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Archive for the ‘Non Fiction’ Category

Foreign Correspondence (1997) is an early autobiographical work, coming before Brooks had published any of her prize-winning fiction. You can read my review of one of her well-regarded novels, People of the Book (2008) here. This one is not really an autobiography as such; rather it’s a view of her life through a particular lens which focuses on the themes of staying and leaving.

The book has a sub-title – which doesn’t for some reason appear on the edition I read – which pretty much tells you what it is about: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over. As a child being brought up in what she suggests was one of the more boring suburbs of Sydney, Brooks finds ‘the opening I’d looked for to the wider world’ by writing to pen friends, first in Sydney, then America, Israel, Palestine and France. Much later in life, she decides to follow up her pen friends and find out what has happened to them. Thus in Part I the book follows her life growing up in the suburbs and her departure from Australia to become a foreign correspondent – hence the full double meaning of the title. Then in Part II comes the later intertwining of her life with those of her pen friends and the wider world. ‘The geography of this childhood correspondence,’ she writes, ‘has become the road map of the adult life.’

Although she is quite self-deprecating about it, Brooks is clearly exceptionally clever. Is there something in her childhood circumstances that contributed to this? Is it nature or nurture, or possibly, a bit of both? She was effectively an only child; her only sister was eight years older. Her father was an American jazz singer who put all that behind him soon after settling in Australia, to become a sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald; he has clearly influenced her life choices. Through his interest in journalism, she came to see that ‘Australians had lives that were worth writing about’. He was not an easy man; ‘I learned that if I wanted to talk to him it was easier to follow his adult interests’. From this she comes to see that there is a world outside Australia, and sets out to find out about it though reading, and her search for pen pals. However in this account, Brooks’s mother is perhaps the greater influence. As a child Brooks was often ill and unable to go to school; it was her mother who helped and encouraged her, and played games that inspired and informed her creative imagination. It was her mother who could ‘enter a child’s world with ease and spend comfortable hours there’, giving Brooks comfort and security in what might otherwise have been a lonely childhood. School – a Catholic girls’ college – is passed over with little comment; clearly she does not see it as an important formative influence.

Brooks grew up passionate about whatever it was that caught her interest, be it Star Trek, kibbutz in Israel, or the Paris student uprising in 1968. All of these coincided with or contributed to her search for pen friends. Sometimes she doesn’t get quite what she expects, either from her pen friends, or her unfulfilled teenage rebelliousness. She is, nevertheless, able to conclude from the victory of Whitlam’s ALP in the 1972 Australian election that ‘It is a great thing, at seventeen, to learn that it’s possible to change the world’. But it is inevitable that she will, like many others, leave Australia to pursue the fulfilment she seeks overseas.

I’m not going to outline the stories of each of Brooks’s pen friends. They all raise interesting and sometimes disturbing questions about life choices, perceptions of the world, and its realities. Each of them opens up a conversation that Brooks confronts with honesty and humanity, and sometimes humour. She writes with an easy fluency, honed perhaps by her experience as a journalist, and coming to full fruition in her later fiction. The use of her penfriends as a way into her life and experiences works exceptionally well as a structure for the book.

As an Australian brought up in an even more boring suburb than Brooks, I can’t help comparing our experiences. She’s younger than I am – though her schooling was apparently a bit less empowering – and that makes it a bit easier for me to accept her complete superiority in everything she’s done. I can only admire her courage and determination, as well, of course, as her intellectual prowess. Why didn’t I keep writing to my pen friend?

You can read more about Geraldine Brooks here. And this site contains a list of her works of fiction, which include the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, a major achievement since the prize is for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. Brooks became an American citizen in 2002. But she still calls Australia ‘home’, sort of; you may be interested in her Boyer Lectures 2011: The Idea of Home (or “At Home in the World”).

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The sub-title of this book, published in 2010, is A Redneck Memoir. Having read Bageant’s earlier book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (2007) (reviewed here) I thought this one might offer some pointers to current state of American conservative politics and the rise of Donald Trump. I was right, though the memoir also challenges the assumptions of many liberals like me concerning the people he writes about.

