John Gladstone Steele (1935-2016)

A friend has let me know that John Steele has just died. The funeral will be held next Monday, 1 February, at 10am in St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane.

John Gladstone Steele was a physicist and antiquarian (his word!) who worked for many years in the physics department at the University of Queensland. I know absolutely nothing about his scholarship as a physicist, but John worked across two disciplines, physics and history. That was unusual even thirty years ago. In our more specialist age it is practically unheard of.

I never knew John Steele particularly well, but I used to run into him occasionally when our research rummaging overlapped in UQ’s specialist Fryer Library. He gave me a copy of his family history, The Petersons and the Uhrs: An Australian Family since 1825, when he had it privately published in 2003. This book sits firmly on my desk as I write my book, because John’s Australian connections begin with the merchant Richard Jones, who arrived in Sydney in 1809, and was for many years my Walter Davidson’s business partner.

But on this Australia / Invasion Day, it seems appropriate to talk about John Steele’s most significant book, Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River (1984). In his younger days, John was an enthusiastic bushwalker, and this book was based on an earlier gestetnered and stapled pamphlet he produced for the University of Queensland Bushwalking Society. He wrote about Aboriginal pathways in the first instance so that his group of bushwalkers could follow them, but in doing so, he became increasingly curious about the people who had made them.

J.G.Steele Aboriginal Pathways

I once asked him where he got his information – and he said he just asked the local Aboriginal people he met while out walking. In the 1970s and 1980s, very few people did. About the same time he published Aboriginal legends of Stradbroke Island (1984).

Bushwalking gave John a sensibility to the Australian landscape that many of us lack. In Conrad Martens in Queensland: the frontier travels of a colonial artist (1978), John looked at the sketchbooks and paintings of Conrad Martens, who travelled to the Moreton Bay settlement (not yet Queensland) during 1851 and 1852, to drum up painting commissions amongst the squatters of the Darling Downs. John had the eye to identify the locations of many of Martens’ sketches, which now represent an important visual record of Aboriginal occupation. Because of John’s identification of the location of an Aboriginal camp in one of Martens’ drawings, for instance, the botanist Rod Fensham was able to show that this place marked the northern limit of the yam daisy, a native plant with a tuberous root that was an important food source for the Aborigines – and soon to be wiped out by hungry sheep.

John’s work dates from before Mabo, before Native Title, before current sensitivities about the European occupation of Australia. His books are resources for later researchers, rather than historical works in their own right, and he was surprisingly humble about his abilities as a historian. He once urged me to write a biography of his ancestor, Richard Jones. Jones certainly deserves a biography, and in many ways John Stone had much in common with his ancestor. Both were politically conservative high Anglicans, and thoughtful scholarly men. I told John that he should write the biography himself – but he demurred. As he admitted himself, he was an antiquarian, not a historian.

I have just looked at the UQ library catalogue to find that 8 – eight – copies of Aboriginal Pathways are held in the library, of which 2 are held in the specialist Fryer Library, and of the others, 4 are currently out on loan, including one that is overdue. Not bad for a book more than 30 years old.

John’s twin disciplines of physics and history seldom overlapped – but I do like his explanation, in Explorers of Moreton Bay (1972), of why Cook’s and Flinders’ charts of Moreton Bay diverge – John thinks (and at least to my uneducated eye proves) that the magnetic pole must have moved in the 30 years between their voyages. Not many historians could have figured that out.

For once, a successful New Year’s Resolution

I wrote this a year ago to celebrate a year’s successful writing, using Scrivener and the Pomodoro technique. 366 days later, I’m still getting up early each morning to write. I haven’t quite finished The Book but with 80,000 words under my belt I’m nearly there. Things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. A habit is powerful. It was hard to make daily writing a habit, but now that it has become a habit, it is liberating.
  2. We only have a certain amount of willpower. With writing now a habit, I am free to concentrate my willpower on other matters.
  3. I now feel scratchy if I don’t write something every day.
  4. Scrivener is wonderful. When I open the file, I’m already at the place I left off the day before – which is important to keep that continuity going. But I will never use it to its full capacity, and for me, the final edit is best done in Word.
  5. That early morning doze is an excellent time to rehearse what I next have to say.
  6. A hungry dog is better than an alarm clock. Dammit, anything is better than an alarm clock.

