Getting to Hungary

In July 2013 I went on a river cruise along the lower Danube, from the river port of Giurglu in Romania to Budapest in Hungary. It was a fascinating trip through the Balkans only a few years after the conflicts there had finally ended.

Vukovar water tower

Vukovar water tower, destroyed in 1991, kept as a symbol of the siege today.

One day our boat stopped at Vukovar, the Croatian river port that was under siege by the Serbian remnants of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) for 87 days in 1991, at the beginning of the Balkan War. Parts of the town remain a pockmarked ruin of bullet holes, but everyone was flying flags that day, just 2 weeks after Croatia joined the European Union.

From Vukovar we took a bus 15 kilometres to Osijek. This town was Roman, Hungarian and Turkish, before it was rebuilt as a Habsburg garrison town in the late 17th century, with Vauban-style walls and bastions designed to withstand cannon fire.

Siege of Vienna by Ottoman forces

Siege of Vienna by Ottoman Forces, 16C. Note the cannon. From Wikipedia Commons

Travelling up the Danube River, I was constantly reminded that this was the route that Suleiman the Magnificent took when his forces laid siege to Vienna in 1529. Vienna didn’t fall, and the siege was lifted in time for the Ottoman Turks to retreat back down the Danube as winter set in, although they left most of their cannon behind in the muddy river flats. The Turks tried to seize Vienna again in 1683, after which the frontier between Catholic and Muslim Europe stabilized, with garrison towns like Osijek marking the border.

A large Catholic monastery (with a population, these days, of 4 monks) is a reminder that this marked a cultural and religious border as well, between Catholic and Orthodox Christians these days, but once also between Christians and Muslims.

In fact this river valley between the Balkan and Carpathian Mountains has been a highway for armies for millennia. The Romans under Trajan marched east along the Danube to conquer Dacia. The Crusaders marched this way too. So too did ideas, art, language and religion, making the Balkans a mass of frontiers where many fault lines converge.

A river cruise must be about the most luxurious form of soft tourism, and I know I am very fortunate I can travel this way. I have the money, the time, and above all, the passport and return air ticket, that give me the privilege of easy entry into the Schengen states of Europe.

This became clear one early morning. I’m an early riser, unlike most people on holiday, so I was sitting in the lounge drinking tea and writing emails around 6am, when an unexpected announcement came over the PA system. Everybody, but everybody, was ordered to the lounge, because the Hungarian immigration authorities insisted that they needed to check every individual against the photo in their passport. Until then, our passports were kept at the desk so that we were not inconvenienced as the boat sailed upstream – from Romania – to Bulgaria – to Serbia – to Croatia. Hungary, though, was different.

A sleepy, shambling crowd of over-indulged tourists, we queued for our passports. I was lucky to be showered and dressed. Most people were in dressing gowns or tracksuits, with wet or bed-head hair, many showing the after effects of too much good food and wine the night before.

The authorities checked us all against our photos and gave us back our passports. Now we had reached Hungary, the eastern edge of the Schengen states, we would not need our passports for the rest of the journey, not even those staying on the ship as far as Amsterdam.

Later, at breakfast – strawberries, smoked salmon and bagel (and if I had wanted it, freshly squeezed orange juice and champagne) – someone told me the whole affair was just for show, to give an illusion of fairness, a veneer of equity covering the hard reality of our privileged status. Other immigration officers would be checking for stowaways below decks, checking for ring-ins amongst the crew and the innumerable workers who changed our sheets, cooked our meals, and scrubbed our bathrooms.

What struck me at the time was the name of the port where the Hungarian authorities came aboard to check our papers – Mohács. In 1526, the Ottoman Turks won the Battle of Mohács. It was the watershed moment in European history, marking the most westward extent of Muslim penetration into central Europe. The Hungarian king Louis was killed on the battlefield. Most of Hungary was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, leaving Louis’s son-in-law, the Habsburg Emperor’s younger brother Ferdinand, to become king of a much-diminished Hungarian monarchy. The Ottoman-Hungarian border shifted again in 1687, when a second battle of Mohács resulted in the defeat of the Sultan’s army by the Habsburgs. This nondescript little river port was twice a pivot in world events.

