Manning Clark rescued Australian history from blandness and predictability by making Australia a cockpit in which the great faiths of Europe continued their battle, with results that were distinctive. He concentrated on the great characters who were bearers of one of the faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, or the Enlightenment.

Alan Atkinson is modestly offering three volumes instead of Clark’s six. This is Volume Two, which covers the years 1820 to 1870. Atkinson is the more democratic historian; he is tracing the history of the ‘common imagination’ in Australia, which involves him getting to the ‘marrow of common life’. The great characters have their place in his books – more in Volume One (subtitled The Beginning, 1997) than in this one – but their importance is the shape they give by speech or action to the common life.

Atkinson is an oddity among the left-liberal intelligentsia of the academy. He defended the monarchy during the republican debate, but for reasons quite contrary to those of the monarchists. They defended the monarch because she was inconsequential; he because he saw the crown as an energising and creative force in Australia. The creative crown was a central theme of Volume One. The heresy of this volume is that Atkinson refuses to accept the myth about Australia and its future propagated by William Wentworth, the great native son, who fought for the liberties of his country by accusing his ‘aristocratic’ opponents of having no care for it. Atkinson is more impressed by the conservative James Macarthur and his circle, who were concerned with the quality of society in the colony and the lives that might be lived in it – which are Atkinson’s concerns, too. It does not look as if he is going to make Clark’s mistake of thinking the quality of Australian civilisation depends on the party complexion of the government in office – for Manning, finally, it had to be Labor.

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  • Custom Article Title John Hirst reviews 'The Europeans in Australia: Volume Two: Democracy' by Alan Atkinson
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    Manning Clark rescued Australian history from blandness and predictability by making Australia a cockpit in which the great faiths of Europe continued their battle, with results that were distinctive. He concentrated on the great characters who were bearers of one of the faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, or the Enlightenment.

  • Book Title The Europeans in Australia
  • Book Author Alan Atkinson
  • Book Subtitle Volume Two: Democracy
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $59.95 hb, 463 pp, 0195536428

Anyone who heard Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 Boyer Lectures or who has listened to her in any other way will hear her voice clearly in this book: contemplative, reflective, warm, gently paced. Dancing with Strangers seems to have been written as if it were meant to be read aloud. It reaches out to its listeners, drawing them within the world of the settlement at Port Jackson during its first dozen years, from 1778 to 1800. The two leading figures are Governor Arthur Phillip (who departed in 1792) and Bennelong.

Clendinnen’s method is ethnographic history. This offers a way into the past that, in good hands, is full of brilliant possibilities. The trick lies in choosing a period that is richly documented, fastening on the minutiae of behaviour and building up, step by step, the image of a mental universe – another world, vividly patterned and inevitably different from the here and now. Indeed, the reader is invited to move into another here and now.

A great deal depends on the way in which the writer issues that invitation. Ethnographic history, once an exciting aspect of Australian scholarship (especially in Melbourne), has fallen under a shadow lately, and part of the reason lies in the difficulty of persuading readers to take the kind of journey it involves. Questions of identity and ethnicity, leading historical issues since the 1990s, complicate the invitation too much. Readers nowadays don’t leave behind their own here and now, their own identity and ethnicity, as easily as they used to do. History tries to say at least a little about what readers might be themselves, as much as about past Others.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson reviews 'Dancing with Strangers' by Inga Clendinnen
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    Anyone who heard Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 Boyer Lectures or who has listened to her in any other way will hear her voice clearly in this book: contemplative, reflective, warm, gently paced. Dancing with Strangers seems to have been written as if it were meant to be read aloud. It reaches out to its listeners ...

  • Book Title Dancing with Strangers
  • Book Author Inga Clendinnen
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $45 hb, 334 pp, 1877008583
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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 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
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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
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  • Biblio NewSouth, $34.99 pb, 512 pp, 9781742236179

This is the first of a five-volume series, apparently all by David Kemp, with the general title Australian Liberalism. The second volume, A Free Country: Australians’ search for utopia 1861–1901, is planned by Melbourne University Publishing next year. Kemp was senior lecturer and then Professor of Politics at Monash University until 1990, and after that a minister in John Howard’s government. He is a Liberal Party insider – his father was founder of the Institute of Public Affairs – and in this project he has the advantage of a lifetime spent coming to grips with the long trajectory of Australian liberalism.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson reviews 'The Land of Dreams: How Australians won their freedom, 1788–1860' by David Kemp
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    This is the first of a five-volume series, apparently all by David Kemp, with the general title Australian Liberalism. The second volume, A Free Country: Australians’ search for utopia 1861–1901, is planned by Melbourne University Publishing next year. Kemp was senior lecturer and then Professor of Politics at ...