 

Historians are Past Caring

A year ago I sat down to write my New Year’s Resolution – as the blogosphere is my witness – to spend a minimum of 25 minutes every day working on my book, a biography of Walter Stevenson Davidson. According to the Pomodoro Technique,  25 minutes equals 1 pomodoro. As I explained a year ago, the aim of the Pomodoro Technique is to work uninterrupted for 25 minutes, then to take a 5 minute break. Do it again, then after 4 bursts of work take a longer break. Repeat as necessary.

366 days later, I am delighted to say that the technique has worked for me. I don’t always stop after 25 minutes – in fact I often become so engrossed in my writing that I don’t stop for an hour or more – but give or take a bit, I have largely stuck to the plan. There…

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2015 in review

Happy New Year everyone!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 33,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 12 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Chin Chin!

Chin Chin and other cheerful toasts

Chin Chin: Anglo-Chinese. A phrase of salutation. Also used as a drinking toast Oxford English Dictionary

This is a time for feasting, whether it’s the traditional Christmas dinner that only makes sense in the wintry northern hemisphere at this time of year, or cherries, mango and prawns in our summer heat. Whatever our local traditions, eating together is a sign of friendship. The word ‘companion’, like the French copain, has at its root the word pain, bread, so companions were originally the people we broke bread with. Friendship through food – an excellent idea, but occasionally it involves difficulties when there are serious cultural misunderstandings.

On 2 November 1838 Captain Laplace and the officers of the French exploration frigate Artémise were invited to a grand banquet in Canton [now Guangdong], by Minqua, a senior member of the Hong, or merchant organisation, that controlled trade in Canton. Minqua dealt in particular with French traders, but the invitations went out more widely, and the trader and diarist William Prinsep has given a memorable account of what must have been a memorable occasion:

‘We assembled at about 4 P.M. – a large party. There were seven square tables placed in a semicircle fronting an arcade of three arches at the windowed end of the hall. On the first side of each table hung a crimson drapery embroidered with gold in a dragon pattern. On each of the other sides were two of the party seated, the master of the feast in the centre. In the centre of each table stood a pyramidal kind of dumb waiter turning on a pivot & bearing on shelves down each side small porcelain cups vases & other vessels with the required condiments for a good dinner with a cup of soy at the apex.

‘I kept my eye upon Minqua the host to know how to make the most of the good things before me. For instance, the first thing handed round to each person was a cup with a porcelain spoon of birds’ nest soup. It was pure gluten without any flavour whatever. I noticed that he first put in a little soy, then a little sugar, salt & chilli pepper & some spice. The tables were being constantly turned to supply the condiment required.

‘Now there were 60 different things served to each person ending with the never omitted cup of rice, water & all in most elegant porcelain cups, saucers, bowls, little platters, perfectly clean & brought in on pretty lacquered trays & all like clock work and without any noise or confusion, and some idea may be formed of what the kitchen & pantry must have been like & how organised.

‘I must add that every now & then were carried round Porcelain kettles of hot samshee [Shaoxing] the sour medicine kind of wine of the country. It was poured into little cups with deep rims underneath acting as handle. When challenged you drank it standing & with both hands presented the empty face of the cup to the party you drank with to show you had swallowed all, and with a Chin Chin [ts’ing ts’ing] sat down again. The host kept the kettle going in the liveliest manner among the sailors, & I confess it was lucky that it [i.e. the wine] was hot otherwise it would have been too sour to be palatable.

‘My impression is that as all the dishes seemed to have been prepared with a kind of oil, this hot sour wine seemed to neutralize the effect of the greasiness; – I tasted (for there were too many to eat) of as many as I could for curiosity sake, & I found many of them very nice, especially delicate little legs & wings of poultry & game in a kind of fritter – delicate little bones doubtless of rabbits and puppies, perhaps of frogs or rats were so tinted as to look tempting, and please the taste.

