A few years ago I walked through a burning landscape with a young archaeobotanist, Xavier. We were in Arnhem Land, and the local Indigenous landowners had lit a low-intensity fire – a cool burn – to encourage new growth and reduce the fuel load around nearby settlements. The newly blackened landscape looked clean, even beautiful.

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  • Custom Article Title Billy Griffiths reviews 'Burning Planet' by Andrew C. Scott
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    A few years ago I walked through a burning landscape with a young archaeobotanist, Xavier. We were in Arnhem Land, and the local Indigenous landowners had lit a low-intensity fire – a cool burn – to encourage new growth and reduce the fuel load around nearby settlements. The newly blackened landscape looked clean, even beautiful ...

  • Book Title Burning Planet
  • Book Author Andrew C. Scott
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $40.95 hb, 256 pp, 9780198734840

In the lead-up to the 1999 republic referendum, historian John Hirst published a short guide to Australian democracy and law. ‘This is not a textbook,’ he wrote in the preface; rather, he intended it to be a ‘painless introduction’ to the system of government that had formed in this country under the British monarchy. He did not hide his republican tendencies: ‘The book will still have served its purpose if readers quarrel with it.’

Almost twenty years later, with the failed referendum now a fading memory, historian Benjamin T. Jones has written a short, passionate book in a similar spirit. This Time: Australia’s republican past and future is not a textbook; nor a history of republicanism: rather, it is ‘one long argument’ about why an Australian should be Australia’s head of state. And although there is plenty to quarrel about within it, it will serve its purpose well if it ignites a national conversation about an Australian republic.

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    In the lead-up to the 1999 republic referendum, historian John Hirst published a short guide to Australian democracy and law. ‘This is not a textbook,’ he wrote in the preface; rather, he intended it to be a ‘painless introduction’ to the system of government that had formed in this country under the British monarchy. He did not ...

  • Book Title This Time
  • Book Author Benjamin T. Jones
  • Book Subtitle Australia’s republican past and future
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Redback, $22.99 pb, 222 pp, 9781760640347

In Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia, Billy Griffiths describes the process of imagining the past through the traces and sediments of archaeology as ‘an act of wonder – a dilation of the commonplace – that challenges us to infer meaning from the cryptic residue of former worlds’. In his endeavour to infer meaning from this cryptic residue, Griffiths begins his wondering by sifting through the evidence, insights, enthusiasms, and mistakes of an articulate band of Cambridge-trained archaeologists who, from the 1960s, professionalised what had been the province of amateurs. Led by John Mulvaney, they halted the indiscriminate gathering of artefacts and human remains, brought rigorous techniques to the excavation of sites, and began to strip back the layers of time, aeon by aeon, to reveal the astonishing antiquity of human presence on the Australian continent.

By writing a history of the evolving discipline of Australian archaeology, Griffiths invites us to imagine a history of ancient Australia. The structure he has chosen serves his project well – to tell the stories of the significant players; the famous, the infamous, and the invisible; their personalities, methodologies, and discoveries – and, in so doing, to create a narrative that is accessible and compelling. It is a tale of the characters who dug the trenches, of the Indigenous people who objected to the cavalier approach of the early ‘cowboy’ archaeologists, of the political reverberations of archaeological finds within environmentally contested regions, of conflict and discovery and the shifting relations between white and Indigenous Australia.

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  • Custom Article Title Kim Mahood reviews 'Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia' by Billy Griffiths
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    In Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia, Billy Griffiths describes the process of imagining the past through the traces and sediments of archaeology as ‘an act of wonder – a dilation of the commonplace – that challenges us to infer meaning from the cryptic residue of former worlds’. In his endeavour to infer ...