What strikes me now, though, seeing the photos, watching the footage, of desperate refugees trying to make their way into Europe through Hungary, is that in the long term, national borders are fragile, impermanent things. Cultural and linguistic frontiers shift too, even more slowly, but geography is permanent. The lower Danube has always funneled the movement of people between Central Europe and the Black Sea – and beyond that, the Fertile Crescent. This is the route, after all, along which Neolithic farmers first brought wheat into Europe.

Only the exceptionally privileged do the journey by river these days.

Sausages at the Shrine of Remembrance

Last week I went to the book launch of Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45, a fascinating study of same sex relations between men during the Second World War, in Australia and the Pacific.

Much of the book is based in Brisbane, which for a brief time between 1942 and 1945, played a central role in the Pacific war effort. A million American servicemen passed through my hometown during these years. They were, according to the catchphrase, ‘Over paid, oversexed, and over here’ – and for some of them, as well as for the Australian servicemen and civilians they met, the turbulence of war brought with it new opportunities for sexual expression – and opportunities for new forms of sexual expression.

cover of Yorick Small Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific

Some of the people Smaal writes about were openly homosexual – or as open as it was possible to be at a time when such activity was illegal. Others were experimenting surreptitiously with homosex (Smaal’s preferred term) as a passing phase that they barely acknowledged to themselves.

Smaal is particularly interested in the geography of sexual encounters, so I found it fascinating to see my city laid out in a new way. My first memories of Brisbane date from the 1950s but my family’s stories go back to wartime experiences. My father used to tell the tale of seeing a man cooking sausages over the Flame in the Shrine of Remembrance in Anzac Square. When Dad questioned him, the man said he was an ex-serviceman, which seemed to be an adequate justification for his transgression. I wonder, though, if Dad realized at the time that this place was a gay beat?

At school, we were told not to wait for buses in the city at the covered bus stop in William St – another pick up point. And my mother’s dark but obscure references to the Pink Elephant Café make more sense now – the proprietor of the café was Frank Mitchell, a close associate of the artist Donald Friend, whose painting of naked men showering is on the cover of Smaal’s book. Mum visited the café as a teenager, all the same, though whether she met ‘Lana Turner’, ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ and the other cross-dressing waiters, she has never divulged.

By the standards of the day, I think my family was pretty relaxed about same sex relationships. My grandparents had a self-contained flat attached to their old Queenslander, which they rented out to a series of ‘confirmed bachelors’. One of them was the distinguished poet Val Vallis. My grandmother got on famously with them, and many of them came to her funeral.

Smaal’s research for this book is remarkable. Sodomy was illegal, so there are numerous court and police records – both civilian and military, Australian and American – and he has made good use of these. Many consensual encounters never reached the courts, though, especially if the participants were discreet and could conduct their encounters in privacy, though this was not always easy in a military setting. Smaal has interviewed a few remaining survivors of this era, and has used earlier interviews from the 1980s onwards. There are also memoirs and diaries. Faces are pixellated and pseudonyms are used where an unexpected revelation could cause someone embarrassment.

Sources on sex are always hard to come by, and so are sources on illegal activities, so Smaal is working under a double disadvantage, but one of the characteristics of military organizations is that they are vast bureaucratic regimes with a capacity for generating endless paperwork – the raw material of historians.

Both the Australian and the American armies worried about homosexuality within their ranks, and its implications for the civilian community. These concerns were less moralistic than practical: as with women in the army today, the top brass worried that consensual same sex relationships might change the group dynamics of the fighting unit. They worried about non-consensual sex, or sex with young boys (though since all homosex was illegal, no legal age of consent existed). They worried about venereal disease.

Smaal looks beyond Brisbane to other places across the South Pacific where soldiers met and mingled – and encountered other races and cultures, with different attitudes towards homosexual relations, looking particularly at the experiences of the Australians in New Guinea and the Americans in New Caledonia.