‘Everything except the liquids had of course to be eat[en] with chopsticks, but I had learnt to handle them exactly – Not so an unfortunate officer of the frigate in full uniform sitting near to me whose white trousers bore unmistakable marks of his want of experience in lifting the greasy morceaux to his lips. He swore heartily at the best bits always escaping him.

‘Another man at my table lifted from his cup a thing prepared in sugar which created consternation all around “Mais Mon Dieu qu’est ce que c’est que ça?” [‘My God, what have we got here?’] exclaims the alarmed eater for there was no doubt of its being a preserved centipede. I thought this was carrying the joke against us too far, and I appealed to Dent who sat at the chief table. Up jumped Minqua himself who ran to our table to explain “But number one Good – number one!” meaning that nothing possibly could be better, but remarking nothing but disgust in each of our faces, he seized the chopsticks, balanced the sweet creature at least 4 inches in length & slowly swallowed it, patting his stomach with extreme satisfaction.

‘But the action had quite a different effect upon most of us. The Frenchman who had held it up & was nearest to the Mandarin was compelled to run to the open window when he poured forth his objections in a most undeniable manner – but he was not the only unfortunate at my table. The Doctor of the frigate turning to me to remark upon the peculiarity of the taste of the oil & in the cooking, and doubting what it could be, was quickly assured by me that I knew that which was much used was Castor oil which grew in all their gardens. He turned deadly pale declaring that all his life he had avoided this oil with a hatred never to be conquered. A minute after, his head was also out of the window with a piteous moan. The dinner was an uproarious one from the astonishment & laughter which these many little incidents caused.

‘While dinner was going on, there were jugglers & dancers of a mild kind alternatively exhibiting their performances in the vacant space of the hall between the tables & the three alcoves. When the coup de grace, alas, the rice water had gone round, Minqua rose with his guests & stretched themselves in this same vacant place calling for his pipe & inviting others to smoke. I remarked a peculiarity about his pipe which had a largish bowl of silver in which a servant placed some loose shreds of tobacco which on the light being applied to it was commenced with one long inhale. A quantity of fine scented smoke seemed to come out of the Mandarin’s mouth, nostrils, ears & eyes so completely was he surrounded with smoke.

‘It seemed quite to satisfy him for he handed his pipe to his servant & clapped his hands as the signal for us all to take our seats again, which we had no sooner done than enter the whole cortege of servants & the entire 60 dishes had to be handed round again. The Chinese Gentlemen began again seriously, but it was too much for the Europeans, and Minqua finding that no one partook of the dishes, clapped his hands again & in came 3 tables ornamented with embroidered draperies like our own. One was placed in each alcove & there followed immediately 3 large dishes carried by 2 men each in uniforms. Then entered a cook to each dish in a splendid costume armed with large knives & forks with which they at once attacked the three large joints of Beef, Mutton and Pork.

‘The sailors at one table exclaimed with an oath that now they saw something like a dinner & turned to with much vigour to satisfy appetites which had not been appeased by the many little entremets. But there were many like myself who after so many tastings were quite unable to partake of these grands pieces de resistance which were cooked to perfection.

‘In time however there was an end to this as well as to wine drinking – the evening had drawn on to dark. The whole side of the chamber behind us seemed to open by the removal of shutters & screens & we looked into a Court in the middle of which was exhibited a whole course of miniature fireworks of the most elegant kind, of many colours & contrivances quite Chinese which is as much as to say totally different from anything we had ever seen before.

‘The party broke up at their termination & we were saluted at the door by the most effective feu de joie it was possible to conceive. Conceive the whole Prussian army firing with exact precision one after the other, but this could only be accomplished by the Chinese method. At the door of the Hong two very high poles had been planted & to the very top of each had been hoisted a string of Chinese crackers which are small joints of Bamboo connected by a quick match & strung together by tens of thousands….

‘Every one suffered from the effects of the party and I never was so ill as I was all that night & next day.’

