Category Archives: personal and self-indulgent

Heather Radi (1929-2016)

The Australian historian Heather Radi died recently in Sydney. She taught Australian history at the University of New South Wales and University of Sydney for many years, and she was on the board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

I only met Heather a few times, but I knew of her from when I first began work in the History Department at the University of Queensland in 1970, for Heather had preceded me there during the 1950s, as a student and as a research assistant, and long after she left on a scholarship to the London School of Economics, people still talked about her fondly – and sometimes rather nervously.

photo of Heather Radi

Heather Radi, portrait in Dawson and Radi, Against the Odds

 

Heather was born on a settler block at Mt Tamborine in 1929. Now it is just an hour’s drive from Brisbane, but then the area was quite remote. She was the first of her family to get to university. Unlike most historians, she was good at mathematics, and might have done maths rather than history at university but for the flip of a coin.

After graduating, she went teaching briefly, and hated it. So did I. Then she worked as a research assistant for Professor Gordon Greenwood. So did I.

Those were the days of the God-Professor, whose power within his (with only one exception* always his) department was absolute. Professors like Greenwood kept a stable – I use the term advisedly – of female research assistants who prepared the raw materials for his work. (Greenwood was not the only one – I’ve always wanted to know more about the near-invisible research assistants who helped shape Manning Clark’s multi-volume history.)

In 1984, Heather wrote, ‘The professor exploited me of course as it was my work which enabled him to publish as much as he did, with a few words of acknowledgement in the final paragraph of the preface.’ When I joined the history department it was common knowledge that Heather had written most of the chapter on the 1920s that appeared under Greenwood’s name in Australia: A Social and Political History (1955). This was particularly unfair, not just academically but financially as well, because Australia was a text book that sold widely, went into a second edition, and no doubt earned Greenwood a good deal of money.

The upside of the arrangement was that Heather could write a thesis at the same time. She says:

To compensate for my low salary, I was permitted one day a week to work for a postgraduate degree. I was allowed to enrol for a topic so close to that which I was employed to research that the distinction of when I worked for the professor and when I worked for me was merely a notion in my mind.

I had a similar experience, though by the time I worked for Gordon Greenwood, his powers were waning. One of his earliest and most imaginative books was a study of Australian-American relations in the early 19th century. I was put to work gathering material for a second volume that would take the story of Australian-American relations through to 1901. I spent my time happily enough transcribing reports from American consuls in Sydney and Melbourne, chasing down the Americans at Eureka, and tracing the fascinating story of the Singer sewing machine. No book ever resulted from my labours, but many ideas that I have later played with came from those months of research. A few years after my job as research assistant ended, I snuck into the office one day and nicked all my notes from the filing cabinets. Nobody ever noticed.

One reason why Heather Radi stirred nervous memories at the University of Queensland was because, during her 5 years there, she was involved in a complicated sexual entanglement with two men within the department. In the 1950s she worked in a deeply sexist environment where women were barred from the Senior Common Room, employed in lowly positions on short-term contracts, and very vulnerable. Things had not changed a great deal by the time I arrived; I still clearly remember all of us women – secretaries, tutors and research assistants – reluctantly lining up to kiss the professor goodnight after an ANZAAS conference party in the early 1970s.

Heather was used, and abused, by her experience. She wrote about it openly in 1984, but since she did not mention the men concerned by name, I won’t either. Both are dead, but their children are not.

Many years later I realized that possession of my body had been a minor part of a bitter male relationship, between one man who was eminently successful and widely respected and another subordinate to him, less successful, less capable and resenting loss of patronage….

The men who had made me part of their rivalry each fathered a child in these years and I knew that whatever place I had in their lives it was secondary. I do not pretend that this was other than a bitter discovery but it supplied the incentive for me to complete a Ph.D. and to leave.

She got away. She won a travelling scholarship to the London School of Economics where, as ‘a quaint colonial hangover’, she was required to enrol in a second Ph.D.

