Monthly Archives: May 2011

Old Fritz and his dogs

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, lies buried beside his dogs in a small plot outside his palace at Potsdam, near Berlin.  Frederick was homosexual.  Although married as a matter of state policy, he lived apart from his wife, and had no direct descendants.  It seems rather touching that he asked to be buried with his closest companions, his dogs.  He was also a religious sceptic.

I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as such, without circumstance, without solemn pomp, without splendour. I want to be neither opened nor embalmed. Bury me in Sanssouci at the level of the terraces in a tomb which I have had prepared for myself…

Frederick II of Prussia - at Sans Souci, Potsdam

Flowers mark his grave – and potatoes, to celebrate the fact that he introduced potatoes to Prussia.  The dogs’ small graves are weathered and unadorned, except with their names and the dates of their deaths, but their little plot is close to the palace, and overlooks the glorious gardens of the palace of Sans Souci.

We have just lost our much-loved dog, Toby, who died suddenly last Thursday night.  Toby was a standard poodle, a very old German breed – ‘pudel’ comes from the same German word as ‘puddle’ – and I can attest that poodles love water, the muddier the better.

Poodles have been around at least since the 17th century.  This cartoon from the English Civil War alludes to their distinctive coat, worn long like a Cavalier’s hair, unlike ‘Peper’, the shorthaired Roundhead dog.  In fact poodles (and sheep) share with us an odd genetic anomaly: our hair doesn’t fall out, and we need to be shorn regularly.  In 8 years of cohabitation, Toby and I both had regular haircuts; adjusted for the Consumer Price Index, his always cost exactly twice as much as mine.

This means that poodles were always high maintenance dogs, especially before mechanized clippers existed.  King Charles’s General in the Civil War, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, kept a famous poodle, Boye, who was killed in the battle of Marston Moor in 1644.  Frederick, on the other hand, favoured greyhounds, another ancient and aristocratic breed.

Frederick’s plan to be buried with his dogs didn’t go smoothly.  After his death in 1786, his nephew Frederick William II inherited the throne.  He ignored his uncle’s wishes, and had him buried according to Christian rites in the Potsdam garrison church beside his father (even though father and son hated each other).  There he lay until 1943, when German soldiers took the two bodies to an underground bunker, then to a salt mine in Thuringia.  American soldiers carried them off in 1945, and they spent some time in Marburg church.  Then in 1952 they were transferred to Hohenzollern Castle, the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollern family.

Finally, following the reunification of Germany, on 17 August 1991, the 205 anniversary of his death, ‘Old Fritz’ was reburied at Sans Souci palace.  The ceremony caused some uneasiness amongst those who saw this as a sign of the revival of Prussian militarism.  20 years later, it seems only right that Frederick should return to the grounds of Sans Souci, where his dogs have been waiting all this time.  Look closely, and you can see that the dogs’ gravestones are more weathered than those of their master.

Sans Souci, Potsdam - Frederick II of Prussia's dogs

The Tomb of Frederick the Great

Candle in the wind

I’m not really into eBay, but some of my nearest and dearest are, so I’ve picked up enough to know roughly how the system works.  You offer something for sale, post a description, and wait for the bids to come in.  Bidding continues for a certain time, and when the time is up, the last bid clinches the auction.

So I was struck the other day to come across a reference to 17th century candle auctions, which operated on much the same principles as eBay.  Samuel Pepys worked for the Admiralty, and he knew what was going on amongst the shipping merchants in London.  On 6 November 1660 he describes the sale of two ships at the Navy Office ‘by an inch of candle (the first time that I ever saw any of this kind)’.

In the candle auction, bidding took place while a candle burned: either a candle stub one inch in length which burned itself out, or a candle with an inch marked on it with a pin or nail, which fell out when it reached the inch mark.

Just like on eBay, Pepys ‘observed how they do invite one another, and at last how they all do cry, and we have much to do to tell who did cry last.’  It’s a bit easier with computers, especially with the various ‘sniper’ programs that allow bidders to time their bids to the last few seconds of an eBay auction.

But even in Pepys’ day, there were canny snipers who knew how to time their final bid.  On 3 September 1662, he attended another auction of ships at the Navy Office.

