Review: Australian History in 7 Questions, by John Hirst.

Black Inc., 2014, 206pp.9781863956703

John Hirst’s latest book, Australian History in 7 Questions, examines Australian History in a new format. Unlike previous Australian Histories, resembling Manning Clark’s epic six volumes, or Thomas Keneally’s three volumes of Australian History, or The Oxford History of Australia, Hirst addresses Australian History in a thematic aspect, rather than a grand or specific narrative.

The idea for the book derives from Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe, and four lectures given under the title ‘Four Questions in Australian History.’ The lectures were extended to seven questions for the purpose of this book. The question addressed in the book are: “Why did Aborigines not become farmers?”, “How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy?”, “Why was Australia so prosperous so early?”, “Why did the Australian colonies federate?”, “What effect did convict origins have on national character?”, “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, and “Why is Australia not a republic?”.

The questions Hirst has chosen to answer for his readers are specifically chosen. These questions comprehend parts of Australia’s contested history; address Australia’s most treasured myths, overlooked historical questions, and the possibility of Australia’s future. These seven questions also lead to others: the question of Australia’s frontier violence, the rise of the Anzac legend, the effect of the White Australia policy, Australia’s national anxiety with migration, and the failures of Australia’s republican movement.

Hirst’s answers also provide contrasting accounts to some Australian history ‘classics’. For example, Hirst demonstrates that the Australian colonies and their peaceful transformation into a federation – first dismissing the connotations of an open prison and demonstrating the colonies emphasis on English law, and therefore its economic, social and political triumphs – provide a complete contrast, for example, to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, that demonstrates the suffering and brutality in the colonies.

The Australian story embraces several myths, and it is both the Anzac legend and the New Year message from John Curtain: Australia ‘looks to America’ that feature in Hirst’s work. While Hirst discusses the “speculative connection between convict shame and national history”, Hirst believes that modern Australians are puzzled by the assertion that the Australian nation “was born at Gallipoli”. I disagree. Today, both modern Australians and young Australians believe that Gallipoli was where Australia was born, and not at federation in 1901.

Many historians, including Tom Millar, claim that the New Year message of Prime Minister Curtain in 1941 “marked the beginning of a new shift in Australia’s sense of military dependence away from Britain to America.” It is under closer scrutiny that this claim becomes more complex and problematic for Miller and other historians. Hirst demonstrates that this “new shift” was not the case, and by the end of the war, the New Year Message from Curtain had left no lasting mark on Australia as it continued to develop military links with Britain; including a long-range rocket facility at Woomera, and the development of nuclear bombs in South Australia. “In the 1950s Britain tested its atomic and nuclear bombs in Australia. Australia welcomed the mushroom clouds because Britain with the bomb made Australia more safe.”

Hirst, while answering “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, rejects the notion that Australia’s backlash against Asylum Seekers arriving by boat was a result of racism and xenophobia, rather:

[I]t was the boat people’s mode of arrival that caused resentment. It was uncontrolled, so there was the potential for the numbers to blow out. The people were not fleeing immediate danger; they were imposing themselves on the country rather than being invited and there were grounds for thinking that they were not all genuine refugees. This was a complete reversal of how migration was usually conducted.

 Therefore, asylum seekers arriving by boat “affronted the Australia egalitarian instinct.”

If you are familiar with Hirst’s previous works – Australian History in 7 Questions is Hirst’s 14th book – such as Convict Society and its enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, The Sentimental Nation, Looking for Australia, or Sense and Nonsense of Australian History, some of his arguments will be familiar. However, Australian History in 7 Questions is a fresh new format in discussing Australia’s history. The straight-forward responses, clarity, insight, diagrams and lists, and contentious conclusions not only encompass all of Australia’s past, but demonstrate that Australian history is far from being “dull and predictable”.

While you may agree or disagree with Hirst’s questions or answers – or both – it is the combination of a lifetime of research and writing Australian history written for the novice historian, and the professional.

Review: Anzacs Long Shadow

‘The Allure of ANZAC’ and the Australian Defence Force.

 Review of James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Redback4, 2014, 184pp.


My great Uncle and Grandfather both served in Vietnam. My great Uncle was with the Australian Armoured division while my Grandfather was a member of the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Sydney (III). Growing up around these two men offer a paradox between serving members or veterans – especially the Navy – of how Anzac is commemorated and how the day is perceived in the public. While most follow the words inscribed on the Sydney War Memorial in Hyde Park, “Let silent contemplation be your offering,” others turn Anzac day into something that James Brown believes resembles more like a festival.

James Brown, a former commanding officer in the ADF, and now a fellow at the Lowy Institute researching military issues and defence policy, has produced a short, sharp and sophisticated analysis of Australia’s Defence Force and the role the ADF played in Afghanistan.