Studies of same sex relations can often be a rather cheerless read, partly because medical and criminal records invariably form an important part of the research on which they are based. What I like particularly about Smaal’s book is that his subjects are not constantly viewed in the dock, or under the microscope, but were frequently joyful participants of the world they inhabited, ‘a very social world. Australian girls and US belles made their own fun. Friends and lovers organized regular get-togethers and sing songs.’ [83] It sounds like the obverse of the nurses and marines in South Pacific, and no doubt it was fun – though the slightly hysterical fun that young men on a battlefront engage in, constantly aware of their own mortality in a war zone.

It was a world that operated below the radar. Though many of the men Smaal describes were good soldiers and brave men, they inhabited a world that was out of kilter with the dominant narrative of manly fighting men and the Anzac spirit. As Robert Aldrich said, when he launched the book last Thursday, the word ‘Anzac’ is even missing from the index – and how good is that.

Street Names and Naming Conventions

I’ve just got back from a research trip to Sydney. I don’t know greater Sydney terribly well, because when I visit, I spend most of my time in a library or the archives – or back in my hotel bedroom, filing notes or vegged out in front of old episodes of the Antiques Roadshow. This may not sound appealing to many people, but to me, a week in the Mitchell Library is sheer bliss.

This time I blew the budget and stayed on the edge of the CBD, so I could walk to and from the library every day. There’s great charm in walking through a city, getting a feel for the layout and the geography, a sense of what the place felt like before the Car. It is useful to pace out distances: how long did it take the New South Wales Corps to march from their barracks to Government House to overthrow Governor Bligh?

I stayed in a hotel at the Chinatown end of Kent St. This isn’t the Rocks, the original rookery attached to the working port around the Harbour, so eloquently described by Grace Karskens in her book The Rocks but the other end of the CBD, the more orderly development that gradually replaced the original shacks and houses of the early colony.

A symbol of that change is the Judge’s House in Kent St, the oldest house in the Sydney CBD, according to a plaque at the gate, and the second oldest building in Sydney, named after one of its first owners, Judge James Dowling. Though I’m not sure she ever lived there, the house reminded me of his wife Harriott, whose Memoir I read during the week.

Kent St is named after the Duke of Kent, and nearby are memories of the other reprobate Hanoverian brothers, Sussex, Clarence and York. My walk took me past the Judge’s House into Bathurst St, named for the long-standing Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Bathurst, then across George St. This was the original High St of Sydney, and it is still one of its main commercial hubs. Named – naturally – for the King. Then up the slope of Bathurst St, crossing (Prime Ministers) Pitt and Castlereagh into Elizabeth St.

With Elizabeth St, I finally reach a street named after someone who actually visited the country – Elizabeth Macquarie, the Governor’s wife. Then across Hyde Park and across to Macquarie St.

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Hyde Park Barracks

Macquarie St, to my mind, is one of the loveliest streets in Sydney, with its sober Georgians, the Hyde Park Barracks and St James Church facing each other across the street. Beyond the barracks is the old Rum Hospital, now Parliament House. A pause to rub the pig’s nose – which I’ve been doing religiously since I first worked at the State Library of New South Wales in the 1970s – and I’m at the entrance as the doors open at 9.

Il Porcellino, Sydney

Il Porcellino, Sydney, a copy of the Florentine original

People back home in Britain found it hilarious that New South Wales named so many of its streets, towns and geographical features after Tory politicians. Sydney Smith wrote, tongue in cheek, lamenting the lack of Whig equivalents:

We cannot help remarking here, the courtly appellations in which Geography delights – the River Hawkesbury; the Town of Windsor on its banks; Bathurst Plains; Nepean River. Shall we never hear of the Gulph of Tierney; Brougham Point; or the Straights of Mackintosh on the River Grey? (Edinburgh Review, 1819)

It was not to be, at least in Sydney. It all depends on the timing.

