Bobbie Oliver, A Natural Battleground, 2019


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Bobbie Oliver, A Natural Battleground: The fight to establish a rail heritage centre at Western Australia’s Midland Railway Workshops, Red Swan Series, Vol 1, Interventions, Melbourne 2019.

Paperback, 132 pages, illustrated, endnotes, bibliography, index, ISBN 978-0-9945378-4-3, Libraries Australia ID 64531142, $25

This review was originally published in Professional Historians Association (WA) Inc Newsletter, No 137, June 2019: 6-8 as ‘The Midland Railway Workshops project – reflections on practising history in heritage’ by Dr Bruce Baskerville MPHA

Heritage: Keep Out

History and heritage are not synonyms, something made clear in A Natural Battleground, historian Bobbie Oliver’s most recent work, published on the 25th anniversary of the closure of the WAGR Railway Workshops at Midland. It weaves together several stories. One recounts a historians’ project to document and record the histories of a great industrial workforce and site after its wrenching closure, another is of continuing official ambiguity (at best) or planned neglect (at worst) in managing the heritage fabric and spaces that embody those histories. The book is in part a recording of a community history movement, in part a passionate questioning of those who are responsible for the place, and in part a melancholy reflection on a struggle all too-familiar to historians who chose to work in the heritage field. Midland Railway Workshops has been a natural battleground in more ways than one.

A Natural Battleground is one outcome of many from the original Midland Workshops History Project (1998-2004). The book describes the Project structure and mechanics, which form something of a manual or masterclass for activist and community historians engaged in or considering such projects. Challenges around how to represent workers’ spaces in a heritage centre; placing the workshops within the bigger historical context of the diaspora of British skilled labour, ideas and technology; the difficulties in interpreting and presenting historical workplace initiation rituals; the influence within the broader Western Australian labour movement of political activities in the workshops; and the sequence of technological and workplace changes evident in the transport industries and industrial spaces and contents of the place. The book finally looks back at what has (or has not) been learnt since 1994, and responds to a ‘what now’ question on the future of the Midland Railway Workshops as a heritage place, and the rather tawdry end-game now being played-out by a fading State agency.

I live only a few minutes-walk from the old workshops and often ramble around the echoing lanes and cavernous sheds. In one sense, the place is now a re-developed, tarted-up and empty monument to the banality of 40 years of neoliberalism, but Bobbie Oliver draws us to obscured histories, and reminds us of an alternate future that was once within grasp.

Forlorn, gated heritage

The Midland Workshops History Project commenced in 1998. Of particular note are the seven principles that underpinned the project. These, for instance, mandated collaboration between historians, union officials and past employees, prioritised the workers’ own stories, and provided training for volunteer interviewers. All worthy, inspirational even, and a very lively project ensued, but a fatal flaw eventually became clear. The Project assumed that by ‘being a vehicle for informed debate about the preservation of the site and of industrial heritage in general’ (Principle 7), the establishment of a living rail heritage centre within the workshops would be a natural outcome. Operating industrial machinery, historic trade skills being practised, and access to the project archives would be features.

However, in retrospect it seems the State agency in which the whole site was vested in 2000, the Midland (later Metropolitan) Redevelopment Authority, or MRA, never really bought into these principles or the Project’s goals. Governments have come and gone in Harvest Terrace but the MRA has stayed the course. The limited heritage interpretation that was developed was closed down in 2008 for ‘public safety’ during site remediation works. Oliver is particularly scathing of the incremental watering-down of interpretation requirements by the MRA, to the point where all that remains is an ephemeral glossy e-document of interpretive suggestions for developers. She argues:

Millions of dollars have been expended on this site and yet there are no resources to ensure that any developer receives professional assistance for interpretation that should be mandatory upon any heritage site development. (p. 105)

Questions of requiring heritage site interpretation, and public assistance to developers to do so, point to bigger issues about who benefits from a heritage system that remains dominated by property and design interests. Oliver writes:

Too often historians have been regarded as merely adjuncts in heritage conservation and interpretation. Architects have been granted precedence because heritage is often regarded as being just about buildings. (p. 12)

This is emphasised with a quote from urban historian Peter Spearritt ‘… historians have not to date claimed much expertise in the matter of taste’, although that hasn’t stopped the property industry and design professionals from articulating their ‘expertise’ in history. Questions of cui bono are worthy of study in their own right, but a more reflective question for the historians’ craft lies at the heart of A Natural Battleground.

Oliver touches on the constructed ‘forgetting’ of the site’s history by its current stewards, which leads to the $64 question: why couldn’t the Project create a different outcome? This is a poignant question that permeates the book, and I think the answer lies in the system not the Project. In my experience, historical knowledge and understanding, no matter how popular, engaging and well-articulated, will rarely change the desires of those able to control public spaces, especially if that control is short-term and the knowledge is externally generated. Neoliberalism requires the deterrence of questioning and obscuring of meanings, the very things that historical training and practice depends upon. In its place we get disconnected public art as a substitute for cultural meaning, the momentary sensory experience replacing enduring intellectual and emotional satisfaction, belittling historical remembrance and validating intentional forgetting. In the Midlands Workshops context, history is dangerous because it invites critical thinking and opens doors to alternate futures. It reveals presentist fakery. A Natural Battleground incites questions of whether it is timely for historians to ask if there is any real value in engaging with a heritage system focused on façadism.

Despite all the studies and assessments, the Midland Railway Workshops site was actually listed on the State heritage register only in 2008, after numerous demolitions and the distractions of a vacuous ‘icons’ program that swept the country in the early 2000s and achieved precisely nothing. The MRA is now vacating the site, and demanding $8M from the City of Swan for all the ‘improvements’ it has carried out, without even the hint of a blush. The Heritage Council of WA is apparently on the verge of reconstitution and change, with the possibility of a new council in which real estate agents, designers and architects form less than 88% of the members. Change is abroad, but the omens for the site remain mixed, the tea leaves still swirling, and the historians are kept at arms-length, bemusingly vexed and on the fringes. A Natural Battleground is essential reading for any historian involved in community history and heritage activism, in learning to practice their craft in a coming era of citizen history. I think Tom Stannage would have approved.

Time’s Up: but for whom?



Steve Harris, The Prince and the Assassin, 2017


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Steve Harris, The Prince and the Assassin: Australia’s first royal tour and portent of world terror, Melbourne Books, Melbourne 2017

Paperback, 326 pages, 12 pages of illustrations, acknowledgements, table of contents, references, index, online price range $A4-$A78.  ISBN 9 781925 556131.

This is an abridged version of a review, written in April 2018, published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol 104, Part 2, December 2018: 205-206.

Disclaimer: I will soon publish a cultural history of the Crown in Australia, in which my chapter on the attempted assassination comes from an altogether different historical perspective.

Some years ago, a RAHS reviewer of a history book written by an art critic assessed it as “a novel loosely based on history”.[1]  Unfortunately, I am compelled to similarly assess this history book, written by a retired newspaper editor, as somewhat like the curate’s egg, history in parts.

Right Reverend Host: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad Egg, Mr Jones!”; The Curate: “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”  Punch, 9 November 1895

The Prince and the Assassin begins with a page of testimonials abounding in adjectives such as brilliant, compelling, gripping and fascinating, matched with a second page of testimonials for the author’s previous book.  The main work consists of nine sections, each but one divided into two sub-sections for a total of 17 chapters.  An introduction and a postscript bound the chapters, with the usual reference and finding sections closing the book’s structure.  The pages of photographs sit roughly in the middle of the book, and there are also some images printed on other pages.

The topic of the book, as referenced in its title, is the assassination attempt made by a supposed Fenian on the life of Prince Alfred in Sydney in 1868 and locating this event as a founding moment in the development of early 21st century global terrorism.  The author gives each of the principal characters, Prince Alfred and Henry O’Farrell, an almost mathematically precise amount of equal coverage, an equilibrium somewhat countered by melodramatic chapter titles such as ‘Alfred, The Un-princely’, ‘Royal Debauchery’, ‘Prince, Prostitute, Picnic’, ‘Godly Delusion’ and ‘Delusion and Deception’.  This structure points to the work’s journalistic origins.

On the one hand …

The book does have some good points.  Among these are a slightly more serious treatment of the Alfred for King of Australia movement of the 1860s than previous writers, although without any real comprehension of its depth or longevity.  There is some attention to Aboriginal engagement with the royal tour, but more a repeating of newspaper stories than an attempt to understand their significance.  There is some awareness of the contemporaneous assassination, claimed to also be by a Fenian, of Canadian politician D’Arcy McGee, but only as coincidental timing.  There is some exposure of notable ‘Father of Federation’ Sir Henry Parkes’ cynical bigotry and political exploitation of colonial sectarianism, but little awareness that this was as strongly contested by other politicians and community leaders at the time, and Parkes’ malfeasance was later exposed in the Kiama Ghost affair.

And on the other

However, these ‘historical’ points, from which so much could have been developed, are lost to the reader in favour, as two of the testimonials say, of “a gripping tale”.

Some errors, such as spelling mistakes, are simply distracting, and unexpected from a former editor.  Factual errors are rather more egregious.  Prince Albert was a Saxon or Coburger, not a Bavarian (page 11).  The Ides of March does not fall on 12 March (190). Prince Alfred could never have given his “vice-regal imprimatur” as he was not the governor (273).  Canada is not a republic (280).  Errors in reasoning raise questions of critical thinking.  Anachronistic references are annoying, such as claiming (16) Queen Victoria was ‘not amused’ in about 1858, a saying attributed by biographer Caroline Holland in 1919, and still subject to contention over whether it was ever uttered.  Unattributed statements add to the annoyance, such as stating (74) Queen Victoria “knew” the British public still felt let down that George III had failed to protect British interests in America – nearly a century after the event.  Attributed motivations are unreliable, such as an assertion (78) that Prince Alfred avoided visiting Perth in 1867 because the colonists were outraged by the imminent arrival of Fenian convicts.  The tour journal, cited elsewhere by the author, suggests another explanation in a damaging cyclone in the Indian Ocean that forced a more southerly route from Cape Town and a consequent desire to proceed to Adelaide as quickly as possible.[2]

The arguments

Nevertheless, perhaps I am too pedantic and these shortcomings are overcome by strong arguments advanced by the writer.  What are those arguments?  Three appear to be advanced.  Firstly, that Prince Alfred was a privileged, debauched youth typical of royal and upper-class men, secondly that colonial republicanism was the dominant political force in 1860s New South Wales, and thirdly that political reactions to terrorism today are largely unchanged from the template set by Sydney’s colonial politicians.

The debauched prince is a favoured old trope, especially in the limited Australian historiography about Prince Alfred.  This is never questioned by the writer.  The press reports of Alfred’s partying, hunting and general loucheness need to be unpacked and not accepted at face value.  Who wrote these reports, and why?  The supposedly callow prince’s apparent change of heart, when he seeks clemency for O’Farrell, is touched upon but no insight is advanced as to why he appealed, or why Parkes’ refused.  The Victorian-Irish politician, John O’Shanassy, is a key figure in the King Alfred movement, but this is not recognised by the writer, and interesting questions about Irish Catholic monarchism in a colonial environment are therefore ignored.  Colonial-born politician William Bede Dalley, also important in this story, is reduced to a mono-dimensional character.  Instead, four chapters are devoted to titillating drinkin’ rootin’ shootin’ stories of a party-hardened prince, with no awareness of recent scholarship on, for instance, the role of hunting in maintaining royal and courtly networks, and how they play out in colonial settings.  Generally, The Prince and the Assassin fails to take any account of new histories of monarchism and royal tours across empires and colonies.

Several good historians have written on colonial republicanism in New South Wales, but none that I am aware of have claimed it as the only or the dominant political force of the period.  A few quotes from JD Lang or Daniel Deniehy, or Parkes’ early exhortations against the “dung-hill aristocracy of Botany Bay”, are not evidence of a widespread popular and political movement that resisted or resented the royal tour.  By the same token, the writer’s implicit acceptance of universal Catholic-Protestant sectarian conflict needs to be questioned and not accepted from Parkes’ cynical and calculating responses to the shooting.  There were other community and religious leaders who argued against Parkes’ sectarianism.  Their accounts could have provided a more complex understanding of responses to the shooting and deterred an uncritical conflating of colonial republicanism and Irish Catholicism – a blurring of boundaries by the writer that actually maintains Parkes’ arguments.

The Fenians are known as an Irish group, but there is little awareness in The Prince and the Assassin that in late 1860s-early 1870s New South Wales (and elsewhere) they were often regarded as being as much American as Irish, an unwelcome outcome of the American Civil War, armed with surplus weaponry and covertly supported by US authorities against British North America in its transition to Canada.  Even when such a view is cited by the writer (153), it is passed-over without reflection.  The argument that the Fenians were the first modern, intercontinental terrorists, regarded as al Qaida or Da’esh is today, or that fear of Fenianism has morphed into fear of non-whites or Muslims is rhetorically attractive but, ultimately, tenuous and not supported by the arguments in The Prince and the Assassin.

Sketch of the attempted assassination by Edward Calvert, in the style of Goya’s ‘The Second of May 1808’.  Image National Library of Australia

The sources

A question therefore arises of how such arguments and conclusions have been reached.  Partly this arises from an uncritical use of the wealth of historical newspapers now available.  Most sources in most chapters are historical press reports, and ‘troving’ is no doubt a valuable tool for historical research, but all such materials need to be read against the grain.  The historical press was just as biased as the contemporary media.  Any researcher using such sources needs to understand who writes what, why they write it, what interests they represent.  Tocsin, Truth, Freemans Journal, Empire, Punch are all (amongst others) cited by the writer, and they also represent particular ideological points of view and owner’s interests.  Historical media is no more impartial or ‘truthful’ than media today.