Chin chin, everyone. Enjoy the festive season – and keep clear of centipedes.

Reference: Memoir of William Prinsep, in Prinsep Papers, MSS Eur D1160/3, India Office Records. Transcribed from the original handwritten diary. I have adjusted the punctuation where needed for greater clarity.

Medieval Power at the Queensland Museum

The Queensland Museum has just opened a new exhibition on Medieval Power. It runs until 10 April 2016. As the museum trumpets in its promo, it will be ‘the first museum in the world and the only one in Australia and New Zealand to host this incredible new exhibition curated by the British Museum.’

So – is it incredible? I’m not so sure. The exhibition contains a great many wonderful pieces. Not surprisingly, given how far they have come from one side of the world to the other, most of them are small. That’s not in itself a problem, though it does mean that the exhibits need time – and in my case reading glasses – to absorb their detail properly.

Given the problems of transportation, it was generous of the British Museum to send some fragile items, such as embroidered cloth or leather. There’s a leather shoe dredged from the muddy Thames that looks as if it could have hidden in the back of my wardrobe until recently. The cuts along the toes are so fresh that I’m sure a leather worker could recreate the design without much difficulty.

The caption says it dated from 1400-1500, but was it dated on the basis of style or some sort of chemical analysis? Carbon dating or DNA analysis would have been impossible with all that mud. I wanted to know more about that shoe, but there’s no catalogue to satisfy my curiosity – and what does it have to do with Power, the alleged theme of the exhibition?

In this exhibition, Power covers the authority of the church (papal rings, objects of devotion), the state (numerous seals, the Lewis chess set king) and the military force of the knights behind that (helmets, horse gear). Beyond that, there’s a miscellany of the stuff of ordinary life – knives and spoons, a saltcellar, items of adornment. I fell deeply in love with a small bone pin with the head and horn of a unicorn.

Unicorn pin from Medieval Power exhibition

Unicorn pin from British Museum, Museum no 1932,0307.5

There’s also a rudimentary attempt to illustrate towns and trade, and one of the final cabinets contains a number of seals and other objects associated Jewish or Muslim minorities.

The objects are lovely, intriguing, engaging. Most of the people around me seemed perfectly happy with what was on display, though none of their comments seemed to go much beyond the ‘Wow, isn’t that old!’ school of history. It is the school holidays, after all.

So why did I come away from this exhibition feeling vaguely frustrated, and regretting that I had splashed out on a season ticket?

For a start, there’s no catalogue. I’m not sure who curated this exhibition, but my guess is that most of the decisions about selection were made in London, not Brisbane, especially as the exhibition is going on to other places after this. So why is there no catalogue to cover the entire tour? A search of ‘unicorn pin’ on the British Museum’s Collection online was easy – but I’ve got Buckley’s chance of finding the shoe. Similarly, there’s a nice quiet place within the exhibition where a lot of interesting books are laid out to read – but none of them are available at the bookshop.

According to the British Museum website, this travelling exhibition is called Medieval Europe: AD 400-1500 but somewhere between London and Brisbane, the title changed to Medieval Power: Symbols and Splendour. My hunch is that some publicist thought this title would appeal more to the Game of Thrones generation, but it’s a pity, because in the conversion, the chronology – and therefore causation – have been lost. A thousand years of the ebb and flow of European history have been mashed together into a largely undifferentiated ‘Middle Ages’, sometimes within the same display cabinet.

There’s another problem with the theme of Power. It leaves women out of the discussion, even when the objects themselves do not. The King in the Lewis chess set is described in terms of his sword and throne, the symbols of his royal power. But there is no comparable discussion of the Queen who sits beside him, from another walrus ivory chess set.

Chess queen from British Museum

Walrus ivory Queen chess piece, German, 14C-15C British Museum no. 1856,0612.3

In the end, I was glad to have the season ticket because I went back at the end of the week, just to check if my original impressions were unfair. I don’t think they are, although on a second viewing the logic of the themes became a bit clearer. But I’m still disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – the exhibition is definitely worth a visit, maybe more than one, but go on a day that won’t be crowded so that you can take you your time over the smaller exhibits – and reading glasses. And don’t, like me, walk out expecting to pick up that fascinating book on medieval jewelry when you reach the bookshop. It won’t be there.

