Category Archives: personal and self-indulgent

Alfred Elliott: The View from Here

It’s a long time ago now, but when I was a very little girl my grandmother had a big box of magic lantern slides. She also had a set of stereoscopic photographs, together with their viewer. You could slide the twin photos, showing not quite the same scene, into their holder, then by looking through a pair of lenses, the photos merged into a single image that produced a 3D effect – as well as a headache and a weird feeling that the photo was dragging your eyes out of alignment.

Image of 1890 flood in Brisbane

Stereoscopic image of Mary Street, Brisbane, during the 1890 flood, from Queensland State Library collection

I hasten to say that they were old even then, probably dating from before the First World War – though it’s also true that I haven’t been a little girl for quite some time. Some of them showed unknown people, no doubt forgotten family members, while others were landscapes and cityscapes from around Brisbane and Moreton Bay. My grandmother’s aunt, Ada Driver, was one of the first women photographers in Brisbane, so I guess a lot of them were her work. Sadly, most of those photographs have since disappeared, though I know I gave one box of glass slides to the State Library of Queensland many years ago.

The Museum of Brisbane currently has an exhibition, The View from Herefeaturing the photographs of a talented amateur Brisbane photographer, Alfred Elliott. Alfred’s photographs seem to have gone through some of the same stages of loss and forgetting as great-aunt Ada’s, but with a happier ending.

In 1983, a number of cedar cigar cases were discovered under a house in Red Hill, Brisbane. They held nearly 300 glass plate negatives dating from 1890 to 1921, as well as the tailboard camera that produced them. They went into the Brisbane City Council collection, but they were apparently only partially catalogued, because when preparations were underway for this exhibition, the curator, Phil Manning, found a further secret stash in one of the boxes. These were photographs and negatives that Alfred Elliott had made using film, rather than the old glass slides. These photos take Elliott’s record of Brisbane up to 1940.

Alfred Elliott, glass negative

Alfred Elliott, Day-trippers at Seventeen Miles Rocks, from The View from Here

The photos are lovely – and very evocative. Elliott was 26 when he began photographing in 1890, and by then the glass plate negative technique was well developed. It was possible – if still hard work – to carry around the equipment he needed on train and ferry trips around Moreton Bay and beyond, to Tweed Heads, Bribie Island and the Glasshouse Mountains.

Glass negatives are made by spreading silver bromide in gelatin on a thin glass plate. Most people made their own, and the skill of the operator lay in spreading the goo in a thin, smooth layer, so that the exposure was even. By the 1890s, short exposures made informal photos possible, so he has shots of people moving, chatting, playing – not just sitting formally. One fascinating photograph shows a large number of people milling outside the South Brisbane polling booth in September 1899, waiting to vote on the federal referendum. Only men could vote, but the photograph shows that everyone – men, women and children – turned up to participate in this public event, and that they marked the seriousness of the occasion by dressing smartly, the men almost all wearing suits and hats.

Unlike digital photographs, which break up into a blur of pixels when blown up too far, these glass negatives can be magnified to an extraordinary extent. The exhibition shows examples of tiny details – in a family shot of Alfred Elliott’s future wife and in-laws, the year before his marriage, intense magnification shows that Ellen Elizabeth was already wearing his engagement ring.

In 1895, Alfred Elliott took his equipment to the top of the convict-built windmill on Wickham Terrace, otherwise known as the Observatory, and took a series of 11 photographs from this high point. In the exhibition this set of photos have been grafted together to form a sweeping vista of Brisbane.

In 1926 Alfred and his wife bought a car, and with his new film camera, he headed further afield, recording landscapes, beaches – and some seriously terrible roads. He also recorded Brisbane as it grew in the interwar years, until sadly the photos stop in 1940 – just before Brisbane became a garrison town for the Australian and American armies during the Second World War.

Did he die then? Or become too old to pursue his hobby? There is frustratingly little information available about him, although it’s clear that the curator has hunted out what little is available. There are just a few hints: there are photographs of him with his wife, son and daughter, outside his house in Stanley Terrace, Taringa – and I like that he called his house ‘Tibrogargan’ after one of the Glass House Mountains, a favourite bushwalking area. Unfortunately, inoffensive and law-abiding citizens tend to leave very little record.