Bageant was born into a family that had for many generations worked their own small farm in West Virginia, essentially as a subsistence unit with strong community links. But his grandfather and grandmother were the last generation to be able to do so, as the post-World War II cash economy and large scale agri-business, hand in hand with rampant consumerism, reduced them, and others like them, to being part of a white underclass with no choice but to sell their labour where they could for poverty-level wages.  The subsistence farming community was marked by hard work, thrift and independence; there was no place for government, big business or unions. And even when the tie to the land was broken by economic necessity, the value of independence remained. Bageant traces the swelling of the ranks of a white underclass through the decline of his own extended family, noting that despite continuing hard work, they were caught in a downward spiral. The one thing that might have saved them, a decent education, was for the most part denied them by niggardly local elites who controlled their schools, and who encouraged early leaving for dead-end jobs or military service in America’s overseas wars.

As in his previous book, Bageant explains how gun culture and fundamentalist religion are integral to the values of the white underclass. Hunting has always been a feature of life in West Virginia; guns were an integral part of the subsistence economy. They are no less valued because that economy no longer operates. Any suggestion of gun control is anathema, the more so as these people are traditionally suspicious of almost any government activity. Fundamentalist religion offers a sense of community previously provided by being part of a genuinely close knit, land-based, economy. He isn’t blind to the black/white world view of Christian fundamentalism, nor to the ignorance and superstition often involved, but he tries to explain why this world view has such a hold on people like his family. Central to his analysis is the refusal to accept the reality of class in America: ‘Illiterate? In poor health? Underpaid, disposable, superstitious, and exploited? Big deal. That would describe much of the planet. The difference is American class denial’.

Bageant clearly respects the old ways of independent subsistence farming. I think he may be sentimentalising these old ways, which were almost by definition narrow and restrictive of the individual, especially women. He sees the processes that destroyed that way of life almost as a conspiracy between government – Republican and Democrat alike – and big business. Agri-business didn’t happen, he argues, by chance; it was rather the product of regulation, subsidy, financial instruments and government sponsored propaganda, supplementing the economic power of a few big corporations. I’m not entirely comfortable with his view, but neither can I really fault it. It’s an uncomfortable sort of book.

Equally clearly Bageant hates the circumstances in which the white underclass now finds itself – both from what has been done to it by way of poor health, education and wages, and by what it accepts for itself, particularly the ‘collective amnesia’ which inhibits people’s ability to question their situation. Bageant uses his mother’s diary to inform his account of his parents’ life, so he has primary evidence of the poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that prevailed. However when he askes her about those days, she looks back on them with nostalgia. ‘For all the anxiety, grief and hardship, she … was remembering those times as the days of rainbow pie.’ Hence the ironic title. However this denial, he argues, is not just the blindness of the underclass; it is promoted by the rich and shared by the liberal intelligentsia who do not make the effort to understand this underclass and who may even, indeed, deny its existence. Hence the sub-title, taking to himself and his family the label ‘redneck’.

Bageant did not live to see the emergence of Donald Trump as the leading aspirant for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. But much in this memoir foreshadows the acceptance of just such a candidate. On the issue of the white underclass’s hostility to healthcare reform, for example, he writes that the ‘sad truth is that the pent up anger has little to do with feelings about healthcare, but a hellluva lot to do with all the shitty breaks, insults, and degradations that come with being an underclass citizen of the Empire.’ This anger has been successfully exploited by people who benefit from America’s class war. The calls for exclusion of Mexicans, and increased protection for American manufacturing – however unrealistic – resonate with the overwhelmingly white male supporters of Donald Trump many of whom are themselves excluded from the prosperity and comfort of what they routinely see on TV as the American dream.  Bageant might well be saying ‘I warned you’ from his grave.

Bageant doesn’t say in this memoir how he escaped his background to become a journalist, but you can find out more about him in this quite detailed account of his life. You can also read his Wikipedia entry here. If, like me, you don’t know what rainbow pie is, here is a recipe.

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Before we start, I have to declare an interest. The Jack de Crow of the title (2009) is a Mirror dinghy. I also own a Mirror dinghy, long disused in the back shed, but nevertheless familiar in all its quirks and pleasures. I’ve even rowed a Mirror dinghy and know just how hard it is; even loaded it sits high in the water. Mackinnon’s unlikely voyage is simply amazing.