Update: Here is a very different report on the exhibition, this time from a physicist.

Changing Times on Norfolk Island

It’s crunch time for Norfolk Island. Next year the island will lose its independent status as a self-governing Australian territory, and there’s a lot of local anxiety about what comes next. I’ve recently come back from a week on Norfolk Island, a group-painting trip that was a lot of fun, and this was my first chance to see this beautiful speck in the South Pacific.

watercolour of a lone pine at Norfolk Island

‘Lone Pine, Norfolk Island’

Norfolk Island has a rich and strange history. It has been settled four times: once by Polynesians, twice by convicts and their guards, and once by the current inhabitants, who are descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

The Polynesians arrived about 1400, probably from the Kermadec Islands, perhaps following the migratory shearwaters (mutton birds) that used to fly due west from the Kermadecs to breed on Norfolk Island. Archaeologists have discovered obsidian tools at a dig site close to the convict ruins, but eventually the Polynesians left. Nobody knows why. They left behind banana trees and a vegetarian Polynesian ratRattus exulans.

Cook discovered and named Norfolk Island on his second voyage on Resolution in 1774. He managed to land briefly and reported on the pine trees and flax on the island. The French explorer La Perouse had less success. He sailed around the island in January 1788 in search of a safe landing spot, but eventually gave up and sailed away, commenting that the place was fit only for ‘angels and eagles’.

Only a few weeks later, in March 1788, a small group of marines and convicts from the First Fleet landed on Norfolk Island, partly to deter the French (since they knew that La Perouse was sniffing around) and partly because tall trees and flax were valuable resources for a maritime nation, always on the lookout for new sources of masts and canvas. Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, the pines that dominate Norfolk Island are less sturdy than they appear, snapping easily at a weak spot where the branches meet the trunk – so, no masts.

In the early years, the settlement around Kingston (named after the first commandant, Phillip Gidley King) supplied grain to the mainland. This settlement lasted until the mainland didn’t need Norfolk Island’s crops any more, and the residents were moved to New Norfolk in Tasmania. The last settlers left in 1813.

The second convict settlement began in 1825. Like the Moreton Bay settlement at Brisbane, which dates from the same period, this was a place to send convicts who had offended a second time. Like Brisbane, it was brutal. I went on a tour of the convict sites, and our guide described an archaeological dig done some time back, which took samples from one of the underground pits where recalcitrant convicts were confined as further punishment. According to him (and I have no verification, I’m afraid) chemical analysis of the walls and floor show a layer of blood, followed by a layer of whitewash, then more blood, more whitewash….

When convict transportation finally ended in 1852, this settlement was abandoned too, and the final residents transferred to Tasmania in 1856 [see Mr. Baskerville’s comment below].

Meanwhile, far to the east of Norfolk Island, in 1789 the Bounty mutineers, with a number of Tahitian men and women, settled on Pitcairn Island. One of their first acts was to burn the Bounty – allegedly so that it couldn’t be seen by anyone searching for the mutineers, but also making it impossible for any of the party to change their mind and try to leave.

The first years were brutal and bloody – Lord of the Flies, with added sex and racism – and by 1800, only two men survived of the original mutineers, John Adams and Ned Young, together with most of the Tahitian women. By then there were 19 mixed race children, carrying the names of Adams, Young and the other mutineers: Christian, Quintall, Nobbs, and so on.

Life settled down. The last mutineer, John Adams, died in 1829, and any fear of British retribution ended. The population grew, and the island – only 2 miles across – was unable to support them all. In 1856 they petitioned the British government to find them a new home.

Coincidentally, Norfolk Island had just been abandoned – so the British government offered them the island. Most of the Pitcairn Islanders moved to Norfolk Island, and they have been there ever since. They inherited the abandoned roads, mills and dams of the convict settlement, and drew lots for the houses. They reused some of the dressed stone, but most of the convict settlement remains intact.