With 2014 being the centenary of WWI and also the upcoming centenary of Anzac in 2015, the Australian Government is planning to spend $325 million (with an already tight budget) on the prestigious event. In addition, there is an expected additional $300 million through private donations. In comparison to the United Kingdom (here we could draw on the famous lines of Andrew Fisher: “Australia will defend Britain with every last man and every last Shilling”), Australia will outspend the ‘Mother Country’ by 200 per cent.

The Australian Government’s funding of the centenary of Anzac and the First World War, is match by the commercialization of this ‘sacred day.’ Brown lists several commercial activities and products, including a paddle boat race across the Dardanelles and the ‘Sands of Gallipoli.’ Brown mockingly chastises such promotion that was legislated against in the 1920s. This extravagant event is best summarized by Brown himself: “This year an Anzac festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon… But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”

After dealing with the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF. Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

Brown believes that the Anzac legend has instilled a Nineteenth Century character that military structure, discipline, and strategy are no match for the individual, egalitarian Digger: an “idolatry of a culture suspicious of officers that favours egalitarianism.” The Anzac legend manifests itself in today’s soldiers: wearing thongs and shorts when attending dangerous duties.

Not only has the Anzac legend created a culture of relaxation and lenience in defence force personnel, it has also neglected other pillars of defence such as the Navy. Of the 96 Victorian Crosses awarded in all conflicts, not one mariner has been awarded the VC. Yet, a reoccurring theme is the posthumous awards for valor for Simpson and his Donkey.

The growing gap between the living soldier and that of the dead soldier is clearer in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. A war of great complexity – “we weren’t fighting one war, we were fighting hundreds across the country” – the Australian military performed with outstand professionalism and military precision. However, when it came to communicating what Australia’s role was, no politician or high-ranking military officer could articulate what the Australian role was: Australian soldiers would not combat against the enemy – but they did. Military personnel will not engage in narcotic operations – but they did. Much of the military debate or conversation on Australia’s defence force is focused on the past.

Brown’s analysis of Australia’s military is the strength and major focus of this book. The issue is not with fighting personnel, but rather those higher in command and also the politicians responsible for their deployment and policies. Compared with several other nations, Australian Colonels, Generals and Majors are not seen in the public debate. The military does not encourage those in high command to write or analyse previous decision, policies and mistakes Australia, or others, have made. For example, the Australian military does not analyse the amphibious landing at Gallipoli. Quantico is the only place to have conducted a detailed review and analysis by George Patten in 1938. Without this detailed information, it is possible that the D-Day invasion would not have had such success. The lack of review and writing process could also hinder the development of Australia’s defence force. Brown highlights new purchases made by the Australian Government without a shift in strategy or focus to use these new purchases with the desired effect.

It is this aspect is concerning for such a well renowned military force that communication is not encouraged, often leaving the public in the dark as to what policy are we applying, what are we doing in Afghanistan? And why are we doing these operations? This is where Australian politicians also fail. Stephen Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon who both held the Defence Minister positions are depicted as glib and uninterested with defence issues. Complex issues are ditched for easy and cheap defence policies such as a new medal or pin for military families.

Brown has found the middle ground in this debate, offering a well-balanced and analytical account of the issues facing the ADF and the well being of living soldiers. There are a lot of issues – past and present – wrapped up in this book, but Brown handles these issues with a brightness that is welcomed within this debate. Brown is not a historian, and does not claim to be, however, he has handled the debate over the Anzac legend with great poise, balance, fierceness and relevance to the issues facing the ADF and personnel.

Review: Burial Rites

A Sympathetic Ear

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites Picador, 2013, pp352.Burial-Rites

I hereby confirm that the criminals, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir will be executed on Tuesday the 12 January, on a little hill close to the cottage of Ranhola, between the farms Holabak and Sveinsstador.

The aforementioned passage was taken from a letter to the District Officers of Svinavatn from District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal. Also in the same letter, Blondal calmly instructs that:

If it is such that the executions are not possible to carry out on this day due to weather, the next day possible will then be selected, and all the people who have been ordered to attend must do so, as stated above.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites – short listed for the Stella Prize – is based upon the historical events that took place in Iceland between 1828 and 1830. Agnes Mahnusdottir, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdottir were convicted for the gruesome murders of Natan Ketilsson – Agnes’s boss and ‘lover’ – and Petur Jonsson, then burning their bodies in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnes and Fridrik would be the last persons executed in Iceland in 1830, while Sigridur, saved from execution, died serving out her life sentence as a servant a few years later.

Before Agnes’ execution, she was interned with District Officer Jon Jonssons family at Kornsa. The family, composed of Jon, his ailing wife Margaret and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga, are reluctant to take on the job of a murderess and a “whore” and make their reluctance known to Agnes.

The family is then later joined by a young clergyman Toti Jonsson who was chosen by Agnes to assist her in the Christian beliefs to prepare her for death and into the arms of Christ. However, with the Icelandic winter and the small space within the house, Agnes and Toti’s conversations are never private. There are several tense scenes where the Jonsson family listens to Anges’s story, convinced that she is telling lies. When Toti first met Agnes, he was very nervous and unsure how to approach a woman convicted of two brutal murders. Toti does learn to become a better listener of Agnes’s story, convinced that she needs a sympathetic ear rather than be showered in prayers and proverbs. It is through this personal conversation that Agnes discloses her life events, a twisted love triangle, and the night of the murders.

