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Archive for February, 2012

Book review: The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, by Mungo MacCallum

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 6, 2012

Just in case there are some secondary teachers of history or politics who read this blog, I’m cross-posting this review from my ANZ LitLovers blog

The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia's Prime MinistersGuess which Australian Prime Minister counted his three greatest achievements as winning a Cambridge Blue, captaining the St Andrews Golf Club (the one in Scotland, not the one at Gunnamatta) and being a member of the Royal Society? Not, you will have noticed, running our country for six years. He’d have had to have been here in this country for that, and he wasn’t any too interested in Australia, hanging out in London for most of his adult life including large chunks of his term of office. Presumably he thought that running our little backwater was a minor achievement, perhaps analogous with managing the staff in a country house.

Give up? Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1923-29) was his name (christened thus to acknowledge the place where his family made their impressive fortune) but (serves him right) this arrogant prat’s claim to fame is that he left the economy in ruins and was so out of touch with the electorate that he lost his own seat when they booted his government out in 1929. (John Howard (1996-2007) is the only other PM to suffer this ignominy, in the rubble of the Kevin 07 landslide).

This and many other interesting titbits come from Mungo MacCallum’s entertaining new book, The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, Australia’s Prime Ministers. It is just the antidote needed for an electorate that is bored witless by what passes for political debate in this country at the moment, and a salutary reminder that, as PM Paul Keating said in the election campaign that he lost to Howard, leadership does matter.

If you’re like me and have paid mild attention to politics for most of your life, you’ll already know a fair bit about our most recent PMs, so it’s the early ones that will be the most interesting. MacCallum lifts them out of the dry and dusty pages of our early political history with amusing anecdotes, and he analyses their contribution with a wry eye. While I would have liked this book to include a timeline* and for each chapter heading about each PM to have included the term of office* this is a terrific survey of our political history as well as an interesting portrait of each leader. MacCallum has been around the Aussie political landscape so long that there’s not much each doesn’t know about it. As he tells us, his lifespan is covered by 15 PMs, of whom he’s met 12, and been on first-name terms with 11. This familiarity, he says, accounts for his ‘less than worshipful tone’ but, a-hem, he’s none too worshipful of the long-dead ones either…

And why should he be? Let’s face it, Australians are not very good at tugging the forelock or doffing the cap, to politicians dead or alive. And MacCallum seems to be fair. He goes out of his way to identify the achievements of some whose reputation has been trashed by history, even finding a few kind words for Joseph Lyons who is basically only famous (if famous at all) for having a wife who became Australia’s first female minister. Goodness me, there’s some interesting goss about his cradle-snatching romance with her!

But at the end of the day we’ve had a few duds in the job, and MacCallum says so. (Nothing comparable with, a-hem, political leaders in a certain very powerful country, though. Nobody who took advice from astrologers, for example. Nobody starting unwinnable wars, or supporting torture when it suits. Our duds have mostly stuck to general incompetence or just being derivative and dull.)

Some of our PMs were just unlucky – and the poor old Labor Party with its penchant for taking office in times of economic downturn and crises not of its making had more than its share of those. (The ALP has also created a lot of their own problems, of course, but hey, how boring would Oz Politics be if we didn’t have Labor Party dramas to liven things up?) One of the unluckiest was James Scullin (1929-32) who led the nation during the worst of the Depression, but he’s one of my favourites because the Commonwealth Literary Fund was his baby even though they bundled him out of office before it got off the ground. He also – way, way back in 1931 – established the Arnhem Land Reserve in the Northern Territory, a brave landmark step towards land rights for our indigenous people.

John Curtin: A LifeI’d read David Day’s excellent biography John Curtin: A Life some years ago so I already knew a fair bit about Curtin (1941-45) Australia’s most-admired PM, who steered the country through WW2 and died in harness from overwork. But MacCallum also draws on a biography by Lloyd Rees, and his summary of Curtin’s achievements, his selflessness and his courage is a good introduction for those not motivated to read a biography the length of Day’s. (It’s 784 pages, so you have to be keen).

What does this lovable pooch at left have to do with MacCallum’s book? I’ve been waiting for a ‘relevant’ opportunity to upload a picture of our dear little dog on this book blog and this is it: his name is Chifley, named after Prime Minister Ben Chifley (1945-49). A friend had suggested that our little refugee from The Lost Dogs Home looked like Churchill, but like many Aussies I have ambivalent feelings about Churchill. His WW2 demand for our Aussie troops had the effect of leaving Australia unprotected against the Japanese onslaught. It was PM John Curtin who brought the troops home and who for a fortnight while they were at sea suffered agonies of fear for their safety – because Churchill wouldn’t provide an escort and the route home was the haunt of Japanese subs. So no, while Churchill is a great hero who stood alone against the Nazis for most of the war, The Spouse and I weren’t going to name our Aussie pooch after him.