This is an account of a nearly 5000 kilometre voyage sailing single-handed in an eleven foot dinghy from North Shropshire to Sulina in Romania on the Black Sea. Mackinnon didn’t set out to sail further than a few kilometres, but after reaching each destination it seemed a good idea to go just a bit further. Quite a lot of the journey was on canals, where he mostly had to row (a skill which he learnt on the job), but he sailed across the English Channel and where ever else the waterway – river or canal – was broad enough. It took over a year, as he couldn’t sail in the depths of winter. And along the way he had many adventures.

Of course he’s only picked out the most interesting events and encounters to write about. ‘The next five days were utterly wonderful,’ he says at one point, ‘and so make poor telling, alas.’ This of course dramatizes the journey, which must at some points have been relatively mundane – that is if sailing every day into unknown waters in Eastern Europe could ever be called mundane. ‘I Exaggerate For Effect – my friends tell me I was born for that motto,’ he writes, and perhaps he does overstate some incidents. But even if understated there is more than enough interest to keep the reader eagerly turning the pages to find what scrape Mackinnon will get into next. There is also a certain amount of foreshadowing – as in ‘I set off in a jaunty frame of mind for what was to be, without a doubt, the worst day of my life.’ Really? Read on!

Mackinnon has certain attributes which made the trip possible; he is a skilled sailor since childhood in Australia, he is strong and brave and cool (mostly) in a crisis. On the other hand these are flimsy enough advantages to set against the weather, the waves and perils of his mode of travel, particularly as he was doing it on a shoestring budget. He acknowledges the considerable support he received from family and friends; who of us could rock up to the gates of Eton, drop the name of a housemaster and be taken in and made comfortable for the night? But one of the aspects of his story that makes the book really pleasing to read is the kindness he received from strangers all along his route. Of course he met a few churlish characters as well, but overwhelmingly he found people willing and eager to give him a meal and a bed for the night, and even more important, help him repair his boat after each of the numerous mishaps that befell her. Perhaps the somewhat eccentric figure that he cut – for most of the journey wearing a pith helmet until it was stolen – or the audacity of the venture itself caught people’s attention. But their genuine and unsolicited kindness and care revive even the most wilted belief in people’s innate humanity.

Mackinnon also writes amusingly. His style is self-deprecating and somewhat confessional, which makes him seem like a friend to the reader. He’s happy to share his mistakes and misjudgements. He imagines, for example, that the crew of a Romanian barge big enough to ‘sit squarely in the middle of two football pitches end to end and not leave a lot of room for the players’ will likely ‘live on vodka, deep-fried pig’s blood sausages and any dinghy sailors they can run down and gut.’ In fact they saved the dinghy from certain destruction, and treated Mackinnon with every kindness – if that’s what you call plying him with schnapps.

There isn’t much about Mackinnon on the internet; here is a very brief biography. Since writing this book he has published The Well at the World’s End (2010), which is about a journey from New Zealand to the Scottish island of Iona. A longer review of Jack de Crow is here. And if you want to find out more about Mirror dinghies, try here. Ours has one refinement over Jack de Crow – an automatic bailer, but it only works at speed – and almost certainly not if you’re rowing …

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Why did I read a book I knew would upset me so much? After all, I already knew the ending. Well, I was on a plane, and it was all I had to read … and once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

The book, published in 2014, is subtitled The Story of a Murder Trial, and that is exactly what it is. It tells of the two trials of Robert Farquharson, an apparently ordinary bloke who, on the evening of Father’s Day 2005, drove his car into a dam in country Victoria. He escaped, but his three sons, aged 10, 7 and 2 did not. Farquharson’s story was that he had suffered from a coughing fit while driving, blacked out and ended up in a dam. He said he had tried to save the children but had been unable to do so. An investigation by the police into what had happened concluded that there was enough evidence that Farquharson had deliberately driven into the dam, and he was charged with the boys’ murder.

