Monthly Archives: February 2012

Fast Foods

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, the 40-day fasting period that leads up to Easter.

Fasting can take many forms.   Muslims fast during the holy month of Ramadan by abstaining from all food and drink during daylight hours; Christians fast by abstaining from particular foodstuffs – definitely meat, sometimes other animal products such as dairy products and eggs.  The rest of us may use Lent as the occasion for a detox of some sort, giving up wine or tobacco or chocolate.

There is a spiritual dimension to going without, but the Lenten fast was once also a grim reality in temperate Europe, coming at the end of winter when food stocks were exhausted and the first fruits of the new year were yet to ripen. Continue reading

On Shifting Sands

The British Library recently called for volunteers to help ‘georeference’ over 700 historic maps of London, England and Wales.  They digitized the maps but needed the assistance of real live human beings to read the maps, and link them to equivalent maps on Google Earth, in place, size and projection.

It’s yet another fascinating experiment in crowd sourcing – but I’m afraid you can’t join in, because they got so many volunteers that the work was completed within a week!  They now plan to load another 1000 digital maps.  If you want to get involved you can register and they will notify you when they are ready to roll.

According to the accompanying video, the technology of linking past and present geographical features seems fairly straightforward: they use the Tower of London as an example, and it’s been in the same place for nearly a thousand years.

Tower of London 1597

Other geographical features on a landscape are trickier.  Where is the Fleet River these days?  Rivers are particularly vulnerable – they are constantly being diverted by urban development, or silt up because of agricultural development upstream.

Coastlines change too.  Continue reading

Sunlit Plains Extended

I’ve now been 3 times to the Eugene von Guérard exhibition, Nature Revealed, at the Queensland Art Gallery, partly because it’s free, I admit, but mostly because it’s so compelling.  It finishes on 5 March, so if you live in Brisbane, hurry.  And, if you’re my age, bring your reading glasses.

Everyone brought up in Australia knows a few von Guérard paintings, even if they don’t know that they know them.  He is widely represented in the National Gallery of Victoria, where he was curator from 1870, and the National Gallery of Australia, and in other galleries, particularly in Victoria where he did most of his work.

He painted landscapes: flat plains, the strange mountain formations of the volcanic Western District, or the dark and claustrophobic forests of the Dandenong Ranges.  The action often takes place in a shadowy foreground, while the background glows in the sunshine.

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges 

I already knew many of his paintings from books, but I have seldom experienced before so sharply the need to see the original rather than rely on reproductions, because no matter how large the canvas, or the subject matter, von Guérard seems to have approached his painting with the eye – and the brush – of a miniaturist.  Continue reading


Doc Holliday was a dentist.  He trained at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery (Class of 1872), one of the first dental schools in America, so he wasn’t just an old-fashioned ‘tooth drawer’.

Caravaggio, The Tooth Drawer

Caravaggio, The Tooth Drawer, 1607-9

As I lay back in the dentist’s chair this week, with my mouth full of fingers and heavy metal, I thought about the history of dentistry.  We’ve taken most of the pain out of dentistry – though not the discomfort.  Nowadays we visit the dentist because bad teeth are smelly and unsightly, and a source of general infections or sudden, acute pain, but few of us will ever experience the horrors of chronic, unremitting toothache.  Only the very poor, for whom dentistry is still too expensive, suffer from chronic toothache and the infections that spring from untreated tooth decay.

Joseph Jenkins was a poor man who worked as a day labourer in late 19th century Victoria, walking long distances from job to job until in old age he settled down in Maldon, where he worked clearing drains for the local council.  Jenkins kept a diary that is now in the State Library of Victoria, parts of which were published as A Diary of a Welsh Swagman (1975).

Jenkins had bad teeth, because ‘I abused my teeth badly when I was young through cracking nuts which grew plentifully on the farm’. Continue reading

The Value of Manuscripts

It happens rarely – but it does happen.  People steal manuscripts, autographs, stamps, seals, maps and illustrations from libraries.  Last July, Barry Landau, author of The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy (2007), was caught with an accomplice, Jason Savedoff, stealing documents from the Maryland Historical Society.  Since then, police have found about 10,000 documents in their apartment.

‘I cannot believe it,’ Lynn von Furstenberg, the second wife of Prince Egon von Furstenberg and a close friend of Landau’s for many years, told The Daily Beast. ‘The things I’ve been reading about him in the press are not the Barry I know. He’s just this gregarious, sweet, sensitive human being.’

Well yes, maybe.  On Amazon, Landau is described as a ‘historian’ – but as those of us in the profession well know, anyone can call themselves a historian.  There’s no quality control outside the university system, and since non-academic historians do a lot of important work, I don’t really want any – but sometimes someone goes rogue. Continue reading

Law and History

Last December I spent 2 days at the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Law and History Society which was jointly run by the University of Queensland and Griffith University.

It is tempting to compare the Law and History conference with the Australian and New Zealand History of Medicine conference held here last July, which I wrote about here.

Both conferences brought together professional doctors/lawyers with an interest in history, and academic historians.  Both involved a loyal cohort of Society members who attend every conference and know each other well, and a floating body of people, like me, who might go if the conference is held locally, but won’t normally following the caravan from place to place, across the Nullarbor or the Tasman.

There were differences, too.  Continue reading

Vanity Publishing

In the last few days, Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, has increased her share holding in Fairfax Media to just under 15 percent.  She has already bought a share of Channel 10, and it is widely suggested that she hopes to use her newpaper and television interests to help shape the political debate in such areas as mining policy, taxation and climate change.  Another mining magnate, Clive Palmer, has also mused – perhaps not very seriously – about buying into newspapers, or starting up a new one of his own.

Ever since the first barbarian employed the first bard to sing his praises, there has been a link between media and politics, but the link has shifted lately.  People like Silvio Berlusconi – or Donald Trump? – made their fortunes from the media first, then used these millions to carve out a place in politics.

In the age of the internet, though, the old media no longer generates a fortune, so that for Gina Rinehart or Clive Palmer, dabbling in newspapers has become a rich person’s hobby.  To these noisy miners (thank you, Annabel Crabb), it’s pin money anyway, and it comes with the glittering prospect of having a significant influence on the public debate.

It’s not a new idea either. Continue reading