  • Book Title Deep Time Dreaming
  • Book Author Billy Griffiths
  • Book Subtitle Uncovering ancient Australia
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  • Biblio Black Inc., $34.99 pb, 376 pp, 9781760640446

Nick Brodie, a medievalist and ‘professional history nerd’, enjoys writing in a revelatory tone. His latest book, The Vandemonian War: The secret history of Britain’s Tasmanian invasion, claims to unveil ‘for the first time’ the ‘real story’ of the Tasmanian conflict in the 1820s and 1830s known as the Black War or the Vandemonian War. It is an argument against the generations of historians who have ‘failed to see through the myths and lies’ about Tasmania’s intensely militarised past. These nameless individuals, he contends, neglected crucial documents about the invasion – ‘even when they knew of them’. The real Vandemonian War remained hidden, Brodie argues – ‘until now’.

The basis for Brodie’s claim is his ‘discovery’ of the inbound and outbound correspondence from the Colonial Secretary’s Office in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office in Hobart, designated CSO1/1/320 and CSO41/1/1 (7578). Brodie seems to be unaware of Tasmanian Aboriginal curator Julie Gough’s ongoing project to transcribe the ‘7578’ files and to publish them online; he brushes over the extensive study of part of the ‘7578’ archive offered by N.J.B. Plomley in Friendly Mission (1966); and he declines to engage with the work of the ‘tiny fraction’ of historians who have breathed meaning and insight into this archive over recent decades. Indeed, he dispenses with this rich vein of scholarship in his first two footnotes and does not refer to the work of a single contemporary scholar in the text. Instead, he embarks on a fine-grained discussion of the primary source material: the troop orders, mission reports, and arms catalogues that ‘capture history as it happened’.

The Vandemonian War certainly brings a wealth of rich material on frontier violence into the public domain, yet it will be difficult for most readers to discern what is new here, as Brodie claims that everything he has uncovered is new. ‘Everyone will be shocked,’ he warns at the start of his grand exposition: ‘Whole societies were deliberately obliterated. And genocide, I have come to realise, can be a starched white-collar crime.’

The book provides a detailed account of the military logistics in Tasmania between 1828 and 1832. Brodie’s characters are administrators, militiamen, paramilitary parties, regimental soldiers, mercenaries, brigadiers, commanders, sergeants, corporates, privates, special forces, and ‘Aboriginal auxiliaries’. He translates the conflict into the language of war, describing the various tactical strategies, pincer movements, and intelligence operations undertaken by the British. He even playfully opens one chapter with the line, ‘All was relatively quiet on the western front in early winter 1830.’ This embrace of the genre of military history underlines his core argument about the Vandemonian War: the conflict was industrial and intensely militaristic, but has been ‘de-militarised’ in popular memory ‘in favour of a narrative focused on sporadic skirmishes’.

The relentless blow-by-blow description of the individual campaigns is successful in conveying the systematic attempts by the British military and paramilitary to ‘harass Aboriginal people into surrender or degrade them into annihilation’. And the fact that Brodie hews so close to his sources will make the book a valuable resource to other scholars seeking easy access to this fragile archive. The sources provide a fascinating window on the transitory world of the frontier, and they are sometimes enriched by a discussion of the layered nature of the archive. In January 1830, for example, Richard Tyrrell reported an encounter with two Aboriginal people roasting kangaroo by their fires near the highland lakes. Suspecting others would be nearby, Tyrrell felt ‘reluctantly obliged to fire at the Two’. The Colonial Secretary later underlined this phrase, writing a single word in the margin of the report: ‘why?’ It is a revealing glimpse of puzzlement.

Governor Thomas Davey 1816 proclamation to aboriginesA lithographic reproduction of 'Governor Davey's Proclamation to the Aborigines' (Wikimedia Commons)But the question of ‘why?’ remains unanswered in The Vandemonian War. Brodie gives little consideration to the intent behind the repeated missions, aside from broad statements about conquest and genocide. What was the purpose of the policy of ‘conciliation’? Was it simply, as he suggests, another word for ‘ethnic cleansing’? What of the humanitarian rhetoric, even genuine concern, expressed by colonial leaders? This is where some dialogue with other scholars – such as Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, James Boyce, Nicholas Clements, Fae Dussart, Murray Johnson, Tom Lawson, Alan Lester, Ian McFarlane, and Rebe Taylor – would have strengthened the analysis.

