Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dining with Wombats

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Death of a Wombat

The painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a pet wombat – though sadly, not for very long.  The poor creature died after a few months, in November 1867, and he marked its passing in verse:

I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!

Apparently Rossetti included Top, the wombat, in his dinner parties, and there is some suggestion that he was the model for the dormouse in the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland – although the difference in size makes this unlikely.  Rossetti kept a whole menagerie of exotic pets at his home in Chelsea, including peacocks, owls, various dogs and rabbits, and more exotic creatures such as armadillos, a raccoon, a woodchuck and a small Brahmin bull.  He drew the line at a young elephant, not because of lack of room, but because of the high price – £400. Continue reading

Poor Toulouse

Poor Toulouse.  It’s probably wrong to be more affected by a tragedy that happens in a place you know – but it’s human nature too.

I know Toulouse.  I lived there for a month 10 years ago, while my husband was working at the university, and fell in love with the city.  So the last few days of violence have felt very close, and very sad.  Angry young men exist everywhere, and no doubt what occurred in Toulouse could happen anywhere, but Toulouse has a long history of religious and ethnic violence – as well as a long history of culture and toleration.

Political map of Languedoc on the eve of the A...

Political map of Languedoc on the eve of the Albigensian Crusade, under the rule of the House of Toulouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the middle ages, the issue was heretics.  Continue reading

An axe, a rifle and a box of matches

Queensland votes next Saturday in an election that looks like a rout for the current Labor government.  Pundits say that the key issues are state ones, rather than federal, though the fact that federal Labor is on the nose as well can’t help.

Win, lose or draw, the next Queensland government won’t be significantly different from governments elsewhere in Australia.  The main fight will take place in the south east corner, which is a carbon copy of south east Australia generally, not least because so many of its inhabitants are recent immigrants from interstate.

Nobody is asking today, as they invariably did 20 or 30 years ago when politics was discussed: Is Queensland different?  Or, having answered ‘yes’ to that question, Why is Queensland different?  On the whole, it seems, people and pundits no longer believe that the state of Queensland is a weird aberration from the Australian norm.  We even won the Sheffield Shield last weekend, and nobody found this remarkable.

But in many ways, geographically, demographically and politically, a remnant of Queensland weirdness remains – and some of it is exemplified in the person of Bob Katter, former Country Party, National Party, Independent and now leader of Katter’s Australia Party. Continue reading

Respect and Respectability

‘It’s all about respect,’ says retired Major-General John Cantwell in the Sydney Morning Herald, before slagging off at various Australian Defence Ministers he has known.  In the case of the current one, Stephen Smith, it’s because he has ‘no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform for their country’.  Meanwhile Bob Katter’s gay half-brother complains that a political ad shows ‘disrespect’ to the homosexual community.

What is this thing called Respect?  When did a perceived lack of Respect become a rod with which to beat up 2 politicians at opposite ends of the political spectrum?  And when did Respect begin to sound like something in the Sopranos, or a bikie’s funeral oration?  Search for ‘Respect’ on Twitter, and you find yourself in the world of rappers and bad spelling.

I think what we are talking about is a new manifestation of the idea of Honour.  In these days of clashing civilizations, Honor (now spelt the American way) seems to be inextricably linked to the ‘honor killing’ of wives and daughters.

But Honour was for centuries associated with Europe.  Elite men fought duels to defend their honour and the honour of their [sic] womenfolk.  Even Jane Austen alludes to such a duel in Sense and Sensibility as a ‘fancied necessity’. Continue reading

Discarding Women’s Words

It’s bad enough to be neglected or ignored, but it’s worse to be discarded altogether.  Recently a fellow blogger at Stumbling through the Past wrote a post about Women and Archival Silences, dealing with the way women’s voices are silenced in the records, subsumed within their husbands’ papers (and their husbands’ names), or scattered between various references, because nobody thought to catalogue the work they did, or recognise its importance.  Her post reminded me of an egregious example of this that I came across many years ago.

In the late 1940s two elderly sisters gave a large collection of their family papers ‘as a gift to the nation’ of New Zealand.  Mary and Emily Richmond were the unmarried daughters of C. W. Richmond, a lawyer, and his wife Emily Atkinson.  Continue reading

Talking about the weather

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight;
Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.

No, I’ve no real idea what this means either – though I presume that it told generations of English shepherds whether to leave the sheep in the fields or bring them in to shelter.  Weather lore is a bit like that: a useful mnemonic for specific local purposes that doesn’t translate satisfactorily once you move to another place.

