James Dunk is not the first Australian historian to notice that mental breakdown was surprisingly common during the first two European generations in New South Wales. Malcolm Ellis linked the ‘Botany Bay disease’ to rheumatic fever, rife on shipboard, which ‘ruined the lives or unbalanced the minds of … many pioneers’. Manning Clark spoke of sanity collapsing ‘under the weight of the vast indifference of nature, of loneliness and mockery’. More recently, Jonathan Lamb has suggested that it was all a result of endemic scurvy.

Bedlam at Botany Bay offers the most subtle and suggestive explanation so far by linking mental disability with a type of absolute power that, by his account, went from top to bottom of the settler community. We know, certainly, that unaccountable, unfeeling power can cause madness. It is easy to imagine that the most damaging thing about confinement on Manus Island and Nauru, and a likely cause of mental derangement, is the realisation that freedom – when and how – is entirely unpredictable. There must be something especially bitter in the knowledge that our long suffering is the work of other human beings, who could end it when they like.

In early New South Wales, power was usually less arbitrary than this. It was more obviously governed by law, but, as Dunk’s many stories show, it was typically personalised in some way and dramatically unequal. In telling those stories, he conjures up a hopeless pain, uncovering, as he says, a hitherto altogether too obscure dimension of the settlement project. Settlement could be deeply unsettling.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson reviews Bedlam at Botany Bay by James Dunk
  • Contents Category History
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    James Dunk is not the first Australian historian to notice that mental breakdown was surprisingly common during the first two European generations in New South Wales. Malcolm Ellis linked the ‘Botany Bay disease’ to rheumatic fever, rife on shipboard, which ‘ruined the lives or unbalanced the minds of … many pioneers’. Manning Clark spoke of ...

  • Book Title Bedlam at Botany Bay
  • Book Author James Dunk
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio NewSouth, $34.99 pb, 512 pp, 9781742236179

On 6 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning of the dangers of surpassing a 1.5° Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels in average global temperatures. They are many, and dire. To halt at 1.5°, carbon emissions need to fall by forty per cent globally by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. There had been other reports, but this one, according to seasoned Washington Post climate reporter Eugene Robinson, struck ‘a different tone’, blending ‘weary fatalism’ and ‘hair-on-fire alarm’ as it pointed to failing fisheries and crops, thriving diseases and disasters, and rampant displacement and political instability.

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  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'The Environment' by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin
  • Contents Category Environmental Studies
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    On 6 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning of the dangers of surpassing a 1.5° Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels in average global temperatures. They are many, and dire. To halt at 1.5°, carbon emissions need to fall by forty per cent globally by 2030 ...

  • Book Title The Environment: A History of the Idea
  • Book Author Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Johns Hopkins University Press (Footprint), $59.99 hb, 253 pp, 9781421426792

In 1784 William Bryant was sentenced, rather optimistically, to be transported to the American colonies. Britain had just lost the War of Independence; Bryant thus languished in a hulk in Portsmouth while Britain adjusted to the loss. This meant that when he finally arrived in New South Wales with the First Fleet, Bryant’s sentence was set to expire in just three years. Perhaps he did not trust imperial record-keeping – not without cause; perhaps he noticed that there was no plan to return convicts home after their sentences expired. In late March 1791, Bryant and eight others took matters into their own hands and escaped.

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  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'Memorandoms by James Martin: An astonishing escape from early New South Wales' edited by Tim Causer
  • Contents Category History
  • Custom Highlight Text

    In 1784 William Bryant was sentenced, rather optimistically, to be transported to the American colonies. Britain had just lost the War of Independence; Bryant thus languished in a hulk in Portsmouth while Britain adjusted to the loss. This meant that when he finally arrived in New South Wales with the First Fleet, Bryant’s ...

  • Book Title Memorandoms by James Martin
  • Book Author Tim Causer
  • Book Subtitle An astonishing escape from early New South Wales
  • Author Type Editor
  • Biblio UCL Press, £17.99 pb, 203 pp, 9781911576822

‘The devil! It’s a woman!’ exclaimed a charwoman as she laid out the naked body of James Barry, MD, for burial. Seventy-six years earlier, Barry had been born Margaret Bulkley in a struggling Irish merchant family. After taking her uncle’s name and expending his estate on medical school, Margaret acted the part of a man for six decades.

