Category Archives: world history

Political Climate Change

Last Saturday was the coldest morning in Brisbane for over a hundred years – so I was wondering how long it would take for someone to claim it for partisan purposes in the never-ending debate over climate change.

Sure enough someone raised the point during the debate yesterday, as our current government abolished the tax on carbon, at the moment the only legislation keeping us on track to meet our international commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It was really cold in Brisbane (2.6°C) so we don’t need to worry about rising temperatures. What a pity our politicians are such lousy statisticians that they can’t tell the difference between a trend and an outlier. 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

Remember, remember, the fifth of November!

In Australia, Halloween has recently become popular, at least amongst children – what’s not to like about an occasion that gives kids a socially sanctioned reason to be out at night, wear silly costumes and put pressure on their parents to eat lots of sugar?

The shops love it too. Most Australians, I think, are pretty cynical about this imported commercial event – yet another example of creeping Americanisation.  My favourite example of the way the marketeers have pushed it into our consciousness was the pumpkin I saw in Woolworths a couple of years ago, printed with dotted lines to show kids how to carve it.

Yet festivals morph and merge.  Before there was Halloween (31 October), there was Guy Fawkes Night (5 November). I remember bonfires and fireworks from my childhood, long, long ago.  I wonder if the rise of Halloween in Australia has occurred because nature abhors a vacuum? Continue reading

Two Pioneers of Aviation and the accidents of history

Powered flight has transformed our lives during the last century.  Like many technological breakthroughs, the history of flight is usually written in terms of great men, the heroes of invention like Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were the first men to build and fly an aeroplane successfully at Kitty Hawk.  But heroic individuals explain only so much.  Context, circumstances, contingency, all play a role as well.

Which brings me to the story of Igor and Vladimir, and the curious connection between my suburb of Sandgate, on the shores of Moreton Bay, and the helicopter.

Around the early years of the 20th century, many people were experimenting with the idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine. In France and Germany, England and America, amateur aviators tinkered with kites, gliders and balloons. Even in Australia, on the remote edge of the British Empire, Lawrence Hargrave played a part with his experiments with box kites.

Russia had its enthusiasts too.  Continue reading

Treasures of Afghanistan at the Queensland Museum

A special exhibition at the Queensland Museum makes me realise, not for the first time, how much better the Queensland Art Gallery does these things. QAG has just closed Quilts 1700-1945.  I went at the end of June, and wrote about it here.

The Queensland Museum has just opened Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul.  A few of these items were on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City when I was there in 2010.  Although they belong in Afghanistan, and will eventually return to its National Museum, at present they are touring the world.  They have already been to Melbourne and will go on from Brisbane (until 27 January) to Sydney and Perth during 2014.

Treasures of Afghanistan

Hair pendant in gold and turquoise from Tillya Tepe

The treasures themselves are wonderful.  Continue reading

We Warn the Tsar!

The situation in Syria is tragic, and it’s not surprising that people who see these tragedies on their television (or more likely, these days, YouTube) want to Do Something.  Maybe there’s a point to American, or British, or French, or Russian, or Iranian, or Israeli breast-beating over what is going on. I’m not so sure.  I was in Belgrade a few weeks ago and saw the site of the NATO bombing in 1993.  Did it really change anything on the ground?

Here in Australia, though, there’s no point.  We have no strategic interest in Syria, and even if we did, for good or bad we can have no impact on what is going on. Australia is a modest country, with much to be modest about – and thank goodness for that. I doubt if there are many Australians who want to join the Great Powers, especially on yet another expedition of gunboat diplomacy to the Middle East.

Unfortunately, one of them is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  In the middle of an election campaign he is highly likely to lose, the ex-diplomat, ex-foreign minister, takes time out from cooking or campaigning to speak in sober, measured and above all pompous terms about his consultations with Barack Obama and David Cameron and – who knows? Ban Ki-moon?

The excuse for this self-importance is that Australia is currently one of the non-permanent members of the Security Council and this weekend takes over the rotating presidency.  The real reason is that Rudd loves this sort of stuff.

It all feels to me a bit like ‘We warn the Tsar!’ Continue reading