The Prince and the Assassin also reflects much of 20th century Australian nationalist historiography.  Most secondary Australian sources are 30-50 years old.  The writer takes a whole book to say what Manning Clark said in three pages, just with extra detail.[3]  It is not clear to this reviewer why that needs reiterating in 2017.  This is confirmed by the usual sort of index found in an Australian history book, with entries for ‘republic’ and ‘anti-monarchism’ but none for monarchy or crown.  The huge public turn-outs for the royal visit, the numerous and richly symbolic public displays of affection and royal ritual, are reduced to background ‘white noise’, not even worth index entries for the politics and emotions of those involved.

Historical research and interpretation has moved on, and there is a whole new field of research and scholarship on crowns and monarchies, not just in Europe but in former colonies and in countries that were never colonised.  The questions this new research poses directly challenge many of the nationalist historiographies of the last century, and not just in Australia.  The Prince and the Assassin could have been an exciting platform from which to enter this new arena of research, a field of historical inquiry that transcends national boundaries and old separations.  The Prince and the Assassin, instead, reads like another apologia for the failure of 1990s republicanism, handily summarised in the Postscript.  How many more are needed?

In the end

The writer concludes the “big lesson” from the shooting is that the ‘tyranny of distance’ offers no protection from terror.  But in the age of the world wide web, geography is increasingly trumped by technology.  The technology underlying Trove gives us access to seemingly unlimited historical sources that demonstrate colonial New South Walers lived in a word so much bigger and transoceanic than 20th century historians imagined.  The archive, material or online, takes us beyond geographical distance, and is best navigated by experienced historians.  The Prince and the Assassin has, as another testimony says, “the excitement of a racy political crime thriller”.  What is doesn’t have is all that much historical or philosophical analysis and insight, and today we need that a lot more than another racy thriller.

Gold probe used to explore the bullet would in the Prince’s back.  Image: RPAH Archives 60690 AVS_1626


[1] Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘From Norfolk Island to Foveaux Strait: Joseph Foveaux’s role in the Expansion of Whaling and Sealing in Early Nineteenth Century Australasia’, The Great Circle, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2004: 51-59.  The reference was to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore (1986).


[2] These logical fallacies are known as the ‘fallacy of anachronism’, or interpreting past events according to frameworks that did not exist at the time, the ‘fallacy of reference’, or ascribing a belief or view to a time when it could not have been held, and the ‘fallacy of availability’, or using knowledge or schemes which were unavailable from the evidence of the time: Paul Newall, ‘Logical Fallacies of Historians’, and Carlos Spoerhase and Colin King, ‘Historical Fallacies of Historians’, in Aviezner Tucker (ed), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, Willey-Blackwell, Chichester 2011: 262-273, 274-284

[3] Charles Manning Clark, A History of Australia, Volume IV: The Earth Abideth For Ever, 1851-1888, Melbourne University Press, Carlton 1978: 252-255; a key source for Clark’s account is newspaper reports in The Brisbane Courier, owned by radical Primitive Baptist JT Stephens.

Alex George & Charmaine Cave, Swanning Around Perth, 2015


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img-171120101536-0001  img-171120101536-0002

Swanning Around Perth: An exploration of the Black Swan in our City

Four Gables Press, Kardinya 2014, 104 pp, illustrated, index, $A20.00

Second Edition 2016, 112 pp, illustrated, index, $A22.00

This review was originally published in Heraldry News, Journal of Thew Australian Heraldry Society Inc., November 2016, No 73, pages 17-20

Among my Christmas presents last December was an interesting little book depicting representations of the black swan in Perth, including heraldic displays of Western Australia’s official bird emblem and unofficial symbol of Western Australian or ‘Westralian’ cultural identity and patriotism.  It was a particularly apposite gift, coming as I had just finished a thesis chapter on the use of black swan imagery in Westralian culture as a metaphor for the crown.

Since I wrote this review, a revised edition of the book has been released and I have corresponded with the authors.  Rather than blend two reviews into one, Part 1 of the review refers to the original edition, and Part 2 to the revised edition.  I have kept the two separate to reflect the developing research interests in civic symbols of Western Australian identities.

Part 1

Swanning Around Perth, compiled by eminent botanist Dr Alexander George and graphic designer Charmaine Cave, is densely illustrated with photographs of black swans in architecture, public works, military badges, trophies, statuary, fountains, school emblems, hospital and emergency services badges, commercial branding, works of art, religious buildings, and civil society symbols and emblems, as well as official State and municipal heraldry.  It briefly refers to Nyoongar Dreaming (the Nyoongar are the Aboriginal people of southwestern Western Australia) and symbolic associations with the black swan, and concludes with a brief overview of ‘expatriate’ black swans in Britain and France.

The focus for this review is on the heraldic uses and displays, which basically fall into two groups, the Crown in right of Western Australia and State agencies, and municipal or local council heraldry.  Some well-known landmarks are traversed with the adoption of a blue ensign in 1875 defaced with a black swan on a bezant in the fly, and the assigning of arms to the City of Perth in 1926 (Argent a Cross Gules, in the first quarter a Swan Sable upon water proper, with black swan supporters).  Preceding uses of a black swan as a symbol of the colonial government are covered.  A picture is shown of a magnificent mayoral chain made in 1886 with a collar of 16 sterling silver black swans with an enameled shield pendant very similar to the 1926 blazon, suggesting a Westralian livery collar reminiscent of a 15th century Lancastrian Collar of Esses with a swan jewel pendant.

bdg-origcrest  Perth-coat-of-arms

Top: City of Perth Coat of Arms, granted by the Kings of Arms, 2 December 1926. Image:

Bottom: City of Perth Coat of Arms, with new 4th quarter of 1949 recognising its Scottish namesake.  Image Wikipedia

A history of several attempts to obtain a grant of arms for the Crown in right of Western Australia commences with a 1938 design with the principal charge of a black swan on a gold field and other charges and colours symbolizing the founding governor James Stirling and Westralian sacrifice in the Great War, that was “praised but not adopted”.  A 1952 design with a black swan and allusions to the Fremantle family was then revised in 1955 by replacing two lion supporters with wallabies.  Neither was accepted, and Garter King of Arms then proposed a design replacing the black swan with other charges representing the State’s industries and a Southern Cross.  However, the removal of the black swan as a charge “was not well received by the public”.  In 1964 a committee of senior public servants devised several designs that reinstated the black swan but which were rejected by the State government.  The committee again consulted Garter and in 1967 a design that essentially copied the first quarter of the arms granted to the City of Perth in 1926 was finally accepted.  Its blazon seems convoluted compared to the blazon of the 1926 city arms: Argent on a base wavy Azure charged with a barrulet wavy Argent a Black Swan naiant proper.  By this time, Liberal Party Premier David Brand, already affronted from public controversies over the destruction of Aboriginal and convict heritage sites he saw as impediments to his development agenda, disliked the helm and mantling which he worried would provoke ridicule and “Ned Kelly jokes”.  When the arms were assigned by royal warrant in 1969 these were omitted from the depiction.  Fortunately, the original 1967 design, with helm and mantling, is depicted in the book, the first time I have seen such an illustration.  The production of a Ned Kelly film, starring amongst others Mick Jagger and Frank Thring, was attracting much controversy and derision in the late 1960s, and the 1967 design makes clear the potential allusions in the over-sized helm design to a Ned Kelly helmet.


Top right: The Great Seal of Western Australia

 Top left: Design for the proposed State Arms with helm and mantling in Or and Sable, 1967

 Bottom: Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Western Australia, granted by the Kings of Arms 17 March 1969.  Low states that Garter consented to the arms being used without the helm and mantling, which suggests they are blazoned in the original royal warrant assigning the arms (Low 1971: page 51)

 Images: George & Cave, page 18, both editions

Unfortunately, for all the authors’ passion for their subject, they are not heraldists, and this leads to some mistakes.  There is loose and confusing use of terms such as coat of arms, crest and emblem.  This is common enough in our heraldically illiterate times, but nevertheless annoying.

The earliest official use of black swan emblems of which I know is in the colonial Great Seal, which is illustrated but misunderstood by the authors as an informal decoration.  The image shown in the book is that of a Newfoundland-style seal, with a back swan swimming on reed-framed water beneath the Royal Arms.  This seal design was widely used on Western Australian Government property and documents before 1969 (I remember it printed on the cover of my State school exercise books!).  Unfortunately, no histories of the Great Seal of Western Australia comparable to those of the Great Seal of New South Wales (Gullick, 1907), the Canadian provinces (Swan, 1977), Virginia (Walne, 1958), Georgia (Marsh, 2012) or the several treatises on English great seals (Jenkinson, 1936, 1943, 1968) have yet been produced to reliably date the seal or document its design evolution.[1]

There are no footnotes or direct citations, and although a limited bibliography is provided, much of the information on official arms seems likely to have come from the State archives.  Lack of referencing makes it difficult to follow these sources and develop more detailed heraldic histories.  For instance, a close reading indicates there are two principal historical blazons (1) Argent a Cross Gules, in the first quarter a Black Swan naiant and (2) Or, a Black Swan naiant, suggesting at least two (contested) imaginings of ‘Westralian’ identity.  From this insight it might be argued that the State arms granted in 1969 are a compromise between these two heraldic traditions, but the lack of referencing makes it impossible to deduce such a conclusion, or explore the tantalizing hints that there were, even in mid-twentieth century Western Australia, some heraldic cognoscenti and a population with some degree of heraldic literacy.  Another problem with the lack of citations is the dating of the first attempt to obtain a grant of arms by the State to 1938.  One archival source gives a date of 1926, which is consistent with the plans for the State’s approaching centenary in 1929, but without a reference it is not possible to check the veracity of the 1938 date.[2]

There are also some notable omissions from the book’s coverage, such as philately (Western Australia was a rarity among British colonies in that almost all its stamp issues between 1854 and 1913 featured a black swan rather than a royal effigy), and the public controversy of the early 1950s over the ‘correct’ way the for swan on the State flag to face (to the hoist or the fly), a controversy that was only resolved by an appeal to Garter for advice.  The issue is briefly discussed, but a heraldic reader may wish for more detail.  As with the design of the State arms referred to earlier, the role of proper heraldic authority is central to understanding these issues, although perhaps not critical to the purposes of the book.

The main weakness of the book, possibly because its ‘catalogue’ style does not really require it, is the lack of a thorough discussion and analysis of the black swan as a symbol of Westralian culture.  The mythical and esoteric imaginings of the black swan are occasionally hinted at, and the bibliography includes at least one reference to such a work, but the lovely images in the book would have been greatly enhanced by a more detailed discussion of meanings and symbolism.

On the other hand, almost all of the representations, heraldic and otherwise, have their artists and craftsmen identified, which shows a respect for the herald painter not always evident in heraldic publications.  The motto used on the Great Seal (but not the arms), Cygnis Insignis (Renowned for Swans), is attributed to Henry Prinsep, the then Chief Protector of Aborigines, and scion of a renowned British India dynasty of that name, in 1890.  This is the first time I have seen an author attributed to the motto, and the date places it firmly within the context of the moment the colony finally achieved self-government that year, forty years after the other Australasian colonies.  It is also on a cusp in which Western Australia’s earlier renown for failed immigration schemes and for convictism was fading, but its later renown for gold was only just emerging.  The black swan, indeed, became the enduring symbolic bridge between these historical periods.

Part 2

The second edition of Swanning Around Perth looks much the same as the first edition, but with a number of additional illustrations, extra information, and some minor corrections occasioned by the removal of elements during the recent mining boom, such as the mosaics at The Swan Bells for the development of Elizabeth Quay.  Of most interest to the heraldist will be the additional municipal Arms now included for the City of Canning and the City of Gosnells.  The Canning Arms are heraldic is design, and were assumed in 1962 rather than granted, while those for Gosnells were granted by the College of Arms in 1977.  Both include black swans as charges, and Canning has a black swan dexter supporter.  The designs could be said to be typically municipal.  The emblem of the Town of Cambridge, although a ‘logo’, was adopted in 1997 after a public competition.  The description of the elements, including the stylised black swan, however, could easily be blazoned to form a coat of arms of some distinction within Western Australia’s municipal heraldry (all the armigerous municipalities in the metropolitan area are now included).

The other notable addition is a page on Western Australian postage stamps, issued between 1854 and 1913.  Almost all the stamps featured a black swan naiant within a decorative frame, with the usual colour changes for each denomination.  The first issue was a 1d black, appropriate for the black swan.  The most famous is the ‘inverted swan’ (or ‘inverted frame’ as the authors correctly state) 4d blue issued in 1855, of which only 14 authentic copies, all used, are known to exist (for which auction prices have varied from $37,500 to $80,000).  This addition directly counters a weakness in the first edition noted above.


s-l225 (1) 2


Top: An ‘inverted swan’ of 1855.  Image Wikipedia;

Middle: A 3d Brown, 1872-1912, framed by reeds, reviewer’s collection

Bottom: £10 Revenue stamp, 1941-1950, image

Although none of the stamps use a heraldic style or frame, their designs all reflect the swan on the Great Seal.

Like the first edition, the second maintains the very good production qualities and beautiful images, and the heraldist will no doubt also enjoy the pages devoted to school and educational arms, the army, navy and air force badges for Western Australian-named vessels or units, emergency services badges and sporting club badges and emblems, many of which are heraldic or quasi-heraldic.  The heraldist might also note with some apprehension what seems a typical story of our times in the badge of the Royal Automobile Club of WA (RACWA) which from 1910 featured a black swan and crown.  The black swan went in 1956, the crown and the initials ‘WA’ in c2013.  The current anonymous, anti-heraldry dark blue lozenge with yellow ‘swooshes’ and RAC initials seems an impoverished substitute.  It’s a melancholy story with which every heraldist will be all too aware.