In Brisbane, where the streets were laid out in the 1840s, the political order was reversed. One of the few things most people know about Brisbane is that its CBD is laid out on a grid where ‘the boys’ – Edward, Albert, George, William – go in one direction while ‘the girls’ – Ann, Adelaide, Queen, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Mary, Alice – go in the other. They are all Royal names until you reach the edge of town, where a few geographical features – Creek, Wharf – get a look in.

On the south side of the river there is also a modified grid, though its features have been much broken up by later developments. There’s an imperial naming pattern at work here too, though not such an obvious one: the streets are named after Sir Robert Peel, Lord Melbourne, Lord John Russell and Lord Grey, all Prime Ministers, as well as Colonial Secretaries Barons Glenelg and Stanley, and Herman Merivale, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office. Further afield is Gladstone Rd.

Sydney Smith would be pleased. Most of these politicians and bureaucrats were Whigs, although party loyalties were shifting during the 1840s, and the old aristocratic term ‘Whig’ had been replaced by Liberal by the time that Mr. Gladstone became Prime Minister.

The former Premier Peter Beattie once lamented that the name ‘Grey St’ was so bland and boring. In fact Earl Grey was not particularly boring, so it’s a shame that he is best known today for the tea that bears his name. It would be nice if, one day, all these street names carried brief biographies of the people – okay, men – that gave them their names. Otherwise a layer of history disappears into anonymity.

Ref: Sydney Smith’s quotation appears in Anne-Maree Whitaker, Joseph Foveaux: Power and Patronage in Early New South Wales (2000)

Copyright takes the Cake

Copyright is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma to me – and yet I know I should try to understand it, because for any historian, access to sources – documents, pictures, other media generally – forms the basis of what we do.

I struggle constantly with the issue of copyright in my blog, since there is a question over any picture I pull from the web to put in a post. My personal compromise is to link the picture back to its original source on the web. That means – where I can – finding the library or art gallery it comes from, rather than just somebody else’s blog post. I’m not sure if this is an adequate safeguard, but since my blog only reaches a few hundred people, and makes no money, there’s probably no harm done. In a book, though, it’s not possible to salve a guilty conscience with a hyperlink.

Any author knows the nightmare of tracking down copyright owners to get their permission to publish images, or permission to use documents which are not in the public domain.

Many years ago, a friend of mine wrote a thesis on the history of a union. Both the friend and the union had better remain unnamed. He had the full cooperation of the union executive throughout his research – until shortly before he was due to submit his PhD, the executive of the union changed, and withdrew its permission. He spent a thoroughly miserable few months removing great chunks of quotations from his work. It was still a good thesis, but a shadow of its former self – as, indeed, was he for a while there.

The problem is worst with manuscripts, where copyright lasts forever. Now that digitization of printed sources has transformed so much research – Trove, I love you – libraries want to move on to digitize manuscript materials as well. There are already some wonderful digitized collections, often cooperative efforts such as the Darwin Correspondence Project and the Papers of Sir Joseph Banks, others more modest such as the University of Otago’s Samuel Marsden Online Archive. The Mitchell Library has just embarked on a project to digitize the Macarthur Papers.

googled images of handwritten recipes

I Googled ‘handwritten recipes’, planning to pull something suitable from the web – but then decided the whole page looks so pretty, I took a screenshot instead. This, I think, makes ME the copyright owner. The system’s crazy.

But the basic issue of manuscript copyright is holding others back. Under current legislation, even old recipe books are copyright. FAIR (Freedom of Access to Information and Resources) has come up with a unique way to lobby for a change to copyright law. Next Friday, 31 July, is Copyright Day. Anyone concerned about copyright laws is encouraged to find a recipe, cook it, and post a photo of the dish and the manuscript recipe it is based on with the hashtag #cookingforcopyright on Twitter or on FaceBook here

Unfortunately most of my grandmother’s recipes are for cakes and puddings. This may be an unhealthy weekend coming up.

Christmas in July?