The life she enjoyed as a man was breathtaking. She surmounted the early challenges of switching genders: she assumed a masculine voice and bearing, and falsified her age to account for her smooth skin and diminutive stature. James Barry became an army surgeon and worked tirelessly in a string of colonies, healing illness, improving sanitation, and educating civilians and military personnel in healthful living. It was a successful but unremarkable career: a breathtaking life for a woman of her time.

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  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'Dr James Barry: A woman ahead of her time' by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield
  • Contents Category Biography
  • Custom Highlight Text

    ‘The devil! It’s a woman!’ exclaimed a charwoman as she laid out the naked body of James Barry, MD, for burial. Seventy-six years earlier, Barry had been born ...

  • Book Title Dr James Barry
  • Book Author Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield
  • Book Subtitle A woman ahead of her time
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oneworld Publications $35.99 hb, 492 pp, 9781780748313

Edward sits on Sydney Harbour Bridge, considering jumping. It is 1948, and he has written several times to George VI about building a new naval base in the waters below, and not hearing back, begun to build it himself. Edward was manic depressive, suffering from what is now called bipolar disorder. Greg de Moore and Ann Westmore begin their book Finding Sanity: John Cade, lithium and the taming of bipolar disorder with Edward; they end it with the patient upon whom lithium was pioneered in the early 1950s, Bill Brand. Where Edward came down from the bridge and returned to the peaks and troughs of bipolar life, Bill entered a tortuous triangle of treatment and suffering with the Australian psychiatrist John Cade and that soft, white, lightest of metals, lithium, before finally dying of lithium poisoning.

Finding Sanity, the story of the discovery of lithium as a treatment for bipolar, is told with mild triumphalism, despite lithium’s sometimes crooked path. It takes the form of a biography of its discoverer, John Cade, an Australian doctor. The narrative of discovery becomes something still more profound: Cade, argue his biographers, revolutionised twentieth-century psychiatry by supposing a physiological basis for a mental illness and identifying an element that would treat it.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'Finding Sanity: John Cade, lithium and the taming of bipolar disorder' by Greg De Moore and Ann Westmore
  • Contents Category Psychiatry
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Edward sits on Sydney Harbour Bridge, considering jumping. It is 1948, and he has written several times to George VI about building a new naval base in the waters below, and not ...

  • Book Title Finding Sanity
  • Book Author Greg De Moore and Ann Westmore
  • Book Subtitle John Cade, lithium and the taming of bipolar
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Allen & Unwin $32.99 pb, 335 pp, 9781760113704

'Everything is so sedate you could weep for vexation.' The first novel of literary academic Adrian Mitchell is a strange one. It is a fictional memoir that aims to inhabit the imagined world of the colonial artist S.T. Gill. This is a conceit that should free the narrative from the mundane, but The Profilist is a study in the ordinary.

The novel is narrated by Ethan Dibble, an imaginary artist standing in for Gill. Mitchell replicates a nineteenth-century voice, including its dry wit. It is a past, colonial ordinariness, and the details of struggling settlements, goldfields, explorations of the interior, and art exhibitions are impressive. The writing is at its best in the colourful array of minor characters. It is often immersive.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'The Profilist' by Adrian Mitchell
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title The Profilist
  • Book Author Adrian Mitchell
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Wakefield Press, $29.95 pb, 320 pp, 9781743053454
Tuesday, 19 May 2015 09:45

Partisan

Gregori stares at the camera, his eyes hard and sure as he watches five babies being wheeled through the corridors of a maternity ward, selects a mother with a split lip and no flowers, and charms her. When he strokes the face of her child, Alexander, his eyes are tender. The range between these expressions is the heart of Partisan.

Through an unmarked gate and a winding tunnel, some Soviet city or other gives way to a fragile asylum of wintry sunlight, encroaching vines and pleasant clutter. The world is absent. Here, there is only room for fundamentals: the drama of faith, and the architecture of trust.

This asylum is filled with the vulnerable women whom Gregori selects, such as Alexander’s mother, Susanna. They bathe in the sun, prepare meals, and defer to Gregori, like Mormons of the Eastern bloc. But they chose this: Susanna, in those first moments, weighed that wider world, which had left her with a bruised face, and chose a man who gave her a flower – or a share in him.

Gregori is a wonder, and this world of his is warm. Many of the film’s long takes linger on the intimacies of this distended family. They show casual kindness and real closeness – what would elsewhere present as love. Their traditions are quaint but powerful. A small television and disco light appear for a night; one of the children is honoured with a karaoke platform. (Is this the past, or the future?) The songs are Europop: vapid, like the stories with which Gregori weaves this world together. The camera slips through the attentive children to find the women laughing and chatting. Among them but apart, Gregori whispers the lyrics and his eyes fill with tears.