At least his photographs have survived, even if they were lost for over 40 years. The exhibition is free, and continues until 30 August 2015. It is well worth a visit.

Keep the red (and black and gold) flag flying

There’s a cat and mouse game going on in my suburb of Sandgate, and until recently, I didn’t even realize it.

Across the street from my house is a strip of bush land rising in front of a cliff face. The area is too narrow, and too low lying, to ever be built on, so it’s a refuge for wildlife. There are a few tall gum trees, scruffy undergrowth and a large clump of bamboo that may hint at a Chinese market garden once upon a time. It hosts our street parties, until the mosquitoes drive us home. Once a week a group of women do tai chi there in the mornings; a few years back, there was a regular game of boules on Sunday afternoon.

I’ve lived here for more than a decade, and ever since I moved here, I’ve occasionally seen an Aboriginal flag painted along this strip. Unlike graffiti that defaces buildings and screams ‘Look at me!’, these flags are always unobtrusive, painted on natural features such as trees or rocks. Just a gentle reminder, I feel, to me and you and the tai chi ladies, that people have lived in this place for a very long time. Continue reading

Sticks and Stones, Words and Images

The sad events in Paris remind me, in a strange way, of Margaret Atwood’s observation: ‘Men fear women because they may laugh at them. Women fear men because they may kill them.’ The sheer asymmetry of violence is equally shocking in the case of Charlie Hebdo.

It also points to the fact that when there is an asymmetry of power, the weapon of the weak is very often laughter. Truth speaks to power through jokes and ditties and cartoons, and in a despotic state this may be the only way that it can. So, for instance, in colonial New South Wales, convict women shared jokes and gossip in the female factory about the men to whom they were distributed as servants – and sometimes as sexual partners as well. In Soviet Russia, the jokes were a way of dealing with the autocratic state and its crumbling bureaucracy: ‘We pretend to work for them, and they pretend to pay us’.

Much the same was true in the years before the French Revolution, when cartoons and scurrilous gossip about the absolute monarchy circulated widely. Cartoons aimed at Marie Antoinette were particularly scabrous, pornographic and cruel.

Marie Antoinette pornographic image

Marie Antoinette and General Lafayette, c. 1790, from Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading

For once, a successful New Year’s Resolution

A year ago I sat down to write my New Year’s Resolution – as the blogosphere is my witness – to spend a minimum of 25 minutes every day working on my book, a biography of Walter Stevenson Davidson. According to the Pomodoro Technique,  25 minutes equals 1 pomodoro. As I explained a year ago, the aim of the Pomodoro Technique is to work uninterrupted for 25 minutes, then to take a 5 minute break. Do it again, then after 4 bursts of work take a longer break. Repeat as necessary.

366 days later, I am delighted to say that the technique has worked for me. I don’t always stop after 25 minutes – in fact I often become so engrossed in my writing that I don’t stop for an hour or more – but give or take a bit, I have largely stuck to the plan. There have been some hiccups – illness, family crises or a scheduled holiday – but I am now on track to complete my book during 2015.

Better yet, I’ve discovered that self-discipline does – eventually – become a habit. Continue reading

When the Walls came tumbling down

In late 1989, my husband was on study leave in Paris while I was home in Brisbane finishing the teaching year. This was well before Skype, but we had email (cheap but clunky) and the telephone (landline only, fairly pricey). We phoned each other regularly.

As the end of the year approached, the political atmosphere both in Europe and here in Queensland seemed equally charged with promise. Mikhail Gorbachev had changed the landscape, and the Iron Curtain, rusting for a while, was now crumbling apace. Poland held elections in the summer, Hungary began to dismantle its section of the Wall, and popular demonstrations took place in East German cities, especially Leipzig and Dresden.

Checkpoint Charlie

Walking through Checkpoint Charlie, 10 November 1989

On the night of 9 November, the East German authorities agreed to let people cross into West Berlin, and crowds of people converged at the crossing points along the Wall. Faced with the sheer weight of numbers trying to cross, the East German guards bowed to the inevitable and opened the gates so that the crowds could surge through.