I first encountered Heather Radi in the flesh in 1976. By then she had returned to Australia. She taught at the University of New South Wales, then moved to the University of Sydney. She and Peter Spearritt organized a conference on Jack Lang, the remarkable depression era New South Wales Premier. I had never been to a proper academic conference before and I loved every minute of it. I’ve been a bit of a conference junkie ever since.

Heather went on to organize more conferences, and write more books and chapters. She was a generous teacher and mentor. Reading her work again after so many years, I am saddened that I didn’t know her better. I’d like to tell her that things have changed at the University of Queensland – at least a little bit.

Heather Radi, ‘Thanks Mum’, in Madge Dawson and Heather Radi, Against the Odds: 15 professional women reflect on their lives and careers (Hale & Iremonger, 1984).
Gordon Greenwood, Early American-Australian relations: from the arrival of the Spaniards in America to the close of 1830 (1944)
Gordon Greenwood, ‘The 1920s’, in Gordon Greenwood (ed), Australia: A Social and Political History (1955)

*The only female professor at the University of Queensland in the 1950s was Professor Dorothy Hill in the Geology Department, but she was not immediately made Head of Department because the selection committee thought a woman would not have the requisite leadership abilities. One member of the selection committee was Gordon Greenwood.

The Brisbane City Council elections

There are local council elections across Queensland today. Here in Brisbane, we are voting for Mayor as well as the local councilors. According to reports the election will be tight – and I can vouch for the fact during the last fortnight we have been drowned by a tidal wave of polls, robot-calls, letter drops, emails and – wonder of wonders! – one real live human doorknocker.

The Brisbane City Council is the largest local government authority in Australia – and one of the largest in the world. It dates from 1925, when 20 local shires and towns were consolidates into a single-mega-council. This size has given the BCC greater political heft than the local councils in other Australian capital cities, and the Mayors of Brisbane gain extra authority from the fact that they are popularly elected.

The creation of the Brisbane City Council came as part of a package of reforms introduced by the Queensland Government under the radical Premier Edward ‘Red Ted’ Theodore. Over a few years in the early 1920s, Queensland abolished the upper house of Parliament, abolished capital punishment (the first place in the British Empire to do so), introduced a compulsory age of retirement for judges – and converted local councils into the BCC.

The creation of a mega-council was controversial, as amalgamations always are. Where, for instance, was the appropriate boundary of Brisbane? I live in Sandgate, on the extreme northern edge of the city, and in 1925 Sandgate was a separate town, with a separate mayor and council. The locals didn’t want to join Brisbane, especially as they had just recently (1911) spent a small fortune building a brand new art deco town hall, designed by the local architect George Prentice.

IMG_4330

There are other, similar, late 19th and earch 20th century council chambers across Brisbane that became redundant as a result of amalgamation, such as South Brisbane Town Hall. It was okay for George Prentice though, whose firm Prentice and Hall went on to get the commission to build the new City Hall.

There are great advantages in having a larger council area. It is easier to design an integrated transport system, for instance, or to borrow library books across a wide network of council libraries. Other effects are more intangible. The Mayor of Brisbane – or Ipswich or Townsville or Toowoomba – has greater political clout in dealing with other levels of government, and the state government doesn’t carry the can alone for every urban misfortune. In New South Wales, state governments rise and fall trying to deal with Sydney’s transport problems. Here in South East Queensland, the problem of urban congestion is shared – not fixed, mind – but shared.

Everywhere, corruption flourishes at the local government level – all those zoning applications and tenders for supply of goods or services are a great temptation to small councils and smaller councilors. I suspect that the size of the Brisbane City Council has kept at bay the sort of small but profitable fiddles that occur in the suburban councils of Sydney or the other capitals. Though I’m not naïve – a larger government area sometimes just leads to the fiddles scaling up too.

Because voting is compulsory in Australia, the habit of voting is strong, even at this most humble level of government. So I’ll be fronting up at the polling booth this morning. Queuing to vote seems to me a mark of adulthood, and an act of community solidarity. It reminds me a little of that other habit of the good citizen: the ceremonial weekend visit to a Bunnings warehouse in search of hardware supplies. They both involve the whole community, people line up as couples or in family groups, they speak of respect for property and stability, and they both have sausage sizzles.