  • Book Title The Land of Dreams: How Australians won their freedom,1788–1860
  • Book Author David Kemp
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Miegunyah Press, $59.99 hb, 512 pp, 9780522873337

In 1786, extraordinary limewood carvings at Hampton Court near London by the seventeenth-century master Grinling Gibbons were destroyed by fire. A recent book by the American carver David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A journey to the heart of making (2012), describes his own commissioned efforts to replicate and replace those carvings. It is a thoroughly enjoyable book. To read it is to sense the pungent majesty of wood and the strange connection between timber and humanity. During carving, by Esterly’s account, the wood under his hand seemed to wrestle, even interweave itself, with the muscles and brain of the carver.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson on 'Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World' by Peter Moore
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    In 1786, extraordinary limewood carvings at Hampton Court near London by the seventeenth-century master Grinling Gibbons were destroyed by fire. A recent book by the American carver David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A journey to the heart of making (2012), describes his own ...

  • Book Title Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World
  • Book Author Peter Moore
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Vintage, $34.99 pb, 416 pp, 9780143780267

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, in May 2017, might not have had much resonance with the federal government. However, it coincides with a new phase of writing and research that helps to round out its long-term significance and impact. Mark McKenna has expanded on the importance of the Uluru Statement in the March 2018 Quarterly Essay (Moment of Truth). He points out that, among other things, this remarkable document is partly an appeal for truth telling about the past, as a fundamental means to reconciliation, and his essay includes examples of the way that is already happening.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson reviews 'The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the early colony, 1788–1817' by Stephen Gapps
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    The Uluru Statement from the Heart, in May 2017, might not have had much resonance with the federal government. However, it coincides with a new phase of writing and research that helps to round out its long-term significance and impact. Mark McKenna has expanded on the importance of ...

  • Book Title The Sydney Wars
  • Book Author Stephen Gapps
  • Book Subtitle Conflict in the early colony, 1788–1817
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio NewSouth, $34.99 pb, 432 pp, 9781742232140

The Bible in Australia is an unpretentious title for a remarkable book, and yet it is accurate enough. The Bible has been an ever-present aspect of life in Australia for 230 years, but no one has ever thought through its profound importance before. By starting her argument in a place both strange and obvious, Meredith Lake comes up with startling possibilities, and they keep surfacing all the way through the volume.

Just sixty years ago, in 1958, Russel Ward published his equally important text, The Australian Legend. No account of the Australian collective character and experience has, I believe, remained so long in print, and none has been so thoroughly influential in explaining Australians to themselves. The Australian Legend was always a more accessible book than, say, Manning Clark’s History of Australia, though the latter was designed to be read as a legend in itself. Australians, said Ward (and Clark more or less agreed), are, and always have been, sceptical about ‘religion and of intellectual and cultural pursuits generally’. The Bible in Australia turns this long-held understanding inside out. In fact, Lake makes a good case for thinking that the Bible, as an amalgam of stories, has had a power like Ward’s legend, and a similar nation-forming impact.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson reviews 'The Bible in Australia: A cultural history' by Meredith Lake
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    The Bible in Australia is an unpretentious title for a remarkable book, and yet it is accurate enough. The Bible has been an ever-present aspect of life in Australia for 230 years, but no one has ever thought through its profound importance before. By starting her argument in a place both strange and obvious, Meredith ...

  • Book Title The Bible in Australia
  • Book Author Meredith Lake
  • Book Subtitle A cultural history
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio NewSouth, $39.99 pb, 439 pp, 9781742235714
Thursday, 28 September 2017 13:24

A survey of environmental writing

Kim Scott

The biggest estate on Earth ABR Online October 2017Bill Gammage, in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (2011), shows fire being deployed across the continent with a complexity and skill ‘greater than anything modern Australia has imagined’. He explains why colonists spoke of a land like ‘a gentleman’s park, an inhabited and improved country’. Controlled fire created a ‘mosaic of grass and tree’, of ‘springs, soaks, caches and wetlands’ that channelled, persuaded, and lured prey in predictable ways. Thus Indigenous cultures enabled abundance, and ‘voluminous and intricate’ spiritual and creative practice.

