Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Juggling chaos

Did I mention that it is school holidays? Or that many of my partner’s colleagues are coming for lunch on Saturday? Or that we are in the middle of planning and doing the deal on a house extension? My week has been a blur of children, cooking, planning food, more children, builders, solicitors, pest inspectors (searching for termites, borers and wood rot, not children), building inspectors, contracts…For the first time ever, I have had both the landline and the mobile phone running at the same time. My son now says “bye” hopefully whenever the phone rings.

My research raised its head once today. My daughter held up my modern German history book. A touch of excitement – perhaps she wanted to read it. But no, it was the perfect size and weight for supporting a flap of the cubby house she had built in the front room.

So my apologies but we will be experiencing some delays and possible rough spots over the next week or so. But I will return, hopefully sane. And during the lulls I will pop in and out and perhaps even attempt to write something. I might even tell you something about an idiosyncratically Queensland way of extending houses.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Quantifying heritage

Right up until 10.30 last night, I held hopes of writing. As I propped glazed and gritty eyes open I realised that it wasn’t going to happen. Between school holidays and an unusual burst of other activities, writing is on the back burner for the moment. So I’m going to snatch a few minutes for some stocktaking.

Thanks to those of you who voted in my reading poll. All I can say is that you are unusually erudite and well-read (57% of you having read more than 15 books last year). Some of the results can be interpreted by the nature of the subject area. I’m guessing that Australian history, and more specifically Queensland German migrant history isn’t quite the hot topic of everyday discussion that it is in my household.

This weekend was the second, and last of the community workshops on the future of Marburg. One of the most interesting discussions for me came under the umbrella of future development when we tried to define Marburg’s USP – unique selling point. That is, what is it that makes Marburg different and perhaps appealing? The Great Southeast, a tourist promotion television programme that screens here on late Sunday afternoons, recently did a section on Marburg. Their take on Marburg focused on its German heritage. Shots of glamorous presenter drinking beer (probably Australian) leaning against the bar in the pub aside, there was little evidence of German heritage to be seen.

A fellow member of the historical society proposed the idea that the heritage of the German migrants is the rolling, cleared hillsides and the “scenic amenity” of the area. There’s no question that this would be a different landscape without the industrious German farmers. Roads pushed into deep valleys and winding along the hills; neatly fenced pastures; houses dotted over the hillsides and the continued existence of what is really only a village. All these bear testimony to their work.

However, it is hard to quantify something so ephemeral. On the other hand, we don’t want beer halls and cuckoo clocks. Our challenge is to think of something that will appeal to the daytripper and casual visitor without alienating residents. That’s not to knock scenic amenity. After all, that’s why a lot of us are here.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Knowing thyself

As someone who calls herself a historian I have to admit to a certain ignorance of Australian history. I can’t blame, as some have, a cultural bias in Australia towards history of the Empire. This exists, but my ignorance comes from dipping in and out of Australian schools and missing the Australian history segments (and apparently a great deal of important maths). I was here for levels two and seven then years eleven and twelve. What I do remember from those brief years of Australian education are several stints at the world wars, various reiterations of the Treaty of Versailles, fragments of Asian history and solid chunks of English history from the perspective of both the coloniser and the colonisee. Surprisingly I didn’t do any American history in high school in spite of attending an American high school albeit one in Asia. Then when I did ‘O’ Level history, it was heavy on European nineteenth and early twentieth century although I remember a unit on India.

It wasn’t until I went to university that I really discovered a love of history. Even here though, I only did a small amount of Australian history. I remember an introductory history class where we read the Abel Tasman’s logs of the Dutch East India Company’s Heemskerck and Zeehaen, which explored the Australian coastline long before Cook and others arrived (1642 and 1644). No-one in the class could read Dutch but the lecturer insisted that this was not an impediment. I’m still not convinced. Most of my history courses were non-native. My major was Chinese language and contemporary Chinese history so that was my main focus. I dabbled a bit in other North Asian histories (Japan, Korea and Taiwan). I remember a wonderful modern Russian history course that I took in conjunction with a year-long survey course of American history. I ended up writing my honours thesis on modern Taiwanese elections.

This morphed into study of Taiwanese identity and a thesis on the politics of said identity from a study of Chinese media and then somehow, I fell into writing a thesis on 20th century United States’ political communication history. While I loved this, I felt very ignorant of my own history when I returned to Australia. Just the other day, I read the proposed migrant knowledge test and had no idea of the requisite Australian history. I do wonder though, how many “real Aussies” would pass it.

One thing that I have really appreciated in the last few months of researching local history is that it has given me a much greater understanding of Queensland history and more broadly Australian history. Whatever becomes of this project, at least I will understand more of my own country’s past.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Shall we dance?

My day started at 3.30am with an enormous frightening bang and is ending with excitement. The enormous bang was my two-year old managing somehow, while never actually waking, to climb out of, and fall rapidly from his crib. Tears and shock over, he quietly went back to bed and sleep. We lay sleepless in our bed with our hearts racing, hearing every creak and anticipating another thud. None came but the crib has now been packed away and all of the children are in “big beds.” Naturally this necessitated nearly a whole day of rearranging the house, cleaning the horrors found under moved beds (“so that’s where that went”), and attempting to calm excited children.