For once, a successful New Year’s Resolution

I wrote this a year ago to celebrate a year’s successful writing, using Scrivener and the Pomodoro technique. 366 days later, I’m still getting up early each morning to write. I haven’t quite finished The Book but with 80,000 words under my belt I’m nearly there. Things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. A habit is powerful. It was hard to make daily writing a habit, but now that it has become a habit, it is liberating.
  2. We only have a certain amount of willpower. With writing now a habit, I am free to concentrate my willpower on other matters.
  3. I now feel scratchy if I don’t write something every day.
  4. Scrivener is wonderful. When I open the file, I’m already at the place I left off the day before – which is important to keep that continuity going. But I will never use it to its full capacity, and for me, the final edit is best done in Word.
  5. That early morning doze is an excellent time to rehearse what I next have to say.
  6. A hungry dog is better than an alarm clock. Dammit, anything is better than an alarm clock.

 

Historians are Past Caring

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…

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Medieval Power at the Queensland Museum

The Queensland Museum has just opened a new exhibition on Medieval Power. It runs until 10 April 2016. As the museum trumpets in its promo, it will be ‘the first museum in the world and the only one in Australia and New Zealand to host this incredible new exhibition curated by the British Museum.’

So – is it incredible? I’m not so sure. The exhibition contains a great many wonderful pieces. Not surprisingly, given how far they have come from one side of the world to the other, most of them are small. That’s not in itself a problem, though it does mean that the exhibits need time – and in my case reading glasses – to absorb their detail properly.

Given the problems of transportation, it was generous of the British Museum to send some fragile items, such as embroidered cloth or leather. There’s a leather shoe dredged from the muddy Thames that looks as if it could have hidden in the back of my wardrobe until recently. The cuts along the toes are so fresh that I’m sure a leather worker could recreate the design without much difficulty.

The caption says it dated from 1400-1500, but was it dated on the basis of style or some sort of chemical analysis? Carbon dating or DNA analysis would have been impossible with all that mud. I wanted to know more about that shoe, but there’s no catalogue to satisfy my curiosity – and what does it have to do with Power, the alleged theme of the exhibition?

In this exhibition, Power covers the authority of the church (papal rings, objects of devotion), the state (numerous seals, the Lewis chess set king) and the military force of the knights behind that (helmets, horse gear). Beyond that, there’s a miscellany of the stuff of ordinary life – knives and spoons, a saltcellar, items of adornment. I fell deeply in love with a small bone pin with the head and horn of a unicorn.

Unicorn pin from Medieval Power exhibition

Unicorn pin from British Museum, Museum no 1932,0307.5

There’s also a rudimentary attempt to illustrate towns and trade, and one of the final cabinets contains a number of seals and other objects associated Jewish or Muslim minorities.

The objects are lovely, intriguing, engaging. Most of the people around me seemed perfectly happy with what was on display, though none of their comments seemed to go much beyond the ‘Wow, isn’t that old!’ school of history. It is the school holidays, after all.

So why did I come away from this exhibition feeling vaguely frustrated, and regretting that I had splashed out on a season ticket?

For a start, there’s no catalogue. I’m not sure who curated this exhibition, but my guess is that most of the decisions about selection were made in London, not Brisbane, especially as the exhibition is going on to other places after this. So why is there no catalogue to cover the entire tour? A search of ‘unicorn pin’ on the British Museum’s Collection online was easy – but I’ve got Buckley’s chance of finding the shoe. Similarly, there’s a nice quiet place within the exhibition where a lot of interesting books are laid out to read – but none of them are available at the bookshop.

According to the British Museum website, this travelling exhibition is called Medieval Europe: AD 400-1500 but somewhere between London and Brisbane, the title changed to Medieval Power: Symbols and Splendour. My hunch is that some publicist thought this title would appeal more to the Game of Thrones generation, but it’s a pity, because in the conversion, the chronology – and therefore causation – have been lost. A thousand years of the ebb and flow of European history have been mashed together into a largely undifferentiated ‘Middle Ages’, sometimes within the same display cabinet.