My husband watched it all live on TV – Paris and Berlin are in the same time zone – and he rang me back home. It was early the next morning in Brisbane, 10 November. I could hardly get a word in edgewise, he was so keen to talk about what was going on in Germany.

Which was frustrating, because I wanted to talk about what I’d read in the morning’s local newspaper: another wall that was beginning the crack. The ruling conservative coalition in Queensland was about to be voted out of office, despite a gerrymander that had kept it in power since 1957 – four years before the Berlin Wall was built.

There were many reasons for the Queensland government to be on the nose. It had been rocked by the scandals unearthed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption, which filled our newspapers and TV screens every night with lurid stories about brothels and money in brown paper bags. There were also growing internal divisions in the coalition, between city and country, Liberal and Country Party. These became more of an issue as Queensland grew up and lost its hayseed image. It was no longer acceptable to have a government led by a peanut farmer and his bunch of poorly educated rural ministers.

But the other reason why the Queensland government changed in 1989 was that the Labor Party finally got its act together under a small group of reformist politicians and backroom boys (nearly all boys). One of these was Wayne Goss, whose death aged only 63 was announced today.

By 9 November, when my husband rang from Paris to talk about the Wall coming down, I wanted to tell him what the polls were saying here in Queensland where it looked just possible that Labor could win. On 2 December, the polls were confirmed in a landslide, and the first Labor Government since 1957 was elected. Wayne Goss became Premier.

Goss was a gradualist. Unlike Gough Whitlam, he didn’t try to make too many changes, too quickly. This frustrated some of his supporters, but those changes have survived. In particular the gerrymander, which weighted votes so unfairly in favour of rural electorates that some votes were worth 3 times as much as others, has gone for good.

The Queensland gerrymander was a testament to failure: if politicians can only win an election by corrupting the voting process, they are doing something wrong as politicians.

The Berlin Wall was a testament to failure too: if politicians can only stop their people emigrating by imprisoning them behind a wall, they are doing something wrong as politicians.

Perhaps both Texas and North Korea should take note.

My Whitlam Hang-Up

I spent the afternoon of 11 November 1975, the day the Governor-General dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, marking essays on an earlier dismissal, when the New South Wales Governor, Sir Philip Game, sacked the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.

As a very junior tutor in Australian History, I had a desk in an outlying building well away from the hub of the History Department. By current standards, I had generous accommodation – a room on my own! – but also by current standards, I was isolated there: no internet, no phone, no tea room or gossip in the corridors. All I had was a deadline and a good 50 essays to mark and return before the students sat for their final exam. When I finally got to the bottom of the pile, in the mid-afternoon, I bundled them up and headed back to the department.

As soon as I entered the corridor of Forgan Smith – the original sandstone building at the centre of the University of Queensland – I knew something must be up: knots of people talking, radios switched on behind closed doors, notices pinned to those doors saying their occupants were elsewhere because of ‘reprehensible circumstances’. This was the phrase the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, had used to justify his decision to refuse to pass supply in the Senate.

As we all now know, that afternoon Sir John Kerr sacked Gough Whitlam and appointed Fraser as interim Prime Minister. Continue reading

Bonnets, burqas and bikinis

During the 1860s, a trickle of English women went out to the colonies with loans from the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to cover their fares in Second Class – the middle class, between First and Steerage. They sent letters back to the FMCES when they repaid their loans, so we know quite a bit about them. Most of them were in their late twenties or thirties, so had missed the marriage market. Their best hope of economic security was to become governesses, a ‘white blouse’ occupation that required, above all, respectability and accomplishments. You might be lousy at teaching mathematics, but your manners must be beyond reproach.

A disaster occurred to one of them on the voyage out: several weeks away from Australia, she was walking on the deck when a sudden gust of wind blew her bonnet overboard. It was an appalling loss for her, because without a bonnet she couldn’t go up on deck or appear outside where she could be seen by the crew or the male passengers. Going bareheaded would be unthinkably bold.

I’m quite sure she could have bought or borrowed a shawl from one of the emigrant women in steerage, or rigged up a kerchief of some sort using a petticoat or bed linen, but a bonnet was important, because it showed her middle-class status. Instead she spent the rest of the voyage inside, unable to enjoy fresh air or sunshine or exercise until the ship reached Australia. Continue reading