There is also remarkably little space given to the Aboriginal people against whom this war was waged. What strategies did Aboriginal people employ to resist the ‘mass military mobilisation’? Brodie struggles to move beyond the documentary record, instead lamenting that ‘The surviving Aboriginal people of Van Diemen’s Land mostly died in exile and the Vandemonian War disappeared from public memory with them.’ Nevertheless, he claims credit for highlighting the ‘complex spectrum of inter-cultural interactions that has been too often overlooked in Vandemonian history’, adding, tautologically, ‘But cultural exchanges often went two ways.’

If framed differently, The Vandemonian War might have become another important contribution to the so-called ‘history wars’, for it makes a strong case for the Tasmanian frontier to be viewed through the lens of formal warfare. Yet Brodie only makes a single veiled reference to the charged debate, and in doing so he groups both sides together, dismissing it as a fight over ‘different versions of the same lie’. It is only now, he asserts, that the ‘lie’ of sporadic skirmishes has been vanquished: the Vandemonian War was more warlike, more orchestrated, and more horrific than anyone ever thought or believed – until Brodie wrote this breathless military history.

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    Nick Brodie, a medievalist and ‘professional history nerd’, enjoys writing in a revelatory tone. His latest book ...

  • Book Title The Vandemonian War
  • Book Author Nick Brodie
  • Book Subtitle The secret history of Britain’s Tasmanian invasion
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  • Biblio Hardie Grant Books, $29.99 pb, 422 pp, 9781743793114

This beautifully illustrated book explores the ways in which Indigenous Australians have responded to invasion through art. ‘Where colonists saw a gulf,’ writes art historian Ian McLean, ‘Aborigines saw bridges. They didn’t hesitate to be modern, but on their terms.’

The tension between old and new, tradition and modernity, is evoked in the image of the rattling spears in the title. Before battle, McLean explains, Aboriginal warriors would roll their spears against each other to create ‘a chilling sound that calls ancestors from their sleep’. The sound served to focus the powers of supernatural forces, but it was also ‘a strategic manoeuvre’ to assert authority in the fight. The art that appears in the pages of Rattling Spears is similarly potent: it keeps the past alive and makes claims upon the present.

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  • Custom Article Title Billy Griffiths reviews 'Rattling Spears: A history of indigenous Australian' art by Ian McLean
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    This beautifully illustrated book explores the ways in which Indigenous Australians have responded to invasion through art. ‘Where colonists saw a gulf,’ writes art historian Ian ...

  • Book Title Rattling Spears
  • Book Author Ian McLean
  • Book Subtitle A history of indigenous Australian art
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  • Biblio NewSouth, $59.99 hb, 296 pp, 9781780235905

David Unaipon's Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines is part of the classical culture of Australia. The collection is as varied in subject as it is ambitious in scope, ranging from ethnographic essays on sport, hunting, fishing and witchcraft to the legends of ancestral beings who transformed the landscape in the Dreaming. The stories are unified by the voice of Unaipon, Australia's first Indigenous author, whose familiar face now adorns the fifty dollar note.

Unaipon led an exceptional life, spanning ninety-five years, working between cultures and across boundaries as an inventor, scientist, preacher, activist and author. Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines reveals as much about Unaipon, and the context in which he lived, as it does about the myths and legends of Aboriginal Australia. It is one of the great tragedies of Australian literature that the book was not published under Unaipon's name until 2001, three-quarters of a century after it was written.