The New South Wales Government gave each family 50 acres of land, but otherwise left them largely to themselves. The same names recur, in the graveyard, but also in the phone book – Quintall, Adams, Christian, Nobbs. After federation in 1901, Norfolk Island became an Australian territory, with its own stamps (as in Pitcairn, stamp collectors have been an invaluable source of revenue) but an Australian administrator and Australian currency.

In 1979 the Fraser Government gave Norfolk Island self-government, but at the end of 2015, that changes. The current Administrator of Norfolk Island, Gary Hardgrave, was a minister in the Howard Government who lost his seat in 2007. Tony Abbott appointed him with a brief to oversee the end of self-government and bring the island under Australian law.

At present, Norfolk Islanders pay no income tax, just a 12% GST, and the island is flat stony cold broke. There is no Medicare, no social security, and the infrastructure is decaying – the potholes in the roads need to be seen to be believed. And the population is falling, as children go to the mainland for further education and work.

Tourism is the only real source of income, but this is down as Australians travel further afield. Cruise tourism throughout the Pacific is up – but cruise ships face the same problem that faced La Perouse, and led to the wreck of the Sirius in 1790. Norfolk Island has no harbour, and no safe landing place for ocean-going ships. Supplies (or tourists) have to be transshipped into small lighters, which is slow and expensive and potentially dangerous in rough conditions.

Demonstration at Norfolk Island

Each hand is named, and represents an objector to the end of self-government on Norfolk Island.

Not surprisingly, the decision to end self-government is controversial. One local told me that some shops won’t serve the Hardgraves, and she had seen people smear the Administrator’s car with cow pats (cows have right of way on the roads). The locals have a history of mutiny, after all. Yet it is hard to see any alternative.

When self-government ends, Norfolk Island will have the status of a local government authority. The residents will pay Australian taxes, but get access to Australian welfare. They have been promised investment in infrastructure – perhaps even the longed for deep-water jetty that might transform their economy. Fixing the potholes would be a start.

With self-government, the role of the Administrator will change, but not disappear. The Administrator has often been a superannuated politician, and it is easy to see why someone might be pleased to take the gig.

Norfolk Island's Government House

Government House, Norfolk Island, first built 1829

Norfolk Island itself is quite achingly beautiful. It has a tight-knit community that is appealingly old fashioned, socially conservative, religious and royalist. The position of Administrator comes with a quite wonderful Government House, within a short walk of the beach at Emily Bay. The surf can be rough, but there’s good windsurfing nearby. The hills are steep, but a really dedicated cyclist would enjoy the challenge.

Update: As a friend points out, Norfolk Island got self-government in 1979 during the Fraser Government – Hawke didn’t come to power until 1983. Now corrected.
The Legislative Assembly has already been abolished (but not as yet Norfolk Island’s duty free status!). An elected Regional Council will be introduced in July 2016. More information available here.

See also Mr Baskerville’s comments below.

Coral Lansbury, the PM’s mother

I think I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, not least because he was born in October 1954, more than a year before she married his father in December 1955. These things don’t matter a damn any more, but they probably cut quite deep for both mother and son back in the 1950s.

Most Australians know the general outline of the story, now covered in more detail in Paddy Manning’s new book, Born to Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull was the only child of Bruce Turnbull and Coral Lansbury. He was sent to boarding school when he was 8, in 1963, and ‘soon after’ – as her Australian Dictionary of Biography article discreetly puts it – the marriage fell apart. Coral left her son behind, but took the furniture. Turnbull talked a little bit about his mother on Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet – an old program, repeated on ABC recently after the leadership spill. It’s available on iView until 23 December (in Australia only).

Image 6-12-2015 at 1.00 pm

From Trove Newspapers

From her teens, Coral  worked in radio as an actress and scriptwriter. She married 3 times. Her first marriage was to radio actor George Edwards, who played ‘Dad’ in the long-running radio series Dad and Dave. She was 23, while he was 64, and this was his fourth marriage. Two days after the wedding, Edwards was hospitalized with pneumonia, and died 6 months later in August 1953.

