Emails and Paper Trails

There are two things I don’t understand about the Sony hack. First, why does anyone with the ability to accomplish such an impressive hack want to live in North Korea, when they could clearly sell their IT skills for millions in the global market?

Another film that caused offence Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Another film that caused offence
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

And second, why are people such idiots that they continue to write stupid or outrageous comments, and put them in emails saved to the company’s mainframe? A similar example happened recently at the University of Sydney, where Barry Spurr, a professor of poetry, had his racist, sexist, obese-ist and generally nasty and stupid emails revealed by the press. He resigned this week.

One of my favourite email stories comes from the 1980s, when news about a secret deal between America and Iran – the Iran-Contra scandal – was bubbling along. Oliver North’s secretary in the White House, knowing he was being investigated, shredded all the printouts of emails and documents, blissfully unaware that they were backed up to the White House computer.

As a historian, paper trails are my business, so even electronic paper trails are intriguing, but the implications for future historians are serious, if governments and business decide not to commit anything to print in future. Governments have no doubt learned from the Wikileaks affair that some things should not be put in an email.

I regret that as a historian, because it means that diplomats and other government officials will be less prepared to commit their views to print, even the ephemeral print on a screen, but will operate more on the basis of the truly ephemeral spoken word.

I also regret that as a global citizen, because often it is only when someone finds the right formula of words and sentences, and commits their views to writing, that they think through exactly what they are saying.

When government policy – or the policy of a film company – is formulated by spoken rather than written instructions, there’s no paper trail to check what was said. Just lost words in the ether.

Did Henry II really say ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ We will never know. We know only that Becket was later killed – subsequently or consequently? We also know it was a really stupid policy decision, but in an oral society, policy can be made on the basis of a rash statement – or no statement at all, just a nod and a wink. In current terminology, a case of plausible deniability.

Now it’s Sony. Business records are different from government records. Businesses don’t need archives in quite the way that governments do, because businesses don’t change abruptly in the way that governments change at an election. There is not the same separation between politicians, who come and go, and career bureaucrats, who are permanent, though this is changing.

Businesses need to keep records because a paper trail is necessary for legal and account reasons but informal discussions tend to get mixed up with the primary purpose of the correspondence.

The business records that I know, from 200 years ago, were full of incidental chatter about associates and rivals. I am always delighted to find occasional scurrilous reference to ‘our mutual friend’ – a common phrase in business correspondence, as Dickens clearly knew – and will be very sad if they disappear as a result of this latest data dump.

I doubt if they will though. We all chatter on the Internet, gossiping with our fingers, as once we did face to face. The consequence is occasional embarrassment and a loss of privacy, as FaceBook decides I can be tempted by advertisements for river cruises and reducing belly fat.

Little Bags of Poison


Two weeks ago, my 88-year-old mother’s unit block was unroofed in a ‘supercell’ storm, and the residents were evacuated. I have been too preoccupied since then to post anything to my blog – so I’m taking the lazy way out, by reposting something I wrote 3 years ago. A day after the report on CIA torture was released, it seems appropriate.

Originally posted on Historians are Past Caring:

The year was 1348, and terror haunted Europe.  An inexplicable, horrifying disease was spreading from city to city along the trade routes, killing as it went.  Within 4 years, perhaps a third of the population died, and nobody knew why.

In their fear, people looked for explanations – and scapegoats.  In Savoy, the authorities rounded up a number of Jews, men and women, and questioned them under torture.  One of them, Agimet of Geneva, had recently been to Venice to buy silk.  Before he left, according to his confession, he was approached by ‘a teacher of their law’, Rabbi Peyret, who gave him ‘a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather bag.’

‘Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a…

View original 955 more words

Dealing with our Waste

In this world where there is a day for everything, today, 19 November, is International Toilet Day. Basic sanitation is still a luxury in many parts of the world – as this BBC photo spread shows.