There’s another problem with the theme of Power. It leaves women out of the discussion, even when the objects themselves do not. The King in the Lewis chess set is described in terms of his sword and throne, the symbols of his royal power. But there is no comparable discussion of the Queen who sits beside him, from another walrus ivory chess set.

Chess queen from British Museum

Walrus ivory Queen chess piece, German, 14C-15C British Museum no. 1856,0612.3

In the end, I was glad to have the season ticket because I went back at the end of the week, just to check if my original impressions were unfair. I don’t think they are, although on a second viewing the logic of the themes became a bit clearer. But I’m still disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – the exhibition is definitely worth a visit, maybe more than one, but go on a day that won’t be crowded so that you can take you your time over the smaller exhibits – and reading glasses. And don’t, like me, walk out expecting to pick up that fascinating book on medieval jewelry when you reach the bookshop. It won’t be there.

Update: Here is a very different report on the exhibition, this time from a physicist.

Changing Times on Norfolk Island

It’s crunch time for Norfolk Island. Next year the island will lose its independent status as a self-governing Australian territory, and there’s a lot of local anxiety about what comes next. I’ve recently come back from a week on Norfolk Island, a group-painting trip that was a lot of fun, and this was my first chance to see this beautiful speck in the South Pacific.

watercolour of a lone pine at Norfolk Island

‘Lone Pine, Norfolk Island’

Norfolk Island has a rich and strange history. It has been settled four times: once by Polynesians, twice by convicts and their guards, and once by the current inhabitants, who are descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

The Polynesians arrived about 1400, probably from the Kermadec Islands, perhaps following the migratory shearwaters (mutton birds) that used to fly due west from the Kermadecs to breed on Norfolk Island. Archaeologists have discovered obsidian tools at a dig site close to the convict ruins, but eventually the Polynesians left. Nobody knows why. They left behind banana trees and a vegetarian Polynesian ratRattus exulans.

Cook discovered and named Norfolk Island on his second voyage on Resolution in 1774. He managed to land briefly and reported on the pine trees and flax on the island. The French explorer La Perouse had less success. He sailed around the island in January 1788 in search of a safe landing spot, but eventually gave up and sailed away, commenting that the place was fit only for ‘angels and eagles’.

Only a few weeks later, in March 1788, a small group of marines and convicts from the First Fleet landed on Norfolk Island, partly to deter the French (since they knew that La Perouse was sniffing around) and partly because tall trees and flax were valuable resources for a maritime nation, always on the lookout for new sources of masts and canvas. Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, the pines that dominate Norfolk Island are less sturdy than they appear, snapping easily at a weak spot where the branches meet the trunk – so, no masts.

In the early years, the settlement around Kingston (named after the first commandant, Phillip Gidley King) supplied grain to the mainland. This settlement lasted until the mainland didn’t need Norfolk Island’s crops any more, and the residents were moved to New Norfolk in Tasmania. The last settlers left in 1813.

The second convict settlement began in 1825. Like the Moreton Bay settlement at Brisbane, which dates from the same period, this was a place to send convicts who had offended a second time. Like Brisbane, it was brutal. I went on a tour of the convict sites, and our guide described an archaeological dig done some time back, which took samples from one of the underground pits where recalcitrant convicts were confined as further punishment. According to him (and I have no verification, I’m afraid) chemical analysis of the walls and floor show a layer of blood, followed by a layer of whitewash, then more blood, more whitewash….

When convict transportation finally ended in 1852, this settlement was abandoned too, and the final residents transferred to Tasmania in 1856 [see Mr. Baskerville’s comment below].

Meanwhile, far to the east of Norfolk Island, in 1789 the Bounty mutineers, with a number of Tahitian men and women, settled on Pitcairn Island. One of their first acts was to burn the Bounty – allegedly so that it couldn’t be seen by anyone searching for the mutineers, but also making it impossible for any of the party to change their mind and try to leave.

The first years were brutal and bloody – Lord of the Flies, with added sex and racism – and by 1800, only two men survived of the original mutineers, John Adams and Ned Young, together with most of the Tahitian women. By then there were 19 mixed race children, carrying the names of Adams, Young and the other mutineers: Christian, Quintall, Nobbs, and so on.