‘After dinner by water to the office, and there we met and sold the Weymouth, Successe, and Fellowship hulkes, where pleasant to see how backward men are at first to bid; and yet when the candle is going out, how they bawl and dispute afterwards who bid the most first. And here I observed one man cunninger than the rest that was sure to bid the last man, and to carry it; and inquiring the reason, he told me that just as the flame goes out the smoke descends, which is a thing I never observed before, and by that he do know the instant when to bid last, which is very pretty.’

My original source for this, Steve Roud, The English Year (2006) says that ‘candle auctions are slow and inefficient, and only useful for sales in which not more than a handful of large lots are on offer.  For a modern-day sale in which hundreds of lots are rattled through, candle auctions would be completely inadequate.’

How wrong he was.  Even as his book was going to print, eBay was developing a mechanism for selling hundreds of thousands of lots, big and small, using a timed system.  The world’s largest garage sale turns out to be a candle sale, with a few technical modifications.

 The Diary of Samuel Pepys – a highly recommended website

Her Dedication

It’s common practice for writers to thank their wives or husbands, parents or children, and occasionally dogs or cats, for the help they have given during the writing.  And it’s common practice for non-fiction writers to add that, while grateful for the help, any mistakes ‘are my own’.  Compared with these formulaic acknowledgements, the following is a doozy:

Who has not read, set forth in prefaces written by historians of the assisted sex, how much cause they have to be grateful.  There is hardly one of them, whether occupant of an endowed chair or graduate student, who does not possess a wife or sister or an aunt – some devoted woman, educated, intelligent, and unpaid – who will do hack work in his behalf.  She copies documents for him amid the frigid temperatures of the Public Record Office, she verifies his references, she compiles his index, she ameliorates his English.  With sincerest envy I regret that I have not the same reason for rendering graceful and grateful tributes.  Much more than is customary, therefore, I am personally guilty of the sins of omission and commission in this book.

This dedication appears opposite the opening chapter of International Rivalry in the Pacific Islands 1800-1875, by Jean Ingram Brookes, an important book about – well – what it says, really.  While most people have heard of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, the ‘Scramble for the Pacific’ is less widely known.  Jean Ingram Brookes’ book, published by University of California Press in 1941, was an important early contribution to the story.  It was cited by many later scholars and republished in 1972.  She died unmarried in 1988, aged 89.

As far as I know, she never published another book or scholarly article. But I just love her dedicatory paragraph.

The role of scholars’ wives has been in the news lately.  A new biography, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (2011), Mark McKenna highlights the role of Clark’s wife, Dymphna.  She was a scholar in her own right, an impressive linguist who went to Germany on a postgraduate scholarship, but gave it away when she married Manning in 1939.  No doubt Hitler was also partly to blame.

Dymphna’s role was very much the one that Jean Brookes describes: research assistant, editor, translator, sounding board, amateur psychologist, supplier of endless cups of tea and sympathy – and 6 children.  In his review of the book in The Monthly, John Hirst describes how ‘When he was travelling [Clark] would send her his usual maudlin letters; meanwhile, his companions would write to Dymphna, reporting that Clark was in excellent spirits.’

In her old age, Dymphna finally started to publish independently: she was 67 when she translated and edited the German writings of Eduard Hernsheim, South sea merchant (1983, with Peter Sack) and 78 when she translated and edited New Holland Journal (1994), by the Frenchman Baron Charles von Hugel.  She died in 2000.

Women’s work has often been subsumed in the work of their men.  Blind John Milton depended on his daughters to write down his words; William Wordsworth used his sister Dorothy as a sounding board.  But when does the role of helpmeet end, and that of independent creator begin?  Caroline Herschel discovered 8 comets – but is usually only seen as her brother William’s helper.  Elizabeth Gould painted most of the birds that were published under her husband John’s name.

Recently in Written by Mrs Bach (2011), Martin Jarvis, a musicologist, has raised the possibility that Anna Magdalena Bach wrote the six cello suites usually attributed to her husband Johann Sebastian.  She certainly worked as his copyist – as so many wives did.  By Jean Ingram Brookes’ day, they typed.

Jean’s complaint was less about the suppression of women’s individual creativity, and more about the unfairness of a system where men could rely on a support network, and women could not.  We all – men or women, gay or straight – could do with a wife like that, though in these more liberated days they are becoming thin on the ground, and a good thing too.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This poem by Lynn Peters sums up the situation brilliantly – while reminding us that daffodils belong to the species Narcissus.