The Redback on the Toilet Seat

Some dangers are specifically Australian. Record cover of the single released by Slim Newton, June 1972

Human waste disposal is a problem. A contaminated water supply can lead to cholera, dysentery and other infectious diseases, while parasites such as hookworm or schistosomiasis are picked up walking through contaminated soil or water in bare feet. Women in particular are at risk for other reasons, because finding a private place for their ablutions is difficult and potentially dangerous.

Australian cities have not always had clean and reliable sewerage. Until fifty years ago many Brisbane houses had septic tanks rather than a sewered system, potentially contaminating the ground water, and smelly in a hot climate. Particularly during summer months, children often suffered from what was then called ‘childhood diarrhoea’. It was probably dysentary.

Before septic tanks, there were earth closets. In cities these were emptied weekly – the pattern of small lanes behind the main road system, particularly in Melbourne, is a reminder of the ‘night soil’ collectors that once used these lanes.

Once, the earth closet too was a great innovation. On 15 September 1869 the Brisbane Courier devoted an entire article to the ‘many excellencies of the earth closet’.

The earth scheme has been declared superior to all others, not only as a deodorizer of the vicious abominations which taint our atmosphere during the summer months, but as offering an easier means of keeping closets and similar places clean than any agent yet employed… At the late exhibition in Brisbane, complete working closets of full size were on view, and appeared to attract much attention and interest. …The mechanical construction of earth closets… is such that…matters deposited therein are instantaneously covered with a layer of dry earth, and thus deodorized….

It removes all danger of the impregnation of wells with excrementitious matters, an accident now of frequent occurrence… Its universal adoption would lesson the demand upon the water supply of towns to a very large extent – an important consideration… and lastly, but not by any means least, such a system might be made to restore to lands the large amount of valuable fertilizing matters which now flow through the sewers of seaboard towns to contaminate the water for miles around. The value of wasted sewerage in populous countries is enormous.

And there’s the rub. We have replaced earth closets – essentially the composting toilets of their day – with a system which puts a huge demand on our scarce water supply, wastes a valuable natural resource, and flushes it out of our cities to ‘contaminate the water for miles around’.

Brisbane was only sewered in the 1950s and 1960s, and some households went directly from earth closet to sewered toilet, prompting a rash of newspaper advertisements:

For Sale: Weatherboard E.C. Good condition. Cheap.

There are still some weatherboard EC’s around, because they were recycled as tool sheds, overflow storage – or just for their original function as somewhere to sit and think. Perhaps we should think more about how we waste our waste.

Suits and Sans Culottes in the long hot summer

Pity us, dear reader. The G20 gathering of world leaders is being held in Brisbane this weekend, so for the last week we’ve been in security lockdown: public transport disrupted, helicopters buzzing overhead, parts of the city barricaded off. It is currently illegal to carry eggs, tomatoes or reptiles in the lockdown area – which is hard luck for the many thousands who live in the inner city, though possibly good luck for reptiles. There has been a sort of bipolar anxiety. On the one hand, everyone has been avoiding the lockdown areas because we’ve been told by Brisbane’s mayor and Queensland’s premier to stay away, but at the same time, the very same mayor and premier are urging us to go into the city to show the rest of the world what a vibrant, lively, multicultural place Brisbane is.

But on top of that, we’re in the middle of a heat wave. It was 33°C yesterday and today is predicted to reach 40°C. Some parts of the state will have their highest November temperature on record today. I’ve written before about how weather and climate shouldn’t be conflated, so I can’t in all honesty attribute this heat wave to climate change, but it’s another straw in the wind.

G20 Leaders Brisbane 2014

Official photograph of G20 leaders in Brisbane, 14 November 2014

You would never know it from the official photo, when the leaders lined up for their Class of 2014 photograph, all but a few of them in dark suits and ties. Even the women wore long sleeved jackets and trousers.

Suits are the uniform of political power. They are an all-purpose camouflage behind which politicians and businessmen conceal themselves in an enforced homogeneity that is really quite spurious. At home they may be democrats or dictators, polygamists or puritans, but in public they all look alike. So bravo to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for bucking the trend and dressing as he damned well pleases in traditional Arab gear. The summer temperatures in Riyadh are similar to Brisbane’s temperature today, so it’s a sensible move too.