Life settled down. The last mutineer, John Adams, died in 1829, and any fear of British retribution ended. The population grew, and the island – only 2 miles across – was unable to support them all. In 1856 they petitioned the British government to find them a new home.

Coincidentally, Norfolk Island had just been abandoned – so the British government offered them the island. Most of the Pitcairn Islanders moved to Norfolk Island, and they have been there ever since. They inherited the abandoned roads, mills and dams of the convict settlement, and drew lots for the houses. They reused some of the dressed stone, but most of the convict settlement remains intact.

The New South Wales Government gave each family 50 acres of land, but otherwise left them largely to themselves. The same names recur, in the graveyard, but also in the phone book – Quintall, Adams, Christian, Nobbs. After federation in 1901, Norfolk Island became an Australian territory [See Jack McClintock’s comment below], with its own stamps (as in Pitcairn, stamp collectors have been an invaluable source of revenue) but an Australian administrator and Australian currency.

In 1979 the Fraser Government gave Norfolk Island self-government, but at the end of 2015, that changes. The current Administrator of Norfolk Island, Gary Hardgrave, was a minister in the Howard Government who lost his seat in 2007. Tony Abbott appointed him with a brief to oversee the end of self-government and bring the island under Australian law.

At present, Norfolk Islanders pay no income tax, just a 12% GST, and the island is flat stony cold broke. There is no Medicare, no social security, and the infrastructure is decaying – the potholes in the roads need to be seen to be believed. And the population is falling, as children go to the mainland for further education and work.

Tourism is the only real source of income, but this is down as Australians travel further afield. Cruise tourism throughout the Pacific is up – but cruise ships face the same problem that faced La Perouse, and led to the wreck of the Sirius in 1790. Norfolk Island has no harbour, and no safe landing place for ocean-going ships. Supplies (or tourists) have to be transshipped into small lighters, which is slow and expensive and potentially dangerous in rough conditions.

Demonstration at Norfolk Island

Each hand is named, and represents an objector to the end of self-government on Norfolk Island.

Not surprisingly, the decision to end self-government is controversial. One local told me that some shops won’t serve the Hardgraves, and she had seen people smear the Administrator’s car with cow pats (cows have right of way on the roads). The locals have a history of mutiny, after all. Yet it is hard to see any alternative.

When self-government ends, Norfolk Island will have the status of a local government authority. The residents will pay Australian taxes, but get access to Australian welfare. They have been promised investment in infrastructure – perhaps even the longed for deep-water jetty that might transform their economy. Fixing the potholes would be a start.

With self-government, the role of the Administrator will change, but not disappear. The Administrator has often been a superannuated politician, and it is easy to see why someone might be pleased to take the gig.

Norfolk Island's Government House

Government House, Norfolk Island, first built 1829

Norfolk Island itself is quite achingly beautiful. It has a tight-knit community that is appealingly old fashioned, socially conservative, religious and royalist. The position of Administrator comes with a quite wonderful Government House, within a short walk of the beach at Emily Bay. The surf can be rough, but there’s good windsurfing nearby. The hills are steep, but a really dedicated cyclist would enjoy the challenge.

Update: As a friend points out, Norfolk Island got self-government in 1979 during the Fraser Government – Hawke didn’t come to power until 1983. Now corrected.
The Legislative Assembly has already been abolished (but not as yet Norfolk Island’s duty free status!). An elected Regional Council will be introduced in July 2016. More information available here.

See also Mr Baskerville’s comments below.

Street Names and Naming Conventions

I’ve just got back from a research trip to Sydney. I don’t know greater Sydney terribly well, because when I visit, I spend most of my time in a library or the archives – or back in my hotel bedroom, filing notes or vegged out in front of old episodes of the Antiques Roadshow. This may not sound appealing to many people, but to me, a week in the Mitchell Library is sheer bliss.

