Category Archives: personal and self-indulgent

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.

Shroffing Visa-card!

Whatever your attitude towards Christianity, there’s one story from the New Testament that has everyone, believer or non-believer, on Jesus’ side. Matthew 21:12 tells the story of Jesus driving out the money changers from the Temple – and nobody sides with the money changers.

I thought about this the other day when my Visa card statement arrived, showing a whole lot of unexpected transaction charges added to my account from my 3 weeks’ holiday in France. At a time when exchange rates can be calculated and money transferred in the blink of an eye or the blink of a cursor, it seems hard to justify these additional costs. I’ll probably pay up though, since I never check the small print, and paperwork does my head in. More money than sense, really. Continue reading

One degree of separation: Roger Rogerson and me

Yesterday, a 73-year-old former policeman with a bad hip was arrested and charged with the murder of a young drug dealer. Roger Rogerson has a long history of brushes with the law, and he has spent some years in prison, but the New South Wales courts have never yet succeeded in nailing him for murder.

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning describes Roger Rogerson as ‘the state’s most notorious former cop’. Perhaps a part of his notoriety always lay in his memorable name. A dodgy cop with an unmemorable moniker like – say – Terry Lewis might not enter the popular consciousness in the same way.

I know nothing personally about Roger Rogerson’s career, but in a funny sort of way, I’ve known about him for much of my life, because he and my husband went to school together, first at Bankstown Primary School, and later at Homebush Boys High. Continue reading

The Curse of the Ring

Cinderella's Wedding

Cinderella’s Wedding, Disney and Windsor versions

Warning: this is not my standard history post, but since the Royals are here, and since I’ve spent too long in doctors’ waiting rooms this week reading rubbish, and since this celebrates my 200th post since I began blogging, I’m indulging in nonsense instead.

Last year ABC Classic FM ran a competition, asking listeners to suggest a contemporary topic that could be turned into a Wagner opera.  I thought they wanted 500 words. It was only after I’d written this that I re-checked, and they wanted 50 words. So I had a parody with nowhere to go. Until now.

The Curse of the Ring

Act I: A young Nordic prince, Frederik (tenor), travels to a Great Southern Land to compete with sailors from around the world in the Games of the Rings. He sings of his quest to claim the Gold and take it back with him to Denmark. Continue reading

Old Friends, Old Meals

I had lunch yesterday with 2 old friends, both former colleagues from the university.  It was great to catch up, as we do every few months, though on reflection, from the time we decided to eat outside because of the noise level in the air-conditioned interior, I think the script was by Kingsley Amis, the production BBC, and I hope I was played by Judy Dench. My friends could easily double for Michael Caine (The Quiet American, rather than Alfie) and Ian McClellan (Gandalf, definitely).

We put the world to rights, in furious agreement about current government policy, but nostalgia intervened when we got to the debate over the closure of SPC Ardmona, Australia’s last fruit canning factory.

Ardmona is in the Goulburn valley in Victoria.  It has been a fruit growing area since the 19th century, and there has been a factory there since 1917 when – irony of ironies – the local fruit growers asked the Victorian Minister of Agriculture to contribute £100,000 towards a canning factory. [Shepparton News, 28 May 1917, from Trove]

The factory is the largest employer in a declining region with little other work available, and it faces closure without government support.  The Federal government refused to contributethe State government has offered something to keep it going for now, so there will still be Goulburn Valley tinned peaches available for the foreseeable future.

Goulburn Valley diced peaches We all remembered in our childhood that every night’s dinner ended with something sweet – as often as not tinned fruit. 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 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

2013 in review

This morning WordPress has sent me a summary of my year in blogging – complete with fireworks. I think I’ve done okay, if I say so myself – especially since I couldn’t write anything for the first 5 months of the year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 51,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 19 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Now I have to say in all honesty, that statistic is dodgy – because 10 percent of my viewers arrived on a single day, 12 December 2013, when somebody posted a link to The Habsburg Inheritance on Reddit.  Not just any Reddit thread, either, but a salacious and gossipy one about incestuous families. As a result 7000+ social media tragics descended on my blog to gawk at the admittedly amazing breeding habits of one of Europe’s most important families.

It made for an exciting 24 hours – but I’m really much more grateful for my small, loyal band of followers, who encourage and stimulate me with their comments and suggestions, and make writing this blog worthwhile. Happy New Year to you all!

Click here to see the complete report.

A New Year’s Resolution

I have a theory that the key to a successfully kept New Year’s Resolution is to aim low.  One New Year many years ago, my husband and I formally resolved to hang up the bathmat after a shower – and we’ve been doing it every since.

Big projects are harder: losing weight, doing more exercise, cutting down the booze, giving up Candy Crush – finishing the book.

The trouble with academic work, particularly the important stuff, which is research and writing, is that it is so huge and amorphous.  All those filing cabinets (real or virtual), all those words to write, all those versions of the same chapter already written – gah!  It needs to be broken down into manageable gobbets.

Walter Stevenson Davidson - my boy! Portrait by Ferdinand Mulnier in Mitchell Library, Sydney

Walter Stevenson Davidson.Portrait by Ferdinand Mulnier in Mitchell Library, Sydney

So here’s the plan.  As the blogosphere is my witness, I have resolved to spend a minimum of one Pomodoro a day working on my book. Continue reading