Indigenous Immersion


For the past three days my ongoing adventures in biography have immersed me in Aboriginal culture and I attended:

  • Indigenous Cultural Awareness course
  • Indigenous Language Intensive
  • Guided tour of the Mt William stone axe quarry

Want to know what I learned? Read the rest of this entry

People Watching

State Library of Victoria. Source: wikicommons

State Library of Victoria. Source: wikicommons

The grassy forecourt of the State Library of Victoria is a lively place where people gather to rest, eat, play and observe.

At a recent writing workshop (which I will write more about in the days to come) we participants were asked to spend fifteen minutes observing someone, and writing about them.

One woman wrote about two children playing chasing games.  Several wrote about a pair of chess players. Another described a kiss in telling detail.

No-one who knows me (my lovely husband least of all), will be surprised to learn that I focussed on a good-looking tradie. Here’s what I wrote in fifteen minutes, unabridged and unedited. Be kind.


So handsome.  So confident. Sleeveless shirt to show off his solid guns, his single sleeve of ink. A tall and fine young man with dark skin and a winning smile. His flouro vest gives him status and credibility – is he with the buskers or just an enthusiastic listener?

The long-haired blonde girl beside him is less enthusiastic although he’s trying hard.  He chats and weaves and grins but her legs are firmly crossed away from him and before too long she shakes his hand (she shakes his hand!) and walks away. He watches her go, on her long slim legs, and ruefully lights a cigarette.

Was she resentful of his flirting, of his intrusion into her lunchtime space? Or, once safely back at her desk, will she spend the afternoon with a secret smile, flattered and charmed and electrically self-aware.

Five minutes pass, maybe ten, and the young man continues to listen to the buskers. Then he turns to the next girl to enter his orbit – dark hair this time, in a stylish bob – and he begins again to charm and flirt…


The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths – Book Review


the-art-of-time-travelAustralian historian Tom Griffiths was hiking a pilgrimage route in rural France when he met three fellow walkers, all of them French – a salesman, a nurse and a counsellor. When they discovered Griffiths was a historian there was:

… a chorus of approval, even, dare I say it, a frisson of serious regard – something unexpected for scholars in Australia. And, as proud French citizens, they were ready with their next natural question: ‘Who are your favourite French historians?’

Griffiths replied; the French engaged and the heady conversation only improved from there. But over the next few weeks as he walked, Griffiths wondered if he would – or could – ever be asked this question in Australia.

In the unlikely event that the question ever be raised, The Art of Time Travel is his comprehensive and illuminating reply, where he nominates some of his favourite historians and tries to describe how they work. ‘This book,’ writes Griffiths, ‘is a quirky, serious and personal exploration of the art and craft of history in Australia since the Second World War.’

In his modesty, Griffiths fails to mention that the book is also a wonderful gift to anyone even slightly interested in the craft of writing history.

Griffiths has selected fourteen historians, and the chapter titles give a strong clue as to the ground covered and the perspective taken:

  • The Timeless Land: Eleanor Dark
  • The Journey to Monaro: Keith Hancock
  • Entering the Stone Circle: John Mulvaney
  • The Magpie: Geoffrey Blainey
  • The Cry for the Dead: Judith Wright
  • The Creative Imagination: Greg Dening
  • The Frontier Fallen: Henry Reynolds
  • Golden Disobedience: Eric Rolls
  • Voyaging South: Stephen Murray-Smith
  • History as Art: Donna Merwick
  • Walking the City: Graeme Davison
  • History and Fiction: Inga Clendinnen
  • The Feel of the Past: Grace Karskens
  • Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith

Each chapter is a lyrical, stand-alone essay written with warmth and generosity. Yes, each provides a useful introduction to the writer/historian, but each is also far more interestingly an insight into their preoccupations, their methods, their imagination and their craft. Griffiths successfully walks a fine line; often clarifying but never simplifying.

A historian’s finest insights are intuitive as well as rational, holistic as well as particular – and therefore always invitations to debate. As they write, they incite; they expect disagreement and they try to furnish their readers with grounds for offering it. Footnotes are not defensive displays of pedantry; they are honest expressions of vulnerability, generous signposts to anyone who wants to retrace the path and test the insights, acknowledgements of the collective enterprise that is history. Historians feed off the power of the past, exploiting its potency just as historical novelists do, but historians also constantly discuss the ethics of doing that.

Although I read it through and enjoyed it thoroughly, this book lends itself to dipping into, and revisiting. I’ve read the works of many of the included subjects, I’ve studied under others and a few were new to me. But regardless of what I already knew of the subject’s work, I found each chapter full of insightful little gems.

But I still can’t imagine ever being asked, by an ‘ordinary’ Australian, who my favourite historian might be!

Publisher: Black Inc, 2016







Georgette Heyer and Genre


I’m afraid I’ve been bingeing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Poldark.  Outlander. And the inimitable Georgette Heyer’s regency romances.

Women Rejecting Marriage Proposals in Western Art History
i’m totally listening
this is my listening guitar
i’m playing my listening song

I could explain it away as research, of course. Trying to immerse myself in the subtleties of the period so as to better to convey the context in which Elizabeth Macarthur lived.  But lets not kid ourselves. I’m just swept away by the Read the rest of this entry

Camden Park House


Camden Park House Source: Adventures in Biography

Took my family to Sydney for the weekend, ostensibly for a quick sightseeing stopover but actually so that we could attend the annual open day at Camden Park House.

We were lucky with the rain, and managed to explore the house and extensive gardens before it poured.

* * * * *

During the first week of June 1805 the signal was made at Sydney Harbour’s South Head and Elizabeth’s prayers were answered. John Macarthur, having left NSW for England in 1801 under the cloud of a pending court-martial, triumphantly sailed up the harbour in a ship he part-owned, unsubtly named Argo. Its figurehead was, equally unsubtly, a golden fleece.

