Australian History

What Revolution? The title’s a teaser! Echoes of Lefty/Godot? You’ll understand if I’m infected by Noel McLachlan’s prose. On page after page, sentences and semi-sentences addressing the reader informally/colloquially (even verblessly!), rich in apostrophes, italics, parentheses, sloping lines between pairs/triads, even quartets/quintets, of words, ending often with exclamation marks and (nine times on one page I’ve counted!) question marks.

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In their introduction to this collection of essays, the editors state that Australia’s war experiences in Vietnam left some lasting legacies, but ones that were either unexpected or unintended: a loss of moral authority on the part of Australian conservative governments, a breakdown in the defence and foreign policy consensus about the ‘threat’ to Australia, the revival of populist politics and resistance to conscription, and increasing resistance to orthodox political views on other issues.

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Back in 1964 before I left the University of Tasmania, Amanda Howard (now Lohrey) introduced me to a serious, nondescript first-year student who, she told me, would go far. Twenty years later Peter Conrad is a Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of a number of well-regarded books on literature, opera, and television, with a reputation established on both sides of the Atlantic.

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On his first day at St Patrick’s, East Melbourne, Vincent Buckley was ‘flogged and flogged’ by a Jesuit priest in ‘an incompetent fury’. It is an experience that many of his readers will easily recognise, though their remembered lambastings were more likely to have been incurred at the hands of the Brothers and, unlike Buckley’s, would have been a continuing feature of school life. 

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It was only seventy years ago that Aboriginal workers in the north-west of Western Australia emerged from virtual slavery on the pastoral stations in the Pilbara region. Through their own efforts, and with encouragement from some white supporters, they radically changed the industry and undermined a colonising process of government control over them. Their protest is known as the 1946–1949 pastoral workers’ strike, which Anne Scrimgeour declares ‘has the quality of a legend’. In On Red Earth Walking she verifies the story. Her meticulous archival research and evidence, from those whose planning and actions were mostly not recorded, lead her to new understandings. It is her relationship with the strikers and their descendants that makes her book unique, for she conveys their response to colonisation through their eyes.

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Are you (as I am) conscious of suffering from what they call the postmodern condition? You know, the spiritual and moral void within commodity culture, the isolation of individualism, the lack of meaning and all that. Since reading this book, I have begun to think that we should all spend time in Sparkes Creek. Havelock Ellis, who became the great British psychologist of sex, went there over a hundred years ago, as a boy of nineteen:

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Valerie Lawson is a balletomane whose writing on dance encompasses newspaper articles and also articles  and editorials for numerous dance companies. Lawson’s lavishly illustrated Dancing Under the Southern Skies, like Arnold Haskell’s mid-twentieth-century popular histories of ballet, substitutes stories about ballet and ballet dancers for a cohesive historical narrative about ballet in Australia. Portraits, images of ballet dancers posing in photographers’ studios, and ephemera are reproduced in the book; but the total sum of stage photos – of dancing – can be counted on one hand.

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On the evening of 6 August 1926, Alice Anderson donned her driving goggles and gloves, waved to the cheering crowds outside Melbourne’s Lyceum Club, and got into her tiny two-seater Austin 7. With her former teacher Jessie Webb beside her, the boot packed with two guns, sleeping bags, a compass, four gallons of water, a supply of biscuits, and, strangely, two potatoes with red curly wigs, she tooted the horn and set off. Her mission? A three-week pioneering trip to the never-never. ‘There is only one main route from Adelaide to Darwin, and that is only a camel track,’ the tiny young woman behind the wheel said breezily of the 2,607-kilometre journey ahead of her. ‘We are not going to stick to the beaten track.’

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First encounters between Indigenous Australians and European voyagers, sealers, and missionaries often unfolded on the beach, a contact zone where meaning and misunderstanding sparked from colliding worldviews. This sandy theatre also serves as one of the enduring metaphors of ethnographic history, a discipline that reads through the accounts of European explorers, diarists, and administrators to reconsider historical accounts of the gestures of Indigenous people from within their own cultural frameworks.

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Paul Tilley classes the Treasury, now housed in Canberra, as ‘one of Australia’s great enduring institutions’. It began humbly in 1901, in a smallish stone building that still stands at the corner of Collins and Spring Streets in Melbourne. That handsome structure appears to be just about the correct size for its initial staff of five. Just across the street stands a statue of Sir William Clarke, a rich pastoralist of that era who, had he sold some of his properties and sheep, might easily have paid for all the salary cheques signed by the nation’s Treasury in its first weeks.

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