Tag Archives: brisbane

Open House in Brisbane 2016

Next weekend (8-9 October) is Open House, Brisbane, when a wide variety of buildings are thrown open to the public.

open-house-2016

The idea began in England, where there has been an Open House London since 1992, but in the last few years the idea has spread more widely. Melbourne has been involved since 2008, and in all other capitals as well – Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth now have open days as well. Nothing yet in Darwin, by the look of it, and I haven’t checked out our regional cities.

The aim is to open up interesting buildings that are not normally accessible to the general public. Private institutions such as clubs and societies, government offices, commercial buildings that are old, or beautiful, or interesting – or all three – are open for us, the curious public, to have an annual snoop around.

I was lucky enough to be in London one year, quite accidentally, on its Open House weekend. With more preparation and more stamina, I might have seen more, but as it was, I spent a happy hour or so pottering around Marlborough House. The building is now the Commonwealth Secretariat, and usually closed to visitors.

Marlborough House was built as a town house for John and Sarah Churchill, first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and is just the sort of pied-à-terre you might expect from a couple whose idea of a country shack was Blenheim Palace. Marlborough House wallows in stucco ornamentation, gilded cornices and chandeliers. Sarah Churchill first hired Sir Christopher Wren – as you do – but sacked him, presumably for not being sufficiently over the top. John Churchill may have beaten Louis XIV’s armies on the field, but Louis got his own back architecturally. Along the rear of the building is a long gallery which was clearly influenced by Versailles’s gallerie des glaces.

This room is now the main conference room, and it is almost entirely filled with an enormous table, large enough so that every member of the British Commonwealth can sit down together in a round table discussion. Except that the table is not round, but an extended oval. The seating is arranged alphabetically around the circumference, from A to Z, starting at the middle of one long side. This arrangement means that M for Malta can happily chat across the narrow axis to A for Antigua or Z for Zambia, but G for Guyana might have difficulty communicating with S for Singapore along the long axis.

When I was there about 15 years ago, relations between Australia and Malaysia were still tetchy* after years of very personal antagonism between Prime Ministers Paul Keating of Australia and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, and visions of them glowering at each other across the table during heads of government meetings really made my day. So it was a bit of a disappointment to learn that Keating and Mahathir never met there, and the seating is laid out as it was at a much earlier Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1969.

As the role of the Commonwealth inevitably declines, no doubt eventually Marlborough House will be recycled once again. Goodness knows what they’ll do with that table. They will need to break it up to get it out the door, but I suppose that’s how they got it in there in the first place.

Meanwhile, Brisbane’s Open House day offers some interesting possibilities, though there will be fewer nymphs, and less stucco generally. Tattersall’s Club has a splendid Daphne Mayo frieze, the Masonic Memorial Temple has terrific black and white marble decorations, and the former Treasury Building, now the Treasury Heritage Hotel, includes a tour of the office of the Minister for Lands.

It should be a good weekend.

*They are again, thanks to the Hooray Henrys at the Formula 1 race the other day.

Apologies – this is an update of my post from 2013. Three years ago I was complaining that neither Sydney nor Hobart had Open House days – now they do 🙂
On the other hand, the Irish Club, which I urged people to visit 3 years ago, has since closed 😦

For another, architectural, perspective on the Open House phenomenon, this article by Susan Holden in The Conversation is worth reading.

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.

Update: Heather’s memory lives on in the Dr Heather Radi Scholarship ‘for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders who display outstanding potential’. Details here.

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.

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.

Coral Lansbury, the PM’s mother

I think I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, not least because he was born in October 1954, more than a year before she married his father in December 1955. These things don’t matter a damn any more, but they probably cut quite deep for both mother and son back in the 1950s.

Most Australians know the general outline of the story, now covered in more detail in Paddy Manning’s new book, Born to Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull was the only child of Bruce Turnbull and Coral Lansbury. He was sent to boarding school when he was 8, in 1963, and ‘soon after’ – as her Australian Dictionary of Biography article discreetly puts it – the marriage fell apart. Coral left her son behind, but took the furniture. Turnbull talked a little bit about his mother on Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet – an old program, repeated on ABC recently after the leadership spill. It’s available on iView until 23 December (in Australia only).

