Category Archives: personal and self-indulgent

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.

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

Bonnets, burqas and bikinis

During the 1860s, a trickle of English women went out to the colonies with loans from the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to cover their fares in Second Class – the middle class, between First and Steerage. They sent letters back to the FMCES when they repaid their loans, so we know quite a bit about them. Most of them were in their late twenties or thirties, so had missed the marriage market. Their best hope of economic security was to become governesses, a ‘white blouse’ occupation that required, above all, respectability and accomplishments. You might be lousy at teaching mathematics, but your manners must be beyond reproach.

A disaster occurred to one of them on the voyage out: several weeks away from Australia, she was walking on the deck when a sudden gust of wind blew her bonnet overboard. It was an appalling loss for her, because without a bonnet she couldn’t go up on deck or appear outside where she could be seen by the crew or the male passengers. Going bareheaded would be unthinkably bold.

I’m quite sure she could have bought or borrowed a shawl from one of the emigrant women in steerage, or rigged up a kerchief of some sort using a petticoat or bed linen, but a bonnet was important, because it showed her middle-class status. Instead she spent the rest of the voyage inside, unable to enjoy fresh air or sunshine or exercise until the ship reached Australia. Continue reading

Open House Brisbane 2014 coming up

Next weekend, 11 and 12 October, Brisbane’s Open House weekend for 2014 is on. Last year I wrote discursively about Open House days here. The range of open houses and other buildings is wider this year, with a variety of reasons for their inclusion, not just historical, but for their architectural or ecological significance as well. And new buildings have been added, such as the ABC studios at South Bank.

Last year I spent a very happy day wandering around the city centre looking at public buildings. It was fascinating, particularly looking at ones that are not usually open to the public, like the Masonic Temple on Ann Street, designed by Lange Powell, my grandfather’s older brother, in the 1920s. This time I’m planning to have a peek at some of the open buildings in the suburbs, and maybe get a sense of Brisbane’s domestic architecture as well.

Highly recommended. For people in other cities, a Google search will bring up your particular Open House weekend – they are scattered throughout the year.

Open House 2014 booklet

Many thanks to Open House Brisbane’s organisers, who sent me the booklet and VIP passes for the weekend. The very first payola I have ever received for this blog!

Book thieves

Less than 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a library in the Athenian Agora dating from about 100AD. The Library of Pantainos was named for its dedicator, Titus Flavius Pantainos, and was recognized as a library mainly because the library rules have survived:

Image of the Rules of the library

No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. [The library] is to be open from the first hour until the sixth.

No borrowing, and restricted library hours. I can relate to that, even though I would find the papyrus scrolls unfamiliar – and as a woman I wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway. Continue reading

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 –

Continue reading

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