We couldn’t in all honesty name him after Curtin either. Our stoic little patrolman is more loved than admired (because he is, alas, a pooch of Very Little Brain), so we named him Chifley instead. (Because, I hasten to add, everybody loves him, not because his namesake had any deficit in the brains department. Far from it.) Since we don’t know Chifley’s date of birth (except for an approximate vet-guess based on how many teeth he had), we celebrate his birthday on September 22nd, the same as his namesake Ben’s. Proof of enduring affection for the PM who bears his name occurs whenever during our daily walks he is introduced to older Australians, who always smile in recognition, and murmur something about what a great man Ben Chifley was. (BTW Sapphire – aka Marie Antoinette in a past life – is only included here on this post because she will sulk if she finds out that Chifley is internationally famous and she’s not. She is on the Right because that is her political preference since – as befits her aristocratic pedigree – she is much opposed to Chifley’s welfare, or anyone else’s for that matter).

Chifley’s Home in Bathurst

Chifley: A LifeAnyway, Ben Chifley was another one of the better PMs. David Day has also written a fine biography Chifley: A Life but again, it’s long (720 pages) as a definitive bio tends to be, and MacCallum’s 10 pages is a handy introduction to the man who is Australia’s best-loved PM. He came from humble beginnings, and never lost his touch with the common people. He refused to live in The Lodge and commuted by train from his modest home in Bathurst. (A must-visit site if you’re in the area, even if you’re not interested in politics). Chifley began his career as an unskilled labourer and rose to this country’s highest office because of his hard work, determination, and integrity, but he was also ambitious from an early age because he saw that political power was the way to make things better for ordinary people.

But some of our PMs were, to use the Australian vernacular, drongoes. Joseph Cook (1913-1914), for example, was a ‘drab and colourless figure’, ‘left no record of wit or flamboyance’ and presided over ‘fifteen months of spectacular non-achievement’. He was also the first of the Labor ‘rats’ i.e he abandoned his own party over the conscription issue and helped to form Billy Hughes’ minority Nationalist government. Hughes, of course, was the quintessential ratbag politician, who ‘was in at the birth of six political parties, led five of them, served as a minister in four of them and ratted on three’.

One of the aspects of American politics that’s always baffled me is the public prurience about their politicians’ private lives. They probe and prod until they find some indiscretion as if it has anything to do with the hapless candidate’s competence for public office, and they end up excluding some of their best and brightest because he had some foolish dalliance with a kiss-and-tell opportunist. Someone like Harold Holt (1966-1967) wouldn’t have had a chance if his private life had been the subject of press scrutiny. He had a long-standing affair and fathered a number of sons while his eventual wife was married to somebody else, but (even though the other politicians must have known about it) nobody took any notice of his playboy image because the Australian media has mostly minded its own business and kept out of so-called sex scandals.

Holt was heir apparent to Robert Menzies (1949-1966) who made my mother weep when he retired – though there were probably plenty of others quietly cheering on the other side because he was our longest-serving PM and had been unbeatable in the polls. MacCallum has much to say about Menzies, (how could he not, given his political longevity?) but this post is getting a bit long so I’ll content myself with sharing a little ditty that he quotes from ‘those centres of ferment, the universities’:

There’ll always be a Menzies
While there’s a BHP
For they have drawn their dividends
Since 1893.

There’ll always be a Menzies
For Menzies never fails
As long as nothing happens to
The Bank of New South Wales.

If we should lose our Menzies
Wherever should we be
If Menzies means as much to you
As Menzies means to me.

MacCallum makes the point that Menzies was lucky to preside over a long period of post-war prosperity. His championship of the White Australia Policy and support for Apartheid South Africa to remain in the Commonwealth makes his legacy more dubious than his reputation would suggest, but hey, the Australian people voted him in, time and time again. The economy was good, things were stable, relaxed and comfortable, and the Opposition was a disorganised rabble with the most uncharismatic leader you could imagine. I’ve never forgiven Menzies for dragging Australia into the Vietnam War and introducing conscription (for 20 year-olds to young to vote for or against it), but again, that decision was decisively endorsed by the Australian people.

That’s democracy for you.

This is a terrific book. Highly recommended.

© Lisa Hill

*These links go to the National Archives timeline but it’s very clunky. I can’t get it to link to a succinct timeline that just shows the PMs and when they ruled. To get that, and not an interminable list of everything everyone ever did that’s not very fascinating, scroll down the page to ‘Search Timelines by Category’ and you should see ‘All PMs’ ticked and the radio button for Prime Ministers already selected. Scroll down and click Go and you will get a nice timeline that shows the PMs in chronological order and a one-sentence summary of each one. But it will do you no good to bookmark that timeline because it reverts to the long and boring one. Bookmark where you started from i.e.