David Unaipon was born of the Ngarrindjeri people in the Coorong region of South Australia on 28 September 1872, at Point McLeay Mission. At seven his parents, James and Nymbulda Ngunaitponi (later anglicised to Unaipon), sent him to mission school. At thirteen he was taken to Adelaide to work as a servant for C.B. Young, a prominent member of the Aborigines' Friends' Association. 'I only wish the majority of white boys were as bright, intelligent, well-instructed and well-mannered, as the little fellow I am now taking charge of,' Young wrote of Unaipon in 1887 (Jenkin, 1979: p. 185).

In every way, he confounded contemporary stereotypes of Indigenous Australia. With the encouragement of Young, Unaipon had the freedom and resources to pursue his wide-ranging interests. He read widely, studied theology, mechanics and physics, educated himself in languages and oratory, and played Bach on the organ. In his 1954 pamphlet 'My Life Story', he described himself as a 'product of missionary work' and believed that he embodied the potential for 'Aboriginal advancement'. He often declared in his lectures for the Anglican Church: 'Look at me and you will see what the Bible can do' (Jones, 1990: p. 303). But he was also proud of his culture, and remained connected to Ngarrindjeri traditions and philosophies.

David Unaipon Wikimedia Commons 280pxDavid Unaipon (Wikimedia Commons)On 2 August 1924, Unaipon published an article in the Daily Telegraph titled 'Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs'; soon afterwards he signed a contract with Angus & Robertson to make a book of the myths and legends of his people. The stories in Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines were collected over 1924–25 on a tour of southern and central Australia with an Indigenous translator. Most of the stories come from his own Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia, but he also recorded others from Victoria, Central Australia and Queensland. He recognised the diversity in Indigenous language and customs across Australia, but he also saw 'a great common understanding running through us all': 'Our legends and traditions are all the same tales, or myths, told slightly differently, with local colouring, etc' (p. 7). He infused the stories he collected with his own personal philosophy, and wrote them up in the formal, ornate literary style of the era, overlaid with biblical references and classical tropes.

Unaipon's publisher, George Robertson, seemed quite prepared to acknowledge the Indigenous authorship of the collection, paying him the standard writing rate of £2/2/ per 1,000 words and describing the work as 'his book'. Yet in August 1925 communications between Unaipon and Angus & Robertson broke down. Unaipon continued to collect stories, but his telegrams seeking payment went unanswered. For several weeks his publisher went quiet while they weighed up how many stories to purchase. On 3 October 1925 Angus & Robertson offered to accept the remaining stories and move forward with publication, but, for some inexplicable reason, Unaipon never received this crucial letter. What happened next, as Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker (2001: p. xxvi) explore in their Introduction to Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, 'had all the elements of the great dramas of literary history where reputations, envy, pride (and prejudice) are in play'.

After more than a year of silence, the amateur anthropologist and principal medical officer of South Australia, William Ramsay Smith, stepped in and purchased Unaipon's complete manuscript from Angus & Robertson to 'edit' and 'prepare' it for publication. In 1930, Smith published the collection under his own name and with a new title: Myths & Legends of the Australian Aboriginals. He made no acknowledgment of David Unaipon's role in collecting and writing the stories, although there is one oblique reference to an unnamed 'narrator'. Smith also included twenty-one other legends in the new publication, which some scholars, such as Mary-Anne Gale (2006), suggest were also written by Unaipon.

In appropriating the book, Smith not only denied Unaipon's authorship, he also systematically removed his interpretations and narrative voice from the text. Smith's plagiarism and selective editing speaks volumes for the way Indigenous people were marginalised and oppressed in the early twentieth century. In 'Fishing', for example, Unaipon celebrated the expertise of his people:

This way of fishing requires a great deal of knowledge, or to be more correct, mathematical knowledge. I am not attempting to claim that my race are mathematicians from the civilised standpoint. But let us review them standing in their canoes ... the speed at which it is travelling and the depth at which it is swimming has to be allowed for, and also the speed and depth of the fish at a distance of fifteen yards away, and the spear is thrown unerringly and strikes the fish (pp. 23-24).