This time I blew the budget and stayed on the edge of the CBD, so I could walk to and from the library every day. There’s great charm in walking through a city, getting a feel for the layout and the geography, a sense of what the place felt like before the Car. It is useful to pace out distances: how long did it take the New South Wales Corps to march from their barracks to Government House to overthrow Governor Bligh?

I stayed in a hotel at the Chinatown end of Kent St. This isn’t the Rocks, the original rookery attached to the working port around the Harbour, so eloquently described by Grace Karskens in her book The Rocks but the other end of the CBD, the more orderly development that gradually replaced the original shacks and houses of the early colony.

A symbol of that change is the Judge’s House in Kent St, the oldest house in the Sydney CBD, according to a plaque at the gate, and the second oldest building in Sydney, named after one of its first owners, Judge James Dowling. Though I’m not sure she ever lived there, the house reminded me of his wife Harriott, whose Memoir I read during the week.

Kent St is named after the Duke of Kent, and nearby are memories of the other reprobate Hanoverian brothers, Sussex, Clarence and York. My walk took me past the Judge’s House into Bathurst St, named for the long-standing Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Bathurst, then across George St. This was the original High St of Sydney, and it is still one of its main commercial hubs. Named – naturally – for the King. Then up the slope of Bathurst St, crossing (Prime Ministers) Pitt and Castlereagh into Elizabeth St.

With Elizabeth St, I finally reach a street named after someone who actually visited the country – Elizabeth Macquarie, the Governor’s wife. Then across Hyde Park and across to Macquarie St.

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Hyde Park Barracks

Macquarie St, to my mind, is one of the loveliest streets in Sydney, with its sober Georgians, the Hyde Park Barracks and St James Church facing each other across the street. Beyond the barracks is the old Rum Hospital, now Parliament House. A pause to rub the pig’s nose – which I’ve been doing religiously since I first worked at the State Library of New South Wales in the 1970s – and I’m at the entrance as the doors open at 9.

Il Porcellino, Sydney

Il Porcellino, Sydney, a copy of the Florentine original

People back home in Britain found it hilarious that New South Wales named so many of its streets, towns and geographical features after Tory politicians. Sydney Smith wrote, tongue in cheek, lamenting the lack of Whig equivalents:

We cannot help remarking here, the courtly appellations in which Geography delights – the River Hawkesbury; the Town of Windsor on its banks; Bathurst Plains; Nepean River. Shall we never hear of the Gulph of Tierney; Brougham Point; or the Straights of Mackintosh on the River Grey? (Edinburgh Review, 1819)

It was not to be, at least in Sydney. It all depends on the timing.

In Brisbane, where the streets were laid out in the 1840s, the political order was reversed. One of the few things most people know about Brisbane is that its CBD is laid out on a grid where ‘the boys’ – Edward, Albert, George, William – go in one direction while ‘the girls’ – Ann, Adelaide, Queen, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Mary, Alice – go in the other. They are all Royal names until you reach the edge of town, where a few geographical features – Creek, Wharf – get a look in.

On the south side of the river there is also a modified grid, though its features have been much broken up by later developments. There’s an imperial naming pattern at work here too, though not such an obvious one: the streets are named after Sir Robert Peel, Lord Melbourne, Lord John Russell and Lord Grey, all Prime Ministers, as well as Colonial Secretaries Barons Glenelg and Stanley, and Herman Merivale, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office. Further afield is Gladstone Rd.

Sydney Smith would be pleased. Most of these politicians and bureaucrats were Whigs, although party loyalties were shifting during the 1840s, and the old aristocratic term ‘Whig’ had been replaced by Liberal by the time that Mr. Gladstone became Prime Minister.

The former Premier Peter Beattie once lamented that the name ‘Grey St’ was so bland and boring. In fact Earl Grey was not particularly boring, so it’s a shame that he is best known today for the tea that bears his name. It would be nice if, one day, all these street names carried brief biographies of the people – okay, men – that gave them their names. Otherwise a layer of history disappears into anonymity.

Ref: Sydney Smith’s quotation appears in Anne-Maree Whitaker, Joseph Foveaux: Power and Patronage in Early New South Wales (2000)

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.