Swanning Around Perth, in both editions, although small in size, is packed with beautiful images of representations of the black swan in the Perth metropolitan area, and much of the information will be new in the public domain.  Scholarly attention to the symbols and emblems of Australia’s states and territories is evident mainly by its absence, and this is perhaps most true for Western Australia (although some other states and territories may contest that claim).  It is a book long overdue, and has the potential to encourage new research in the field.  Swanning Around Perth will be of value too Australian heraldists, those with an interest in localist identities and federalism, and those who simply enjoy the beauty and enigma of the black swan as either (or both) a natural or a heraldic bird.  I have enjoyed both editions of this small but packed book, and recommend it for the library of any heraldically-minded reader.

[1] William Gullick, The New South Wales Coat of Arms with Notes on the Earlier Seals, Government Printer, Sydney 1907; Conrad Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty, University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo 1977; Peter Walne, ‘The Great Seal Deputed of Virginia’, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 66, No 1, January 1958, pages 3-21; Benjamin Marsh, ‘The Signification of Georgia’s Eighteenth-Century Great Seals’, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol 96, No 2, August 2012, pages 195-232; Hilary Jenkinson, ‘The Great Seal of England: Deputed or Departmental Seals’, Archaeologia, Vol 85, January 1936, pages 293-340, ‘What Happened to the Great Seal of James II?’, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol 23, No 1-2, January 1943, pages 1-13, Guide to Seals in the Public Record Office, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London 1968

[2] see State Coat of Arms – Files, Acc 1495, 1920-1961, AN 2, State Records Office, Perth

Lisa Murray, Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide, 2016


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Written by Lisa Murray, contemporary photos by Mark Dunn, published by NewSouth Publishing, Sydney 2016, 398 pages, illustrated, maps, glossary, bibliography, index, Dewey CR 929.1 SYD.

This review was originally published in the Royal Australian Historical Society’s History Magazine, No 132, June 2017, page 21


The Venus of Rookwood, Rookwood Necropolis, photo mrbbaskerville 2 February 2013

Launched in December 2016 to widespread acclaim and good reviews, the beautifully-presented Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide will be of interest to the general rambler as well as cemetery aficionados.  Structured like a bird watcher’s or bushwalker’s guide, Lisa Murray presents cemeteries historic and contemporary in a way that should encourage their wider appreciation, as well as arm the graveyard champion with arguments to ward off rapacious property developers and to prod indifferent management bodies.  The Guide is of a size that is easily hand-held, and well suited to the needs of the wayfarer with camera in hand.


A rambler’s find in Rookwood Necropolis, photo mrbbaskerville 2 February 2013

The Guide covers 101 cemeteries in the County of Cumberland, occasionally straying into the county marches south and west of the Nepean-Hawkesbury River.  The County is divided into nine regions for the Guide, each with a handy map and a ‘Top 5’ list, making it easy for a traveller to visit cemeteries in the vicinity of each other.  It includes a glossary, notes on monumental design and symbolic meanings, bird watching sites, tips for nearby local attractions, and ‘notable burials’ in each cemetery.  It is, in a sense, a specialised or themed 21st century Baedeker or Lonely Planet, and the evocative images in the Guide beautifully illustrate the diverse and often romantic character of Sydney’s cemetery estate.


A notable grave long-forgotten, then marked, but with the wrong death-date, in Rookwood Necropolis, Catholic Section.  Photo mrbbaskerville 9 February 2013

Apart from the nine regional groupings, the Guide also contains five thematic essays that add to the appreciation of the cemetery rambler, seasoned or novice.  One outlines the Gothic romance of the cemetery ideal, an essay that will appeal to all lovers of the Romantic and the ruin.  The essay on symbolic gestures, or ‘reading’ the meanings of headstones and other cemetery decorations, is a perfect companion to the Gothic essay.  Two other essays are more practical, one an itinerary of the various headstone shapes and styles, another explaining the business of monumental masonry.  The final essay provides insights into the once fashionable modes of promenading in cemeteries, of remembrance ceremonies and of visiting gravesites as a pleasurable family or companionship ritual – practices, I suspect, the author hopes might be least better understood and appreciated, rather than derided as Victorian eccentricity.


A still-visited grave of a Confederate soldier, died 1892, Anglican Section, Rookwood Cemetery.  Photo mrbbaskerville 8 June 2013

Another theme that runs through the Guide is the awful but fashionable wave of ‘converting’ many historic cemeteries to parks during the mid-20th century, and the subsequent loss of large numbers of grave markers (some documented in the Guide).  Sydney’s inventory of appealing, curious and thought-provoking headstones may now be less than it once was, despite huge population increases since 1945.  The melancholy of the conversions rightfully pervades the Guide and prompts some pithy observations.  It should serve as a warning to any future well-meaning but ultimately ‘anti-history’ attempts to impark any cemetery.  Thankfully, the late and unlamented Conversion of Cemeteries Act 1974 was repealed in 2014.

Boyce FB & C

In a cemetery that escaped the deadly attentions of the cemetery converters, Blackheath Cemetery (beyond the County of Cumberland).  Photo mrbbaskerville 14 July 2013

Along with the Guide’s many fine points there some small criticisms.  There is a paucity of heraldic references in the Guide, which may simply reflect a rarity of grave heraldry in Sydney, but I suspect it points to one of the effects of the so-called conversions.  There could perhaps have been a little more attention to historic plantings in cemeteries (surviving as well as the known lost).  I would also have liked to know a little more about why there are chapels in some general cemeteries.  Perhaps the heritage listings (or their absence) for each cemetery could have been noted.  A bound bookmark ribbon would be useful to the wanderer.  Even so, these criticisms are minor notes to what is an otherwise readable, useful, aesthetically pleasing and highly desirable guidebook for the library or glove box or backpack of any cemetery rambler in this most historic of counties.


Doors to the Roman Catholic Chapel at Rookwood Necropolis, photo mrbbaskerville 9 February 2013

The Guide points to opportunities for local and specialist societies to develop similar guides in their areas of interest.  The RAHS Library holds at least six cemetery studies undertaken by Dr Murray, and over 370 other cemetery publications, although most are transcriptions rather than guides for the visitor.  The Guide, and any emulators, will encourage many more people to both see and better appreciate our cemetery’d heritage, and the beauty and inspiration cemeteries contribute to maintaining cohesive communities and evocative landscapes, especially in these times of great social change.

Wilkie E

Rouge-lichen, moss, decay, romantic ruins, magical symbols – hallmarks of our cemetery’d heritage.  Photo mrbbaskerville 14 July 2013


Richard Fidler, Ghost Empire, 2016


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Richard Fidler, Ghost Empire, ABC Books/HarperCollins, Sydney 2016

I heard journalist and broadcaster Richard Fidler interviewed on ABC Radio a few months ago about his new book, Ghost Empire, and thought at the time “I’d like to read that”.  And, lo, just a week and half ago, there it was under the Christmas tree.

I read the final sentence first:

The double-headed eagle, representing the unity of the eastern and western empires, still awaits its resurrection in Constantinople, the capital of a universal empire.[1]

“Yes”, I thought, “this will be good”.  And, as it turns out, it was a read I enjoyed, and from which I learnt much, although I do have a few quibbles.

The double-headed eagle emblem of Palaeologos dynasty and, by association of the Roman Empire in its final centuries. Image: Paliologos, Wikimedia Commons, 6 June 2014

The double-headed eagle emblem of the Palaeologos dynasty and, by association, of the Roman Empire in its final centuries.
Image: Paliologos, Wikimedia Commons, 6 June 2014

I am not a scholar of Constantinople or Roman history, nor is Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul a place about which I know much.  But, I have an Everyman’s awareness of Constantinople as a fabulous and ancient city that about five and a half centuries ago fell, after a great battle, to the Ottomans, and that one consequence of that fall was to force western European adventurers and traders, trying to avoid the new Muslim rulers, to explore the high seas and find their way into the Indian Ocean and maritime Asia via the Cape of Good Hope.  In a sense, me being born in Australia five hundred years later was the faintest of insignificant ripples radiating from the great disruptions of that ancient cataclysm.  My parents visited Istanbul a few years ago, and brought me back a lovely blue and white Iznik-style bowl, a Turkish cook book and a wealth of stories about a city they found enchanting.  But, beyond that, I knew little.

I know more now, thanks to Ghost Empire.  Once I started reading, it was hard to put down.  That is a tribute to both the intrinsic fascination of Constantinople’s history and to Fidler’s storytelling abilities.  The book is structured as a chronology or king list, with successive and noteworthy emperors, empresses and heirs-imperial providing the principal actors and dates around which events are attached and ordered.  Interspersed among the historical vignettes are Fidler’s Lonely Planet-like reminiscences of his journey with his teenage son as they explore the relics of the ancient city within the 21st century landscapes of Istanbul.  These provide insights into a father-son relationship, but also remind the reader that the millennium of history covered in the book is not fiction but a real time and space that is still present, even if that presence feels more ethereal than actual.  As a narrative device, it easily led me across 453 pages with little resistance.

However, despite trying to resist the historian in me, I soon found myself annotating pages and underlining and commenting on passages, thinking about Googling this or that, or checking my old Britannica.  I had to surrender.  The rest of this review departs from chronology to focus on a few themes to which, as a historian, I was drawn.

History and historiography

Fidler’s distinctions between his own writing and that of a professional historian are a good starting point.  He positions himself as “someone who is more of a history enthusiast than a historian” because he chooses to try and place himself in the ‘thought-worlds’ of the city’s medieval women and men who saw cosmic resonances in everything around them.[2]  Whereas professional historians, he says, approach fantastic and folk stories with caution because some will be fake, others distorted by prejudices and political necessities, and because they cannot accept supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, Fidler can accept the myths and phantasms of those women and men because they tell us something of their obsessions, anxieties and secret longings.  A historian of popular culture will want to interrogate those stories for what they might reveal about shared beliefs and values rather than discard them.  Even a fake story was invented for a reason, and why people accepted in it an earlier time as real can tell us much about their ‘thought-world’.  Context is everything, and the least reliable context for a story from the past is our contemporary world.  Modernist rational dissection is not necessarily the acme of historical analysis, and I think Fidler’s distinction may be a little forced.

Fidler later locates a discussion about the “great long stream of events and people” within a conversation with his son, who is trying to understand what had taken place before his birth.[3]  He argues a love of history is not a distraction from present expediency, but is critical to being tethered in our own time and place, to understanding the ‘flow of events’ that have carried us there.  Otherwise, he says, we are “condemned to live in an eternal present”, and quotes Churchill on the value of placing oneself in the stream of world events, of history offering “ballast for a restless soul”.[4]  Indeed.  History offers us the chance to confront the atomising ‘eternal present’ of ennui and the neoliberal marketplace.  By placing this discussion within a father-son dialogue, Fidler signposts the value of succession and stewardship to the restless soul.  The good historians I know are afflicted by (or is it endowed with?) a restless soul.  Perhaps that is why they are drawn to the historian’s vocation.

Later in the book, Fidler writes on the Enlightenment historiography of the last few centuries that has built up a narrative of disapproval about the city.[5]  Constantinople has been relentlessly slurred as superstitious and depraved; ‘a disgrace’ pronounced Voltaire.  This is exemplified by the adjective ‘byzantine’, a cliché now used to label anything pointless, complex and bureaucratic and allegedly a description of Constantinople’s governance.  Fidler responds with the obvious question:

if the Romans of Constantinople were so effete, so paralysed by superstition, how did their civilisation endure for so long?  How did they inspire so many with their vision of heaven on Earth?

Fidler doesn’t pursue these historiographical questions directly, but they are questions now being asked of the censorious orthodoxies of Enlightenment historiography by many new historians in many fields.  Near the end of the book, Fidler returns to this issue, and looks to poetry for, at least, a counterpoint if not an answer.  He finds one in the poetry of WB Yeats’ sublime Sailing to Byzantium (1933), and the haunting line “and gather me | Into the artifice of eternity”.[6]  That is, not the ‘eternal present’ under which we currently labour but the ‘great long stream’ with all its wildnesses and restlessness’s, and a consciousness “of what is past, or passing, or to come”, as Yeats concluded Sailing.  Fidler need not worry about professional historians, for many are seeking similar currents in which to flow.

Sailing boats on the Golden Horn, Henri Duvieux 1885. Image:

“Sailing boats on the Golden Horn”, Henri Duvieux 1885. Image:

Renovatio and its emblems

One of the first places Fidler looks for insight into the ‘thought-world’ of the medieval women and men of Constantinople is how they named themselves.

The already 980-years old Byzantium was re-named Nova Roma (New Rome) in 330 when Constantine proclaimed it the new capital of the Roman Empire, but it quickly became known as Constantinople.  The city’s inhabitants called themselves Romans, and the Roman Empire continued to live on for a thousand years after 476 when its western provinces had fallen to Germanic invaders.  Over the ensuing millennium, the Romans of Constantinople changed from pagans to Christians, from Latin-speakers to Greek, from looking west to east.  They called themselves Romaioi, and their realm Romania, as those around them called them by similar names such as Rum.[7]  Only in western Europe did a myth persist that the Roman Empire fell in 476.  Elsewhere, the glory of Rome, even if over time a little tattered, glowed until 1453.

The thought-world of Romaioi ‘Roman-ness’ had little to do with geography and everything to do with shared ideas and traditions.  When that world crashed in 1453 the Empire officially died, although the new Sultan assumed the title Kayser-i-Rûm, or Emperor of the Romans, from his dead Christian predecessor, implying continuity not ending.  Fidler argues once you know the stories of that lost empire, you can’t avoid the ghost of old Byzantium “pressing against you at the crumbling land walls … suffused with it when you stand under the golden dome of the Hagia Sophia … glimpsed within the shadows of the underground cistern of Justinian”.[8]  More continuities.