In Smith's 1930 edition of the story, this lengthy passage on Indigenous 'mathematical knowledge' was edited down to a single, banal sentence: 'This manner of fishing requires a great deal of knowledge, founded on observation and practice' (Smith, 1930: p. 236). In another example, Unaipon described the complex 'art of tracking' in Indigenous society: 'There is a whole science in footprints. Footprints are the same evidence to a bush native as finger-prints are in a court of law' (p. 7). Smith simply removed this last sentence from his publication: one of many instances in which he refused to accommodate Unaipon's parallels between cultures. It was not until 2001, with the support of Unaipon's descendants, that Muecke and Shoemaker retrieved the original manuscript from the State Library of New South Wales and finally published it under Unaipon's name.

Book Cover Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines Hardcover 2001 Melbourne University Publishing 150Melbourne University Press (Miegunyah Press) 2001 editionAlthough Unaipon did not achieve fame as an author within his lifetime, he was widely celebrated as a scientist and inventor. He took out provisional patents for nineteen separate inventions, including a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. He was particularly attuned to the benefits of Indigenous knowledge, and in 1914 he designed something akin to a modern helicopter by studying the aerodynamic properties of the boomerang. But his most successful invention was his modified design for a sheep-shearing comb, which converted curvilineal motion into straight-line movement. It was introduced in 1909 and remains the basis for modern handheld shears, although, as with much of his writing, Unaipon never received any financial credit.

In Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, Unaipon wrote at once from an Indigenous and a European viewpoint. He identified freely with 'my race', but he also made derogatory remarks about the 'primitive mind' of his people and 'our little brain capacity'. Such words reveal much about the way Unaipon engaged with colonialism. It reflects his struggle to meet the demands of two cultures, which were often pulling him in different directions. As an Indigenous South Australian, he faced restrictions on what he could own, what he could eat and drink, and where he could go. In 'Gool Lun Naga (Green Frog)', we get a glimpse of how he might have felt about such institutional control:

the Bubble Spirit sat and watched the little fishes sporting and swimming, darting here and there in the clear waters of the pool. It would watch some strange tiny objects wiggling in the water, then burst forth and take wing and fly out over the water and away to the reeds and rushes and then among the flowers that grew upon the bank. Oh, what a wonderful life to live, to go where you will and come back in your own approved time (p. 54, emphasis added).

Indeed, Muecke and Shoemaker (2001) suggest that the very act of collecting and writing the legends allowed Unaipon to escape the constraints of missionary and state authorities and gain a taste of the freedom of that 'wonderful life'.

Book Cover Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines Paperback 2006 The Miegunyah Press 150Melbourne University Press (Miegunyah Press) 2006 editionIn an era of legislated racial hierarchies, Unaipon used Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines to appeal to a common humanity. He hoped his readers would see that 'Human nature is the same in the Australian Aboriginal as it is in the white, brown or yellow man, irrespective of nationality, language and religion' (p. 134). He drew upon his theological knowledge to reconcile the different cultures he moved between and he framed local legends in ways that would be familiar to his European audience. The ancestral being, Narroondarie, emerges in the stories as an Aboriginal 'Budha, Mahomet and Christ' who 'was sent by God with a message and teaching' (p. 134); the evil serpent of the Bible is personified as the Mischievous Crow; and 'Nhyanhund or Byamee, Our Father of All' filled the role of a God or 'Great Spirit' who 'is in all things and speaks through every form of Nature' (pp. 120, 151). These literary devices served to validate the Aboriginal legends in the eyes of his European readers and to build bridges between the cultures. 'The Australian Aborigines,' he asserted, 'have a greater and deeper sense of morality and religion than is generally known' (p. 150).