Kim Mahood

My nominated book is The Night Country (1971), by American anthropologist Loren Eiseley. I first encountered Eiseley’s essays in the early 1980s and was transfixed by his capacity to combine the personal, the psychological, the metaphoric, the poetic, and the scientific in prose of imaginative reach and literary beauty. His essay ‘The Creature from the Marsh’, in which he ponders the footprint of a transitional form of human, only to realise that it belongs to him, locates our flawed and aspirational species at the heart of the natural world.

Philip Jones

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie ABR Online October 2017Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918), written and illustrated by May Gibbs, helped form my childhood notions of the environment. Perhaps there are two reasons. First, Gibbs proposed a connected, self-sustaining world of plants and animals in which humans played a rare but destructive role. Secondly, the book conveyed the idea that the bush harbours wonderful secrets, often on a minute level; one should tread lightly and listen.

 

Andrea Gaynor

The Death of a Wombat (1972), Ivan Smith’s genre-defying work, emerged from an award-winning 1959 ABC radio program by Smith; Wren Books approached Clifton Pugh to provide illustrations for the book. My great-grandmother gave me a copy for Christmas when I was six years old. I was enthralled by the vulnerable beauty of its outback, and distressed at the human carelessness behind the cataclysmic bushfire that inevitably, agonisingly, claimed so many animals’ lives.

Martin Thomas

Walt Whitman Brady Handy restoredWalt Whitman (photograph by Mathew Handy, Wikimedia Commons)‘Now I am terrified at the earth!’ wrote Walt Whitman. ‘It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.’ These lines, dear to gardeners everywhere, appear in ‘This Compost’, a homily to nature’s capacity for regeneration. Whitman’s attentiveness to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world is a constant inspiration. The cities, as much as the forests and prairies, fuelled his environmental curiosity. ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ is a poem that grows inside you, rocking gently to the tidal flows that underlie the daily commute.

Danielle Clode

It was certainly the books of childhood that germinated my interest in the natural world. But one book stands out: W.J. Dakin’s Australian Seashores, posthumously published in 1952, updated by Isobel Bennett and Elizabeth Pope. For forty years this book has directed my steps along Australia’s coasts, encouraged my first forays into biology, shaped my studies, and inspired my writing every page remains a fascinating dip into a world that lies beneath our feet.

James Bradley

Arctic Dreams ABR Online October 2017There aren’t many books that I can honestly say have changed my life, but Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) is one of them. Its luminous prose and hushed reverence for the landscape embody an understanding not just that there are other ways of imagining a landscape and our relationship to it, but of the fact that attentiveness to the particular is an ethical act in itself. It’s an extraordinary, beautiful, transformative book and one I continue to value immensely.

 

Alan Atkinson

Lately, there has been a wonderful rush of books connecting the old concerns of the Green movement with everything else important to humanity, from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the climate (2014) to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable (2017). But note especially Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ (2015), where questions of environmental damage and social justice are stitched together with geniune awe and, I think, perfect economy.

Ashley Hay

My tipping point was This Overheating World, an edition of Granta edited by Bill McKibben in 2003. Published fourteen years after ‘The End of Nature’, McKibben’s own first mighty global warming article, it embedded this issue in my sense of the world particularly pieces by Philip Marsden and Matthew Hart, and McKibben’s introduction. Fourteen years later again, the sorrow and frustration in that introduction remain shockingly germane. ‘Hardly anyone has fear in their guts,’ McKibben wrote. In some places that’s so, even now, as the planet gets hotter and hotter.

Grace Karskens

hunters and collectorsA lightbulb moment of discovery came with Tom Griffiths’s Hunters and Collectors: The antiquarian imagination in Australia (1996). It’s a brilliant, labyrinthine, landmark book about how Australians imagined and created their histories both human and environmental. Chapter Twelve takes readers into wilderness landscapes and reveals them to be peopled, and storied, after all. Why do conservation campaigns so often deny the intimate relationships between humans and the non-human world? Tom’s phrase ‘bleeding sepia into green’ has stayed with me.

