Monthly Archives: May 2015

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.

The Invisible History of the Human Race

I picked up Christine Kenneally’s book because it was on the short list for the Stella Prize – and because my sister recommended it. Once I’d picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. The book is The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures (2014). As the over-long title perhaps hints, this is a hard book to categorise. It is part history, part science, with large and important chunks dealing with the contemporary issues thrown up by the new technologies of DNA analysis.

KenneallyChristine-584x893

Some of the issues are controversial. Kenneally deals cautiously and well with the inevitable issues of race and eugenics, but other controversies hadn’t occurred to me before: What are the implications of so much data (either genetic or genealogical) being held by private companies like Ancestry.com or 23andMe? What happens to that data when a company is sold? This happened to Kenneally, who had her genes tested by 23andMe, in the interests of research, in 2010. The company gave certain commitments about the privacy of her record – but it has since changed hands, and the status of that information is now unclear.

One of the issues the book covers is the history and meaning of family history. Genealogists are often dismissed as cranks by academic historians – and I know how infuriating it can be to sit in front of a microfilm reader, next to someone who keeps tapping me on the shoulder to tell me she (it’s mostly she) has just found Uncle Freddy – but Kenneally endorses both the validity of this research for the individual and the wider value of such projects, when they converge into large-scale studies, such as the Founders and Survivors project.

Kenneally is good at finding just the right anecdote to illustrate her wider arguments. The story of Thomas Jefferson and Sarah Hemings is widely known: for 2 centuries, Jefferson was a famous Founding Father with an unblemished private life. He and his wife Martha Wayles had 6 children. But an oral tradition also passed down that suggested that after Martha’s death, Jefferson subsequently had another family with one of the house slaves at Monticello, Sarah (Sally) Hemings.

The historical record can only go so far, but DNA testing eventually shows what historians could not prove: that Sarah Hemings’ male descendants carried the Jefferson Y-chromosome. Despite some rearguard action trying to finger another Jefferson – uncle or nephew – the dates of conception make it pretty clear that Thomas fathered Sally’s children. This story is not just of prurient interest. It also tells us a lot about the lived experience of men and women in 18th century Virginia, and how it diverges from the written record.

So far, so well known. But Kenneally looks at another angle: as well as 6 children raised at Monticello, there was another, older boy, Thomas Woodson, who was sent to live at another estate at the age of 12, where he took the name of his new master, a common practice. The Woodson descendents also believed they were descended from Thomas Jefferson – but repeated DNA analysis has failed to make the link. Sometimes knowledge is power – but sometimes it is a shattering disappointment too.

For me, it was yet another angle on this story that intrigued me. Sally Hemings and Martha Wayles were half-sisters. They shared the same father, for clearly droit de seigneur operated in the generation before Jefferson too. While the Hemings-Jefferson inter-racial liaison has shocked some Americans, and delighted many more, I’ve never seen any concern expressed that Jefferson was sleeping with his deceased wife’s sister, a relationship that was legally equivalent to incest at this time in English law.

Kenneally ranges widely across time and place. One study illuminates the Dark Ages: a map of the modern genetics of the British population shows that people still reproduce within old cultural boundaries, so that the kingdoms of Dalriada, Rheged, Elmet and Dumnonia emerge from the genetic data.

In Ireland the same Y-chromosome appears widely – in the northwest an extraordinary 17 percent of men carry it – and this is attributed to the influence of Niall of the Nine Hostages and the men of the Niall clan, who clearly practiced droit de seigneur on an industrial scale. Polygamy and easy divorce, even into the Christian period, must have helped. More generally, when a new population displaces the old, the marks of the invasion are more frequently present on the Y chromosome – as it true for Aboriginal Australians.

Kenneally looks at Tasmania, where the late 19th century saw a great forgetting, when the population chose to keep silent about its convict origins. Now of course everyone wants a convict ancestor, and Kenneally shows how her own research on her family origins led to a convict – and made her, for a moment, ‘a convict princess’.

This is a rich and rewarding book, clearly written and entertaining, but with a good deal of meat on its bones. To my unqualified eyes, it seems about as up-to-date as one can expect in such a fast-moving field. I can’t recommend it too highly.

NB: This review was written as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015