What interests me, though, is that Coral Lansbury was a historian. She was appointed a lecturer in History and Australian Studies at the University of New South Wales in 1963, and wrote articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including one on her first husband, actor George Edwards, one on the trade unionist William Guthrie Spence (with her supervisor, Bede Nairn) and – oddly – one on Charles Dickens.

It is now more than 50 years since the original Australian Dictionary of Biography was conceived, and at present discussions are going on to work out how – and how much – to update the project, just as in the UK the original Dictionary of National Biography has been updated to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web publishing makes such an update possible, though it is still a massive undertaking. It also requires policy decisions about who does or does not get included. These days I don’t think Charles Dickens would get the cut, although the ADB has included other British figures who never came to Australia, mostly politicians and bureaucrats who had a more obvious influence on the Australian colonies.

In 1970, Coral Lansbury published Arcady in Australia: the evocation of Australia in nineteenth-century English literature (1970), in which she argued that Charles Dickens

invented the Australian Bush Legend. In 1850 he was concerned, like most English people, with a great problem: what to do with all those distressed and unemployed, the rising mob in England. Well, you know what Dickens did. He sent Micawber off to Australia, and there you have him perspiring in the sun. The most unemployable character in literature becomes a magistrate… And the Arcadian legend is born not in Australia but (because) a great many English people… wanted to impose it on Australia.
‘Mum of ‘Spycatcher’ lawyer has regrets’, Canberra Times, 23 October 1988

Coral Lansbury’s academic career followed a strange trajectory, even by the standards of clever women of her day, struggling to carve out a place in the university system during the 1950s and 1960s. She went to the University of Sydney and did a BA with first class honours, but according to her ADB entry, ‘as an unmatriculated student, she was ineligible to graduate’. Why? How could that happen? She won prizes – the George Arnold Wood prize for history, and the Henry Lawson prize for poetry – but it took 11 years from starting an MA in 1952 to appointment as a lecturer at UNSW in 1963, the year that her son Malcolm was sent off to boarding school at the age of 8.

At about that time, her second marriage began to fall apart. She began an affair with a fellow historian, J. H. M. (Jock) Salmon, and they married when both their divorces were finalized. They moved first to the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and then to America, where Coral was appointed Professor and later Dean of Graduate Studies at Rutgers University. Her later academic publications include The Reasonable Man: Trollope’s Legal Fiction (1981), and Elizabeth Gaskell (1984). She also wrote a number of novels. She might have had an even more stellar career, but in 1991 she died of bowel cancer, aged 62.

Two years ago, the Australian Dictionary of Biography produced The ADB’s Story (ed. Melanie Nolan and Christine Fernon) to mark the 50th anniversary of the ADB project. Melanie Nolan also wrote the ADB entry on Coral Lansbury, which may be why Malcolm Turnbull, then Minister for Communications, was invited to launch the book. The full speech is here – but this is how he began:

Can I say at the outset how incredibly moved I was – I nearly burst into tears at the end of this room when I came here – because you were kind enough to mention my Mother was a contributor, not a high-volume contributor, but a contributor to the ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography). But I was extraordinarily moved talking to you three and to others here, because I was for the first time I can remember, since my Mother’s death, in the company of historians. And I had forgotten what that felt like. And it is actually very different. And I can’t quite put my finger on it but I was nearly overwhelmed by a wave of emotion. So don’t think I’m just a flinty-hearted politician!

Some months ago, Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old archaeologist, was tortured and killed in Palmyra by ISIS thugs. Referring to this terrible event, Tony Abbott called al-Asaad an antiquarian. Now ISIS’s crime was so horrific that it seems churlish to mention in the same breath our former PM’s minor linguistic crime, but I must admit that it is a relief to have a new Prime Minister who knows the difference between an antiquarian and an archaeologist, and one who has expressed publicly his fondness for the company of historians.

Note: The original typescripts of Coral Lansbury’s radio plays are part of the Eunice Hanger Collection of Australian Playscripts in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.