Column of Constantine, in the centre of the Forum of Constantine, made of porphyry blocks, dedicated by Constantine the Great on 11 May 330 AD to mark the declaration of Nova Roma as capital of the Roman Empire. Image: Bollweevil, Wikipedia 3 August 2010

Column of Constantine, in the centre of the Forum of Constantine, made of porphyry blocks, dedicated by Constantine the Great on 11 May 330 AD to mark his declaration of Nova Roma as capital of the Roman Empire. Image: Bollweevil, Wikipedia 3 August 2010

The Romaioi never saw any rupture with their ancestral glories in old Rome.  Their enduring links and continuities with a Roman past were more meaningful than any differences.  They saw not rupture in 330 but renovatio, or restoration, reinvigoration, made new again.[9]  Fidler makes this comprehendible with an almost-throw-away line when he says the Romaioi saw their Roman-ness in “much the same way that modern Australians consider themselves westerners while living south of East Asia”.[10]  He doesn’t take the thought further, but it has run around and around in my head since.  If Australians were to have a concept of their own renovatio, we would have to escape the historiographical West in which Rome died in 476, and in doing so, might rediscover the ‘lost’ historiography of a New Britannia, an Austral-Asia.[11]  It seems fantastic but as Constantinople shows, old ghosts pressed, suffused or glimpsed don’t just vanish.  Renovatio is always possible.  Such imaginings, of course, will only be knowable a thousand years hence.  If 1901 was our 330, the flow of time will have many ebbs and flows, many sovereigns good and bad, before our descendants reach their 1453?  A Roman epithet for Constantinople was the ‘mirror to heaven’.  Such a history is bound to induce dreams of glistering futures.

Contemporary historians of the city resent the term ‘byzantine’ being used to label the arcane and absurdly bureaucratic, seeing in it the slur of centuries of western prejudice.[12]  However, some symbols of the Romaioi have escaped Enlightenment slurring.  One symbol of Constantinople Fidler only touches lightly is the double-headed eagle.  He mentions the map of the empire in the 1020s, equally sprawling across the Balkans and Greece on one side, Asia Minor and the Levant on the other, as a shape roughly resembling a double-headed eagle.[13]  Each chapter concludes with a representation of the double headed eagle as a heraldic device.  He is perhaps wisely cautious as debate continues around the question of when such an emblem came in to use, and in the world of heraldry attributions of the origin of the double-headed eagle to the symbols of Constantinople’s later dynasties remain contentious.[14]

A more intimate symbol lies in the humble table fork.  Fidler recounts the story of the Byzantine Princess Theophanu who was married in Rome to the Frankish Prince Otto the Younger in 972.[15]  The princess brought from Constantinople the controversial practice of daily bathing and, even more amazingly, the use of a two-pronged fork.  These luxurious practices were initially controversial but became accepted, especially for the fork once pasta was introduced to Italy in the eleventh century and it became the chosen implement for its eating.  As Fidler remarks, “whenever you pick up pasta with a fork, you enact, in a very small way, a symbolic union of Rome with Constantinople and a reunion of the western and eastern empire”.  As with the eagle-like map, and ongoing debates about the heraldic origins of the double-headed eagle, eating with a fork gives us a little entrée into the Romaioi thought-world that bypasses Enlightenment prejudices.

Silver Byzantine fork and spoon, with animal-hoof finial. Image: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons, 7 September 2012

Silver Byzantine fork and spoon, with animal-hoof finial on fork, 4th century AD. Image: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons, 7 September 2012

Insiders and outsiders

Fidler enumerates 99 emperors.[16]  A palindromic number, but there were also 3 empresses-regnant between 330 and 1453, and all were spread across 13 dynasties and 3 non-dynasts. There was also a 57-year period of eight usurper Latin emperors and one Latin female regent.  This imperial diversity was possible because monarchy in Constantinople could be hereditary, but heritability was not essential.  Most of the dynasties produced four or five emperors, although the Macedonian dynasty managed 16, and the Palaeologos dynasty 12.  Nevertheless, through various marriages all the dynasties were or became related and the last emperor Constantine XI could trace a lineage back over 1000 years to Constantine I.[17]  They were all truly porphyrogenitus, or ‘born to the purple’ as the Romaioi would have said, a legitimating lineage more significant in a thousand-year history than a single dynasty.

Empress Theodore with courtiers, mosaic, Basilica San Vittale, Ravena, 547 AD. Image: Petar Milošević, Wikipedia, 27 April 2015

Empress Theodora with courtiers, mosaic, Basilica di San Vittale, Ravena, 547 AD. Image: Petar Milošević, Wikipedia, 27 April 2015

All the imperial officer holders would have appreciated the value of Fidler’s observation that Constantine I saw how an emperor’s authority could be greatly magnified by a plausible claim to a divine mandate, and all presented themselves, no matter how they had come to the crown, as regents of God on earth.  Their claims to the legitimating devices of lineage and divinity, however, did not prevent some truly brutal and atrocious reigns of terror leading Fidler to conclude there are “moments in history when psychopathic leaders gain the upper hand, and the normal human sanctions against killing disappear.”[18]  Such leaders have tended to be produced within the societies they later vampirise, and can be contrasted with the Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguards of the emperor.  The Varanagians were mainly Vikings from northern Europe attracted by good pay and the lure of the great city.  Emperors appreciated their service because, as foreigners, they were not aligned with any factions in dynastic and palace politics, and were “ultimately more trustworthy than local soldiers”.[19]  As with so much on Constantinople’s history, intuition is turned upside down when a home-grown emperor can be the most vindictive of barbarians and transient foreigners the most trustworthy of protectors.  In the age of rising nationalisms and divisions we live in, it is timely to reflect upon this aspect of the Romaioi thought-world.

Spirituality and Melancholy

Understanding religion is one key into that thought-world, in both a theological sense and in a political or ‘Christianist’ sense.  Fidler remarks that visitors to the city from the west could find nothing with which to compare it.  Its emperors, archbishops and architects were consciously trying to build a ‘mirror to heaven’.  They were reaching for theosis, or union with the divine, achieving an ecstatic oneness with the Holy Spirit, in which the city’s magnificence was an expression of their moral virtue.  This longing for theosis reached a sort of perfection in the Hagia Sophia built between 532-537.  New Rome was the heart of the divine empire on Earth.[20]  When the city was besieged in 1453 it was to the Hagia Sophia that its citizens fled, barricading themselves in, desperately believing prophecies of the End of Days telling that the demonic hordes would be stopped just short of the great cathedral by an angel who would smite them with a blazing sword.[21]  Their hopes were in vain, and after the looting, raping, killing and enslaving, the conquering Mehmed had his Imam proclaim the Muslim creed from the pulpit.  After 916 years, the great church became one shard among many in the smashed mirror to heaven.

Looking up into domes of the Hagia Sophia, mosaic (restored), 537 AD. Image Christophe Meneboeuf, Wikipedia, 20 June 2010

Looking up into domes of the Hagia Sophia, with angels holding up the great dome, mosaic (restored), 537 AD. Image Christophe Meneboeuf, Wikipedia, 20 June 2010

It is a long way from the Hagia Sophia to the suburban Anglican churches of Adelaide.  Fidler recounts growing up a doubting congregant of such a local church, recalling he was never able to reconcile the God of love and forgiveness of the New Testament with the angry, mercurial creator of the Old.[22]  That too has been my experience, perhaps magnified in a Sydney dominated by a form of masculinist, Christianist, evangelical Anglicanism that I find quiet alien to the warm and loving church of my childhood in country Western Australia.  My grandmother played the organ, my grandfather was a warden.  Embedded in a wall was a little piece of Roman brick, recycled from a pagan temple into the wall of the ancient Kentish church of St Pancras built in 601, just 64 years after the great Hagia Sophia.  As a boy, I loved to touch that relic, imagining some time-travel along the ‘great long stream’ with the medieval Augustine missionising among the pagan English.  In 601 the Great Schism between Orthodox and Catholic was still 400 years’ away, and I can now imagine that red brick witnessing the same Christian services and rituals in Anglo-Saxon Kent as in the glorious Hagia Sophia, and even in some unseen continuity now in that curious little Anglo-Catholic styled Church of England in rural Western Australia.  Generations of my mother’s family have been congregants, and I was baptised there in a font just a metre from that brick.  The church is dedicated to St Catherine, traditionally martyred c305 by Constantine I’s defeated predecessor the Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.  After his victory Constantine converted to Christianity and the ‘great long stream’ took a new turn.  I have only made these connections after reading Ghost Empire.  The ‘great long stream’ seems to have its billabongs.  Perhaps all these little Anglican churches, often now empty or declining, but preserved like jewels among the commonplace and still promising sanctuary and light, are also tiny shards of that smashed mirror?

Roman brick 3rd Century AD, re-used in St Pancras, Kent 601 AD, re-used in St Catherine's, Western Australia 1912 AD. Image: L Baskerville, 26 March 2014

Roman brick 3rd Century AD, re-used in St Pancras, Kent 601 AD, re-used in St Catherine’s, Western Australia 1912 AD. Image: L Baskerville, 26 March 2014

Fidler ponders the meaning of the Greek word melancholia as father and son ramble beside the ruins of the city’s Theodosian Walls.  He decides that a Turkish word hüzün better explains his emotions.  Hüzün refers to a communal feeling that arises from living in a city crowded with the monuments and signs of a glorious past, a hazy sadness, a conviction of living in a monochrome era in a place built in a larger more colourful age.[23]  I think it’s a word that needs to be adopted into Australian English (perhaps into the language of all settler societies?).  Do we not also live among the monuments of ancient Indigenous civilizations, in landscapes always traced with signs of a spiritual past just beyond our comprehension, ghosts sometimes beheld from the corner of the eye but then melting away before focusing?  It is more than individual melancholy; it is shared and it has a sense of genius loci or spirit of place.  This is the first time I’ve learnt a word that comes close to symbolising that deep emotion I cannot shake.  Ever.  Fidler’s son finds, in a ruined tower of the fabled Golden Gate, a mattress and some empty beer cans.  He includes a hazy monochrome picture of the abandoned space, contemporary junk counterpoised with ancient stone walls.[24]  It exudes melancholia and hüzün all at once, all osis but no theos.  I had to turn the page.

Within a tower of the Golden Gate. Image Ghost Empire, page 364

Within a tower of the Golden Gate. Image Ghost Empire, page 364

The artifice of eternity

In turning the page I come to my few quibbles.  Several times I have mentioned a point Fidler did not pursue.  They aren’t critical to long story he tells, but I would have liked to read his unfolding thinking a little further.  But perhaps the two issues I would have liked to read more about relate to the shameful Fourth Crusade, and the fate of Romaioi of the city after its fall.

The sacking and plundering of the city in 1204, not by Muslim invaders but by the armies of the Christian West under the benighted leadership of a grasping Doge of Venice, is described by Fidler as “one of the worst crimes of the late Middle Ages”.[25]  At its heart lay pure greed and vindictiveness.  The Crusaders carried away from the city the vast loot that had accumulated during 800 years, leaving the Romaioi humiliated and under Latin occupation.  Much of the stolen property appeared later in the treasuries and palaces of Catholic Europe.  At the end of this chapter, Fidler concludes “Once you know this of Venice [the chief recipient], you can never see St Mark’s in quite the same way.  It looks less like a work of holy inspiration and more like a magpie’s nest of plunder, a monument to a shameless act of theft.”[26]  The grasping Doge was later interred in the occupied Hagia Sophia, a sort of seal on its faux-Catholic conversion, and there is schadenfreude to be derived from reading later, as the Sultan’s Janissaries were looting the great church in 1453, that they opened his sarcophagus and three his bones to the dogs in the streets.[27]  But, my quibble?  In a time when the repatriation of cultural material is contested and debated in museums around the world, when magpie’s heirs privilege the sciences of material conservation over the depth of Indigenous attachments and longings, I would have liked to be challenged a little more: are there arguments over whether the Venetian’s loot such as the Quadriga (an equine statuary) should be returned to Istanbul, a city that may no longer he populated by heirs of the Crusader’s victims?  Would repatriation be justice for past crimes, or a denial of a shameful history?  No easy answers, but then Constantinople’s history is full of difficult answers.

That brings we to my other quibble.  What did happen to the Romaioi once the city had fallen?  Fidler provides some descriptions of what happened to them after the Sultan’s armies broke through the city’s defences on 29 May 1453.  For six months the metropolis was largely silent and deserted, its people murdered, exiled or transported into slavery.  Then the city was repopulated with Muslims and Christians from the Sultan’s domains.  A census 25 years later recorded a (new?) population of 80,000.  Somehow, the reckoning is just too neat and tidy.  I see from the bibliography at least 12 references that may relate this information in some way, all authoritative, so why am I left in doubt?[28]  For so long our narratives of Aboriginal Australia were of a dying race, ever diminishing, soon to be gone forever.  And yet, today, the population is growing and there is a cultural renaissance.  The ‘dying pillow’ was a convenient and guilt-relieving story and, because of that, widely accepted and believed.  Now, we know it was never true.  Could the same be said of Constantinople’s Romaioi?  Fidler acknowledges the continuing presence of a small community of Orthodox Rum in the city today, in the vicinity of the old Imperial palace.[29]  He states the Greek population was 130,000 before World War One, but has declined to just 3,000 today, and father and son eat in a Greek café.[30]  It doesn’t take much reading around to find many stories of the expulsion of Greeks and ‘Romans’ from the city right up to at least 1955.  I wonder how many of the Rum avoided leaving the city by conversion to Islam?  I have no idea, and sense an untold story (untold, at least, in Australia) lingers here, waiting for its scribe.

Hüzün Kaldi Geriye (The Sadness is Back), novel by Bülent Keskin, Buğra Publishing, Istanbul 2016. Image:

Hüzün Kaldi Geriye (The Sadness is Back), novel by Bülent Keskin, Buğra Publishing, Istanbul 2016. Image:

Moving away from such ‘quibbles’ (if they is what they are), I want to conclude by returning to Fidler’s original distinction between the professional historian and the history enthusiast.  Emotion, art, poetry and history are very old companions, and the concept of history as a ‘great long stream’ upon which we are all sailing into futures unknown provides Ghost Empire with a cohesion that can span a thousand years.  Enlightenment ideas of scientific progress may, in time, been seen as a short-term deviation from the great long stream.  Linear progressive narratives have served the West well for two or three centuries, but compared with the two-and-a-half millennia history of just one city, where the storylines flow at times in peace and others in tempest, where ideas of theosis, porphyrogenitus, melancholia and hüzün have a provocative and imaginative capacity that can outlive any a single human life, a dynasty, a millennium, linear progress seems wanting.