Agnes, while reluctantly accepted by the Jonsson family, begins to be an influential and important person around the farm. Her expertise with medicines, farming, slaughter and cooking win her some favour with Margaret and Steina. However, Lauga never trusts Agnes.

Burial Rites is the culmination of Kent’s ten-years of research into the executions. The research is easily visible: there are the translated documents and letters that begin each chapter, the representations of speech and grammar and the intrinsic detail of Icelandic life through slaughter, harvest, Icelandic rituals, winter and summer. The writing is also impressive, offering engaging detail:

Next are the bones, and the heads. I ask Lauga to empty the tallow pot of gristle and water, but she pretends she cannot hear me and keeps her eye fixed ahead of her. Kristin goes instead. When Steina sidles up to me again, smiling shyly, wondering if there is anything I need doing, I ask her to fill the emptied pot with the bones that cannot be used for anything else. Salt. Barley. Water. Steina and I haul the pot next to the poaching blood sausage, for the marrow to leach into the simmering water, for the salt and heat to prise away all the tenderness from the carcass. She claps her hands when we fix the slopping pot upon the hook and immediately begins to throw more fuel on the fire.

However, there is a disadvantage to Kent’s historical narrative. By beginning each chapter with a translated document, Kent sets the boundaries for the chapter and does not look to go outside the historical documents. This, therefore, makes the novel not so much a challenging read – unless you are like me and struggle with the pronunciation of Icelandic names.

Kent’s novel is also divided into a twin narrative. Agnes’ voice is told in first person, while a discrete third-person narrates over Toti and also the Jonsson family. Although Agnes’ voice does not feature as much as I would like it to as her voice can be the most difficult and most compelling voice – “they say I must die They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.” To me, it seems to be a stylistic choice of her troubled and misunderstood life: “They will not see me. I will not be there.”

Although there are small stylistic problems with Kent’s novel, her deep knowledge and research into the events in her attempt to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman,” and challenge that Agnes was “an inhuman witch, stirring up murder,” succeeds within her twin narrative. While Burial Rites is a book to challenge the idea of Agnes, it is also a book about a woman who lived with the odds stacked against her, leading the reader to question whether Agnes was guilty or not guilty?

Review: The Night Guest

The Long Goodbye9781926428550

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane, 288pp.

Penguin Australia, 2013.

On a trip into town for some shopping, Ruth bumps into a person who turned out to know her:

Mrs Field! Ruth! cried this woman. She was so very small – ‘petite’, Ruth’s mother would have called her – that she made Ruth think of a little toy prised from an expensive Advent calendar. Ruth tried to arrange her face into an expression of recognition; she must have failed because the woman said, with a hopeful smile, ‘It’s Ellen?’

Although McFarlane never uses the word “dementia” in the book, it is clear that Ruth is struggling with it.

The book has a personal connection to me: my grandmother suffers from dementia and have, on several occasions, visited her to receive that same “expression of recognition.” McFarlane, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, revealed, “both my grandmothers suffered from dementia, and I wanted to write respectfully and unsentimentally about this.”

Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair – helping her ailing back and to watch the whales pass by her house – her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

Gradually, throughout the novel, the true extent of how Frida will “care” for Ruth is revealed. Ruth’s son’s, Jeffery and Phillip, who live in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively, leave Ruth to her own devices and loneliness, even though they are in constant contact through phone calls. This enables the large, exaggerated and often tender Frida to insert herself into Ruth’s life.

Frida begins by relieving Ruth of duties such as cooking, cleaning and washing. This leaves Ruth to begin reflecting on her past life: growing up in Fiji with her parents, meeting her first love Richard, moving to Australia to experience her first heartbreak, meeting her husband, Harry, having children and eventually retiring to the Coast in New South Wales. Eventually, Ruth and Frida’s relationship quickly becomes indispensible, transforming into a kind of love and reliance:

Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when she left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted with herself for succumbing so quickly.

As the novel progresses, along with Ruth’s confusion and dementia, Ruth does not know who to trust. Ruth extends an invite to Richard, Ruth’s first love from Fiji, to visit. Richard takes up this offer and does visit for the weekend. However, to Ruth’s surprise, Frida has moved into Phillip’s old room: “Oh, dear. You knew I was staying over, to help with Richard’s visit. Remember?” The growing confusion of Ruth makes it easy for Frida to manipulate Ruth for her own personal gain. However, is this her only true motivation? There are scenes of affection between Ruth and Frida that constantly challenge our expectations of what Frida is really doing.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, lonlieness, isolation, memory and tenderness, that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. The novel also poses an important question: who is to care for the elderly when others are unwilling or unable to do so?