Image 6-12-2015 at 1.00 pm

From Trove Newspapers

From her teens, Coral  worked in radio as an actress and scriptwriter. She married 3 times. Her first marriage was to radio actor George Edwards, who played ‘Dad’ in the long-running radio series Dad and Dave. She was 23, while he was 64, and this was his fourth marriage. Two days after the wedding, Edwards was hospitalized with pneumonia, and died 6 months later in August 1953.

What interests me, though, is that Coral Lansbury was a historian. She was appointed a lecturer in History and Australian Studies at the University of New South Wales in 1963, and wrote articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including one on her first husband, actor George Edwards, one on the trade unionist William Guthrie Spence (with her supervisor, Bede Nairn) and – oddly – one on Charles Dickens.

It is now more than 50 years since the original Australian Dictionary of Biography was conceived, and at present discussions are going on to work out how – and how much – to update the project, just as in the UK the original Dictionary of National Biography has been updated to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web publishing makes such an update possible, though it is still a massive undertaking. It also requires policy decisions about who does or does not get included. These days I don’t think Charles Dickens would get the cut, although the ADB has included other British figures who never came to Australia, mostly politicians and bureaucrats who had a more obvious influence on the Australian colonies.

In 1970, Coral Lansbury published Arcady in Australia: the evocation of Australia in nineteenth-century English literature (1970), in which she argued that Charles Dickens

invented the Australian Bush Legend. In 1850 he was concerned, like most English people, with a great problem: what to do with all those distressed and unemployed, the rising mob in England. Well, you know what Dickens did. He sent Micawber off to Australia, and there you have him perspiring in the sun. The most unemployable character in literature becomes a magistrate… And the Arcadian legend is born not in Australia but (because) a great many English people… wanted to impose it on Australia.
‘Mum of ‘Spycatcher’ lawyer has regrets’, Canberra Times, 23 October 1988

Coral Lansbury’s academic career followed a strange trajectory, even by the standards of clever women of her day, struggling to carve out a place in the university system during the 1950s and 1960s. She went to the University of Sydney and did a BA with first class honours, but according to her ADB entry, ‘as an unmatriculated student, she was ineligible to graduate’. Why? How could that happen? She won prizes – the George Arnold Wood prize for history, and the Henry Lawson prize for poetry – but it took 11 years from starting an MA in 1952 to appointment as a lecturer at UNSW in 1963, the year that her son Malcolm was sent off to boarding school at the age of 8.

At about that time, her second marriage began to fall apart. She began an affair with a fellow historian, J. H. M. (Jock) Salmon, and they married when both their divorces were finalized. They moved first to the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and then to America, where Coral was appointed Professor and later Dean of Graduate Studies at Rutgers University. Her later academic publications include The Reasonable Man: Trollope’s Legal Fiction (1981), and Elizabeth Gaskell (1984). She also wrote a number of novels. She might have had an even more stellar career, but in 1991 she died of bowel cancer, aged 62.

Two years ago, the Australian Dictionary of Biography produced The ADB’s Story (ed. Melanie Nolan and Christine Fernon) to mark the 50th anniversary of the ADB project. Melanie Nolan also wrote the ADB entry on Coral Lansbury, which may be why Malcolm Turnbull, then Minister for Communications, was invited to launch the book. The full speech is here – but this is how he began:

Can I say at the outset how incredibly moved I was – I nearly burst into tears at the end of this room when I came here – because you were kind enough to mention my Mother was a contributor, not a high-volume contributor, but a contributor to the ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography). But I was extraordinarily moved talking to you three and to others here, because I was for the first time I can remember, since my Mother’s death, in the company of historians. And I had forgotten what that felt like. And it is actually very different. And I can’t quite put my finger on it but I was nearly overwhelmed by a wave of emotion. So don’t think I’m just a flinty-hearted politician!

Some months ago, Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old archaeologist, was tortured and killed in Palmyra by ISIS thugs. Referring to this terrible event, Tony Abbott called al-Asaad an antiquarian. Now ISIS’s crime was so horrific that it seems churlish to mention in the same breath our former PM’s minor linguistic crime, but I must admit that it is a relief to have a new Prime Minister who knows the difference between an antiquarian and an archaeologist, and one who has expressed publicly his fondness for the company of historians.