Fidler draws his long story to a close with an observation that, to the Byzantines, “an innovation was a paltry thing, an embarrassment, like a cheap modern extension to a grand old house … the enemy of the eternal, the perfect.”[31]  He implies that aversion offers an insight in the Romaioi thought-world that explains the fall in 1453, unable to defeat the Sultan’s modern new cannon, but I’m not so sure.  Fidler nominated the greatest imperial Byzantines as Constantine I (The Great, r 324-337), Justinian (and Theodora, r 527-565) and Heraclius (r 610-641).[32]  They were all innovators, but in the Romaioi thought-world their innovations were perceived as continuities, as part of the eternal stream.  Perhaps Constantine XI (r 1449-1453) could be added to the trio.  He refused to surrender to Mehmet, and almost defeated the siege until, on the cusp of victory, he and his armies were undone by that most material and human of actions, carelessness.  A hidden door in the city walls, the Gate of the Wooden Circus or kerkoporta, was left unbarred after a raid.  The Ottoman attackers found the weakness, and for the want of a wooden bar, the city was lost and the great long stream took another turn.  Constantine XI met the attackers on the walls and was killed in battle.  But his ghost has never died, kept alive among Romaioi exiles in a story of being turned by an angel, at his moment of death, into marble and sealed in a tomb beneath the Golden Gate, waiting the call to return and restore the lost city.  Fidler says that such legends comfort people grieving over a lost golden age.  But, could the legend also be read as the ultimate theosis, eternity artificed through the innovative power of imagination?

I’m not sure what a historian of Constantinople would say, but I think Ghost Empire is a fabulous book.  I had fun reading it, and learnt a lot.  Buy it, read it, surrender to your senses.

"Your body is jailed and you can not get rid of it. Hüzün is the call of the distant. You can not go. Image Fatihfurkan, 22 May 20120,

“Your body is jailed and you can not get rid of it. Hüzün is the call of the distant. You can not go.” Image: Fatihfurkan, 22 May 2010,


[1] page 453

[2] page XIII

[3] page 19

[4] pages 20-21

[5] pages 182-183

[6] pages 449-450, and Chapter 11 generally

[7] pages 3 to 5

[8] page 9

[9] page 5

[10] page 5

[11] for some pointers see WC Wentworth’s poem ‘Australasia’ (1823), Sir Keith Hancock’s concept of ‘Austral-Britons’ in his history Australia (1933/1960) or Humphrey McQueen’s New Britannia (1971).  The seeker will find more.

[12] page 98

[13] page 246

[14] see for example David F Phillips, The Double Eagle, Flag Heritage Foundation, Newbury Massachusetts 2014

[15] Otto was a great-great-great-great-great grandson of Charlemagne

[16] page 18

[17] for a genealogical table, see ‘Byzantine Emperors Family Tree’,, accessed 5 January 2017

[18] page 212

[19] page 272

[20] page 13

[21] page 433

[22] page 185

[23] pages 373-373

[24] page 364

[25] page 326

[26] pages 358-359

[27] page 434

[28] pages 465-470

[29] page 437

[30] pages 147-151

[31] page 451

[32] page 24

King Charles III, by Mike Bartlett, Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney


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Almeida Theatre Production

Matinee session, Wednesday 20 April 2016, ticket $89 (student concession)

I am not a regular theatre goer, so this was something of a treat for a quiet Wednesday afternoon.  The theatre was full, a mix of older and younger people, presumably those not at work on a week day during the school holidays.  The play has been favourably reviewed in Sydney’s mainstream press, with a half-half split between reviewers over whether it had political resonances and implications in Australia.[1]  Playwright Mike Bartlett says this is “a play about the moment Charles takes the throne, and how his conscience would lead him to refuse to sign a bill into law.  An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution … the form had to be Shakespearean”.[2]

My interest is in the play as ‘future history’ rather than as theatre or literature, and this review is directed to that end.  The acting and production values were, as all the press reviewers say, brilliant and engaging.  As theatre, I enjoyed the experience, and perhaps the first point to make is that this is fiction not history, a distinction that needs to be kept in mind.

The Characters

The concise narrative and plot are needed for such a melodramatic story, but in reality the political and dynastic events would be much more complex.  Archetypes are useful for allowing the plot to unfold without the distractions of too many sub-plots, but they can also distance the characters from their ‘real’ namesakes and tend at times to almost reduce them to caricature.  I thought this most noticeable in the Duchess of Cornwall who not only does not seem to have become Queen (she is never referred to as Her Majesty) but seems like an unmediated reflection of the shallow personality presented by the media.  Would a woman whose love for her man spanned so many obstacles really be that flaky?

The character of Prince Harry is believable in some ways, but is he really so vacuous, or is that again a media creation given a sort of authenticity by the playwright?  I found it hard to believe that a man now in his thirties would still be behaving like a petulant teenager, even allowing for the fictive nature of the character.

The character of Kate, on the other hand, is that of the woman every family needs if it is to hold together.  If the real Kate is anything like this, the dynasty is in strong hands, and she is the true heir to Queen Elizabeth.  It’s not surprising that Kate and William emerge as glorious, if somewhat troubled, characters.

Then there’s the star, King Charles III.  Charles’ refusal of assent to a bill is necessary for the storyline, but I find it a bit hard to believe.  I have no doubt that after his long apprenticeship he has worked out ways to ‘influence’ things without the need for a head-on confrontation.  A refusal of royal assent seems too crude, and the irony of wanting to protect ‘freedom of expression’ given the role of the media in his own marriage break-up and the death of Diana, and so on makes that an unlikely casus belli – The option of refusing to assent to an airport/environment bill, referred to in the beginning, seems a more likely trigger, but it still assumes his lack of wisdom is also real, and that I find difficult to believe.

The other main character is the set.  The bare brick walls, arched doorways and remnants of plaster work suggest a classical ruin, presumably intended to suggest the storyline is revealing a ‘stripped back’ monarchy, showing antiquated roots and crumbling character. I think a Gothic ruin with its provocative imaginary would have been more successful, and surely at least one representation of royal heraldry with all its allusions to endurance and continuity, perhaps in this case damaged or even altered, would have been apposite?  The avoidance of the term ‘United Kingdom’ and instead serial references to its constituent kingdoms or entities seems to be a verbal synonym for heraldic display

The Shakespearean allusion to a hollow crown towards the end of the play is a literary, not historical, allusion, but it provides a segue from theatre to history.


The idea of the kings two bodies is often alluded to, and the play contains a great representation of this in the confrontation between William and Charles in the heated clash between bodies corporate and natural, between father and son, between sovereign and heir.  The idea is also evident in the distinction often made in the play between crown and state.  For some in an Australian audience, where these terms are casually treated as synonyms, this may seem an arcane point, but it would be rewarding to see the play again with a greater consciousness of this duality of king as state and king as man.

The ‘abdication solution’ seems to echo that of Edward VIII, but in the play continuity is re-established as unchanging. Harry returns to the fold, to continue as playboy prince; Kate accepts a submissive role as queen consort, politics appears to return to normal.  But tradition operates by being mutable, not by ossification.  After the real abdication in 1936 everything changed, and the art of that change lay in making it seem as through nothing had changed.  The new King and Queen were both crowned, not just the King.  The ‘spare’ royal brothers took on royal and vice-regal duties (Prince Henry was later an Australian Governor General).  Their marriages were to Britons, not continental Europeans, and they were in Westminster Abbey, presented as an ancient tradition, even though no royal marriages had been held there for several centuries.  In this regard, the reinvention of the dynasty by George V in 1917 is critical to understanding the subtle and fundamental relationship between apparent continuity and actual change (even if some American television script writers have recently pronounced the implausibility of such a link).  If William V’s reign, like that of George VI’s, follows a traumatic abdication, history would suggest it will be ‘great’, as the ghost predicts in the play and not ‘hollow’ as the playwright has Charles pronounce.

The tensions between royal conscience and democratic politics is ‘of the now’, in that the politicians are believable in their oleaginous expediency.  They are presented as universal characters in any Westminster political system, and are entirely believable.  However, the ‘conservatives’ apparent ambiguity regarding the monarchy and crown is puzzling.  The requirements of the plot for black/white characters may be the explanation, but in reality it seems unlikely that conservative parties would so easily acquiesce to a bill to remove the role of royal assent, especially given the weakness of any other constraints on a dictatorial prime minister in the British version of Westminster without any senate or federal states or other strong institutions constraining tyrannical executive powers.  The royal assent may seem to be ‘only’ ceremonial, but as Charles’ character shows, a meeting of royal conscience and parliamentary ritual could be powerfully disrupting.  The faux politeness of the progressive prime minister is believable, but the apparent passivity of the conservatives isn’t.


Some media reviews have sought to equate the situation in the play to Australia, and John Howard’s operation of a sort of ‘executive prime ministership’ after 1999 might suggest a route to such an equation.  However, deferral of royal assent is not unknown when for ceremonial purposes a bill may be reserved for the sovereign’s assent rather than a vice-regal signature.  The unilateral dismissal of a parliament in the play is very different to 1975 when Sir John Kerr dismissed the prime minister not the parliament, and the caretaker prime minister he appointed then requested a dissolution and election of the parliament.  The politics of 1975 may have been contentious, but as with events in the play, the constitutionality of those events is another matter.

In some ways, the monarchy in the play is unfamiliar to Australians, in other ways it is very familiar.  That may reflect a similarity of partisan views in both countries between a progressive left and a conservative right.  But spectra of political or communal identities are rarely so black or white, and elements of a straw monarchy have to be created by or for the plot.  That strawness is as obvious in Australia as I suppose it would be in Britain.

There is an inference as the play unfolds that Charles is unsuitable as a monarch because he has a conscience and would act on it.  It would be easy to think this reflects a British view, as evidenced by a comment from a British republican on the Queen’s 90th birthday that the older she becomes, the more the succession looms, putting the crown in a ‘perilous position’, alluding to the supposed unsuitability of Charles.[3]  That sort of derision of Prince Charles, questioning or equating his supposed eccentricity with unsuitability, is common-enough among Australian republicans as well.[4]  The character of Charles even alludes to it in the play, suggesting the strength of the media characterisation of the man.

However, I think his critics are constructing a straw heir for polemical purposes.  It is equally as likely Charles III, like Edward VII, will prove them all wrong.  His interests and passions in the environment, public architecture, cultural heritage, spirituality and aesthetics, and his capacity for subtle communicating and influencing, are the interests of an educated, civilised, renaissance man, not the foolish straw man of republican narrative (perhaps that is the secret fear of the straw Carolines?).  In that sense, the play (although not the actor) does him and us a disservice.  It is useful to remember that Shakespeare’s literary Richard III turns out to be nothing like the historical character.


I enjoyed the play.  The performances were first rate, and the set simple and atmospheric.  The whole production provokes the imagination and provides cause to think of possible futures.  For those reasons alone, it should not be missed.

As a historian, however, I found the story a little limiting because, as indicated earlier, I think such a conflict would be much more complex and unpredictable, and the post-conflict traumas would be long-lasting.  I’m not sure that an Australian playwright (or playwright based in Australia) would have developed a markedly different storyline.  I’m no nationalist, and am averse to ascribing essential characteristics to nationality.  I don’t believe there is any real sign that Australians will reject Charles as our next king or be surprised that he reigns according to all the correct forms and rituals.  Bartlett’s play will not change the views anyone already holds on these matters, especially those still locked in the fossilised conflicts of 1990s republicanism.  However, through his fictive characters, Bartlett does open a space for communal imaginings, beyond the divisions of the 1990s, of more interesting ideas for fusions of republican-monarchism or monarchist-republicanism in a post-national state.

Perhaps, if a playwright wants to challenge an audience in Australia (or any of the Sixteen Realms) to look at monarchy or the crown differently, she might take as her moment that when the succession to the Australian Crown is conferred upon Prince Harry or Princess Charlotte rather than William V.

Meanwhile, go and see this play.


[1] Louise Schwartzkoff, ‘Future King’, Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, 2 April 2016, page 6; Jason Blake, ‘Riveting study of monarchy must-see theatre’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 2016, page 11; Steve Dow, ‘King Charles III Review – Shakespearean take on future reign raises unique questions for Australia’, The Guardian Australia, 5 April 2016; Polly Simons, ‘King Charles III an audacious look at a right royal drama’, Daily Telegraph, 7 April 2016

[2] King Charles III Program, ‘Writer’s Note’, page 7

[3] see ‘Nation lights up for one’s 90th’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 2016, page 24

[4] Greg Craven, ‘If FitzSimons is really the man to lead us to a republic, I’ll eat my bandanna’, The Australian, 21 September 2015, page 12; editorial, ‘Prince Charles and the road to a republic’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 2015, page 18

Steven Farram, A History Written in Metal, 2014


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This review was first published in Northern Territory Historical Studies, No 27, 2016, pages 102-104.  All photos in this review, except the image of the Sydney ceramic plaque, were taken by Steve Farram and displayed in an online exhibition marking Charles Darwin University’s silver anniversary.

The study of commemorative plaques, among historians at least, is an arcane, some might say neglected, field. Steve Farram’s A History Written in Metal addresses this neglect, at least for the Casuarina Campus of Charles Darwin University (CDU). The campus is a perfect microcosm for investigating and analyzing a discrete collection of plaques.

Plaque 23 - 1995c - NFIH Timecapsule

Chapter One sets the scene for subsequent chapters that identify, describe and analyse the plaques decade-by-decade. Each plaque is illustrated, with its location, a brief history of the building or subject commemorated by the plaque, and some biographical details of the person or people named on the plaque. Chapter Eight provides conclusions, with an appendix of plaques at other CDU campuses, a detailed bibliography and a good index.