During his enforced English sojourn (this was the first, the second time was after the Rum Rebellion of 1808) John had gained an important friend in Sir Walter Farquhar, avoided sanction for duelling with his commanding officer, sold his military commission, convinced the government that the future of New South Wales rested with him, and wrangled the purchase of seven rare and prized Spanish rams.  He even managed to bring five of them home alive. There is luck here, certainly, but also a canny ability to spot an opportunity and to capitalise upon it.

John also brought home his Read the rest of this entry

Vale Inga Clendinnen


clendinnenInga Vivienne Clendinnen AO, FAHA,  author, historian, anthropologist and academic died yesterday aged 82. What a sad loss to the Australian life of the mind.

Clendinnen’s sharp insights and beautiful prose were (for me) best displayed in Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact (2003, Text Publishing). This small but perfectly formed exploration of the relationships and interactions between the Europeans and the first Australians in the earliest years of white settlement in NSW is a book I have returned to many times. Clendinnen illuminates without failing to acknowledge the shadows left by unanswerable questions. And she brings the period, and the players, so vividly to life that it almost reads like fiction.

Which takes us, of course, to the other work for which Clendinnen is well known – indeed notorious.  In the Quarterly Essay The History Question: Who Owns the Past (2006, Black Inc) Clendinnen took Australian novelist Kate Grenville to task, apparently believing Grenville had claimed that only fiction could deliver genuine historical empathy.*

Clendinnen, whose academic day job involved specializing in Aztec history, was an equally gifted essayist and memoirist. Tiger’s Eye (2000, Text Publishing) is an intriguing examination of illness and self.

In 1999 Clendinnen presented the 40th annual Boyer Lectures, which were published in 2000 as True Stories.  In 2006, supposedly in retirement,  she produced Agamemnon’s Kiss: Selected Essays (Text Publishing).  Just like Helen Garner, if Clendinnen wrote the blurb on the back of a box of cereal it would be worth the reading.

In 2014 Clendinnen was the subject of an excellent, and poignant, feature piece by former 60 Minutes reporter Jana Wendt.

Vale Inga Clendinnen.  What an example you have set for us all.


Note: for a related Adventures in Biography post, which draws on and quotes Clendinnen’s work, see Saying goodbye to your children.

* Update 29 September 2016. Grenville actually never made any such claim. An earlier version of this post (hastily drafted) implied she did but I have subsequently amended the relevant sentences.

Elizabeth Macarthur’s Quilt at the National Gallery of Victoria


The gallery had sold out of the glossy, colour catalogue for Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 by the time I saw the exhibition last week. But I had a terrific chat with the young woman serving at the museum shop while I placed an order to have the catalogue mailed out (at a discounted rate, no less).

“Isn’t it interesting,” she said, “how contemporary some of those quilt designs are. It’s amazing to think they predated modernism by decades.  But not acknowledged, of course.” She gave me a gorgeous, wry smile. “Why would women’s sewing be acknowledged as art?”

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is a wonderful and important exhibition now showing at NGV Australia (the gallery at Federation Square, in the heart of Melbourne). Over eighty works are on display – mainly quilts and bedcovers – and they are variously beautiful, historically significant, poignant, charming and fascinating. Intricate quilts stitched by convict women en route to Australia. Depression-era blankets (called waggas) made in desperation from scrounged bits and pieces. Delicate embroidery commemorating the jubilee of Queen Victoria.

But you know there was only one quilt that I really wanted to see. EM QuiltThis hexagon quilt, pictured above, is attributed to Elizabeth Macarthur. Her descendents believe she started it sometime around 1840 and her daughters (and/or grand-daughter) finished it. By the 1840s Elizabeth was in her seventies, with fading eyesight and prone to headaches. If she did begin it, I do wonder how much is actually hers…

The colours have faded with time, of course, and some of the fabrics have started to perish. But if you look closely below you can see the individual stitches – perhaps made with Elizabeth’s own hand. I’m a (sometime) quilter myself and I can assure you that those stitches are impressively tiny!

EM Hexagon StitchesLady Mary Fitzroy, the wife of the NSW Governor, was making a similar quilt at around the same time. But in 1847 she was killed in an accident (she was handed into the carriage but before her husband could take the reins the horses bolted, took a downhill corner too fast and her carriage tipped over and hit a tree). She’d attended a Macarthur wedding only three days earlier.

The coverlet Lady Fitzroy was working on remains unfinished to this day – the colours of her hexagons a little brighter for having spent a century and more tucked in her sewing bag (see photo below).

Lady Fitzroy Sewing Bag and HexagonsLady Fitzroy evidently had a better eye for design than the Macarthur women. She practiced what today we would call ‘fussy cutting’ – deliberately selecting and then cutting fabrics in such a way that a secondary design is created once the hexagon was pieced together (see photo below).

Lady Fitzroy Single HexagonBut Lady Fitzroy and the Macarthur women used the same technique to ensure the consistency of each hexagonal piece: paper piecing. Hundreds of paper templates were cut, then the fabric was basted on top of the paper, then each hexagon was whip-stitched (with those tiny stitches we’ve already seen) to those adjacent. It’s a technique still very much in use today.

One of the quilts in the exhibition was displayed with the wrong side showing (below).

Hexagon quilt - reverseUsually a quilter will pull out all the papers once the quilt top is finished but historians are often very grateful if the quilt-maker didn’t manage to get around to it!

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is open until 6 November 2016.  The adult entry fee is $15 (concessions are available). The curators have done an excellent job of selecting and displaying the works and it’s an exhibition well worth a visit. I can’t wait for my catalogue to arrive so I can enjoy it all over again.