‘there is only room for fundamentals: the drama of faith, and the architecture of trust’

The film gracefully reveals itself. Gregori is teacher, and his lessons train the children to be assassins. Their targets are ordinary representatives of the world beyond. They are sufferers, like the mothers. A man, Uncle Charlie, brings bounties for successful hits and new target dossiers. The children are delighted to see him because some of the money devolves to them. Their eagerness for coin implicates them in these deaths almost more than the killing itself.

Vincent Cassell as Gregori in Partisan Vincent Cassell as Gregori in Partisan

This violence is at once the core of the film, and incidental to it. Because the education of the children is so thorough, the killing itself is almost non-violent. But the adults have deflected the violence of their past onto their children. The proceedings of their assassinations support the community. It is a strange conceit.

This is Australian director Ariel Kleiman’s feature début. Previously, he made short films; his latest, ‘Deeper Than Yesterday’(2010), was highly awarded. Partisan is a bold début. The idea for the film came from the figure of the child soldier, that most disturbing player in modern warfare. This is a meditation on the moral questions of childhood, and a parable of separatism. Kleiman co-wrote the script with his girlfriend, Sarah Cyngler, and the film shows the value of unified purpose. Kleiman’s direction is confident, but unobtrusive, allowing Vincent Cassell’s magnetism as Gregori to spark against the growing assertion of Jeremy Chabriel’s Alexander.

‘I survive,’ replies Uncle Charlie, when Gregori asks how he is. The wider world, bleak and wind-whipped, survives. But Gregori conjures an alternate world of stories and sunlight. There are painted faces, and stickers for good results, and there is tranquility. Violence is preached against. Could there be salvation by separation? The winter garden is raw and bare, Gregori intones, as the children gather around. The world may be remade. But holiness is fragile. Leo, a recent addition to the community, crouches at a distance and mutters that beets and peas can be harvested in winter. The world exists, even if it is bleak, and cannot be remade. Leo rejects Gregori’s stories, and the idyll breaks apart.

It becomes clear to Alexander, alone, that Gregori’s stories are false. His eyes fill with private tears, amid the community of believers, because this man, and all he has wrought, is nothing. These are the tears of retreat from an absolute world.

It is part of the elegance of the film, the things left unsaid and unseen, that this could be any community in retreat from any world. It is both as precise as a parable, and as universal. All adolescents beat this retreat from moral certainty.

The asylum with its vines, its warmth, its songs, is a false hope. Alexander stops to watch blood seep beneath the corpse of a man he has shot in the outer world. The messiah is a predator, working to keep the children separate from the world beyond (its trinkets, its commerce, its kindness) because they might see, must see, that it is the only one, and there can be no secession. This is a sadness because it is bleaker than the one they were told about, In this, Partisan denies the possibility of grace.

Partisan (CTC), directed by Ariel Kleiman, written by the latter and Sarah Cyngler. In cinemas 28 May 2015.

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Contents Category Film
  • Review Rating 4.0

Seasons of War is a fictional firsthand account of the Allied invasion of Gallipoli. Opposite the title page, the blurb suggests that it offers ‘the kind of truth that only fiction can’: what it felt like to be there, and how being there transformed the Australian nation (a contention which belongs, truly, to fiction).

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'Seasons of War' by Christopher Lee
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Seasons of War: A Novel
  • Book Author Christopher Lee
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Viking, $24.99 hb, 144 pp, 9780670078837

In 1798, during the revolutionary wars on the European mainland, the Irish rebelled. Though they were supported militarily by the French Republic, it was the ideas heralded by the Revolution that gave real strength to their cause. A decade later, in Dublin, William Hallaran argued in hisAn Enquiry Into the Causes Producing the Extraordinary Addition to the Number of Insane that much of the increase should be attributed to the rebellion. Fifteen per cent of cases where causes could be identified were linked directly with the rebellion, but its effects were writ large in the rest of the catalogue: loss of property, drunkenness, religious zeal, disappointment, and grief.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'The Man Who Thought He was Napoleon' by Laure Murat
  • Contents Category History
  • Book Title The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness
  • Book Author by Laure Murat
  • Biblio University of Chicago Press (Footprint), $79 hb, 304 pp, 9780226025735