Michael Adams

In Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (2009), the wild child story pivots around questions of what it means to accept and be accepted by strange others. It navigates the collapse of human care and being, and its replacement by a different, more-than-human, culture and ecology of care and identity, deep in the heart of a heartless city. Dog Boy is an inspirational compass for relocating ourselves in a world of social and environmental unknown unknowns.

Rebe Taylor

Patsy Cameron’s Grease and Ochre: The blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier (2011) changed how I saw the Bass Strait islands and how I wrote my last book. Her work taught me that the islands were not just a place where her Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestors ‘survived’ due to the early nineteenth-century sealing trade. The environment’s ‘remoteness and wild beauty’, its seasons and resources, shaped the coming together of European and Aboriginal cultures to create a ‘new lifeworld and a new people’.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

Between Wodjil and Tor ABR Online October 2017Barbara York Main’s Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) is a natural history of a small section of remnant bushland in the Western Australian wheatbelt. An eminent zoologist, known for her ground-breaking work on trapdoor spiders, York Main is also a gifted prose stylist possibly the one who comes closest in Australia to the belletristic tradition of American nature writing (Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard).

 

Sarah Holland-Batt

‘Somehow it seems sufficient,’ A.R. Ammons once wrote, ‘to see and hear whatever coming and going is losing the self to the victory of stones and trees.’ I think of those lines when I read Judith Beveridge’s inimitable poetry. Beveridge shows us that finding a precise, unflinching language for the natural world and the human place within it can be a profound, reverential, and philosophical act. I especially love her pelagic volume Storm and Honey (2009).

Sophie Cunningham

Reading the CountryWhen I first read Stephen Muecke, Paddy Roe, and Krim Benterrak’s Reading the Country: Introduction to nomadology in 1984, the year of publication, it was a revelation, introducing me to the idea that landscape could speak. What you had to do was learn to listen to it.

John Kinsella

When my brother, an intense naturalist from the age of six, received Vincent Serventy’s book Dryandra: The story of an Australian forest (1970) for his birthday, I couldn’t wait to read it. It made an impression on me, and its passion for place and the natural world stayed with me. In my late twenties, for three years, I lived on and off next to Dryandra Forest with my brother. His knowledge of the forest was broad. We often walked through its south-eastern outskirts, talking of the Serventy book. I couldn’t engage with the many birds, echidnas, kangaroos, and even numbats without being aware of the book’s knowledge. The book that stopped a bauxite mine activist environmental literature at its best!

Tom Griffiths

A Million Wild Acres ABR Online October 2017I read Eric Rolls’s A Million Wild Acres (1981) soon after I returned from my first trip to Europe. It seemed to encapsulate all that is wonderful, earthy, feral, and unruly about my country. Animals, plants, and insects share the stage with humans in this democratic, ecological, cross-cultural saga of life in the Pilliga forest of northern New South Wales. Rolls was a farmer, poet, fisherman, and historian with a lust for life and a deep sense of wonder about the land he farmed. He enchants the landscape and its creatures with exact, spellbinding stories. It is nature writing with a distinctive, compelling Australian accent.

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  • Custom Article Title A survey of environmental writing
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    To complement our coverage of new books on the subject, we invited a number of writers, scholars, and environmentalists to nominate the books that have had the greatest effect on them from an environmental point of view.

Nothing has done more to add to the ingenuity of Australian history writing than the study of Indigenous experience. This book, which concentrates on people living in Sydney and its immediate hinterlands from 1788 to the 1930s, is a case in point.

The impact of such scholarship has been a long drawn-out process, often echoing trends in various areas overseas. In 2001, for instance, James Belich’s book Making Peoples: A history of the New Zealanders, the first part of a two-volume history, deliberately focused on New Zealanders rather than New Zealand, on peoples rather than territory, and on interactions rather than bodies of power. Human beings are all treated primarily as thinking agents. National boundaries, all boundaries in fact, are not just limits to authority but also lines to be crossed, maybe on long journeys. Movement matters more than stasis, and commerce and conversation more than hierarchy. The New Zealand experience lends itself fairly easily to this approach, because both Māori and Pākehā were long-distance immigrants and, as Belich shows, commercial peoples.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson reviews 'Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney' by Paul Irish
  • Contents Category Indigenous Studies
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    Nothing has done more to add to the ingenuity of Australian history writing than the study of Indigenous experience. This book, which concentrates on people living in Sydney and its immediate hinterlands from 1788 to the 1930s, is a case in point ...