Why Dorothy Wordsworth is not as famous as her Brother

“I wandered lonely as a…
They’re in the top drawer, William,
Under your socks –
I wandered lonely as a –
No not that drawer, the top one.
I wandered by myself –
Well wear the ones you can find.
No, don’t get overwrought my dear, I’m coming.

“I wandered lonely as a –
Lonely as a cloud when –
Soft-boiled egg, yes my dear,
As usual, three minutes –
As a cloud which floats –
Look, I said I’ll cook it,
Just hold on will you –
All right, I’m coming.

“One day I was out for a walk
When I saw this flock –
It can’t be too hard, it had three minutes.
Well put some butter in it. –
This host of golden daffodils
As I was out for a stroll one –
“Oh you fancy a stroll, do you?
Yes all right, William, I’m coming.

It’s on the peg. Under your hat.
I’ll bring my pad, shall I, in case
You want to jot something down?”

Pictures from Two Exhibitions

I visited the Queensland Art Gallery yesterday to see the latest exhibitions.  One, Art, Love and Life: Ethel Carrick and E Phillips Fox, covers the work of a husband and wife team, Emanuel Phillips Fox (1865-1915) and Ethel Carrick (1872-1952).  The other, Lloyd Rees: Life and Light, contains a selection from the pencil and pen drawings of the Brisbane-born artist, Lloyd Rees (1895-1988).  Both exhibitions are worth a visit; they make an interesting comparison to see them together.

The Carrick/Fox exhibition shows two artists who travelled widely and painted in many places.  There are very few gum trees!  Emanuel Fox was born in Melbourne to Jewish parents.  He trained briefly in Victoria, along with contemporaries who became painters of the Australian legend – Fred McCubbin, John Longstaff, Rupert Bunny and others – but in 1887, he headed for France.  Like other Australian artists, he visited the iconic spots – John Peter Russell‘s home at Belle Ile in Brittany, Monet’s home at Giverny – and some of the methods of the Impressionists rubbed off on him.  He also went to England and Spain, and there are bits of Whistler in his work, too.

He came back to Melbourne in 1892 and started the Melbourne School of Art.  The exhibition includes a wonderful painting he did of his women students working at their easels, but perhaps wisely, it doesn’t include the most familiar image he ever produced, ‘The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay’, commissioned in 1900 by the National Gallery of Victoria, which decorates a dozen school textbooks.  Even artists need to eat.

Ethel Carrick was English.  They married in 1905, and Emanuel died in 1915, so they only had a few years together.  They had no children, but spent their time painting together – the same scenes, the same models, the same props – living in Paris or travelling.  There are paintings from France, North Africa, Venice, India and Australia – and I suspect A beach scene at Manly was just as exotic when it was hung in Bordeaux, as their paintings from North Africa are to us.  It’s a good marketing strategy, to paint the exotic, and a canny way to fund your travel, but as a result, most of their work is world art, not Australian art – and none the worse for that.

While Carrick and Fox chose exotic locations for their paintings, Lloyd Rees did the opposite – at least on the evidence of this current exhibition of his drawings.  These are local, intimate images of the people and places around him, mostly in Brisbane.  Rees lived into his 90s, sketching almost to the end of his life, so his life and work spans nearly a century of Brisbane’s growth from country town to capital city.

He knew everyone in the local art scene: he was engaged to Daphne Mayo; he taught Vida Lahey; he was a member of the Half Dozen Group of artists, founded in Brisbane in 1940 and still going strong.

I had a memorable a-hah moment yesterday when I came across Lloyd Rees’s sketch of ‘George Eaton singing, c. 1922’.  George was my grandmother’s older brother.  I never knew him, but he was part of the Brisbane theatrical scene in the 1920s – so of course, Lloyd Rees would have known him, too.

Rees travelled to Europe too, just like Ethel Carrick and E Phillips Fox.  He first visited Europe in the 1920s, and went again during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but he seems to have lacked the restlessness of the earlier couple.  Perhaps by the 1950s, an artist could feel comfortable in his own skin in Australia, even one from such a regional backwater as Brisbane.

If you are reading this in Brisbane, Lloyd Rees: Life and Light, is on until 13 June 2011, free entry.

Art, Love and Life: Ethel Carrick and E Phillips Fox is on until 7 August 2011, $12.

