Category Archives: historiography

Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

I’ve just spent 5 days at the Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of Queensland, and I’m all conferenced out.

AHA conference header

I won’t attempt to summarise a conference with so many papers, so many parallel sessions, so many evening events that I didn’t get to. For those who are interested, the abstracts are here and almost single-handed, Yvonne Perkins @perkinsy tweeted the conference.

Instead, here are a few of my general impressions on the state of history in Australia today that I’ve picked up by osmosis during the last week.

  1. I hope the conference was a success. The numbers were good, though I gather there were more postgraduates and fewer senior historians than usual. This has financial implications as postgraduates get in at a concessional rate. (So do I, as ‘unwaged’ – which was Autocorrected to ‘unwanted’ on my iPad. Sigh). I wonder whether the shortage of senior people reflects workloads. Postgraduates have to present their work to a wider audience, but perhaps tenured staff are just too tired by the end of semester, to spend a week of their precious non-teaching time interstate. Which brings me to –
  1. I’m not a Head of Department, but I was told that the Heads of History meeting was pretty dispiriting. People are tired of battling for funding, tired of shifting goalposts, tired of the economic straighteners in political life. This is true across higher education, of course, but it’s particularly true for the humanities, and historians are even worse hit because –
  1. It is so easy to politicize history, because history, more than most disciplines, is a part of the public conversation. This is both a good and a bad thing. Professor David Armitage from Harvard, whose paper yesterday was a rallying call for greater public engagement by historians, made the point that in Australia, unlike America, history has a place in public discourse. This is great. But it also risks making historical research a hostage to politicians who want to tweak the school curriculum or cherry-pick research projects in their own image.
  1. The overarching theme of the conference was Conflict. Large conferences always choose a big and baggy theme like this, so inclusive that it is almost meaningless. The irony of Conflict, though, is that it bifurcated the conference between aspects of Aboriginal/settler frontier conflict (beloved of the left) and aspects of World Wars (beloved of the right). So that’s all right then. In sheer bloody-mindedness, when confronted with a Theme, I tend to go looking for something entirely different – medieval Irish cooking, say, or the political activities of Caroline Chisholm.
  1. I loved both these papers, and they each had wider things to say about Irish and Australian history. Some papers, though, show the tendency Armitage raised in his paper, ‘to know more and more about less and less’. Many primary sources are now digitized and available (even though many are only accessible through a pay wall) but it’s increasingly hard to get your head around all the secondary sources published on any subject. So PhD theses become ever more specialized in an attempt to cope. Fernand Braudel drafted most of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II while in a German prison during World War II, with only access to a small local library. Without wishing to make years of imprisonment compulsory, there’s something to be said for blocking out the world and its masses of Big Data occasionally.

It was good to see old friends and acquaintances, and to meet in the flesh people I only know through social media. I’ve come away with a list of books I must read, and new ideas I need to think about. Some of them will no doubt find their way to my blog in the future.

It is different going to a conference in your hometown. It’s cheaper to stay at home – but there’s more commuting and less total immersion in the conference experience. There are still husbands and dogs to be fed. In times past, I got to know people best in shared accommodation, or over shared college breakfasts, and I went to all the evening sessions because there was nothing else to do in a strange city. I do miss the conviviality of those days – but I don’t regret the shared bathrooms or the freezing student rooms in mid-winter Melbourne.

How should we deal with racist language?

If you go to iTunes to download a copy of one of Joseph Conrad’s classic novels, you will find it listed under the name The N—— of the Narcissus (1897). Apple’s antennae are very sensitively tuned when it comes to the use of what Americans call ‘the N word’.

There has recently been a controversy over racist terminology at ABC Radio. A sports commentator, Warren Ryan, was suspended for using the racist term ‘old darky’, and has now quit because he refuses to apologize for something that was taken out of context. He says he was quoting from Gone with the Wind. You can read the details here.

As a completely dis-(and un-)interested bystander regarding anything football-related, I know nothing about Ryan, except that in general I think sports commentators should act in a civilized manner and keep their traps shut as much as possible, but the story does raise the issue of how we deal with racist comments that are not our own, but those of another generation. Continue reading

What’s for breakfast?

I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.

The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.