Note: The original typescripts of Coral Lansbury’s radio plays are part of the Eunice Hanger Collection of Australian Playscripts in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

Libby Connors’ Warrior wins Premiers Prize

Last night my good friend Libby Connors won the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance for her book Warrior: A legendary leader’s dramatic life and violent death on the colonial frontier (Allen & Unwin, 2015).

libby connors warrior

To my shame, I’ve been meaning to review Warrior for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for a few months now, but it has been on the backburner – well, okay, my whole blog has been on the backburner this year, as I try to finish my book.

Now of course, with the recognition that comes with winning the major prize in the Queensland Literary Awards for 2015, Libby will get all the publicity she needs without my poor endorsement but, for what it’s worth, Warrior is terrific: an engrossing read and an enlightening new perspective on racial accommodation and conflict at Moreton Bay. It is also a high wire act. Unlike most of those who write about race relations in Australia, Libby has chosen to write from the point of view of Dundalli, the warrior of the title, a lawman from the Dalla tribe in the mountains north of Brisbane who later moved to Bribie Island, and who was hanged in Brisbane in January 1855.

In Connors’ account, Aboriginal people are not generic victims of generic white abuse, but have names, tribal affiliations, objectives and agency – and their own customary law. Aboriginal dispute resolution might lead to fights, and occasionally to deaths, but it had its own internal logic, and it was not disproportionate to the original offence.

In March 1842 a terrible offence occurred when the shepherds of Kilcoy Station gave out flour poisoned with arsenic. Somewhere between 30 and 60 Aboriginal men, women and children died. Connors forensically examines how this event affected Aboriginal politics, and how certain men were legally designated to avenge the crime. More killings followed, a clash of cultures that culminated with another judicial killing, the hanging of the lawman, Dundalli. Like most forensic examinations, the story is fascinating but hard to summarize – and you really should read the book.

The Queensland Literary Awards have been controversial in recent years. One of the first acts of the previous LNP government, under Premier and Minister for the Arts (!) Campbell Newman, was to cancel the Premier’s Prizes. The Premier justified the act as a way to save money, although the savings were infinitesimal compared with the ill will generated in the arts community – and arts communities, as Federal Arts Minister George Brandis learned to his cost, can express their resentment in creative ways.

george brandis as venus by botticelli

The response in Queensland was the keep the prizes going through crowdsourcing. This meant a smaller pool of money for prizes – but for many writers, perhaps most, the publicity generated by winning a prize is still valuable, especially as the subsequent boom in sales brings more royalties anyway.

The prize money has now been restored under the new Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, while Campbell Newman experiences the sour aftertaste of disapproval, with some Brisbane bookshops refusing to stock his new biography. (I can see Avid Reader’s point, but this seems to smack of censorship to me.)

One unspoken reason for the Premiers Prize controversy, I suspect, is that writers from Down South frequently dominated the Queensland prizes. That tends to be the case with prizes: in any one year, a few titles do the rounds of all the competitions. Their domination may be deserved, but sometimes it feels like the lazy option, and in any case, there’s an argument that local awards should honour local writers. Hence the ‘Work of State Significance’ category. Connors deserved to win on merit, but winning this category with Warrior also says much, I hope, about Queensland’s maturity, its ability to confront the centrality of Aboriginal dispossession in the state’s history.

Connors was in many ways the ideal person to write this book, for it depends on a sympathetic understanding of the local landscapes around Moreton Bay, and Libby’s environmental credentials have served her well. She is probably more familiar to most Australians as an environmental activist than as a historian. She has stood as a Senate candidate for the Greens, and is associated with the Lock the Gate Alliance that has campaigned against coal seam gas mining, initially on the Darling Downs.

In addition, like many academics these days – especially, dare I say it, women with more senior partners – Libby has spent her life as a #FIFOacademic, commuting between her home in Brisbane and her job at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. I know that has made research and writing difficult at times, but it has also taken her regularly through Dundalli’s lands, across the Brisbane Valley, through the backwaters of the river systems – the Stanley, Bremer, Brisbane, Pine and Caboolture – that mix and merge on their way to Moreton Bay.

In Warrior, this intimate knowledge of the landscape comes through very clearly:

The Brisbane Valley stations formed a crescent around the spine of Brisbane’s D’Aguilar Range. They occupied the river and creek flats of the Brisbane River as it curved west and north of the old penal station, and the pastoral leases reached right into the foothills and scrubs of the mountains that fed the river. These mountains were Dalla heartlands. [p.58]

Dundalli’s country. Congratulations, Libby, you’ve done him proud.