I’m giving a talk at the gallery in conjunction with the Carrick/Fox exhibition on 26 June, 2.30pm.  The blurb says: ‘Historian Marion Diamond journeys through time to look at Australian colonial history in an international context, exploring some of the networks established across the world at the turn of the nineteenth century.’  As of this moment, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m going to say – but no doubt I’ll think of something.

Michael Hawker, Lloyd Rees: Early Brisbane Drawings, (2011)

Vida Lahey: Colour and Modernism

Secular Saints and Sinners

A service will take place at Westminster Abbey this Thursday, 12 May, to mark the birthday of Florence Nightingale.    The service features ‘the Procession of the Lamp’: student nurses from the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing bring her lamp down the central aisle, then pass it to the Dean who places it on the High Altar:

All say together:

May this lamp signify our sacred calling to serve the sick and injured, which was heard and answered by Florence Nightingale, passed on from generation to generation, and received with gladness and humility by us today.

The Dean says:

Jesus said, ‘Like the lamp, you must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.’

Nightingale’s lamp is treated as a sacred relic; her pet owl, Athena, is stuffed and on display at the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Last year, on the centenary of her death, one of the chapels in Westminster Abbey was dedicated to her, the only one not dedicated to a saint.  If Anglican England hadn’t abandoned saints centuries ago, it seems fairly likely that by now she would be a saint.  Not bad for a woman from a Unitarian family, whose faith, while strong, was decidedly unorthodox.

The trouble with saints is that they are often so deadly dull.  In fact, Nightingale’s life was much more interesting than the hagiography suggests.  She lived to be 90, and had an impressive post-Crimea career.  She studied statistics and invented an early form of pie diagrams.

She used a loyal coterie of important men to push through reforms, not just in nursing, but in public health generally.  (They in their turn no doubt used her celebrity to promote their own agendas).  In other ways she was old fashioned: she opposed women’s suffrage, and never accepted the germ theory of disease.

In 1860, St Thomas’s Hospital set up a nursing school to train nurses according to the Nightingale method.  These Nightingale Nurses then spread through Britain and the Empire, imposing their ideas of hygiene and order, uniform in their views, uniformed like secular nuns.  In 1868, a group of nurses led by Lucy Osburn arrived in Sydney to impose this new regime.

Florence Nightingale’s celebrity dated from 1855, when both The Times and the Illustrated London News, covering the Crimean War, began reporting on her work at the army hospital in Scutari.  It was an embarrassingly mismanaged war, so the nurses were a good news story amongst so many bad ones.  Florence was young and good looking, she had money and family connections, and she had a charming name.  Forget all those late Victorian Great Aunt Florences; in the 1850s her name was associated with a songbird and a great Renaissance city.

Bathsheba Ghost had none of these advantages, but half a world away in colonial Sydney, she managed to claw her way up the greasy pole to become a well paid, respectable figure as the Matron of the Sydney Infirmary, dying 2 years before Lucy Osburn and her nurses arrived to overhaul the old system.

We know very little about Bathsheba Ghost.  She doesn’t rate a mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, not even the ‘missing persons’ volume that made an effort to redress the balance of the original volumes, which neglected so many women.  Most of the records of the Sydney Infirmary from her years there have disappeared, but the historian Judith Godden has done a great job in putting what flesh she can on the basic skeleton of Bathsheba’s life.

In 1838, Bathsheba Ghost was tried at the Old Bailey for receiving stolen goods, and sentenced to 14 years transportation.  She was 29 years old, married to a jeweller and the mother of a 4 year old son.  She arrived in Sydney in March 1839, right at the end of the convict era.  She got her ticket of leave (which allowed her to work as a free woman) after 6 years of servitude, and a conditional pardon 2 years after that, in 1847.

She probably began work at the Infirmary at about that time, or even earlier, for in 1864 she was commended for her 20 years service.  In 1852 she was appointed Matron of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, on a salary of £80, plus board and lodgings, later rising to £100 in 1854 and finally £120.  When she died in 1866, after a long illness but still nominally in charge, she left the hospital £100 in her will.

Nobody remembers Bathsheba Ghost now.  She comes from a time before nursing was celebrated, and indeed, she was more housekeeper than nurse, managing the domestic staff, supervising the cleaning and bedding and meals.  Although Bathsheba was literate, her family was not, so no letters exist to show us her inner life.  Even her maiden name – Dominick, Doming, Dominie or Dominey – is uncertain, depending on what some official wrote down.  (Though I find it interesting that her brother’s name was Solomon.  A brother and sister called Solomon and Bathsheba sound rather like twins, or at least the children of unusually imaginative parents.)