What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Continue reading

George Orwell and the English Language

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.

All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page.  It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.

A friend yesterday sent me the draft of  an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD.  In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Continue reading

I think Jane Austen is stalking me

I haven’t been writing my blog lately because I’ve been busy writing my book.  At the moment I’m wrestling with chapters 6 and 7.  It’s 1822. Walter has arrived back in Britain, having made a fortune – over £100,000! – in China. I’m trying to set the scene for this transition point, and I keep tripping over Jane Austen.

In many ways, at this point in his life Walter Davidson was a quintessential ‘single man of good fortune…in want of a wife’. It’s a real phenomenon, and one that Jane Austen obviously knew: first, you make your fortune in some far off outpost of empire (or Yorkshire, in the case of the Bingleys), then you return to your local community, or a friend’s community, and shortly afterwards marry an appropriate girl within the extended family circle. Men like this are peppered throughout her novels. Continue reading

Reading Old Letters

Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice there’s an odd phrase. Lydia has gone with the militia to Brighton, as a guest of the Colonel’s wife, and the Bennet family are waiting for her letters,

but her letters were always long expected, and always very short.  Those to her mother, contained little else, than …the library …officers … a new gown… a new parasol …was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry.

Her letters to her sister Kitty are rather longer but ‘were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.’ (vol. 2, ch 19)

The phrase is usually taken to mean underlining as a form of emphasis – if Lydia was emailing today, I just know she would use Comic Sans and too many exclamation marks!!! – but it always puzzled me, and I think I discovered exactly what Jane Austen meant one day back in the 1990s when I was reading some family letters outside Braidwood. Continue reading

Dead Darlings

Kill your darlings!

There seems to be an Anglo-American dispute over this quote, with some attributing it to the American novelist William Faulkner:

In writing, you must kill your darlings!

while others go for the older English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Either way, it’s good advice. We all overwrite at times, and for writers of non-fiction, there’s an additional menace: the fascinating sidetrack. Continue reading

The Ambitions of Jane Franklin

I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. As it was a private school, we were sorted into ‘Houses’, a sort of artificial way of engendering competition between us, and a team spirit amongst us.  As it was a girls’ school, the Houses were named after famous women, and as it was a relatively innovative school, they were Australian women – or at least, women who spent some time in Australia.  In chronological order they were Elizabeth Macarthur, Jane Franklin, Caroline Chisholm and Lucy Osburn. I suspect that if our teachers had known then what I know now about Jane Franklin, there wouldn’t have been a Franklin House. Continue reading

Historians and Philatelists

There’s a story about a stamp collector whose particular interest was letters posted at sea.  For philatelists who know about these things – and I don’t – there is a wealth of variety in the covers, franks and stamps on letters sent by passengers or crew from naval or merchant shipping, even in the present day.

In pursuit of his hobby, this man sent a polite letter to a naval vessel asking the captain if he would please frank the enclosed stamped addressed envelope and send it back.  Outraged, the captain wrote an angry reply telling him not to waste precious naval time, put it in an envelope, hand addressed it, and sent it off with the ship’s mail – and thereby gave the collector a much more valuable item for his collection than he was expecting. Continue reading

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

I was in England on study leave when my first book came out in 1988.  Thrilled to see all that hard work finally between hard covers, I showed it to one of my English cousins. With his customary chutzpah, he decided that it should be reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, and with his customary networking skills, he immediately rang a friend with some sort of connection to the TLS.

I only heard one side of the phone call, but it was clear that his friend didn’t want a review of my book.  I’m not at all surprised.  I was an unknown first time author with a book on an Australian subject, published by an Australian press with limited distribution facilities in England. He could have put off my cousin in a variety of ways: they had enough books for the next year, they weren’t publishing reviews on Australian topics, they weren’t reviewing authors whose birthdays had an R in the month.

Instead, he explained apparently seriously that the TLS didn’t review non-fiction by women authors.  Fiction yes, but not non-fiction. I have no idea if this was true or just an excuse.  In a way it doesn’t matter. It was the specificity of the explanation that got to me. I felt staggered and belittled as an academic and a writer of serious history, even though I had initially begged my cousin not to make what I thought was a presumptuous request. Continue reading