Garner structures the book around the trial, which she attended every day. So we meet all the main characters: Farquharson himself, looking ‘small, scared and terribly lonely’, Peter Morrissey, Farquharson’s defence lawyer, with his ‘big, fair and bluff, Irish style, with the bulk and presence of a footballer’, Jeremy Rapke QC, the Crown Prosecutor, with ‘a mouth that cut across his face on a severe slant, like that of someone who spent his days listening to bullshit’, and the judge, Justice Philip Cummins, with his ‘open, good-humoured face’. And then there is Cindy, Farquharson’s ex-wife and mother of the dead boys, her new partner, her family and Farquharson’s family. Next, like the jury, we hear the evidence against Farquharson, and Morrissey’s attack on it. Was it possible that Farquharson had blacked out because of a coughing fit? What evidence was there about the path of the car into the dam? Why were the lights and the ignition off? And much worse, what would have happened to the boys when the car sank?

As well as this more or less technical evidence – though being technical doesn’t make it any the less horrible – there are the relationships involved. Was Farquharson bitter and vengeful about his separation from his wife? She said she believed his story, and that he would never hurt the kids, because he loved them (– though she had changed her mind on this by the second trial). And even if he did love them, Garner puts paid to the ‘sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges.’ Had he really tried to save them? And what about his odd behaviour immediately after the crash, when he had refused the offer of two passing motorists to dive into the dam to search for the car, and instead demanded to be taken to his ex-wife’s house so he could tell her he’d killed the kids? Was this a natural desire to share his shock and horror, or an act of revenge? The jury eventually finds him guilty, but he wins an appeal and a new trial. The new jury finds him guilty again.

None of this does justice to the power and passion of the book. Garner almost wants him not to be guilty, because how can one comprehend that a father would deliberately kill his children? ‘In spite of everything I know about the ways of the world,’ she writes, ‘it was completely unendurable to me that a man would murder his own children.’ At times, she almost feels a bit sorry for him, he is so pathetic. I was strongly reminded by her description of his behaviour in the dock of Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ (which you can read more about here). He’s isn’t presented as a monster; he’s ordinary, though lacking in insight or empathy – failing to ‘think’ in the same way Arendt is describing. But maybe this makes him a monster.

Because Farquharson is charged with murder, the court cannot consider the possibility that hovers in the background of the book: that Farquharson’s plunge into the dam was a failed suicide attempt – which might have made his crime manslaughter. His lawyer does indeed clutch at this straw at the end of the second trial, but Farquharson never strays from his ‘not guilty’ plea, and so this possibility – attractive because marginally less horrible than intentional murder – is never explored. Because of this there is never any discussion of what he did or might have done to get his children out of the car; he claims only to have regained consciousness too late to save anyone but himself.

Some of the journalists covering the trial thought at times that Farquharson’s legal team might have established ‘reasonable doubt’; neither jury thought so. The evidence is there for readers to make what they will of it; I know what I think.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, but you still aren’t sure whether or not to read this book, have a look at this masterly review by Peter Craven, who says it all so much better than I can. This one by David Maher is pretty interesting too. Ten years on the case is still ongoing in the sense that Farquharson’s ex-wife is now in the process of applying for compensation from the victims of crime fund. It’s still ongoing, too, in the sense that it’s something no one who has read the book can ever forget.

You can read more about Helen Garner here, and my review of her 2004 book Joe Cinque’s Consolation here.

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When Hugh Stretton, one of Australia’s great public intellectuals, died last month aged 91, I was moved to re-read one of the first books he wrote* – Ideas for Australian Cities. This book, published in 1970 was so unusual that he couldn’t find an academic publisher for it, so he published it himself. At the time, I found it one of the most important books I’d read, one that changed my way of looking at cities. So what do I think of it forty-five years later?

Most of the book is about the history of the cities Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and the town planning arrangements that were operating in them in the late 1960s. Most space is given to Canberra, then still a relatively new city, offering options for planned development not open to older cities. Adelaide gets the next most space, in particular the work of the SA Housing Trust, which was then still a major player in the housing market as a provider of low cost housing for workers, rather than welfare housing, centrally planned, but built through private contractors. Melbourne and Sydney get less space as established cities unlikely, though for different reasons, to be amenable to a planned response to such problems as underinvestment, sprawl and overcrowding which already characterising them.