Meanwhile, outside in the heat, demonstrators wore a much wider range of clothing, from Guy Fawkes masks (Anonymous) to angel wings (Climate Angels) to moon suits (Ebola). The most appropriately dressed were the Aboriginal protestors, since brown skin streaked with finger marks of ochre and ash is definitely best suited to Brisbane’s weather this weekend.

Aboriginal protest at G20

Aboriginal protest against black deaths in custody, in Brisbane Times, 14 November 2014

The protests so far have been orderly and peaceful, and relations between police and protestors seem to be fairly amiable, perhaps because they are fellow sufferers outside on the hot pavements. You don’t often hear security forces urging protestors to make sure they drink enough to stay hydrated in the heat.

It made me think, though, how much air conditioning has changed the language and the landscape of protest. Until air conditioning, riots generally occurred during the long hot summer. As the heat rose, tensions rose and tempers frayed, like characters in a Tennessee Williams play. In the poorer areas of cities, the poor lived in crowded tenements with little sanitation or ventilation. In many parts of the world they still do. In places like Tunis or Cairo, access to air conditioning still separates rich from poor. The best solution to summer heat in crowded slums is to come out into the streets to cool off – and to gossip and complain to each other.

Communal riots often followed. Sometimes there was a political agenda. More often summer riots focused on food prices. The weeks before the autumn grain harvest were the most dangerous time as food shortages pushed up the price of bread. The fall of the Bastille took place during the northern summer on 14 July 1789. I’m currently writing about the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales, which took place late in the southern summer, on 26 January 1808. Like all mutinies, it had multiple causes, but the ragged tempers of late summer can’t have helped, particularly for soldiers forced to endure the heat in unsuitable uniforms designed for British conditions.

The rich and powerful can afford to wear unsuitable clothing – jacket and trousers, long shirt and tie – because they live in an air-conditioned bubble. In France in 1789, there was no air-conditioned bubble, but the homes of the rich were warm and airy, and they had laundry maids. So the powerful wore silk knee breeches (culottes) and waistcoats of exquisite workmanship which cost a fortune to make and to maintain – the 18th century equivalent of power dressing.

The humble artisans who stormed the Bastille were given the name of sans culottes because they wore loose shirts and long trousers instead of the culottes of the court. The uniform of protest today seems to consist of jeans and tee shirt, with hoodies replacing the traditional anorak, as a defence against the omnipresence of CCTV cameras. But in 40° heat, all bets are off.

When the Walls came tumbling down

In late 1989, my husband was on study leave in Paris while I was home in Brisbane finishing the teaching year. This was well before Skype, but we had email (cheap but clunky) and the telephone (landline only, fairly pricey). We phoned each other regularly.

As the end of the year approached, the political atmosphere both in Europe and here in Queensland seemed equally charged with promise. Mikhail Gorbachev had changed the landscape, and the Iron Curtain, rusting for a while, was now crumbling apace. Poland held elections in the summer, Hungary began to dismantle its section of the Wall, and popular demonstrations took place in East German cities, especially Leipzig and Dresden.

Checkpoint Charlie

Walking through Checkpoint Charlie, 10 November 1989

On the night of 9 November, the East German authorities agreed to let people cross into West Berlin, and crowds of people converged at the crossing points along the Wall. Faced with the sheer weight of numbers trying to cross, the East German guards bowed to the inevitable and opened the gates so that the crowds could surge through.

My husband watched it all live on TV – Paris and Berlin are in the same time zone – and he rang me back home. It was early the next morning in Brisbane, 10 November. I could hardly get a word in edgewise, he was so keen to talk about what was going on in Germany.

Which was frustrating, because I wanted to talk about what I’d read in the morning’s local newspaper: another wall that was beginning the crack. The ruling conservative coalition in Queensland was about to be voted out of office, despite a gerrymander that had kept it in power since 1957 – four years before the Berlin Wall was built.