Even with the strong religious and classical overtones in Unaipon's writing, it is the Indigenous creation stories that remain the heart of the book. Unaipon tells the legends of the faraway islands where all animals, birds, reptiles and insects lived 'at the beginning of day'; how the great philosopher, explorer and astronomer, the Koala, discovered Australia and led a large fleet of canoes to the new country; and why, on arrival in Shoalhaven, the Koala lost his adventurous spirit, and with it, his tail. He evokes the image of 'strange beings', such as the mythical Bunyip, 'who lived a long while ago, many, many years, before Captain Cook found a landing at Kurnell' (p. 217), and he recounts the travels of ancestral beings, such as Narroondarie's wives, who were transformed into stones off the coast near Kangaroo Island.

David Unaipon State Library of SA 280David Unaipon (State Library of South Australia)Although Unaipon wrote that '[s]ince coming to Australia thousands of years ago, there has been probably little or no change in the habits and the customs of my people' (p. 5), the legends – and the narrator – tell of a much more dynamic culture. The ancestral spiritual leader, Nebalee, for example, lives at the nineteenth-century mission at Point McLeay, while Narroondarie's legendary wives sleep 'near the estate of the late T.R. Bowman' (p. 125). These supernatural forces are not relegated to a distant past: they continue to interact with the modern world. European society has been absorbed into the existing cultural landscape. Like Unaipon himself, the legends move between cultures and across boundaries.

'Perhaps some day,' Unaipon reflected, 'Australian writers will use Aboriginal myths and weave literature from them, the same as other writers have done with the Roman, Greek, Norse, and Arthurian legends' (p. 4). In a sense, this is what Unaipon has achieved with Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. By embedding the stories in the language and frameworks of classical and religious texts, Unaipon was making the case for the tribal laws and customs of his people to be recognised as part of the same literary canon. His book is a masterful celebration of Indigenous life and culture, and it gives us a fascinating insight into the mind of a great Australian.

Referenced works

Daily Telegraph, 'Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs' by David Unaipon, 2 August 1924.

Gale, M. (2006) 'Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: The Writings of David Unaipon', in Gus Worby and Lester-Irabinna Rigney, eds., Sharing Spaces: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Responses to Story, Country and Rights, Perth, API Network, pp 49-68.

Jenkin, G. (1979) Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri: The story of the Lower Murray lakes tribes, Adelaide, Rigby.

Jones, P. (1990), 'Unaipon, David (1872–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography 12, Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing, pp 303-305.

Muecke, S. and Shoemaker, A. (2001) 'Introduction: Repatriating the Story', in David Unaipon, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, edited by Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, pp xi-xlvi.

Smith, W. R. (1930) Myths & Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, London, George G. Harrap.

Unaipon, D. (1954) My Life Story, Adelaide: Aborigines Friends Association.

Unaipon, D. (2001) Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, edited by Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press.

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  • Custom Article Title Reading Australia: 'Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines' by David Unaipon
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    David Unaipon's Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines is part of the classical culture of Australia. The collection is as varied in subject as it is ambitious ...

What do we talk about when we talk about history? This is a question that Anna Clark has devoted her career to answering. She has followed the conversations Australians have about history into museums and universities – The History Wars (2003) and Australian History Now! (2013) – and classrooms and staffrooms – Teaching the Nation (2006) and History's Children (2008). With Private Lives, Public History, she has turned her mind to the broader Australian public. She searches out 'ordinary' Australians – the 'working families', 'taxpayers', and 'battlers' who live out in 'lawnmower land' – to ask them what they think of Australian history.

But who are ordinary Australians? Who are the people over whom the history wars were fought? Clark's 'Mr Everyman' is made up of 100 interviewees, mostly women, from five communities that 'broadly reflect the geographical, cultural and socio-economic diversity of Australia': Marrickville, Chatswood, Brimbank, Rockhampton, and Derby. The interviews were conducted in small groups and one-on-ones. Clark laments that the rich sensory experience of these sessions is missing in the book: 'How to transcribe the loud crack of a tinnie during my visit to the Derby Bowling Club?'