In 1970 there was considerable novelty in a book about cities. Stretton refers to the existence of some rather more technical urban research and publications, but for most students of Australian history, it was the impact of the bush that defined Australia. Cities were still the ‘five teeming sores’, the parasites on the countryside of A.D. Hope’s bitter poem Australia. Stretton’s book marked a sea change in attitudes to the centrality not only of cities, but also of the suburbs in assessments of national life. Rather than seeing it as deadening, Stretton saw the quarter acre block as a site with potential for freedom and creativity for families.

It’s true that the planning regime of each of these cities as described by Stretton is now out of date; since 1970 there has been both a wave of political interest in cities and a retreat into neo-liberal reliance on the market to shape them. Nothing has come, other than a few false starts, of his hope that new cities would be created, so as to reproduce the amenities and freedoms of the old ones. The problems he identified then have only got worse now: unaffordable house prices in Sydney and Melbourne, long journeys to work for those forced out to the margins, traffic congestion, destruction of parts of cities to build freeways and parking lots, inadequate public transport, well-meaning but ultimately destructive creation of public housing ghettos which breed crime and violence, or, more likely, very little public housing at all, and long waiting lists for the most vulnerable.

But Stretton has nevertheless left a major legacy – or at least he has left me one. This is the understanding that urban development is a site of power. He makes it very clear in his book that urban growth, and the planning – however much or how little – that shapes it, is essentially the result of political choices. In fact he calls the book a ‘political tract’. By this he means that planning choices – even the choice to do nothing – have differential effects on the rich and the poor. It is nearly always, he says, the rich that benefit when development is left to the market, but proactive planning can also have a bias in favour of the rich if it results in ghettos for the poor. His ideal is for as little social segregation as possible, as mixed neighbourhoods generate better schools, because there are parents with the resources to defend and improve them, better facilities because there are more people able to argue for them, and more diversity and interest to leaven the mixture. Unfortunately segregation is becoming more common, and is a major factor in both creating and sustaining inequality in Australian society.

Stretton also has a major concern about planning which focuses on the needs of men as workers and commuters, and ignores the needs of women and children at home in the suburbs. Planners, he felt, often privileged cars over pedestrians, made routes to schools and shops unduly dangerous, and favoured high rise living even though it was quite unsuitable for young children. This is an area where much has changed, with many more women now in the workforce, so that fewer journeys are made on foot (making traffic congestion worse), and unsupervised play in neighbourhood backyards is relatively rare (children without this freedom now play computer games alone inside). Many families live in medium density housing because they can’t afford a house with a backyard or aren’t prepared to drive the long distances to get to one – which they would have little time to enjoy anyway. But I don’t think these changes negate Stretton’s basic concerns about the importance of the needs of children for suburban safety and freedoms.

In an interview in 2007, Stretton was asked how he thought Australia’s cities were going. His main concerns remained the need to develop alternative city centres, with the full range of employment, government services and cultural pursuits, though he thought it unlikely that the political will existed to do that. He also re-iterated the need for public housing that was more than simply for welfare purposes, as that almost always resulted in ghettos for the poor: public housing should be built ‘to sell into the middle and bottom of the housing market to keep it effective for everybody…I would love all that back and I don’t think there is ever any good reason for being rid of it.’ He rather confounded his conservative interviewer by his concluding remark: ‘I think part of the problem is governments have decided that they must buy votes by cutting taxes at election time, not revealing that this means that house prices are anything up to twice what they need be for lack of that public supply into the housing markets.’ An unfashionable view, maybe, but I think it’s as true now as it was in 1970.

Hugh Stretton’s voice in defence of equality will be sadly missed.

There isn’t much about him on the internet; here is the barest outline of his career and work. There is far more to it than I can cover here, but you might like to read two other posts I wrote about his 2005 book Australia Fair here and here.

*The Political Sciences, his major academic work to that time, was published in 1969 by Routledge & K. Paul, respectable academic publishers.

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John Bray (1912-1995) was an Adelaide lawyer, classical scholar, and poet. From 1967-1978 he served as Chief Justice of the South Australian Supreme Court. He was born into the ‘Adelaide Establishment’, a loose grouping of families of wealth and influence in the small and intensely provincial city of Adelaide. His grandfather had been the first native born Premier of the colony, he attended Adelaide’s main private boys’ school, took a law degree at Adelaide University and moved into a law practice in the city, and thence to the Supreme Court. A commendable life no doubt, but what is there about it that makes John Bray worthy of a full biography (2015)?