Colonists in 19th century Australia always found it difficult celebrating Christmas at midsummer. The strangeness of coping with the Christmas festivities in hot weather is a common theme in their letters home.

Today, most Australians have adjusted. Christmas food is usually cold and relies on such seasonal specialties as prawns and mangos. But that leaves a gap that gets filled, often enough, with ‘Christmas in July’ celebrations – an excuse to turn on the oven, cook a turkey, and binge on mince pies and Christmas puddings. It is now a binge that has totally broken its links with either the Christian religious festival or the winter solstice festivals of pre-Christian Europe.

advert for Christmas in July

For the colonists, though, Christmas still had important religious significance, but it was also a way of keeping in touch with the rituals they had left behind, so they grimly celebrated the feast day, cooking and eating the heavy roasts and puddings they remembered from their British childhoods.

James Macarthur, watercolour on ivory, c.1820

James Macarthur, watercolour on ivory, c.1820

I was intrigued, then, to discover an early colonist thinking about moving Christmas to mid-winter as far back as 1827. James Macarthur, son of the more famous John, visited the Australian Agricultural Company’s headquarters at Port Stephens in December 1827. The place was still very primitive, with most people living in bark huts or tents, but understandably the new settlers made a big deal of Christmas Day. In his journal of the visit, James recorded:

We dined today on the Verandah where we kept up the good old customs of our ancestors, by being very merry & by eating plentifully of roast Beef & plum pudding – notwithstanding the difference in temperature between mid winter in England & mid summer in Australia a trifling variation of some sixty degrees of Fahrenheit….

A Corroboree of the Natives close to the Verandah finished the amusements of the day.

James had lived in England as a boy, but he was Australian born, so perhaps that is why he considered the possibility of moving Christmas to mid-winter:

I have always thought it would be a publick benefit (if practicable without heterodoxy) to change the eating and drinking part of this festival to a more temperate season of the year – At present too the Xmas holidays happen just at the Farmers’ busiest moment in the midst of harvest wool packing &c – Nothing can be more ill timed – In the month of June there is no operation of importance going forward & besides John Bull might then indulge as freely as at home without endangering his health.

I suspect that James was more concerned with getting greater profit from the workers than with endangering their health, but it is true that in the northern hemisphere, Christmas came at the slowest point of the agricultural year. In the southern hemisphere, there was more to do in December.

James was only musing to himself about the possibility of making the change – but farmers did once petition the South Australian government to change the Christmas holiday to April, so that their children could help bring in the harvest.

Reference: Journal kept by James Macarthur of a visit to Port Stephens, December 1827, in Australian Agricultural Company (London Office), General Despatches, 78/1/6, in Noel Butlin Archives, ANU.

Intimate Nuggets

In December 1829 Sir Edward Parry arrived in Sydney to become the new manager of the Australian Agricultural Company, formed 5 years earlier. Sir Edward was a distinguished Arctic explorer, recently knighted for his efforts. His wife Isabella was the daughter of John Stanley, first Baron Stanley of Alderley. Naturally, when they arrived in Sydney, they stayed at Government House with Governor Darling and his wife, Eliza.

Parry soon left for the AAC headquarters at Port Stephens, but Isabella was heavily pregnant and stayed on with Sir Ralph and Eliza Darling. Eight days later, on 14 January 1830, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Estimating the time of arrival of babies was not – is not – an exact science, but these babies were probably very premature.

Eliza Darling had had a baby – her fifth – in July 1829, so now she came to the rescue, as Isabella reported to Edward:

The boy is smallest and has required great care…and indeed we owe its life, under Providence, to Mrs Darling suckling him herself for two days and nights, tho’ herself in bad health. I cannot express to you the affectionate attention we had received from these dear people.

I love discovering intimate nuggets like this! They raise such interesting questions.

How common were wet nurses in New South Wales? The colony was still disproportionately male, so the needs of women and their babies were not to the forefront. No doubt Isabella could have found a suitable convict woman in the Female Factory, but not necessarily at a moment’s notice, and the situation sounds urgent.