Two years after Bathsheba’s death, the Nightingale nurses arrived in Sydney.  Lucy Osburn was appointed Matron at the Sydney Infirmary, but she called herself ‘Lady Superior’ rather than Matron because, she told Florence Nightingale:

There are matrons here who left their country for their country’s good. My predecessor Mrs Ghost was one they are not always sober often have difficulty in writing their names & like poor Mrs. Ghost though with a child or two up & down the country have no claim to the title of Mrs. Matron therefore signifies here a woman who could not get a situation as a servant.

Poor Mrs. Ghost.  Judith Godden makes it clear that there is no evidence that she drank or was promiscuous, she had a perfect right to call herself ‘Mrs’ – and her salary of £120 was not significantly less than the £150 that Lucy was paid.

A Service to Celebrate the Life of Florence Nightingale in the centennial year of her death, 2010

Judith Godden, ‘Bathsheba Ghost, Matron of the Sydney Infirmary 1852-66: a silenced life’, in Labour History, No. 87, November 2004

Judith Godden, Lucy Osburn, a lady displaced: Florence Nightingale’s envoy to Australia (2006)

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey – contains a brief account of ‘Bethsheba’ Ghost’s 1838 trial

Little Bags of Poison

The year was 1348, and terror haunted Europe.  An inexplicable, horrifying disease was spreading from city to city along the trade routes, killing as it went.  Within 4 years, perhaps a third of the population died, and nobody knew why.

In their fear, people looked for explanations – and scapegoats.  In Savoy, the authorities rounded up a number of Jews, men and women, and questioned them under torture.  One of them, Agimet of Geneva, had recently been to Venice to buy silk.  Before he left, according to his confession, he was approached by ‘a teacher of their law’, Rabbi Peyret, who gave him ‘a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather bag.’

‘Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there …. Of his own accord Agimet confessed further that after this had been done he left at once in order that he should not be captured by the citizens or others, and that he went personally to Calabria and Apulia and threw the above mentioned poison into many wells. …He confesses further that he put some of this poison into the public fountain of the city of Toulouse and in the wells that are near the [Mediterranean] sea. Asked if at the time that he scattered the venom and poisoned the wells, above mentioned, any people had died, he said that he did not know inasmuch as he had left everyone of the above mentioned places in a hurry. Asked if any of the Jews of those places were guilty in the above mentioned matter, he answered that he did not know.’

Today we know that bubonic plague is caused by a bacillus, Yersinia pestis, but in the 14th century, little bags of poison were as good an explanation for the spread of the Black Death.  Agimet’s confession, extracted under torture, suggests he was able to travel vast distances – from Geneva to Venice to Calabria to Toulouse and home again – in a few months, and showed a puzzling ignorance of the Torah that would be surprising for a practicing Jew, but not at all surprising for his Christian torturers.

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks revelations about information gathering at Guantanamo Bay, and some of the self-serving statements from the CIA about how they extracted information from a courier to Osama bin Laden’s safe house, we need to confront the issue of torture, and its long and inglorious history.

People have never lacked inventive ways of hurting their fellow human beings, but the motivations for doing so vary.  I’m not talking here about people who get their kicks from inflicting pain, though no doubt many sadists have gravitated to the work.  Nor am I talking about corporal punishment, or executing people in imaginatively cruel ways.  Roman crucifixion, the Chinese ‘death of a thousand cuts’, or hanging, drawing and quartering in England, were all horrible deaths, designed to serve as a warning to others, and to assert the power of the state over the quivering bodies of its subjects.

But official, judicial torture, as opposed to just hurting someone, was designed to make people confess, to recant their heretical beliefs, and/or to get information about co-conspirators.  The problem, as in the case of Agimet, was (and is) the quality of the information extracted in this way.

In the medieval and early modern period, both religious and civil authorities in Europe used torture.  There were rules, gradually elaborated.  Judges could only order torture when they already presumed the person was guilty, torture should be applied in stages, and a confession extracted under torture had to be subsequently confirmed afterwards.