This is the question asked by former High Court Judge Michael Kirby in his foreword to the book. He suggests that Bray was not only a first class jurist, but also that he ‘challenged elements of his society’ by his life and his values – and that he suffered from a conservative backlash because of it. ‘This, then, is the ultimate fascination of the dichotomy at the heart of the life of John Jefferson Bray,’ he writes. Does the book live up to this promise?

Bray’s literary interests and the friendships he made because of them were unusual enough in the Adelaide of the 1930s. Though not a modernist in cultural matters, or a political radical, he had friends who were. He questioned the prudish censorship of the day and the enforcement of morals by the courts. And he didn’t ever wear a hat! Furthermore, he was a lifelong bachelor, which led to endless speculation about his sexuality. Kirby argues that Bray had a perfect right to privacy in this area, and Emerson leave a full discussion of it until a final chapter. But it was the issue of his sexuality that involved Bray in major challenges in SA.

Before that, however, Bray had made enemies in high places for other reasons. One major occasion for this was his successful defence in 1960 of Rohan Rivett, editor of Adelaide’s then evening paper, the News, against charges of seditious libel. These arose from Rivett’s commitment to see justice done in the case of Rupert Max Stuart, who was facing the death penalty after being found guilty of murder on less than fully convincing grounds. Rivett and the News were accused of libelling the Chief Justice, who was acting as a Royal Commissioner in an inquiry into the case. Emerson suggests that the personal involvement of the Liberal Premier Sir Thomas Playford in this case helped bring about the defeat of his government after twenty-three years in office.

Bray was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by the Labor Premier Don Dunstan. He was not the candidate favoured by the higher reaches of the legal profession. Bray warned Dunstan that his ‘Bohemian and unconventional temperament and manner of life’ made him ‘a dubious choice for the post.’ Dunstan persisted, but was in fact advised not to appoint him on grounds of his lifestyle – read suspected homosexuality. From this advice it became clear that SA police were keeping secret files on Bray – and many others – without legal basis. This issue simmered for a time, but finally in 1978 blew up into a full-blown political crisis which resulted in a Royal Commission into the existence of the files and the sacking of the then Police Commissioner by the Dunstan government on the grounds that he had misled them – resulting in a further Royal Commission into the dismissal. Despite the fact that the Royal Commission found the dismissal to be constitutionally correct, Bray resigned as Chief Justice. Dunstan retired the following year, both, Emerson claims, victims of the deep prejudice in sections of South Australian society against homosexuality.

Aside from these two major episodes, Emerson covers other legal matters Bray was involved in, and comments on his poetry and classical research and writing. Bray was clearly concerned about human rights and personal freedoms, though of course he used his legal skills to defend the guilty as well as the innocent. From Emerson’s account, it seems to me that his poetry and classical writing, while unusual in someone of his background, were interesting rather than brilliant. Emerson also discusses Bray’s friendships with a range of stimulating people, showing he was able to function in a range of social and intellectual environments much wider than the usual, and certainly quite different from the norm in Adelaide at the time. He seems to have been a generous friend, attracting strong loyalties – as well as the enmity of the Establishment. I have to admit to a personal interest here; Bray was unfailingly supportive of a member of my family, one of his legal colleagues who had fallen on hard times.

I read the book with interest because it is about interesting events in Adelaide where I live. But I’m not convinced that it would hold great interest for anyone who didn’t have a special concern for the subject, either as a piece of South Australian history, or as judicial history. Is this because the life itself doesn’t after all command wider attention? Or because Emerson’s book doesn’t do it justice? A bit of both, I think.

You can read more about the Stuart case here. And more about the dismissal of the Police Commissioner here.

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The subtitle of this 2014 book is ‘Australia’s Greatest Citizen General’, which gave me hope that it might look at Sir John Monash as a citizen as well as a general. Alas, this was not to be. The book is a plea for a re-evaluation of Monash’s contribution as a soldier in World War I, and is central to Fischer’s campaign to have him posthumously promoted to Field Marshall. Tim Fischer is a former leader of the National Party and deputy Prime Minister of Australia, so I should have known better.