There were many reasons for the Queensland government to be on the nose. It had been rocked by the scandals unearthed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption, which filled our newspapers and TV screens every night with lurid stories about brothels and money in brown paper bags. There were also growing internal divisions in the coalition, between city and country, Liberal and Country Party. These became more of an issue as Queensland grew up and lost its hayseed image. It was no longer acceptable to have a government led by a peanut farmer and his bunch of poorly educated rural ministers.

But the other reason why the Queensland government changed in 1989 was that the Labor Party finally got its act together under a small group of reformist politicians and backroom boys (nearly all boys). One of these was Wayne Goss, whose death aged only 63 was announced today.

By 9 November, when my husband rang from Paris to talk about the Wall coming down, I wanted to tell him what the polls were saying here in Queensland where it looked just possible that Labor could win. On 2 December, the polls were confirmed in a landslide, and the first Labor Government since 1957 was elected. Wayne Goss became Premier.

Goss was a gradualist. Unlike Gough Whitlam, he didn’t try to make too many changes, too quickly. This frustrated some of his supporters, but those changes have survived. In particular the gerrymander, which weighted votes so unfairly in favour of rural electorates that some votes were worth 3 times as much as others, has gone for good.

The Queensland gerrymander was a testament to failure: if politicians can only win an election by corrupting the voting process, they are doing something wrong as politicians.

The Berlin Wall was a testament to failure too: if politicians can only stop their people emigrating by imprisoning them behind a wall, they are doing something wrong as politicians.

Perhaps both Texas and North Korea should take note.

Revolutionary Tourists

In the summer of 1790 William Wordsworth was 20 years old, and half way through a fairly undistinguished Cambridge degree, when he and a friend, Robert Jones, set out to walk across France from Calais to the Alps. It was to be a gap year, an opportunity to postpone the serious business of growing up and settling down. Each of them had just £20 to pay their way, and most of their journey was on foot, walking 12 to 15 miles before breakfast.

The French Revolution had broken out a year before – they reached Calais on 13 July, the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille – but the revolution was still largely a constitutional affair, and in the countryside they weren’t seriously affected by the political changes going on around them.

More than a year later, Wordsworth went back to France, reaching Paris at the end of November 1791. By this time, the French Revolution had moved on – and so had Wordsworth. He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and when she got pregnant in the spring of 1792, followed her south, first to her home in Blois, then to Orleans. While Annette prepared for the shame of an illegitimate birth, Wordsworth went back to Paris.

The events in France were chaotic for any outsider, but Wordsworth got swept up by the revolutionary fervor. He went to meetings of the Jacobin Club, souvenired a piece of the Bastille, and met members of the society ‘Les Amis de la Constitution’. Most liberal Englishmen had great hopes of the original revolution of 1789, which seemed to promise the overthrow of an autocratic ruler and the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, just like in England. His excitement comes through in his famous lines from The Prelude:

Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

But by 1792, events had become much more complicated, with violent factional divisions in the cities, and the provinces descending into civil war. There were curious religious aberrations, too, with the revolution attacking the traditional church and introducing a Cult of Reason that was anything but.

Wordsworth was fascinated and appalled by the political upheavals underway there: the September massacres, the proclamation of the Republic, the rise of Robespierre, the Terror.

Eventually repelled by the violence and the threat of war, Wordsworth left for England. His daughter, Anne-Caroline, was born on 15 December 1792 about the time he arrived back in London. Louis XVI was executed 5 weeks later, on 21 January 1793, and Britain declared war on France. Wordsworth recollected the exhilaration of revolution in tranquility, in The Prelude. He settled down, became a famous poet, and gave up his radical politics. Eventually, in 1843 he became Poet Laureate.

Byron in Albanian dress

The Romance: Thomas Phillips, Lord Byron in Albanian dress (1813)

A generation later, the poet Lord Byron wasn’t as lucky as Wordsworth. His thrilling encounter with other people’s revolution – in this case the Greek rising against the Ottoman Empire – led to his death. Brought up on the standard British schoolboy’s diet of classical Greek literature, Byron too probably saw the Greek independence movement in the black and white terms of the outsider. And he also used his travels abroad as an opportunity for sexual adventures – though in his case, his sexual adventures were more transgressive, whether at home or abroad.