Paulus Grillandus, a papal judge, presided over witchcraft trials during the 16th century.  He certainly believed in witches and wrote one of the standard accounts about them, but he was dubious about confessions extracted under torture.  In On the Question and Torture, he itemizes 5 degrees of torture:

‘now a mere threat, now a suspension on the rack for the space only of an Ave Maria or a Paternoster, now a graver suspension for the space of a Miserere, now for a period which might reach into hours, and, last degree of all, where the victim’s limbs, weighted down, were jerked and twisted till the agony was greater than the amputation of the hand….’

Galileo was shown the instruments of torture by the Inquisition, though there is debate about whether he was tortured to ‘the second degree’.

Many confessions, particularly of witchcraft, occurred without torture.  As any experienced policeman knows, false confessions are common, and fantasists reflect the context of their time.  So in the 17th century, people were more likely to fly to a witches’ sabbat in Germany, or see the devil in the woods of Massachusetts, than to see aliens in the Arizona desert.

The Salem witch trials of 1692 are particularly well documented.  Very little torture was involved, but they do show how accusations tend to proliferate: 1 accuses 2, who accuse 4, who accuse 8….  in a geometric progression.  The decisions of the Salem trials were overturned in 1711 and most of the survivors and relatives were compensated.  One of those who raised concerns at the time was the Boston cleric, Increase Mather.  ‘It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape,’ he wrote, ‘than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.’

Gravestone of one of the judges, Salem

Judicial torture went out of favour in the late 18th century, coincidentally (or not) at about the same time that people stopped believing in witches.  It was irrational, in a rational age, to reply on information extracted under torture, better ways of finding information were coming in with police forces, and people worried about the long term effects on the torturers themselves.

Torture went underground. The British used torture against the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s, and we now know – if we ever doubted it – that the Americans used torture at Guantanamo Bay.  Torture tends to surface in situations when the state is weak, and people are frightened or confused.  Then it is easy to identify that invisible terror with alien people, of an alien religion, travelling from place to place with little bags of poison.

Documents from the Salem witch trials are on line at

Cornell University Library Witchcraft Collection and Salem Witch Trials Documentary archive

Where were you when….?

On Monday, PM Julia Gillard gave a short press conference to respond to the news of the death of Osama bin Laden.  ‘We will remember where we were when we heard this news,’ she said.  It was an odd thing to say.

It’s true.  There are some moments that seem so overwhelming at the time that they remain sharply in the memory.  But the point about those moments is precisely that nobody needs to tell you to remember them – you just do.

I remember waking on the morning following Osama bin Laden’s greatest triumph, the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.  They took place late at night, Brisbane time, and divided us into the owls, who saw the footage live, and larks like me who only saw the replays.  I remember turning on the TV before breakfast to see the footage, and later the buzz in the tea room at work.

That afternoon, I was giving a guest lecture on Australian history to a group of visiting American marine biology students, and made a short, stilted speech expressing my sympathy.  We all did, something to recall now when so much of that global sympathy towards America has been dissipated by later events.

But there are other moments that remain sharp long after the event – and I wonder why.  In order, from my own lifetime:

The Suez Crisis, 1956.  I remember sitting in my school uniform in front of the radiogram, waiting to listen to The Argonauts.  And crying when I had to let my father listen to another station, ‘because there might be a war.’

President Kennedy’s assassination, 1963.  We’d just finished the Junior exams, and my friend and I [hello, Adele!] went to the pictures to see that year’s teen flick, Bye, Bye, Birdie.  As always then, there was a double bill, and the first feature was a travel documentary called Wonderful Dallas Texas.  (This still strikes me as very odd – could they have found some cartoons or something to replace it?)

Neil Armstrong on the moon, 1969.  My flat mate and I took the day off classes and offered open house to other students to come around to watch it all on TV.  The footage was slow and boring, but we all had a feeling that the event was momentous – and this is often cited as the first really global TV event.

End of the Whitlam government, 1975.  I was tutoring in Australian history, and spent that afternoon marking final essays in my office – with no phone, no mobile, no internet, and in an outlying building, I missed the drama completely.  Several hours later, I stepped out into the corridor to hear radios on in most offices, and gatherings of people talking.  (One of the essay topics dealt with the 1932 dismissal of Premier Jack Lang by the NSW Governor, which at least gave me a head start with constitutional arguments during the next few weeks.)