Plaque 32 - 1999a - Chinese pavilion plaque

Farram’s interest was provoked by serendipity: “I became interested in the plaques at Casuarina campus … through the chance discovery of two plaques in rather improbable places”. One was inside the third level of a building; the other had been relocated to the centre of a roundabout. These discoveries, in the context of CDU’s approaching 40th anniversary, gave him an opportunity to research a history of the university beyond the usual paper archives.

Plaque 2 - 1974 DCC opening plaque 2013

The introduction will be of most use to researchers beyond Darwin. Farram describes the university’s commemorative plaques as a “type of institutional autobiography”. However, they cannot be taken at face value: attention is needed to the facility being commemorated, those opening the facility, and the entity providing the funding. The plaques almost always have some political significance, and collectively tell a story of the educational aspirations of a regional community.

Plaque 4 - 1980 - Orange 4

The discussion of ‘The significance of plaques’ is of universal value. Farram observes that “Not much has been written about the use of commemorative plaques as an aid to understanding the history of a site or institution”, an observation with which I completely agree. To counter this void, he compares other approaches to historical research using material evidence, such as buildings and objects. Plaques, he notes, do contain text, but it is a special kind of text that we have to learn how to read. Monuments have attracted some scholarly attention, but academic historians, he argues, have retained a “traditional antipathy to public history” (and in those few words is the basis for a whole new book!).

Plaque 76 - Tennant Creek 1 - 1976

Plaques are subject to all the usual caveats: they are partial and biased, they leave unsaid as much as their inscriptions seem to say, they can be misleading, dates can be inaccurate. Nevertheless, they can also reflect civic culture, be a source of community pride, and record changing social and political paradigms. Farram reflects on the distinctions between history and heritage, quoting Susan Marsden “heritage is not what happened in the past but what has survived from the past”. Plaques are both material survivors of the past, and a written record of it. Those that are not destroyed or otherwise displaced will become heritage items in their own right. He finishes by stating that textual evidence in the paper archive is available to those determined, trained and experienced enough to access it, whereas plaques are available for all to see. This is a fundamental observation, and explicitly informed the establishment of the London blue plaques program in 1867 and the Sydney ceramic plaques program in 1919.


Farram identified 53 plaques, of which five and possibly more are known to be missing (about ten percent). My own research on plaque programs in Sydney, London and Manchester suggests that a quarter to a third will be missing after the first forty years. Darwinians may be better guardians of their patrimony, but I suspect further research would reveal more missing plaques. He touches upon the often-poor quality of the materials used to make the plaques, and the scarcity of authenticating emblems such as coats of arms. This leads to the counter-intuitive realization that plaques, supposedly intended to be enduring, are often treated as little more than publicity opportunities. This is especially evident in the now-common practice of a plaque being unveiled while sitting on an easel. Permanent attachment to the place, it seems, is increasingly becoming something of an optional afterthought.

Plaque 69 - Melb - 2013

There are some matters that might have been touched upon a little more, such as why particular plaque materials were chosen. However, the strengths of the book far outweigh any such weaknesses, especially as it is in many ways a pioneering work. Farram alerts historians to the presence of commemorative plaques in the landscape, and their role as historical records. His self-effacing comment that “…nothing profound is likely to be learnt …” from his book is too modest.

Plaque 39 - 2001b - Brand - Clapham 1

A History Written in Metal is a must for any historian of CDU, regionalism, post-school education, heritage and especially the tiny (but hopefully expanding) field of ‘plaque studies’.

Plaque 67 - Katherine 3 - 2008

Steven Farram, A History Written in Metal: Commemorative Plaques at Charles Darwin University’s Casuarina Campus, 1972-2013, Historical Society of the Northern Territory, Darwin, 2014, ISBN 978-1-921576-99-7, xxi + 214 pp, paperback, $25.00


On Islands, Biodiversity, Black Swans and History: Tim Winton, Victoria Laurie and Alex George & Charmaine Cave, 2015


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  • Tim Winton, Island Home: a landscape memoir, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, Docklands 2015, 10 chapters, 235 pages, references, acknowledgements, no index, Dewey A823.3, RRP $A39.99
  • Victoria Laurie, The Southwest: Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspot, UWA Publishing, Crawley 2015, 10 chapters, 229 pages, illustrated, foreword, map, select bibliography, index, Dewey 333.9510994, RRP $A45.00
  • Alex George and Charmaine Cave, Swanning Around Perth: An exploration of the Black Swan in our City, Four Gables Press, Kardinya 2014, three sections, 104 pages, illustrated, preface, acknowledgements, bibliography, index, Dewey 70.946, RRP $A20.00.

I recently read three books, all of which might be classed as ‘Westraliana’. This review is primarily of Tim Winton’s Island Home, but is informed by and reflects upon the other two books, Victoria Laurie’s The Southwest and Alex George and Charmaine Cave’s Swanning Around Perth.

By way of disclaimer, I was born and grew up on the Batavia coast of Western Australia. My boyhood was spent on that windblown coastscape of endless sandplains and vast skies, and just over the horizon on the Abrolhos Islands. My father was a crayfisherman, and I knew most of the Batavia coast hamlets before they were swept away in the 1990s, all sandy tracks, tin shacks, eccentric residents, sighing tamarisks and incessant southerly winds. I later lived for 3½ years on Norfolk Island in the Pacific, managing a historic site. Winton’s title, Island Home, naturally attracts me. I am only two years older than Winton.  His 2001 novel Dirt Music spoke to much of my adolescence and young adult life; chapter two of his 1993 memoir Land’s Edge to much of my earliest childhood. Perhaps we even crossed tracks at some time, I don’t know. Ironically, I currently work as a historian in The Rocks, the very spot where the invasion literally and figuratively commenced in 1788. Of course, in Western Australia the symbollic year zero is 1829, but histories have their convergences, and The Rocks and the Batavia Coast sort-of bookend my reading of these books.


Black swans at sunset on Thungarra Estuary

Mouth of the Irwin River | Batavia Coast 

The books, as books

These are three books that would appeal to the historian and the heraldist, but were written by neither. Instead, they are the work of a novelist, a journalist and a botanist and a graphic designer. The bibliographic classifications of each are fiction, biodiversity and media, not library shelves usually scoured by the historian. In their own way, each explore Western Australian histories with insights and from points of view that seem, at least at first glance, to be a long way from the current work of academic historians in Perth as represented in, for example, Western Australia in the Indian Ocean World.[1]

Winton’s Island Home is subtitled a landscape memoir, and he explores a number of inter-related themes that reveal his central thesis: the spirit of country makes us who we are, and that country is an island. The book consists of nine chapters, each composed of an introductory reminiscence and a longer exploration of a theme. Chapter one’s thematic essay begins with the sentence “I grew up on the world’s largest island”. It recalled for me one of those hoary old school questions for which there was never a satisfactory answer: was Australia the world’s largest island or its smallest continent? But that question is not the nub of Winton’s statement. What is the nub is rather more nebulous to discern.

Victoria Laurie’s The Southwest explores a somewhat similar terrain to Winton but by a very different method. She begins by defining the Southwest (one word), always a nebulous place, as the south-western corner of the continent bounded by west and south coasts and a meandering line from Kalbarri to Esperance. It is a great botanical, geological and cultural province composed of nine extensive districts, for each of which Laurie creates a distinctive biography in her nine chapters. My own origins lie in her prosaically named Northern Sandplains, distinguished by its sandy heaths known as kwongans or, as I knew them by an older, gentler spelling, quongan. Laurie charts the relationships between cultures and nature that have created each of these district landscapes, relationships that have been fraught but which also now offer some cause for hope.

George & Cave’s paean to the black swan, or rather to crafted representations of the heraldic emblem of Western Australia, provides another route to the heart of the island. It is densely illustrated with photographs of black swans in architecture, public works, military badges, trophies, statuary, fountains, school emblems, hospital and emergency services badges, commercial branding, works of art, religious buildings, and civil society symbols and emblems, as well as official State and municipal heraldry. It briefly refers to Nyoongar Dreaming and symbolic associations with the black swan, and concludes with a brief overview of ‘expatriate’ black swans in Britain and France.

Island Home is really a book that raises questions rather then provides answers, which should satisfy the historian or historically-minded reader. The question at the heart of this island book may be one of identity, or how personal and communal identities evolve over time and place. But perhaps the question that Winton tackles in chapter six, ‘The Power of Place’, the questionable legitimacy of non-Aboriginal colonisation and subsequent ‘development’ of the land by an enduring settler society goes to the real, aching heart of this island?

Islands within Islands: Westralian exceptionalism

The ‘island’ is, at first glance, the Australian continent, but in chapter six Winton identifies an ‘island within an island’, referring to North Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania as an Other, separated from the ‘real’ island of southeastern Australia by “every cultural and geographic current” inherent in a Sydney-Melbourne based perspective (pp 135-136). Most Westralians who have travelled to the Eastern States (or Over East, or The Otherside, in Westralian vernacular) will be familiar with this sense of displacement and outsiderness. Winton ascribes this to an imperial exclusiveness by a Sydney-Melbourne corporate world still in the thrall of London, but is that attribution sustainable? Having lived on the Otherside for nearly 25 years (only sojourning, not exiled, you understand), I think some consciousness of Westralian insularity and looking westward is also needed to understand that the divide is not all one-way.

Laurie also posits an island, geological but also imagined, in the south west of the continent, the Yilgarn Craton, a block of the earth’s crust that is as least half the age of the planet and upon whose flat archaic surface fossil soils support the unique biodiversity of southwestern Western Australia. George & Cave’s island is rather more ephemeral, with their example of the Vlamingh swan sculpture in Burswood Park, once an island in the Swan River but now reclaimed and fixed to the riverbank (pp 62-63). The bronze swan rears up defensively as a surprised Dutch mariner approaches, his surprise frozen in bronze. That historical moment in 1697 is redolent with meanings, at one level heralding the colonising encounter, at another a historic episode that no eastern state can emulate. Islands within islands within islands abound in these books.

img-160228111449-0003 On the Sandplain Littoral | Purple Moon Peak (above)

On the verges of the Yilgarn Craton | Adam’s Breakaways (below)


Progress or regress: seeing through green-tinted glasses

Winton and Laurie both articulate an understanding of ‘seeing’, that what the settlers gaze upon and consciously ‘see’, is a culturally shaped or determined gaze, it is not neutral or universal. Learning new ways of ‘seeing’ is one of the modes of change that each detects in contemporary settler society, and although Laurie explores why this change is occurring to some degree, it is something that could be further researched and historicised.

Each of the writers reflects, in their own ways, upon the impacts of colonisation as they are writ-large in the landscapes of Western Australia. Winton and Laurie both reflect a spirit of optimism that, despite 185 years of settler destruction and greed, a sense that change is not only possible but is actually happening. This not to deny the continuing impacts of Big Mining and Big Property, but these are no longer uncritically accepted as absolutes, necessary to the pursuit of either Mammon or Progress. Winton says he is not an optimist, and appears uncritical of the ‘rapacious settler’ construct in William Lines’ environmental histories (pp 47, 91-92), but nevertheless finds cause for optimism in youth. Seeking a vicarious affirmation in youthful vigour and hope is itself an old trope. Back in the 1980s (before organised Green politics), when I was involved in a local conservation movement on the Batavian sandplains, accusations of youthful impatience, outsider thinking and insensitivity to the economic needs of others were not uncommon. Winton professes to have been uninterested in environmental issues then. Laurie touches upon what Winton would term ‘colonial thinking’ in her reference to an episode of pigs being released in the forest for sport, oblivious to environmental impacts, perhaps even to antagonise the environmentally sensitive. My introduction to the natural landscapes came through grandmothers and old aunties who watched birds and travelled for wildflowers, and implored their farmer-husbands not to clear all their land. Youth is not always the harbinger of hope, and age can provide insight and wisdom.


Quongan wildflowers in spring, when the air smells of honey

Arrowsmith Moors | Batavia Coast

The beauty in place: common ground between art and science

All three writers use aesthetic values to explore their theses, whether literature, photography, art or other sensory media. Laurie and George & Cave are more descriptive than Winton, and rely upon extensive visual documentation in their books, but Winton’s use of sensory description to invoke a transcendent receptivity to the spirituality of country or place is no less reliant on the aesthetic.

Winton refers to the affect of pre-modern imaginaries (eg p132), although in a rather off-hand or casual way, and in a similar manner is aware of the costly, not always beneficial, effects of Enlightenment thinking on Australian landscapes, but does not bring a lot of focus to either; Laurie by contrast relies upon the work of scientists, patiently observing phenomena over years and decades, to propose and explore new hypotheses to explain the changing landscapes of the Southwest. Australian nationalist historians of the twentieth century have consistently, persistently, positioned their ‘Australia’ as a product of Enlightenment rationalism. They have allowed no space for the emigration or naturalising of pre-modern institutions or thinking in colonial Australia. This is a shibboleth in Australian historiography that is ripe for challenging. Alan Atkinson and Grace Karskens are historians who have made tentative steps in that direction.[2] Winton and Laurie can be cast as illustrations of another hoary old question: is history an art or a science, although it seems unlikely either would consciously reduce their work to such an antagonistic positioning. Winton hints at the alternative histories flagged by Atkinson and Karskens, and the origins of Laurie’s local nature lovers may reside in such spaces, but neither pursues the question. Perhaps they prefer to let their descriptive words and evocative images to do that work?

Laurie credits community or popular environmental conservation thinking for at least some of the change – sensitive farmers, local eco-tourism operators, local nature lovers championing particular wildflowers or wild animals. Winton explicitly states his aversion to engaging with conservation politics until recently, but post-Ningaloo finds inspiration in the activism of young people confronting Big Mining and Big Corp more generally. But the bifurcation is probably false, both may be heirs to settlers such as the amateur lady-botanist Georgiana Molloy, and common ground might be found in recognising shared intellectual and emotional ancestries, and in looking for continuities in thinking and feeling about local landscapes. It may be, when looked at in a longer trajectory, that the dominance of Big Mining and Big Farming in Western Australia since the 1890s is actually the deviation from an older, more country, more conservative ‘norm’, rather than landscape conservation being a recent response to colonial thinking. Not everything in the settler’s baggage was destructive.


Mudelka or Mottlecah (Eucalyptus rhodantha)

on the slopes of Mount Adams, ‘twixt craton and quongan

Corralling the settlers: who decides who is in, who is out?

Winton uses the word ‘settler’, if I have understood Island Home properly, to mean the colonists who arrived in Western Australia during the 19th century from south-eastern England, and their descendants. He implicitly excludes other migrant groups, especially ‘non-British’ migrants since World War Two. Apart from a dubious historical lineage for such a definition of ‘settler’, such a quarantining works against Winton’s ideas about the capacity for a spirit of place to affect and shape the inhabitants of that place. It especially restricts a deeper exploration of his ideas in chapter six about the (il)legitimacy of non-Aboriginal habitation on the island.

Such a counter-intuitive reading can be revealed through a syllogism: the Island is inherently spiritual; that spirituality shaped Aboriginal people and their landscapes; settlers and their landscaping is now shaped by the spirituality of topos; therefore the settlers can be as receptive to the spirit of country as Aboriginal people. The paradox in such a construct is that Aboriginality is no longer necessary to access the spirituality of the Island. If indigeneity is not required, but instead the requirement is for receptiveness to that spirit, then the settlers (apparently) newfound openness to the natural beauty of landscapes and ecosystems is explainable, but it also renders Aboriginal cultures secondary. They have been on the Island for multiple generations longer than the settlers, but this has simply made them more accustomed to the spirit of the place, and generation by generation the settlers are also becoming accustomed. Contrarily, Winton seems to argue that post-World War Two non-Anglo Celtic migrants are, in their innocence, as equally receptive to the spirit of the Island as Aboriginal peoples, but somehow the ‘British’ settlers of 1829-1945 remain uniquely immune.

I do not think this is the actual argument intended by Winton, but in seeking to respect a paradigm of an Aboriginal ‘timeless present’, the centrality of a 60,000 year patrimony is rendered irrelevant (page 149). The spirit of country can become a rhetorical device for legitimising the claims and actions of settler society, and rendering it as timeless and ahistorical as any other society settled on the land. The invasions and frontiers become simply ‘events’, equivalent to any other event, with their brutality and illegitimacy washed away. Just as it can be argued that environmental conservation is as much an agent of settler colonialism as Big Mining or Big Farming, so Island Home could be read as another such agent. I am not suggesting that a quest for a spiritual connection between settlers and landscapes is wrong. Indeed it must be attended to, and the quatrefoiled entanglement of history, Aboriginality, settlerism and place must be at the heart of such a quest. Perhaps I am reading a memoir too critically?


Moolymoonga (Black Man’s Tor), a powerful place

Dindiloa | Batavia Coast

I think this is the fundamental issue at the core of any polity in the island(s) now named Australia. All of my ancestors arrived here during the 19th century, in chains or free. They came from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and India. There is nowhere that I can ‘go back to’ (unless anatomically dissected). Some of them were active participants on the frontiers as Aboriginal realms were invaded, occupied, depopulated, re-landscaped and named anew. I am, genealogically at least, a product of the Empire, as are many other contemporary Australians. That cannot be avoided.

The specious claim “but I didn’t do it” may comfort those Winton calls colonial minded, but the way I comprehend my relationship to that ancestral ‘settling’ is to accept, no matter how unsettlingly, that I am a beneficiary of their actions. I live in a house on stolen land, eat food produced on stolen land, have been educated and kept healthy by public money and institutions that exist on stolen resources. I cannot escape that. That is the ‘original sin’ at the heart of any Australian polity, and it cannot be obliterated or negated by conjuring up ‘settlers’ who only exist in the past or who only derive from a certain place. I think that every non-Aboriginal person who is a resident in or citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia today is a settler, from First Fleet descendant to the most recent citizenship ceremony graduand. They each benefit from the original sin, no matter their ethnicity or birthplace or other communal identity. And, as beneficiaries, they also have the responsibilities of facing and confronting that original sin. Retreating into either nationalist or identity politics or will not change that.

Crown and state, or me and us: a false binary?

Winton rhetorically asks what is so precious that he would give his life for it, and chooses the bond between parent and child rather that any relationship with the “Crown or state” (p221), which he equates to a mytholigising of origins and minimizing of outrages by invaders. But, as he argues, we are all at the mercy of what others did before us. As others have observed, myths are no less powerful for being rationally unverifiable. The invasion was a catastrophe for Aboriginal people and for the land, but Winton somehow can argue that the latest migrant is free of any responsibility for now participating in that continuing catastrophe. But, I would contend, the ‘Crown or state’ that Winton denies is now, like us, the creation of our own making. It is no longer some invisible baggage that fell on the beach in 1829, forever foreign. It cannot be quarantined. We are it, it is us. This is our shared communal form, with all its flaws and multiple ancestries.

Winton says he may feel shame for what his settler-ancestors did, but not guilt as none of us are responsible for the culture we are born into (p222). The attitudes of his ancestors are alien and archaic to him, he says. But is it really that easy to foreignise and banish ancestors, or crowns and states, and by such rhetorical tricks, evade responsibility for the material benefits they bequested us, and with which we continue to live? I don’t think so. Like Winton, I may not feel guilt for ancestral actions, but I certainly feel melancholy, a deep unavoidable melancholy that can sometimes be emotionally crippling and even overwhelming. That is a price that has to be paid, over and over. I have come to accept that the paying will never stop. The ghosts haunting the gaunt stone ruins on the Greenough Flats and the coastal shacks and fishing hamlets are always nearby, just in the corner of my eye, like the blinding white sands whirling in the never ending winds of that place, wherever I am in the world. The past can’t be changed, and neither can an equitable future be imagined and created by denying that past. If settler and Indigene, ancestor and descendant are to map a new island, the forgetting, the denialism and the avoidance that continues to shape the twentieth century nationalist histories we still live with have to be confronted. Crown, state, ancestor, Indigeneity and place give us a framework within which to meet and talk and design the new islands and make new landscapes. They are not things to run away from, as Randolph Stow eventually discovered (the only writer, I think, who really gives an adequate voice to the melancholy inherent in the settler shaped-and-shaping landscapes of the Batavia Coast).


Ruins of Clinch’s Mill, built 1859

Greenough Flats | Batavia Coast

Genius loci in the islands of the black swan

I think that Laurie’s scientists and local nature lovers, George & Cave’s black swan aficionados, and Winton’s young activists are all, in their own ways, trying to face that truth, and in doing so seeking a transcendence through the grace of a spirit of place, a genius loci. They all perform various rituals and ceremonies such as regenerating bushland, engaging in scientific surveys, swimming with whale sharks, or documenting the locations and forms of monumental black swans, engaging in an emotive search for connection to country, for atoning for the original sin, even if they may not consciously articulate that searching. Perhaps most significantly, this is a spiritual search beyond the frameworks of organised religions, a search for a sort of communal civic sacredness.[3] I think Winton, while articulating such an idea, strays into a cul-de-sac when he ascribes a false consciousness to people who participate in and are moved by Anzac commemorations. The idea of self-sacrifice for a greater good is at the core of Anzac, not imperial glorification, and however commercial and partisan interests seek to shape or hijack particular events to their purposes, participants are actually smart enough to see through such interests. It is unfortunate, at this point, that Winton uncritically accepts the ‘donkey’ explanation for the Great War. A wider reading of alternate histories might help him move beyond that now discredited nationalistic polemic.


A regenerating stand of York Gums | Irwin Hamlet

Parti-coloured bark imitating sunsets over the Indian ocean

Perhaps the Anzac memorialists too, in ways they have yet to articulate, are searching for a nobility that provides a way to transcend the original sin of invasion. I think that attributions of false consciousness, like those of colonial mindedness, have the effect of excluding people from a new imaginary of the past-present-future of this island. Even the greediest magnate has a capacity to be moved by the beauty of an Indian Ocean sunset seen from the tallest of the gleaming glass towers in Perth’s high street and, therefore, to be receptive to the genius loci of Westralia’s Swanland. Labelling simply closes, not opens, doors that need to be thrown open to the raging, cathartic southerly winds of the west coast (they aren’t called ‘the doctor’ for nothing).

I have for some time taken as my motto “Our time is not now, it is eternity”. It’s a line from Stow (The Girl Green as Elderflower, pp xiv, 166). Time and place, past and present, they cannot be separated. Here, in our islands real and imaginary, we are all settlers, and all of the costs will endure beyond out lifetimes. Our stewardship will be both momentary and continuing. We can’t escape by alienating ancestors, lineages and elders. All three books exude some sense of hope, and with that the potential for some sort of pathways to a common future. “Forever to remain” Stow once wrote, and later “The loved land will not pass away”[4]

Back to the books as books

There are some relatively minor irritations with all three works that probably reflect upon editorial and design fashions rather than the writers. Laurie’s colophon is inside the back cover and printed over a full page illustration, making it tricky to find and read. Winton’s title page neglects to include the city in which it was published, a widespread practice now but nevertheless annoying, and somewhat ironic in a work devoted to the idea of ‘place’. Island Home is also devoid of a table of contents or index, acceptable perhaps in a work of fiction that, despite the publisher’s classification of the book, this is not. Swanning around Perth lacks footnotes or direct citations, and although a limited bibliography is provided, the lack of referencing makes it difficult to follow these sources and create more histories of black swan places.

All three books can, of course, be read alone. That I read them together is really just the temporal coincidence of summer holidays. Literary critics have reviewed Island Home in gentle, almost mystical terms. Perhaps my historians’ eye has been too harsh and windblasted, but on this Australia Day in 2016 when, as usual, a surfeit of nationalistic windbaggery, historical confusions and denials, and drinkin’ barbequin’ sunburnin’ ‘fun’ mingle absurdly, Winton, Laurie and George & Cave speak to each other, and to their readers, in ways that might just be able to penetrate our casual denialism. Reading three books at once can be revealing. They are all worth reading, sometimes more than once, especially if you add anything by Randolph Stowe and a dash of John Clare to your book list.


A big sky reflected in the Thungarra Estuary

Mouth of the Irwin River | Batavia Coast

Acknowledgement: this review is partly informed by the research and analysis undertaken for my Honours Dissertation at the University of Western Australia in 1992, Creating Arcadia?: A History of Nature Conservation in Colonial Western Australia, 1870-1914.

Note: A stand-alone review of Swanning Around Perth will be published in a future issue of Heraldry News, and subsequently here on SepiaGreen.

[1] Ruth Morgan, Cecelia Leong-Salobir and Jeremy Martens (eds), Western Australia in the Indian Ocean World, Studies in Western Australian History, No 28, Centre for Western Australian History, University of Western Australia, Crawley 2013

[2] Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, Volume Three, Nation, UNSW Press, University of New South Wales 2014, Chapter 2 Australia’s Rural Code passim; Grace Karskens, The Colony: A history of early Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2009, Chapter 4 ‘Food From a Common Industry’: Public Farms and Common Lands, passim.

[3] An early influence on my thinking in this regards was Basil Shur, Creating a Space for Philosophy: A West Australian Perspective on Science, the Environment and Philosophy, WA Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, UWA Nedlands 1985

[4] see his poems ‘Stations’, and ‘The Testament of Tourmaline’, in John Kinsella, ed, The Land’s Meaning, Fremantle Press, Fremantle 2012, pp 128-129, 145

Death or Liberty | ABC1, Thursday 14 January 2016, 9:30pm


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At first, I thought I was watching a parody, something like an Irish Australian version of Horrible Histories. But, far from being an Antipodean 1066 And All That, it seems the makers of this television show, set sometime between the 1780s and the 1850s, genuinely believe they had a story of righteous rebellion by the oppressed working classes to tell.

Crikey! Here before our eyes, in suitably gloomy scenes, every old shibboleth about the convict system was casually trotted out, completely untouched by the any of the revisionism of the last thirty or so years. Along with the familiar trinity of rum, sodomy and the lash there was the equation with slavery, poor Canadians/Americans/Irish/Welsh oppressed by the British, anachronistic maps and clothing, an obsession with the Crown, and the fascinating depiction of the “British” as some sort of alien class of oligarchs parasitically living off the innocent, folksy, oppressed Irish, Welsh, Scots and English (none of whom, apparently, ever thought of themselves as “British”). The moody scenes were inevitably accompanied by the ever-present clank of the chains and terror of the flogger. The unquestioning acceptance of the claims and campaigns by evangelistic anti-transportationists of the mid-nineteenth century was truly remarkable.

Symbol of convict oppression by British oligarchs

Symbol of convict oppression by British oligarchs

There are far too many issues to unpick. The invasion of the continent and islands, which lasted for well over a century and still affects every aspect of Australian life today, was despatched with in a sentence or two. The subtext was “Goodbye, now let real history begin”. The false synonymity with Nelson Mandela, as if 6 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was equivalent to 26 years in apartheid Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster, was breathtaking. All this and much more is, apparently, part of Australia’s history that has been forgotten or suppressed.  There’s no need to go on.

These will all be familiar tropes to anyone with a passing knowledge of “Australian history” as written throughout the twentieth century by nationalists of various hues, from the radical to the liberal. And, perhaps, that is the real value of this show. It could be shown to that small band of students in this visual age who actually study Australian history as an example of its type, a historiographical relic, to give them a sense of what once passed for ‘history’ in the schools and universities of this country. No need for critical inquiry, or questioning of magisterial historians, just passive acceptance of nationalist dogma.

Of course, there were some good points. Some of the landscapes were beautifully filmed. The ruins of Port Arthur were picturesque. The font used in the titles was pleasantly ‘antique’ looking. The grimly heroic faces of the oppressed and the arrogant hauteur of the oligarchs was a perfect representation of the monotone world of this fantastic past, no shades of grey allowed. Everyone, actor and viewer, has to be on one side or the other. Redcoat or yellow jacket. All so simple, just like real life.

Convictism: a forgotten, black and white story

Convictism: a forgotten story in black and white

Death or Liberty was a wonderful example of twentieth century nationalist agitprop, and a perfect illustration of the sort of histories that supported the extremes of State and State-sponsored violence that wracked the twentieth century. Perhaps it provides the perfect visual background for the musicians who erupt every now and then throughout the show. Like the heroic oppressed, they’re suitably po-faced and folksy. But was it history, or drama, or musical visualisation, or something else?

The Sydney Morning Herald TV Guide hailed Death or Liberty as ‘Show of the Week’ (11 January 2016, page 6). The may well accord with the Fairfax narrative of Britishness as foreignness, and thwarting of Australia’s essential destiny of republican independence, that apparently appeals to its bourgeois baby boomer readership. But the question for me is whether we really need to continue promoting such separating, myopic, nationalistic narratives? I don’t think so.


Peter Rickwood and David West (Eds), Blackheath: Today from Yesterday, 2005


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Rickwood, Peter C., and West, David J., (Eds), Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow: The history of a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, WrightLight Pty Ltd for The Rotary Club of Blackheath Inc., Blackheath 2005

640 pp, illustrated, introduction, end paper maps, index, contents page, ISBN 0 9581934 5 2, Dewey 994.45, $65.00

“Although designed by a committee, this book is not a camel”. That is what I hoped would be my opening sentence in this review. Alas, upon closer reading of this otherwise good example of a local history, a number of camelesque features became apparent.

Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow is a handsome looking book, featuring Govett’s Leap in full flow pictured against the mist-enveloped sandstone walls of the Grose Valley. The bluish tones and the town’s signature waterfall dustjacketting a weighty and substantial volume immediately suggest to the reader that here is a combination of scholarly achievement and local knowledge.

Govett's Leap and the Grose Valley, Blackheath

Govett’s Leap and the Grose Valley, Blackheath

The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains thematic chapters composed of narratives or short essays or descriptions of varying quality and length. These chapters are arranged according to themes that will be familiar to readers of local histories: Pioneering, Churches, Clubs and Utilities are some examples. Geography, Preservation Activities and Education & Philosophies are other themes that are more specific to this book, reflecting important forces that have shaped a local identity and sense of place characteristic of this upper mountains village. The content of each of these chapters is often of greater diversity and interest that the headings suggest.

The second section, comprising about one third of the book, is a reference section, containing among other things a listing of local street names and their histories, and similar lists of topographical features, local representatives (municipal, state and federal) with some biographical details, office bearers of local organisations, an honour roll of local service men and women, and a chronology of pre-1880 (old village) events in the town. For researchers this section may well be the book’s main strength.

The book commences with something that should be more widely seen in local histories: an explanation of the book’s origins and why it has been prepared, followed by a historiographical essay that covers previous histories of the town as well as historical maps of the district. The preparation of the book was a project of the local Rotary club for the centenary of Rotary International. Initially suggested as a facsimile edition of the club’s 1975 Historic Blackheath publication, it evolved into a substantial ‘update’ of the earlier work, with notable contributions by the Blue Mountains and the Mt Victoria & District historical societies. Although the impetus thus came from a local club making its contribution to the wider commemoration of an international anniversary, the need for such a publication has been long felt in the local community.

The division of the book into two parts reflects these origins. Much of the narrative section is reproduced from Historic Blackheath, usually with updated information forming a revised conclusion to each of the 1975 essays. While there are many advantages in such an approach, especially for a project being run by a community-based committee, the uneven quality of these essays reflects a disadvantage of this method.

Lavelle’s ‘The Blackheath Stockade’ and Hubert’s ‘The Private Blackheath Retreats’ exhibit the professional approaches of the historical archaeologist and heritage architect respectively, and show the strengths that focused professional research can bring to understandings of local history. Archaeological evidence can provide many insights into the early formation of any settlement, as Lavelle amply demonstrates here by the investigations of the 1820s convict stockade of the old village. Some idea can be gained of the influence outsiders might have on the shaping of a local community in its early years by Hubert’s reading of their architectural contributions to the cultural environment of the new village in the 1880s and 90s. Both matters can provide, as they do in this case, added depth to any local history writing.

On the other hand, the book’s dedication to those who “…seek historical truth” (p. vi) provides an introduction to local myth-busting that seems to miss a defining quality in the local identity that marks Blackheath as special (at least to its local residents). The essay titled ‘Legends’ describes a number of local legends, mainly related to the naming of Govett’s Leap, and then debunks these legends. Unfortunately, no account is taken of the roles that myths and legends play in a community. Legends are not about the literal truth, but are metaphors for the values of a community. They symbolise what can’t be possessed, but which needs to be striven for. Founding myths are especially potent.

Snowy Blackheath, imbued with myth and legend

Wintery Blackheath high in the mountains, imbued with myth and legend

Across all the stories quoted (pp63-73) run the strands of daring-do, of bravado, of escaping injustice, of sublime awe – the very characteristics attributed to the Australian bushman in the late colonial period when important national legends were being formed. That Blackheath is so rich in such myths from the time of the 1880s foundation of the new village in the wild mountain tops surely deserves better that the attribution of base motives such as enhancing local intrigue for financial gain (pp63-64). Debunkers need to be sensitive to the associations that sustain communities over several generations. It seems an unconscious irony that the essay which follows ‘Legends’ is titled ‘Mysterious Pits at Blackheath’.

The possibility of exploring the myths as an aspect of local creativity is lost because there is little coverage of imaginary Blackheath: the Blackheath that appears in literature, art, film, photography and other media, including cartography. From Phillip’s photograph albums to McCullough’s Missalonghi and more – the list would be too long to recite, and it is sufficient to remark that few towns can boast of inspiring so many creative pursuits, whether by locals or those looking in. Is it just Blackheath’s physical location, or is there something else about the society of the town? Contrast this record of creative endeavour with the paucity of aesthetic values in the project home sprawl of the 1970s, 80s and 90s in Blackheath’s ‘suburbs’. No sense of place, no concessions to local character or climate. They could be anywhere, uninformed by history or myth. Unfortunately the search for ‘the truth’ means we don’t get any insights into these matters from Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow.

The collection of essays in the chapter ‘Community Activities, Events & Features’ contains an eclectic group of writings that do address to some degree the social values of the local community. The Rotary Club has fostered the annual Blackheath Day, and the local Rhododendron Festival remains popular after some 50 years. But why is this so? – unfortunately the question isn’t asked. Local symbols such as the Blackheath Flag gets brief descriptive coverage but, while of questionable vexillological or heraldic value, no analysis of its symbolism; while visits by the great, such as various Royal and vice-regal visits, and the cricketing hero Bradman, serve to validate local pride, but again with very little discussion of what they might reflect about local identity over time.

The following two chapters, ‘Organisations’ and ‘clubs’, however, with many of the pieces authored by members of the various clubs, societies and associations, provides a more nuanced and intimate introduction to the motivations and dynamics within the local community. The community work of BANC, the CWA, Rotary, Scouts and many other service organisations; of arts organisations such as the Art Society, Folk Music group, Musical Society, Philosophy Forum, Dramatic Society and Brass Band; and of sporting clubs such as Bowling, Golf, Soccer, the two rugbies, Swimming, Cricket and Tennis, attest to a long and varied history of social and cultural life in the town, as do the chapters on the 11 churches and 11 schools. However, some discussion of why the people of a small mountain town have managed to keep such an array of cultural activities going over such a long time might illuminate something of the essence of Blackheath.

The Campbell Rhodendron Gardens, founded by community action in 1970

The Campbell Rhododendron Gardens in Bacchante Street, Blackheath founded by community cold-climate gardeners in 1970

The ‘Preservation Activities’ chapter, with essays written by the members of four local environmental groups, provides a window into the contemporary community’s work in caring for the bushland on the town’s fringes and urban gullies. Unfortunately the role of earlier conservation movements are not included, although the results of their labours have given us the surrounding Blue Mountains National Park and other reserves. There are interesting links between the work of an early 20th century landscape preservationist such as Tomas Rodriguez and his role in local real estate development. Altruism was not always the guiding force, and some historical depth to this chapter would have greatly enhanced its value to the reader.

A red waratah (Telopea speciesissima), emblematic of Blackheath's natural heritage

A red waratah (Telopea speciesissima) in the forest around Blackheath, emblematic of Blackheath’s natural heritage

There is an overall tone of sniping at the roles of government in the district which doesn’t seem to advance the reader’s understanding of Blackheath as a distinctive place and society. For example, “…the planning of the Village of Blackheath … shows the process would have done great credit even to the cumbersome bureaucracy of today” (p. 24). This statement is followed by a chronology of the disputes within the Lands Department between 1870 and 1879 concerning the proposed sale of lots that established the new village in its present form. The competing interests evident in the chronology are not explored, and the reader is left to muse on bureaucratic inefficiency rather that given an insight into the possible futures the village may have had, and why one prevailed over another.

Cynicism concerning politics may be fashionable, but it leads to some egregious errors. NSW MLCs are not and never have been senators, now matter how much they might wish this to be! Blackheath was merged into the City of Blue Mountains in 1947 (as Low states on p. 585), not the Blue Mountains Municipality (p. 589). Any civil society depends upon its public offices being treated with respect, even if the transitory office holders are occasionally found to be unworthy. A community’s rights to self-governance cannot be taken for granted, and the book’s carelessness about elective offices does not help the reader gain any understanding of the development of local democracy in the district.

The reference section is essentially a listing section, with much historical data arranged topically and chronologically. The ‘Street Names & Origins’ list (with a surprisingly large proportion of royal commemoratives), and the ‘Topographic Features’ list, will probably be of most interest to local readers. The detailed annotations and referencing for each entry allow the serious researcher and interested reader alike to explore further, and will have lasting value. The heritage lists, by contrast, will no doubt change through additions and deletions over time, reflecting the nature of the official heritage system, and should probably be understood as a snapshot in time rather than a definitive identification. The Quick Guide to the reference sections gives a clue to local historians wanting to make their publication marketable to a wider audience: the reader can look for their suburb, their subdivision estate, their street or their house, and can (for a small fee) obtain greater details from the Blue Mountains Historical Society Research Officer.

The listings of the office bearers of local organisations, local clergy, local commercial and public officials, local political representatives and local servicemen and women records a great deal of detail that is often lacking in local histories, and which cannot always be conveniently integrated into narrative forms. It will be of great interest to local residents, and also to family historians and to future historians of many of the organisations. The biographical listings also honour the many local people who have contributed to the town’s communal identity over the years. Given the ephemeral nature of much of the information, its value cannot be overestimated.

Blackheath War Memorial, dedicated in 1929, lists the service men and women of the town

Blackheath War Memorial, dedicated in 1929, lists the service men and women of the town

Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow gathers together essays and statistics provided by a diverse group of authors. The contribution of the principal editor, Dr Peter Rickwood, is notable. The book has clearly been a labour of love over many years, and his dedication reflects that of many of the citizens in the biographical listings. He is clearly the driving force behind the publication, the kind of force that makes the difference in a project such as this succeeding in a small town.

In conclusion, some of the strengths and weaknesses of the publication can be summarised: there is an uneven quality to the essays, some are good, some not so good; it is not always clear why some topics receive greater coverage than others; the degree of updating of some of the 1975 essays is uneven; the cynical attitude towards public governance is unhelpful in understanding the town’s history; the dismissal of the town’s mythology misses some critical points in understanding the local culture; some exploration of the communal identity of the town as demonstrated through its cultural actives would be helpful; and the history of nature and landscape conservation in the district has a much longer history than suggested.

The strengths of Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow perhaps outweigh the weaknesses: the use of introductory and historiographical essays need emulation in other local histories; the role of maps is often neglected in local histories, but receives good coverage in this book (almost begging for a complementary historical atlas of Blackheath); the illustrations are clear in quality and well related to the text; the inclusion of a section on the district’s geography provides an understanding of the physical stage upon which the human dramas have been played out – a rare but much needed inclusion in a local history; the inclusion of archaeological and architectural analyses demonstrably adds depth to local history and should inspire other local historians to consider such historical evidence; the brief reference to local heraldry and emblems is welcome (but could be developed further); the inclusion of some discussion of the different philosophies underlying the local schools touches upon an aspect of the local social and religious beliefs often lacking in local histories; the reintegration of Australia’s Royal history into local history is welcome after the purging and denialism of the 1990s; the histories of local organisations prepared (mainly) by their members provide a real insight into local social structures and aspirations over time; and the reference section is very useful, although some readers may wonder whether this could have been more usefully treated through a companion website that would allow for the continual revisions and additions of historical data.

Royal history and local history are deeply entangled in Blackheath after 10 royal visits between 1868 and 1979: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at nearby Katoomba in 2014

Royal history and local history are deeply entangled in Blackheath after at least ten royal visits between 1868 and 1979: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at nearby Katoomba in 2014

Overall, I found Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow a useful addition to my library, especially as I have lived in Blackheath for nearly a decade (although not nearly long enough to call myself a local Blackheathen!). Blackheath is a place of the imagination as much as of the world, and Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow explores some of each. It should stimulate more research and writing on Blackheath’s history, which may be the greatest thing that any publication can achieve. I would recommend it to any student of local history as a good example of the genre, provided that its flaws are understood as well as its strengths appreciated.

A concise version of this review was published as: Baskerville, B., ‘Peter C. Rickwood, and David J. West (eds), Blackheath: Today from Yesterday: the history of a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 93, Part 1., June 2007, pages 123-125.

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.