Author: Mungo MacCallum
TItle: The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, Australia’s Prime Ministers
Publisher: Black Inc, 2012
ISBN: 9781863955539
Source: Won in a Black Inc competition.

The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers

Posted in Australian History, Book Reviews | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Book review: Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier by Adrian Mitchell

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 5, 2012

Dampier's Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William DampierThe publication of Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier by Adrian Mitchell is not just of interest to readers keen on Australian history, it’s timely for another reason.

Starting in 2013, Australian teachers will begin teaching the new national Australian Curriculum, and so any primary school teacher under the age of 40 will probably need to learn something about the history of European Exploration. It was, I believe, last taught as a compulsory topic in the 1956 Course of Study when students of my vintage laboriously traced maps into exercise books and with coloured pencils marked the voyages of assorted explorers across the world’s oceans. I found it fascinating because of Miss Baird, who told us tales of high adventure, danger and mayhem while we struggled to keep those dotted lines even and in the right place. I loved Miss Baird. She was young and pretty, and, I now realise, she had taken the trouble to jazz up her lessons by doing some background reading that went beyond the dry facts mandated by the Victorian Department of Education.

The 21st century version of that curriculum for 9 year-olds in their fifth year of schooling looks like this:

The Level 4 curriculum introduces world history and the movement of peoples. Beginning with the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, students examine European exploration and colonisation in Australia and throughout the world up to the early 1800s. Students examine the impact of exploration on other societies, how these societies interacted with newcomers, and how these experiences contributed to their cultural diversity. (ACARA, The Humanities – History)

And the mandated content goes like this:

The journey(s) of AT LEAST ONE world navigator, explorer or trader up to the late eighteenth century, including their contacts with other societies and any impacts. (Content description ACHHK078)

The (non-compulsory) suggested examples are Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, or Ferdinand Magellan – but I hope some teachers choose the politically incorrect buccaneer William Dampier instead. He was the first to circumnavigate the world three times, so he counts as a world explorer, but he’s much more interesting to Aussies because in 1688 (100 years before James Cook’s portentous landing at Botany Bay on the east coast) Dampier in the Cygnet became the first English explorer to make landfall in Australia. And if he wasn’t a pirate, he was perilously close to it…

Alas for Mr Dampier, he landed on what he found to be an unprepossessing north-west coast and didn’t find any opportunities for either plunder or trade. Although he returned in 1699 in the Roebuck for more than his previous cursory inspection, in one of those fascinating ‘what might have been’ moments of history, he dismissed the West Australian coast and its inhabitants as unworthy of further notice. So Cook and his Union Jack got the gig as the explorer who claimed Australia for the British, and Dampier was relegated to comparative obscurity…

But as Adrian Mitchell’s book makes clear, Dampier deserves better. Even though the biographical details are a bit scanty, and Dampier himself rejected any suggestion that he was a rogue, enough is known about him for us to be sure that he was more than a bit disreputable, which – let’s face it – makes him much more interesting for kids to learn about than the respectable Captain Cook!

If teachers do decide to lift Dampier from his relative obscurity, they will find Adrian Mitchell’s Dampier’s Monkey a useful resource for background information. They will discover, for example, the reasons that Dampier didn’t – as he wished to – explore more of the ‘New Holland’ coast. I was enchanted to discover why on his first voyage he didn’t sail south:

Like all buccaneers, Dampier navigated the world’s oceans in the hope of making money, and he was especially keen on finding precious metals, i.e. gold and silver. His New Holland Plan was, clearly, to make his fortune in this new world, and that meant finding gold, preferably gold already dug up by accommodating natives who could be persuaded by one means or another to part with it. This ambition cost him a significant place in the history of Australian exploration, and for a reason I could never have guessed.

Though he occasionally found it handy to use sailors’ superstitions to persuade others to do what he wanted, Dampier was a rational man who made his decisions on the basis of known evidence. He sailed north and not south because he reasoned that ‘the gold and silver which the new continent must surely contain would be in the tropic latitudes, as everywhere else around the world’ (p125). This ‘concept of geology determined by geographic zone’ with ‘echoes of an older, medieval notion of some correlation between warmth and mineral wealth’ (p126) precluded Western Australia’s Kalgoorlie and South Africa’s Johannesburg as well as California and the Klondike in the Northern hemisphere, not to mention the lucrative Victorian goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo and Bathurst in New South Wales.