Eliza Darling

Eliza Darling and two of her children (1825) National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2256803

How unusual was it for a lady – the Governor’s wife, no less – to suckle a friend’s or a stranger’s baby? Eliza Darling has the reputation of being deeply religious, which may be a factor. If so, perhaps she would have been pleased to know that the boy she suckled survived to eventually become Suffragan Bishop of Dover.

Reference: This anecdote appears, virtually without comment, in Brian H. Fletcher, Ralph Darling: A Governor Maligned (Melbourne, 1984), p. 161.

Note: Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been silent for a couple of months. Apologies, it’s a long story.

In May I went overseas on holiday. Groggy with jetlag, on Day 2 I lost my iPad, together with my password. Note to WordPress: that clever security idea of sending a reference number to a mobile phone doesn’t work when the recipient is in Portugal with a different SIM card.

I came back in June to a series of domestic crises, followed by whatever this season’s viral illness is called. This has put a lot of deadlines in doubt. Normal transmission will be resumed shortly.

Fund managers aren’t really my kind of people

Five years ago, I was invited to Newcastle, north of Sydney, to give a presentation on the history of coal mining in Australia to a group of fund managers. This is not my normal type of gig, but I once wrote a chapter on the topic as part of an interdisciplinary study of the coal industry in Australia. Australia’s coal industry first began in Newcastle, and it still depends on mining.

Early Newcastle coal mine

Robert Westmacott, Newcastle, the coal mines of N.S.W. (1832), from National Library of Australia

It was a brief insight into how the other half (or, more likely, the top 10 percent) live. These fund managers were mainly American, and they had just come through the global financial crisis.

These men had been badly burnt – but only metaphorically. Thumbs permanently attached to their Blackberries and groggy with jet lag, they were there to be schmoozed within an inch of their lives. Over the course of a long weekend, they moved from business breakfasts to a visit to port facilities to more presentations and a visit to a mine, interspersed with dinners at the ritziest restaurants Newcastle has to offer. It was all washed down with the best Hunter wines.

At a waterfront seafood restaurant, I ordered salt and pepper squid from the 3 entrees on our special custom menu. This dish can often taste like greasy rubber bands, but here I expected it to be absolutely delicious, and it was. This was some compensation for a boring night, since none of the men (they were virtually all men) around me felt the least need to talk to me. In their normal lives, they probably outsourced small talk to their wives anyway.

Through either luck or good management (your call will depend on your political allegiance) Australia came through the global financial crisis of 2007-9 relatively unscathed, which is why, not doubt, we cheerfully abbreviate it to the GFC. We did much better than America, so these fund managers were surprised by the strength of the Australian economy, the low unemployment, and the fact that Newcastle’s coal industry was touting for their business, promising profits well above what they could make at home. Two countries, on different phases of the investment cycle.

I flew home next day, so I don’t know what happened to these optimistic plans. Five years later, the American economy is recovering but in Australia, coal and iron ore prices are cactus. Green shoots are very thin on the ground – especially in Newcastle, where the boom turned out to have a rotten core of political corruption too, and the uncontrolled growth of coalmines has killed much of the greenery anyway.

Business cycles, by their nature, go up and down, and money managers have a poor reputation for dodgy predictions and self-serving boosterism, if not necessarily for corruption. Sitting opposite me that night in Newcastle was a fund manager from Goldman Sachs. Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone had only recently, memorably, described Goldman Sachs thus:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

The image of the vampire squid went viral, and I confess that it was a comfort to me to think of this as I sat there ignored, out of place surrounded by young men in suits twiddling under the table with their Blackberries.

I was ignored until my meal arrived. I had been surprised by how few people ordered the salt and pepper squid. Clearly, when they saw my dish, some of my neighbours regretted not doing so – but it was ‘Mr Goldman Sachs’ who said, with amazement: ‘But it’s calamari!’ It turns out he didn’t even know what squid was. Two nations, divided by a single language.