The Challenger disaster, 1986.  My husband was working in Fontainebleau, south of Paris, and we were living in an old, faded, freezing mansion that had been broken up for student housing.  There was a TV in the shared area, and we all – Chinese, Indians, Iranians and us – gathered to watch as the shuttle veered off course and spun out of control.

I’m wondering what, if anything, all these moments have in common.  The term ‘historic’ is used far too loosely today, but I suppose all these were historically significant moments.  None were mediated through the politicians (not even 1975).  All had a searing immediacy that most events lack.  All of them reached me through the mass media of the day – radio, cinema, TV.  Usually I can remember the weather, or the season, but dates – 11 November, 9/11 – are only memorable when they have been repeated endlessly since.

By the standards of these events, which are all a part of our wider experience of the history of the 20th century, I don’t think Osama bin Laden’s death (as opposed to his life) really rates.  But politicians have been trying to tell us what, when and how to remember for a very long time.  This is Henry V, mediated by Shakespeare, saying something rather similar:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day.

Okay – so when was St Crispin’s day?

Pineapple Chunks

So it’s all over.  Wills and Kate are safely hitched, and life gets back to normal.  It was nice of them to ask for a donation to charity as a wedding gift – $25,000 to the Royal Flying Doctors is sensible, economically rational in these sober days.  But it lacks the glorious wackiness of 500 tins of pineapple, which Queensland gave the happy couple, back when Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten in 1947.

In gloomy post-war Britain, perhaps tins of pineapple brought a little sunshine into their lives.  I hope it was in rings, not crushed.

But why pineapple?  It’s hard to believe now how prized tinned fruit was in the 1940s and 1950s, before frozen foods were common, and when fresh fruit was a strictly seasonal luxury.  Tropical fruits were particularly exotic.

Pineapple is a bromeliad, and a native of South America.  They first arrived in Europe with Columbus, and caused a sensation, as much for their decorative appearance as for their taste.  But bromeliads don’t like frost, and in northern Europe they would only grow under shelter.  John Claudius Loudon, in his Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822) explained how to grow pineapples in a pinery, warning that

‘The culture of pine-apples is attended with a heavier expense than that of any other fruit under glass; especially if they be grown in lofty stoves, the erection of which is very expensive.’

Charles II receiving the first pineapple in England, 1675. Hendrik Danckerts

So pineapples were a rare treat for the very rich.   I remember reading the reminiscences of one city gentleman who went to a City of London dinner in the 1840s, where a pineapple had pride of place amongst the table decorations.  When the meal ended, some of the (no doubt drunk) guests began souveniring these decorations.  When someone grabbed the pineapple, the caterers quickly intervened, telling him that they had only rented the fruit for the night, and it was already booked for another dinner in a few days’ time.

The democratisation of the pineapple came with the canning industry in the late 19th century.   In America, pineapple production became a major agribusiness, with the Dole family dominating production in Hawaii.  In Queensland, however, there were many small-scale independent pineapple producers, including a lot of ex-soldiers on small blocks of land north of Brisbane, in what is now the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast.

Growing pineapples is hard work.  The novelist Eleanor Dark lived on a pineapple farm near Palmwoods during the 1950s, and wrote a book, Lantana Lane (1959), based on her experiences there,

‘He had been grabbing an hour or two here and there to get ready for his new pines, and the patch was rotary-hoed, and ploughed, and fertilised, and prepared for contour planting.  Though Biddy grew tired rather quickly now, she insisted on laying out some of the butts for him when he began to put them in…’

The pineapple farms were concentrated along the railway line, and the farmers sent their fruit by rail to be processed by a farmer’s cooperative on the northern edge of Brisbane.   Golden Circle began in 1947 with over 900 growers, and had its own railway station.  It was a major exporter and an important employer, especially of casual labour.  All my generation knew Golden Circle, ‘the Northgate cannery’.  Many of us worked there as students during the summer holidays, which was also the canning season.  The railway station is still there – but the co-op was finally bought out by Heinz in 2009.

I still think that it’s a bit wacky to give tinned pineapple as a wedding present.  But in 1947, it probably made more sense, for it was, indeed, a gift that exemplified Queensland.  A comparable gift for Wills and Kate would probably be a lump of coal.  Much better to donate to the Royal Flying Doctor Service – with the emphasis on the Royal.

Eleanor Dark, Lantana Lane, is in Google Books, as is Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening.