Category Archives: Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014

For more information about the AWWC_14 go to http://australianwomenwriters.com

Bioethics in Historical Perspective

During the last month Australia and Thailand have had to confront the implications of a terrible medical dilemma, when news broke of ‘Baby Gammy’, the Downs syndrome twin left behind by an Australian couple who paid a Thai woman to carry their child. When the mother found she was having twins, she allegedly refused to abort the pregnancy because of her Buddhist beliefs. The genetic parents subsequently took the ‘good twin’, a girl, back to Australia with them, leaving the boy behind with a mother too poor to pay for his medical treatment. A lot of this is still ‘alleged’ – but just when it seemed the story couldn’t get any worse, it turned out that the new father had formerly been convicted of child abuse. Both Thailand and Australia have been hastily rushing through new regulations on child surrogacy.

Many medical issues have an ethical dimension. Some, like surrogacy, are self-evidently vexed. Others are subtler.

In the current Ebola epidemic, for instance, why does an American patient get flown home for treatment that is not available for Africans? What are the ethics of administering treatment that is still experimental? And why is the language in which the disease is discussed so charged? There has been a lot of talk about how uneducated Africans don’t obey the scientists when they are told to abandon their traditional burial rites and not touch Ebola victims, or wash the bodies of their dead relatives. Yet the said American patient subsequently credited Jesus, not the scientists, for his recovery.

Sarah Ferber, Bioethics in Historical Perspective

It is against this background that I’ve recently been reading Sarah Ferber’s Bioethics in Historical Perspective (Palgrave, 2013). Continue reading

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Family Business

Most people I know ignore the business pages of a newspaper – but for those in the know, there is as much vanity, violence and family tragedy in the business pages as anywhere else in the paper – and that’s just Gina Rinehart and family. For sheer vanity and potential for future mishaps, Rupert Murdoch’s succession plans compare favourably with those of King Lear.

Go back 200 years, and things were probably rather similar. Early 19th century Sydney merchants fought with their families (Walter S Davidson), cheated their partners (Robert Campbell), committed suicide (Edward Riley), went bankrupt (Richard Jones). Some even went into politics (Stuart Alexander Donaldson).

Janette Holcomb Early Merchant Families of Sydney

All this turmoil generated plenty of paperwork. In her new book, Early Merchant Families of Sydney, Janette Holcomb takes us in a series of forensic biographical chapters through the early history of Sydney’s mercantile elite, from Robert Campbell from the house of Campbell, Clark & Co, who arrived from Calcutta with a cargo of spirits in 1798, to Ben Boyd of the Royal Bank of Australia, who arrived from England with a cargo of credit in 1842. Continue reading

Wardrobe Malfunctions

Audrey Tennyson was the wife of Hallam Tennyson, Governor of South Australia and later Governor General of Australia. Her letters to her mother back in England are full of tales of high life in Adelaide and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. The problems of celebrity, it seems, aren’t new. Audrey Tennyson’s clothes were frequently scrutinized in the local press, and in 1902, she complained that her gowns ‘have all been described in the newspapers in every detail, [so] they are useless & I cannot wear them’. [30 September 1902] She was constantly trying to ring the changes:

Ask Mrs Lane how I can do up my purple velvet… She might put in anything that would do for doing up gowns, & also what sleeves are worn for the evening… I want something to eke out my old evening gowns at the endless concerts & plays. The smart morning gowns are chiefly for the Races… [25 January 1900]

She was particularly worried in the months leading up to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall coming out to open Federal Parliament in 1901. (No, not Wills and Kate, but the earlier ones who later became George V and Queen Mary). The situation was complicated by the need for everyone to wear mourning following the death of Queen Victoria.

Tom Roberts, Opening Federal Parliament 1901

Tom Roberts, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903. Only the carpets and the Cardinal are red, because everyone was in mourning.

Will you tell Mrs Lane I am larger round the hips, I think, & send her new measurements & also the lengths of the skirt at the side seams, as they are always inclined to be short at the sides.  My bust & waist are smaller than they were, but that I don’t mind for I can always take them in & I may get fatter again… [17 February 1901]

Despite her requests, the following year she complained that Mrs Lane had

sent me a grey gown I never ordered & it is so tight round the hips it all gapes at the fastening & can’t be altered, so I have had to send that back… It really is a little trying, is it not? [30 September 1902]

I sympathise! Continue reading

Ina’s Story: The Memoir of a Torres Strait Islander Woman

Henry Kissinger once said that he had never visited Australia because he had never been on his way to Antarctica! Or so it is said – I can’t find the statement on Google. Apocryphal or not, the rest of the world does tend to think of Australia as utterly remote and isolated from the world.

In Australia too, the idea of ‘the tyranny of distance’ is  pervasive – there’s something about sitting for 24 hours or more in an economy seat that tends to reinforce this perspective. Yet our sense of isolation is coloured by the fact that most of us live in the southeast quadrant of the continent – the last 5 to 6 hours of that gruelling economy flight is spent flying across Australia.

In North of Capricorn (2003), Henry Reynolds argued persuasively that if you go north, the situation is very different.  North of the Tropic of Capricorn, in an arc stretching roughly between Rockhampton and Broome, there has always been another Australia, one that is multi-racial, with Aboriginal, Islander, Asian and European threads intertwining in fascinating ways, where white settlers were in a minority, though a politically powerful one. That arc passes through Torres Strait, where Australia’s border with the rest of the world almost touches the New Guinea coastline (thanks to some highly inequitable colonial map making).

Torres Strait was always an important, if dangerous, maritime route between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.  It is named after Luis Vaez de Torres, the first European to sail through the region in the early 16th century, but who knows how many other sailors passed this way in earlier times? It was certainly a crossroads well before Lieutenant James Cook raised a flag on Possession Island in 1770.

Catherine Titasey, Ina's Story book cover

For a new perspective I can really recommend a wonderful memoir that illustrates Reynolds’ thesis well: Ina’s Story: The Memoir of a Torres Strait Islander Woman (2012).

Continue reading

The Ambitions of Jane Franklin

I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. As it was a private school, we were sorted into ‘Houses’, a sort of artificial way of engendering competition between us, and a team spirit amongst us.  As it was a girls’ school, the Houses were named after famous women, and as it was a relatively innovative school, they were Australian women – or at least, women who spent some time in Australia.  In chronological order they were Elizabeth Macarthur, Jane Franklin, Caroline Chisholm and Lucy Osburn. I suspect that if our teachers had known then what I know now about Jane Franklin, there wouldn’t have been a Franklin House. Continue reading

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

I was in England on study leave when my first book came out in 1988.  Thrilled to see all that hard work finally between hard covers, I showed it to one of my English cousins. With his customary chutzpah, he decided that it should be reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, and with his customary networking skills, he immediately rang a friend with some sort of connection to the TLS.

I only heard one side of the phone call, but it was clear that his friend didn’t want a review of my book.  I’m not at all surprised.  I was an unknown first time author with a book on an Australian subject, published by an Australian press with limited distribution facilities in England. He could have put off my cousin in a variety of ways: they had enough books for the next year, they weren’t publishing reviews on Australian topics, they weren’t reviewing authors whose birthdays had an R in the month.

Instead, he explained apparently seriously that the TLS didn’t review non-fiction by women authors.  Fiction yes, but not non-fiction. I have no idea if this was true or just an excuse.  In a way it doesn’t matter. It was the specificity of the explanation that got to me. I felt staggered and belittled as an academic and a writer of serious history, even though I had initially begged my cousin not to make what I thought was a presumptuous request. Continue reading