In July 1823 Byron sailed to Greece with some companions, a number of servants, 4 horses and 2 dogs, and ‘several splendid uniforms including a fine Homeric helmet’. They got as far as Missolonghi, a marshy coastal area where he fell ill from fever, possibly malaria. He died there in April 1824.

The Reality (if you forget the laurel wreath and the lyre): Joseph Denis Odevaere, Lord Byron on his Death bed (1826)

The Reality (if you forget the laurel wreath and the lyre): Joseph Denis Odevaere, Lord Byron on his Death bed (1826)

At present, in Australia and around the western world, the public is concerned about radicalized young men going abroad to participate in the revolutions and wars that are convulsing the Middle East. It is a serious problem, for the individuals and their families, and for the wider society as well, but it is not new.

Wordsworth and Byron are exceptional, because they were both famous poets, but over the years, certainly since travel and communication have made it possible, many more humble and anonymous young men have been fired by idealism or ideology to go to fight – or to watch – other people’s wars and revolutions.

During the Russian Revolution, revolutionary tourists went to Russia to get involved. John Reed (Ten Days that Shook the World, 1919) is perhaps the most famous; the dancer Isadora Duncan perhaps the most unlikely.

In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War attracted idealists into an International Brigade. The aristocratic Jessica Mitford and her cousin, Esmond Romilly, ran away to Spain, but so too did the village boy Laurie Lee. Like Wordsworth, Lee found revolutionary Spain both exhilarating and scary, a mixture of pretty girls and inexplicable violence. ‘I don’t know who you are”, a sailor told him, “but if you want to see blood, stick around – you’re going to see plenty.

There are probably no general principles to be drawn from this collection of examples, except perhaps, the historian’s last cop-out: ‘Plus ça change; plus c’est la même chose.’

I’m struck, though, by a few points of similarity. For most of these young men (and a very few women, like Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris), other people’s revolutions turned out to be much nastier and more chaotic when viewed up close. Simplistic ideologies tend to dissolve into a seething mass of local tensions and resentments, and payback takes place under cover of ideology. For those who survived to return home, the experience was transformative, but often they were transformed into more wary witnesses to the tragedies they had seen.

The boys and young men currently rushing to the Middle East are sad as well as dangerous. Some will die; some will find their ‘very heaven’ becomes a living hell. Many will find their youthful idealism has been unforgivably co-opted by ideologues, usually older men much further removed from the front line.

Above all, revolution is exciting, a time for throwing off the traces, overthrowing your parents’ world, setting the world to rights and remaking it in your own image. We’ve all been there. Sometimes it’s rage; sometimes just raging hormones.

My Whitlam Hang-Up

I spent the afternoon of 11 November 1975, the day the Governor-General dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, marking essays on an earlier dismissal, when the New South Wales Governor, Sir Philip Game, sacked the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.

As a very junior tutor in Australian History, I had a desk in an outlying building well away from the hub of the History Department. By current standards, I had generous accommodation – a room on my own! – but also by current standards, I was isolated there: no internet, no phone, no tea room or gossip in the corridors. All I had was a deadline and a good 50 essays to mark and return before the students sat for their final exam. When I finally got to the bottom of the pile, in the mid-afternoon, I bundled them up and headed back to the department.

As soon as I entered the corridor of Forgan Smith – the original sandstone building at the centre of the University of Queensland – I knew something must be up: knots of people talking, radios switched on behind closed doors, notices pinned to those doors saying their occupants were elsewhere because of ‘reprehensible circumstances’. This was the phrase the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, had used to justify his decision to refuse to pass supply in the Senate.

As we all now know, that afternoon Sir John Kerr sacked Gough Whitlam and appointed Fraser as interim Prime Minister. Continue reading