Sausages at the Shrine of Remembrance

Last week I went to the book launch of Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45, a fascinating study of same sex relations between men during the Second World War, in Australia and the Pacific.

Much of the book is based in Brisbane, which for a brief time between 1942 and 1945, played a central role in the Pacific war effort. A million American servicemen passed through my hometown during these years. They were, according to the catchphrase, ‘Over paid, oversexed, and over here’ – and for some of them, as well as for the Australian servicemen and civilians they met, the turbulence of war brought with it new opportunities for sexual expression – and opportunities for new forms of sexual expression.

cover of Yorick Small Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific

Some of the people Smaal writes about were openly homosexual – or as open as it was possible to be at a time when such activity was illegal. Others were experimenting surreptitiously with homosex (Smaal’s preferred term) as a passing phase that they barely acknowledged to themselves.

Smaal is particularly interested in the geography of sexual encounters, so I found it fascinating to see my city laid out in a new way. My first memories of Brisbane date from the 1950s but my family’s stories go back to wartime experiences. My father used to tell the tale of seeing a man cooking sausages over the Flame in the Shrine of Remembrance in Anzac Square. When Dad questioned him, the man said he was an ex-serviceman, which seemed to be an adequate justification for his transgression. I wonder, though, if Dad realized at the time that this place was a gay beat?

At school, we were told not to wait for buses in the city at the covered bus stop in William St – another pick up point. And my mother’s dark but obscure references to the Pink Elephant Café make more sense now – the proprietor of the café was Frank Mitchell, a close associate of the artist Donald Friend, whose painting of naked men showering is on the cover of Smaal’s book. Mum visited the café as a teenager, all the same, though whether she met ‘Lana Turner’, ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ and the other cross-dressing waiters, she has never divulged.

By the standards of the day, I think my family was pretty relaxed about same sex relationships. My grandparents had a self-contained flat attached to their old Queenslander, which they rented out to a series of ‘confirmed bachelors’. One of them was the distinguished poet Val Vallis. My grandmother got on famously with them, and many of them came to her funeral.

Smaal’s research for this book is remarkable. Sodomy was illegal, so there are numerous court and police records – both civilian and military, Australian and American – and he has made good use of these. Many consensual encounters never reached the courts, though, especially if the participants were discreet and could conduct their encounters in privacy, though this was not always easy in a military setting. Smaal has interviewed a few remaining survivors of this era, and has used earlier interviews from the 1980s onwards. There are also memoirs and diaries. Faces are pixellated and pseudonyms are used where an unexpected revelation could cause someone embarrassment.

Sources on sex are always hard to come by, and so are sources on illegal activities, so Smaal is working under a double disadvantage, but one of the characteristics of military organizations is that they are vast bureaucratic regimes with a capacity for generating endless paperwork – the raw material of historians.

Both the Australian and the American armies worried about homosexuality within their ranks, and its implications for the civilian community. These concerns were less moralistic than practical: as with women in the army today, the top brass worried that consensual same sex relationships might change the group dynamics of the fighting unit. They worried about non-consensual sex, or sex with young boys (though since all homosex was illegal, no legal age of consent existed). They worried about venereal disease.

Smaal looks beyond Brisbane to other places across the South Pacific where soldiers met and mingled – and encountered other races and cultures, with different attitudes towards homosexual relations, looking particularly at the experiences of the Australians in New Guinea and the Americans in New Caledonia.

Studies of same sex relations can often be a rather cheerless read, partly because medical and criminal records invariably form an important part of the research on which they are based. What I like particularly about Smaal’s book is that his subjects are not constantly viewed in the dock, or under the microscope, but were frequently joyful participants of the world they inhabited, ‘a very social world. Australian girls and US belles made their own fun. Friends and lovers organized regular get-togethers and sing songs.’ [83] It sounds like the obverse of the nurses and marines in South Pacific, and no doubt it was fun – though the slightly hysterical fun that young men on a battlefront engage in, constantly aware of their own mortality in a war zone.

It was a world that operated below the radar. Though many of the men Smaal describes were good soldiers and brave men, they inhabited a world that was out of kilter with the dominant narrative of manly fighting men and the Anzac spirit. As Robert Aldrich said, when he launched the book last Thursday, the word ‘Anzac’ is even missing from the index – and how good is that.