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  • Biblio Melbourne University Publishing, $27.99 pb, 192 pp, 9780522868951

On his first day in Australia's foreign service in 1961, Stephen FitzGerald was told to learn the language of the enemy: 'a country we have no diplomatic relations with, which our government denounces as an aggressor, instigator of subversion in Southeast Asia and major threat to Australia.' He took on the assignment with apprehension. China was completely foreign to him; he had never met anyone who spoke Mandarin. Over the next five decades he became one of the key players in Australia's relations with Asia, working as Australia's first ambassador to China under Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, as an academic and adviser, and as a businessman and public intellectual. In his memoir, Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam's Beijing Envoy, FitzGerald weaves his personal journey into the narrative of the nation: how Australia moved from an era of insularity and racial exclusiveness to accept and embrace its place in Asia. He describes this extraordinary change as 'a kind of Australian "Enlightenment"'.

FitzGerald's story is also bound to the tumultuous events of modern Chinese history. He witnessed the 'anarchic madness and social breakdown' of the Cultural Revolution in 1968, and recalls the sense of possibility that followed the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the 'brave new Chinese world of Deng Xiaoping'. He also describes encounters with key political figures such as the ageing Mao Zedong, the masterful Zhou Enlai, and the exiled Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong Mei-ling.

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  • Biblio Melbourne University Press, $34.99 pb, 272 pp. 9780522868685

I have never met an Aussie I didn’t like.’ The half-compliment was the best President Richard Nixon could muster during a restrained exchange with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the Oval Office in July 1973. After the turbulent build-up to this meeting, rivetingly conveyed in James Curran’s history Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, one almost expects Nixon to add the disclaimer ‘until now’.

The eight months between Whitlam’s election and his brief meeting with Nixon at the White House were some of the most tumultuous in Australian diplomatic history. In Unholy Fury, Curran renders the alliance’s downward spiral in intoxicating detail, drawing upon recently declassified material to reveal just how close the central pillar of Australian foreign policy – the Australia–America alliance – came to collapsing.

The rift began with a letter. In the wake of Labor’s electoral victory, on 21 December 1972 Whitlam penned a note to the White House in which he expressed ‘grave concern’ over the US decision to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong and appealed to the United States and North Vietnam as equals, urging them ‘to return to serious negotiations’. These were strong words from a small power to a superpower, and they were not received kindly. ‘Whitlam had done the unthinkable,’ Curran explains. ‘He had put the United States on the same level as its communist enemy.’ Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, described the letter as ‘an absolute outrage’ and ‘a cheap little manoeuvre’. Nixon agreed: it was ‘one hell of a thing’ to do. They decided to ‘freeze’ Whitlam ‘for a few months’ so that he would ‘get the message’.

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  • Biblio Melbourne University Press, $39.99 pb, 378 pp, 9780522868203

Water courses through the history of Western Australia. When historian Ruth A. Morgan began writing Running Out?: Water in Western Australia in 2007, the state was in the grip of drought, climate change was at the fore of public debate, and Perth’s first desalination plant was a year old. The 2005 state election had hinged on the ‘Kimberley–Perth canal’, an impractical scheme to water the gardens of Perth via a 3,700-kilometre canal from the Fitzroy River in the state’s‘empty’ north-west. Long-simmering fears of ‘running out’ were bubbling to the surface.

In this compelling scholarly history of water in Western Australia, Morgan probes the anxieties and aspirations that accompany life where the desert meets the sea. She charts the rise of the state’s current water regime and questions the lush green gardens that defiantly line the parched streets of Perth. Western Australia has not experienced ‘average’ rainfall since the 1970s. In that time, precipitation in the South West has declined by about fifteen per cent. It is an extraordinary shift, and an ominous sign of the dangers of anthropogenic climate change. Yet many residents remain sheltered from these environmental realities. Western Australians are the most profligate water-users in the country. ‘How,’ Morgan wonders, ‘did the people of Perth become so thirsty?’

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  • Biblio UWA Publishing, $34.99 pb, 320 pp, 9781742586236
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