So what do you do when you do move to another place?

We’ve been having a lot of weather in Australia lately.  Towns from Roma to Forbes have been flooded, the rivers are running, and the 19th century myth of an inland sea sounds more plausible than usual.

We all now know that the reason for the wet weather is La Niña, El Niño’s soggy sister, but it is only in the last few decades that scientists have began to explain what Chilean fishermen have recognised in outline for hundreds of years.

The Southern Oscillation describes a pattern where the Pacific Ocean alternates between periods of warm and cool surface temperatures, which in turn affects air pressure and wind patterns across the Pacific – and perhaps well beyond.  During El Niño events it is dry in eastern Australia and wet on the American Pacific coast; the reverse occurs with La Niña.  Here in Australia we are currently being drowned by La Niña.

When European settlers arrived in Australia, they knew they had to learn about the local weather.  The governors were naval or military men, so they were used to keeping a meteorological record.  Over time, the new arrivals expected that this record of temperature, wind direction and rain, would give them a basis for predicting the weather – though weather forecasting in the late 18th century was still at the ‘red sky at night’ level of accuracy.

William Dawes journal

The meteorological journal of William Dawes, 1788

But they had no idea that they were dealing with a climate system that swings so dramatically, and so slowly, between wet and dry seasons.  Wikipedia suggests an oscillation of 5 years; the Australian Bureau of Meteorology suggests 3 to 8 years.  The truth is there is a great deal we still don’t know about the Southern Oscillation, but we do know it is highly variable.  It doesn’t tick regularly like a clock – or a pendulum.

The key figure in turning weather forecasting from an art to a science was Charles Darwin’s companion from the voyage of the Beagle, Captain (later Sir) Robert FitzRoy.  He did excellent survey work on the Beagle, received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.  He was Governor of New Zealand from 1843-5, but was recalled for supporting the Maori against the settlers in their disputes over land.

Robert FitzRoy barometer

In 1854, FitzRoy was appointed head of the newly established meteorological department in the Board of Trade.  Using the weather logs he persuaded ships’ captains and colonial observers to send him, he gathered together information on the weather, and collated this enormous pile of information into charts of winds and currents.  He came up with the idea – and the name – of ‘synoptic charts’.  Acting on his hunch that falling air pressure predicted stormy weather, he distributed barometers to ports around Britain.  They became standard in Australia, too.  He wrote The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology (1863), available on Google Books here.

FitzRoy was probably always a depressive.  He invited Charles Darwin to join him on the Beagle because he recognized the need for a companion to talk to during the voyage – and how fortunate was that for the development of science.  Despite his successes, the problem didn’t go away, and in April 1865, FitzRoy killed himself by cutting his throat with a razor.

FitzRoy introduced the idea of forecasting to meteorology, but he always recognized the limitations of forecasts:

Prophecies or predictions they are not: the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of a scientific combination and calculation, liable to be occasionally, though rarely, marred by [various unexpected events] not yet sufficiently indicated to our extremely limited sight and feeling.  We shall know more and more by degrees. (The Weather Book, p. 171)

Thanks to FitzRoy, ships’ captains and port authorities began to collect data on air pressure and sea temperature, as well as the established categories of rainfall, wind and air temperature.  Thanks to FitzRoy, that data is now being used to study the Southern Oscillation – and we shall know more and more by degrees.

Anita McConnell, ‘FitzRoy , Robert (1805–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [, accessed 8 March 2012]
SEARCH: South Eastern Australian Recent Climate History

Australian history: kicking butt or the bottom line?

Nicholson cartoon of History Wars

‘History Wars’ by Nicholson, 23 September 2003

Is Australian history at universities in trouble?  Last week I came across a story about Australian History: neither fad nor fading which sets out to argue that Australian history is alive and kicking butt, at least at La Trobe University.  Or it does until you deconstruct the article, which is a little too defensive to be taken at face value:

While he admits Australian history may no longer be the most popular area with some of today’s students, La Trobe Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tim Murray says: ‘It is important for us as a nation that students have a good grasp of our history’.

Then on Saturday, I heard a discussion on ABC radio with 2 Australian historians, Marilyn Lake and Anna Clark which suggests a grimmer picture.  In the age of the bottom line, university courses with small enrolments don’t get taught, and Australian history courses are struggling to attract enough students to get listed.  If they aren’t taught, the next generation of Australian Arts graduates will be ignorant about their own history.  If undergraduate courses aren’t taught, postgraduates don’t want to research in the area, and Australian history dies as an academic discipline.  It’s a downward spiral. Continue reading