  • Book Title Hidden in Plain View
  • Book Author Paul Irish
  • Book Subtitle The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio NewSouth, $34.99 pb, 208 pp, 9781742235110
Friday, 28 April 2017 11:21

Letters to the Editor - May 2017

Scurvy

Dear Editor,
All authors are perhaps oversensitive to reviews of their books, but I have never been tempted to quarrel with a reviewer until now. Alan Atkinson’s review of Scurvy: The disease of discovery (April 2017) contains a broad assault on the place of literature in an historical understanding of the past, and specifically its place in the history of medicine, that is astonishing for its peremptory and illiberal tone. Professor Atkinson’s defence of the factual basis of history is also remarkable for its contempt of facts themselves. So I’ll cite some examples.

ScurvyThe picture of icebergs William Hodges over-painted with the pastoral view of Cook’s encampment at Dusky Bay is too trivial to be proposed as an example, says Atkinson. Yet the optical illusion of a sea turned green is an attested condition of photic damage called calenture, often allied with scorbutic reveries of delightful green vegetation – see the physician Thomas Trotter, Observations on Scurvy; the scientist Erasmus Darwin (‘Calenture’, in Zoonomia) and the trivial examples of this condition explored by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick and William Wordsworth in The Brothers. François Péron’s sudden passion for collecting seashells on the South Australian shore ‘does not prove he had scurvy’. Yet Péron records that, before scurvy became really bad on Baudin’s expedition, he was suffering from swollen and bleeding gums, and Baudin accounts for Péron’s distracted behavior as a result of scurvy growing widespread on the ship. He adds that Péron has just improbably laid claim to the discovery of a river fringed with abundant vegetation of an exquisite green.

More serious is the charge that I confuse the dates of scurvy in the Australian colony as a whole with the time-frame I apply solely to the penal settlements, particularly Port Arthur. Atkinson laughs at my using Saxby Pridmore as my authority, but the facts I was using I garnered from Select Committee Reports, John Gold’s correspondence, the Tasmanian State Archives, James Backhouse’s eyewitness accounts, and that ‘banal distraction’ Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life. If fruit was growing in luscious abundance in Tasmania in 1834, why were there nineteen patients dying of scurvy in the Port Arthur hospital? That is a question I tried seriously to answer. If Atkinson wants to dispute any of the judgements about a delinquent governing class I extract from my facts, he need go no farther for their sources than the 1837 Select Committee Report on Transportation, Jeremy Bentham’s A Plea for the Constitution and William Bligh’s An Account of the Rebellion. Then he might have a few of his own with which to buttress his absurd demand, ‘What does a more detailed understanding of scurvy really add to our appreciation of literature as literature? ... From an historical point of view it is a triviality, and from a literary point of view it is a banal distraction.’ That is language I never thought to read from the pen of anyone even pretending to an interest in the humanities.

Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, USA

Alan Atkinson replies:

I am very sorry that Jonathan Lamb has been so seriously offended by my review of his book. Anyone who has read any of my work, as I am sure Professor Lamb has done, will know that I am the last person in the world to attempt ‘a broad assault on the place of literature in an historical understanding of the past’. It may well be that scurvy makes a blue sea seem green, and yet I see a green sea every day and I have never had scurvy. I am sure that’s true of large numbers of people, so how is it possible to argue that those who do are thus affected? The same sort of logic applies, though less conclusively, I agree, to what Professor Lamb says in his letter about Péron and Baudin.

If nineteen patients in Port Arthur hospital had scurvy, I really can’t see what that indicates about Australian colonial culture in general.

As for the character of the colonial governing class, the reliability of Bligh, of Bentham, and of the 1837 Select Committee has been discussed at length by Australian historians since the 1960s. I am sure that Professor Lamb knows about that discussion. I have been part of it, and while the subject is certainly not exhausted there is no room here to go over it again in anything like a useful way.

I am very sorry to be accused of laughing at scholarship. I was certainly not laughing at this book.

Condescending spin

Dear Editor,
I found Dennis Altman’s critical comments on my book Disposable Leaders (April 2017) condescending and vacuous. He lists a few books that I did not cite, without any indication that they would have changed any of the interpretations or arguments I put forward. He criticises the fact that I frequently cite leading journalists from the press gallery, without any indication of how using unspecified others would have changed or improved any understandings. He criticises the lack of attention to blogs, posts, tweets, and YouTube, without any indication of how these might have played an important role in the leadership coups I have examined.

