Category Archives: personal and self-indulgent

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. An election was called for 2 December. As the topic of my essays shows, this was not a unique event. There have been a surprising number of occasions throughout the British Commonwealth when a government has been dismissed by Vice-Regal authority, but it had never happened at the Commonwealth level before – and 43 years after Lang’s sacking, nobody had expected it ever to happen again in Australia – least of all Whitlam.

For us workers at the chalk face, mid-November was one of the busiest times of the year. We still ran year-long courses, and these were the weeks leading up to final exams, and the publication of results in early December.

After we marked the exam papers, the marks were entered (by hand!) and added up (in my head!) on individual 5×3 inch student cards, and transferred to a dot matrix printout of student names and numbers. It feels like I’m describing horse and buggy days.

Denis Murphy et al, The Big Strikes

David Hall, Denis Murphy and Margaret Cribb with their new book, The Big Strikes (1983). I’m fairly sure the photo was taken in Denis’s office

My direct superior was Dr Denis Murphy. He was an excellent lecturer in Australia history, while also moonlighting as an important reformist member of the Australian Labor Party in Queensland. During November 1975, Denis was up to his eyeballs in the political upheavals going on around us.

As part of the election campaign, Whitlam held great rallies of the faithful in all the major cities. He had run a chaotic government, and Labor was expected to lose the election, but Kerr’s dismissal had turned him into a martyr, improving his chances a little. The Whitlam government had done a lot that affected me personally: for women, for universities and – sadly – I was about to become one of the first beneficiaries of their no-fault divorce law.

I attended one of the candlelight rallies in King George Square (long loose hair, long floral dress with flounce, a flickering flame in the twilight – what on earth was I thinking?) but although my heart was with the Whitlam government, my head said it was a goner. Denis, ever the party loyalist, was offering bets of $10 on an ALP win – but I wouldn’t take his money.

A couple of weeks after the dismissal, we tutors were all in Denis’s office, collating results in Australian History. We relied on a card index of students, so there were always a few missing marks to chase up, which meant phone calls (often to parents who had no idea that their kids had stopped attending lectures 6 months earlier).

The meeting took all day, and was grindingly slow and boring. During one coffee break, I was on my own in the room when the phone rang. When I answered it, it wasn’t the expected student or parent with an essay mark – it was Gough Whitlam. No doubt he was ringing Denis for an update on the political fortunes of Labor in Queensland, or to arrange transport or whatever for his next visit north.

Sadly, I have no idea. This, surely, was my closest brush with history in the making – but I was so startled to hear his voice, I hung up on him!

(There’s a video of the 1975 rally in Brisbane, converted from Super 8 film, in the collection of the Fryer Library here)

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.

At about the same time, throughout the Pacific, missionaries were busily introducing Islander women to the delights of the Mother Hubbard, a shapeless, loose cotton dress with a high neckline and long sleeves that concealed all those parts of the female anatomy that the women concerned had not previously realised needed concealing. Eventually most Pacific Island women adopted the Mother Hubbard, because it became a symbol of Christian conversion. Variants like the Hawaiian muu-muu are still worn. I wonder how other women felt about the new outfit? Forms of clothing that emphasize extreme modesty can feel like an implied rebuke to those who don’t wear them.

On the other hand, Pacific Islanders had their own scrupulous notions of modesty and privacy that governed their lives. In 1851, the adventurer Ben Boyd seems to have unknowingly blundered into the women’s quarters on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This was where the women went to bath, to toilet, and where they stayed during menstruation. It was an area absolutely taboo to all men, and when he ignored the islanders’ attempts to keep him away, he was speared to death.

Modesty takes many forms. Currently there’s a debate in Australia – and many other parts of the world – about Muslim women and their distinctive forms of dress, summed up in some extremists’ demands to ‘ban the burqa’ – which is nicely alliterative, but not at all accurate since there are probably no women in Australia who currently wear a burqa. Perhaps a few hundred wear the niqab, and many more wear other traditional forms of dress, more or less concealing, though it’s by no means universal amongst Islamic women.

Burqa sewing pattern

Clothing, particularly women’s clothing, carries so many meanings – class and respectability in the case of a bonnet, religious conversion in the case of the Mother Hubbard. It can also be a symbol of modernity or of rebellion. I can just remember, as very little girl, a family holiday at the beach, when my two grandmothers saw their first bikini. I can remember them both peering out the window at a young woman walking by in what – I now realize – was probably a very modest two-piece. ‘Look, you can see her navel!’

swimsuit pattern from Women's Weekly

Australian Women’s Weekly, 6 December 1961

It was at about the same time, in the 1950s, that Greek and Italian immigrant families began to arrive in Brisbane. Inevitably, given the long years of war in their homelands, there were many older, widowed women amongst them. These women dressed in their traditional widows’ clothing of a black dress, black headscarf, and black stockings and shoes. They were a haunting alien presence, and locals found their clothing confronting.

No one forced a Mediterranean widow to wear these clothes, any more than the 1860s governess was forced to wear a bonnet. On the contrary, in either case to force her not to wear the clothing of her choice would imprison her, in a ship’s cabin or within the family home.

It’s not always women’s clothing that becomes the focus of attention. Men’s clothing has sometimes been politicised too, often as a symbol of modernity. In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire banned the turban as old-fashioned and inappropriate in the modern world, and replaced it with the fez. A century later Ataturk banned the fez as old fashioned in modern Turkey, and recommended the Homburg hat instead. There was a religious dimension to this change too, part of Ataturk’s drive to secularise the nation: an observant Muslim can place his forehead on the ground in prayer while wearing a turban or a fez, but not while wearing a hat with a brim.

But it’s usually women whose clothing is policed – or who police themselves. Men play a role in this, especially when a form of clothing is treated as an outward and visible sign of religious faith, for men are the traditional gatekeepers in religious observance.

Older women play a role in the policing too. Modesty takes many forms, and it is deeply internalized. Personally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a bikini. I like to think this is a personal decision – and an aesthetic one, believe me. But I never wore a bikini, even in my long ago youth, and I suspect there has always been a faint memory there of my grandmothers at the window tut-tutting – ‘Look, you can see her navel!

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

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