The book does give a brief outline of Monash’s career before the war as an engineer, and mentions his role as head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission after it. But most of the book concerns the various campaigns Monash was involved in, from Gallipoli to the Western Front, where he became commander of the Australian Army Corps. Fischer argues that Monash learnt from his own and other people’s mistakes and developed an ‘holistic’ approach to military tactics and strategy that was notably lacking in generals like Haig and Rawlinson. He was also much more concerned than many regular army commanders about keeping his men as safe as possible. A successful demonstration of his approach occurred at the battle for the village of Hamel in July 1918, and was repeated in later battles in August, which saw the last desperate German thrust towards Amiens repelled, and the war ended sooner than might otherwise have been the case. Some other senior military commanders were probably thinking along similar lines, but Monash was meticulous in his planning and implementation of a coherent plan of attack, and Fischer is likely correct that others followed his example.

Fischer notes that despite his undoubted successes, The Cambridge History of the First World War, published in 2014, didn’t even mention him. And he argues that having a university and a freeway named after him are scant recognition for him in Australia. So why didn’t he get – and hasn’t he got – the recognition Fischer thinks he deserves? He identifies four main reasons. Monash was a Jew of German heritage, at a time when anti-Semitism, to say nothing of anti-German sentiment, was common; he had come through the ranks of the part-time citizen militia, starting out in a university regiment, rather than from the regular army; he was a portly fifty years old in 1914, and it was openly known that he had a mistress. Perhaps as a result of such considerations, the influential war correspondent C.E.W. Bean took against him: in 1914 he wrote that Australians did not want to be represented by Jews ‘because of their ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves’ – a characteristic he freely attributed to Monash. He and the journalist Keith Murdoch, who also disliked Monash, were close to the war-time Prime Minister Billy Hughes and did their best – unsuccessfully on this occasion – to persuade him against giving commend of the Australian Army Corps to Monash. And Hughes himself didn’t like Monash; Fischer speculates that Hughes may have been jealous of his popularity with the troops. He made sure that Monash stayed in Europe until 1920 as the officer responsible for repatriation of Australian soldiers, and didn’t promote him from a three to a four star general when he could have after the war. In fact his promotion came at the hands of the Scullin Labor government in 1929, which also considered him for Governor General, though Scullin actually chose the Chief Justice, Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian – and the first Jew – to hold the post.

So all in all, Fischer, though he is certainly no historian, makes quite a good case that Monash has been unjustly neglected. The book is more of a polemic than a history; there are various non-sequiturs, and an attack on former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s view that the First World War was ‘devoid of any virtue’. Fischer is firmly in the camp that sees the ‘baptism of fire’ for the new nation as formative of the national spirit.

And this is where I was disappointed – though in retrospect not surprised – to find that there was almost no treatment of Monash as a citizen. As head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission, he belongs in a different formative tradition. Public utilities may now be out of fashion with governments, and privatisation all the rage. But the very establishment of a state owned electricity generator and provider, which Monash oversaw, stands in the same tradition of using the state to create a better life for people as initiatives such as the old age pension, the baby bonus, the basic wage and industrial conciliation and arbitration, all of which were introduced in the first twenty-five years of the new century. This is not to deny that Australia remained a deeply unequal society, or that organisations like the SEC were created piecemeal, without thought for an overarching political purpose. But it has always seemed to me that the national spirit is as much derived  from – and is reflected in – this cooperative thrust to use state power to ameliorate social conditions as it did from the more hierarchical and militaristic celebration of war, whether in defeat or victory. These strands are not mutually exclusive; mateship and courage existed at home as well as at the front. Monash himself summed up the potential divergence of these strands of ‘national character’ when he refused invitations to take part in the quasi fascist New Guard movement, saying that ‘the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate.’ I’d be happy to see him celebrated as both a soldier and a citizen.

If you want to read a proper biography of Monash, try Geoff Serle’s John Monash: A Biography. (1982), or the more recent Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War (2004) by Roland Perry. You can read more about Tim Fischer here, and his crusade for justice for Monash here.

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