Disposable LeadersIn the chapter on Iatrogenic Spin Doctoring, I argue how the concern with spin is often self-defeating and further contributes to leadership instability. I titled one section the West Wing delusion, but, according to Altman, I do not say what this is. I begin by saying how I tired of the television show because it depicted a small group around a benign leader as the epicentre of political virtue and wisdom. In real life also, political leaders are increasingly surrounded by personally appointed staff. The way concern with spin leads to centralisation and control adds to this cocooning of the leader. However, in real life, the leader’s relations with the inner coterie cut across and complicate other political relationships, with ministers and MPs often feeling excluded, and hostage to the political judgements of the leader’s circle. I argue at some length that this factor was particularly important in the failures of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. I can only think that these pages were missing from the copy of the book Altman had.

Rodney Tiffen, Tascott, NSW

Dennis Altman replies:

Rodney Tiffen is a distinguished political analyst, and I am sorry he is disappointed in my review. But I did expect him to pay more attention to the changing nature of the media landscape. As I wrote: ‘Tiberius’s telephone is now a smart device, and political leaders have full time staffers employed to engage with the virtual world.’ Are we to assume these staffers played no role in the intrigues that led to the downfall of our last three prime ministers?

Peeved moments

Subtle MomentsDear Editor,
I’m puzzled by Alison Broinowski’s review of Bruce Grant’s memoir, Subtle Moments (April 2017). Broinowski essentially lists the events covered by Grant’s memoir. Throughout the page, her tone is rather terse – acidic – and I read on expecting an opinion or fact that would explain this tone, but it never comes. Broinowski seems peeved by Grant’s memoir, but she limits her reasons for it to her final brief sentence, ‘He still hasn’t.’

I would have been interested to know what it is about Bruce Grant’s book that annoys her so much.

Kym Houghton, Carisbrook, Vic.

Alison Broinowski replies:

In my review of Subtle Moments, far from being ‘peevish’ I paid Bruce Grant several well-deserved compliments as a man and as a writer. He invited readers to judge his claim that his life represented a biography of Australia, and I did so, pointing to what was missing. It was disappointing that such an authority could not resolve the ‘Australian dilemma’ which he himself identifies.

Trumpacious times

Dear Editor,
The April issue, in its article on that Elegant Fowl, Henry James, remarks that ‘We need all the humour and solace we can get in these trumpacious times.’ Too true. I’ll offer the following:

Susan Lever, in her review of the Bell Shakespeare production of Richard III, quotes ‘the famous speech’, Richard’s opening lines. She uses a spelling of ‘son’ that gives away Shakespeare’s pun and makes it clear that Richard is referring to Edward IV, rather than to the celestial body.

Does this give the Trumpians a new argument that anthropogenic climate change is not of relatively recent origin in human history?

Joseph Fernandez, Mosman, NSW

Minefield

Dear Editor,
Martin Zandvliet’s film Land of Mine (reviewed in ABR Arts) is not only about a disgrace – it is disgraceful. For a director to play with suspense of this type and degree is barbaric. I walked out, and I am surprised more people in James Dunk’s viewing didn’t do the same. One reviewer has even used the word ‘humane’. But despite a claim that the film might deter viewers from engaging in war, it is a monstrous experience to watch re-enactments of young boys picking away at landmines in order to defuse them, terrified that they will set them off, which is exactly what happens every so often. After two healthy bodies were blown to smithereens, I couldn’t believe that so-called civilised audience members would continue to subject themselves to such horror.

I’ll spend my time on anti-landmine projects instead.

C.V. Williams (online comment)

LOM1 550Roland Møller as Rasmussen in Land of Mine (Palace Films)

 

Beejay Silcox

Beejay SilcoxBeejay SilcoxDear Editor,
I find Beejay Silcox’s writing refreshingly honest and very poignant, and look forward in anticipation to each of her articles and reviews. Her ‘Letter from America’ (September 2016) was outstanding and very prophetic. As with all literary critics, getting the right flavour in a response to a writer’s efforts is not an easy task, but the ease with which she dissects a text and provides an analysis of its content and context is exemplary. Accordingly, I look forward to more of her efforts.

Neil MacNeil (online comment)

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  • Custom Article Title Letters to the Editor - May 2017
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