(Mind you, if he had sailed south, he’d have had a bit of a hike to find the nuggets lying about in Kalgoorlie because it’s a good six hundred kilometres inland and there’s a good reason for the pipeline that runs alongside the highway all the way from Perth; there’s very little water to be had. Still, he would have found some very desirable real estate all the same.)

HMS Roebuck 1690, source Wikipedia Commons

And why on his second voyage in the Roebuck didn’t he explore the eastern coast as he wished to? For the most prosaic of reasons – because of borers in his ship. After the publication of his first book, New Voyage Round the World in 1697 there was a lot of enthusiasm for this second voyage but less so for provisioning it, and the ship he was fobbed off with was deficient in many respects. So having made the first detailed survey of the flora and fauna of Shark Bay, and discovered to his dismay that the local Aborigines had no concept of trade that he could exploit, Dampier had to abandon the rest of his plans because of the incompetence of his ship’s carpenter, and set sail for Timor. Just as well he did, because it wasn’t long before the ship sank, off Ascension Island. Fortunately Dampier was able to salvage his journals and some specimens, and it was his expert navigational records that eventually enabled the wreck of the Roebuck to be located by divers in 2001 and some relics including its bell to be salvaged.)

What I found from Mitchell’s book is that it’s not the bare facts of Dampier’s journey that make him so interesting. You can find those on Wikipedia:

Dampier reached Dirk Hartog Island at the mouth of what he called Shark Bay in Western Australia. He landed and began producing the first known detailed record of Australian flora and fauna. The images are believed to be by his clerk James Brand. Dampier then followed the coast northeast, reaching the Dampier Archipelago and then Lagrange Bay, just south of what is now called Roebuck Bay all the while recording and collecting specimens, including many shells. (The Roebuck Expedition, Wikipedia)

What Mitchell does is to analyse Dampier’s journals and his published books to discover discrepancies between them. Dampier began sailing at a time when a blind eye was turned towards buccaneering; the spoils it brought benefitted cash-strapped kings and it led to the development of all-important trade. But James II issued a proclamation against piracy, and Dampier was hauled before the Board of Trade twice (1697 and 1698) and court-martialled too in 1702. It was his books which saved him and his reputation: while the pirate Captain Kidd was strung up and his body left in chains on display to warn others not to replicate his crimes, Dampier was a guest of Samuel Pepys in 1698 and presented to Queen Anne in 1703.

His journals are the key to this differential treatment: while his style was influenced by The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a book of marvels and monsters based on Mandeville’s supposed travels first circulated between 1357 and 1371, , Dampier’s books documented marvels that he had seen and actually knew about, based on the careful observations in his ship journals. New Voyage Round the World (1697) and its successors Voyages and Discoveries (1699) and the two-part Voyage to New Holland (1703 and 1709) were written to captivate his readers with artful descriptions of massive birds and peculiar animals, but in a rational and coherent way. Dampier was arguably the first of the great travel writers.

Mitchell also includes a very interesting chapter about the words that Dampier introduced into English. He was very keen to report back using the indigenous words for things, and this is how we have the word ‘gong’ and also ‘barbecue’!

So you’d think that Dampier’s journal of the 1681-1691 voyage in the South Seas would have made it into print long before this, but no, it’s in this book by Mitchell that we can see it for the first time, complete with Dampier’s (sometimes sanitising) annotations and written in that eccentric seventeenth century spelling as well. (I’d be tempted to give a short extract to a small group of clever Year 4 students for a fun proof-reading exercise!)

The cover illustration is of Norman Lindsay’s The Landing of Dampier (1925), and there are also some interesting reproductions of maps and engravings from Dampier’s books, including one accompanying his record of sailing through a violent storm to Aceh after being deliberately marooned on Nicobar Island. Dampier and his Companions in their Canoe, overtaken by a dreadfull Storm (1777) which (unlike most of the rest of them) is actually in the National Library of Australia.

Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages is a scholarly work and here and there it’s a bit arcane, a bit opaque for a general reader. If you’re trying to find a simple summary of why Dampier matters in the history of Australian exploration then this is not the book for you. But to discover the life and interests of a complex, influential and morally ambiguous man who played an important part in the development of natural science, linguistics and anthropology, it is worth the effort.

Miss Baird would have thought so. She’s actually the only teacher whose name I remember from the patchwork of primary schools I attended across three continents. Her approach has to be worth emulating, I would say.

Cross-posted at ANZLitLovers.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier
Publisher: Wakefield 2011
ISBN: 9781862547599
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Fishpond: Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier or direct from Wakefield Press.

Posted in Australian Curriculum, Australian History, Book Reviews | Tagged: | 1 Comment »