Home (2005) and On Canaan’s Side (2011): ‘Two completely absorbing novels. The first is probably the best novel of the First World War I’ve read, and the second extends the story to Irish immigration to the USA, and the past catching up with you, written convincingly in the voice of an 80 year old woman.’

My best books, which I’ve kept down to just five by declaring the AS’s list off limits:

20120224-180529Fàbio Moon & Gabriel Bà, Daytripper (2011): A gem of a comic book by twin brothers from Brazil, this is a string of connected short stories that celebrates a human life as a miracle of survival.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (2008): A story of colonial India that manages to be a gripping romance at the same time as blasting any romantic nostalgia for the Raj to oblivion.

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (2009): it was a toss-up between this and Tohby Riddle’s miraculous Unforgotten for my picture book of the year. This is a different kind of miracle from Tohby’s – it opens a space for a multitude of voices to speak about the lethal indifference to Indigenous Australians on the part of he British atomic test at Maralinga, and about the resilience of the Anangu people.

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002): I choose this over Gibson’s brilliant 26 Views of the Starburst World, which was published this year, because the earlier book made me understand something of the colonisation of my North Queensland home that I had read about previously but managed not to grasp.

Jennifer Maiden, Liquid Nitrogen (2012): I read quite a bit of poetry this year. Possibly the major revelation was Byron’s Don Juan, but I haven’t finished reading that, and I might have chosen Liquid Nitrogen anyway, as I feel that Jennifer Maiden’s stories, meditations and dialogues help me to live in the modern world.

A note on the gender balance front: I would have thought my reading was fairly every spread between male and female writers, but numbers don’t cater to wishful thinking. According to my blog statistics, I read 34 books by men and 22 by women.

The indefatigable Art Student

The Art Student has been busy since we arrived home from splendidly warm northern places. Currently at the Balmain Watch House there’s an exhibition of prints, nominally by the graduating third year printmaking students from The Gallery School, Meadowbank, but actually including work by a large number of professional artists. You can catch it this Saturday and Sunday between 10 and 4. (Information at the Balmain Association web page: click on the link and scroll down to ‘Printeresting’.)

The Art Student is one of the third year students. We’ve been living with her big piece – ‘The details’ – for months, but it only came together last week, with help from our clever industrial designer son. In case you can’t tell from the photo, it’s like a giant version of one of those sliding puzzles, inspired in large part by Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1992, which lays out in some detail the way Aboriginal people in this state have been dispossessed, driven off their land repeatedly. You may be able to read some of the small text if you click through. And no, the pieces of the puzzle don’t move. Even if they did, there’s no obvious solution. [Added after the AS saw this post: The blue in some of the internal borders isn’t there in the actual work – it’s the black acrylic backing reflecting the flash.]

Not satisfied with making art, the AS has been busy with FAIM (Fine Arts Incorporated Meadowbank), an organisation started by students and alumnae of The Gallery School with the aim, among other things, of raising the profile of the school’s See Street Gallery. Coming up is their first fabulous major initiative, the Hungry for Art Festival, which is going to be bigger than Ben Hur, with exhibitions, competitions, an Art Trail through the Ryde Municipality, you name it. From the web site:

  • DrawFest & Open Day, 18 August – The Sydney Gallery School … present a full day’s program of art exhibitions, talks, workshops, drawing and sculpture activities, art market, performance, music, food and more.
  • Art Trail, 19 August – The suburbs come alive with the first ever Art Trail. Local artists open their doors, providing a rare opportunity to see inside their studios. Galleries and visual art businesses will participate revealing a region rich in creative activity.

There’s a Mobile Phone Photo Competition that closes this Friday, open to anyone who lives, works or plays in Ryde Municipality – and who has never played in Ryde? Go on, how often do you get a chance to have one of your photos hung in a white-wall gallery?