In the relative calm of evening, I started writing about the study of Australian history only to be interrupted by a piece of said history: the Matildas playing Canada in China (the women’s FIFA World Cup for those not following the action.) The importance of this game was highlighted by SBS abbreviating their famed world news to a quick bulletin. Even the world weather was galloped over with more than usual haste. I think the globe itself spun faster for a few moments.

The Matildas had to win or draw their match to go through. Canada scored in the first minute. Things did not look good. It required intense attention for the next 92 and a bit minutes. Sometimes you have to step away from writing.

My oldest campaigned for hot chocolate and popcorn. I managed enough time away for the drink but not the popcorn. I didn’t think the younger children could stay in bed, even or maybe especially a new bed, if the sound and smell of popcorn drifted through the house.

To cut a long story short, Australia scored again, lethargy set in, Canada added a goal then bam, in the final three minutes Australia equalised. The Canadians cried, my daughter thought the Matildas should have waltzed. Sadly for us, they didn’t.

A different sort of history tomorrow.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Seeing the Southern Cross

When we lived in the States, one of the things that people seemed to find most fascinating was that our seasons here are “backwards.” One of the things that can be most disconcerting is that so many events of our lives are associated with the weather. I’ve mentioned before the disorienting experience for northerners of having warm Christmases. Even stranger to some people is have birthdays in different seasons after moving. One of my children was born in the heat and humidity of a Minnesota summer and now has a birthday in the cool freshness of winter. She doesn’t remember having hot birthdays, but others have told me of their disorientation as adults experiencing birthdays in a season different to their previous experience.

The southern school year starts in late January and concludes just before Christmas in contrast to the northern September to July year. Christmas is the jewel of our extended summer break – just squeezing into the northern term break . I still get anxious at the first touch of autumn weather in anticipation of the start of the academic year. Only now, I am getting twitchy in April instead of September. And of course, my days are no longer regulated by the academic calendar. Nonetheless my autumnal dreams are of getting to classes on time and working out my schedule.

If I really wanted to disconcert less-well-informed American friends I would point out that we have different constellations as well. This worked best with those who believed that we were Austrian, skied a lot and had surprisingly good English (take a bow, George W. who came to Australia, talked about the brave Austrian troops in Iraq and how pleased he was to have been invited to the OPEC meeting. If only Australia could invite people to OPEC, let alone be a member).

The feature of our southern skies is the Southern Cross, which figures so strongly in our national identifiers of flag, badge and sporting logos. Its symbolism is shared with New Zealand, and its presence with the rest of the southern hemisphere, but we feel very strongly that it is our constellation.

Edward Allchurch wrote in his diary in 1866: “We can now see the Southern Cross very plain.” He wrote this before the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, yet saw it as a sign of their new life and changed circumstances. I stood at my kitchen window the other night watching the Southern Cross low on the horizon and thinking about how strange it would be to look at a night sky totally different from any seen before. Yet, for people used to living in towns, perhaps even the enormity of the clear night skies would have been unexpected, let alone the configurations of the stars. How many people would have been entranced by the spectacle of stars and cloudburst Milky Way and how many scurried inside away from the unfamiliar glories?

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The same stinking stuff

“Of all the filth ever you tasted our drink for breakfast and tea beats all…This afternoon was allowed off, went for a walk and then to a coffee shop and had tea and we did enjoy it…The noise in the Depot is fearful…The bed and bolster like wood…We dread going back to the Depot…Had breakfast, the same stinking stuff for breakfast, the same noise and confusion…Been out to tea again.”

Edward Allchurch and his family found the immigration depot in Plymouth to be an unpleasant experience and not at all what they were used to. As often as they could, they escaped the depot for quieter and more convivial surrounds, especially those with decent food and drink. I can just imagine them stepping out for a stroll and a cuppa before returning to the chaos of what was essentially a public dormitory. Yet, unless they were travelling as paid passengers, they would have to adapt to the same conditions as everyone else.

I’ve written here about how many migrants found conditions on board ship to be better than they were used to. Robin Haines argues in Life and Death in the Age of Sail, that while this was often the case, it wasn’t the case for everyone, especially people who were migrating as families, perhaps for reasons other than economic. He says that:

“For well-off working class people…being herded together in the depot, while receiving instruction on the discipline and expectations on board, was something of a fall in status and dignity.”

It must have been a similar situation for the Jaeckels. I mentioned in an earlier post that they were likely to have been of the mittelstand, the social buffer zone between working and middle class. They would have had resources of their own and also be used, not to a high standard of living, but certainly a level of comfort higher than many of the Prussian peasant farmer migrants. As owners of their own business, they would have been used to making their own decisions and would have found it hard to be under the perhaps arbitrary command of the captain, surgeon and his appointed deputies.

It’s interesting to think about how different passengers and personalities will navigate the social interactions on board ship. Were migrant ships a microcosm of the world at large reproducing old social classes and tensions; were they an introduction to the functional egalitarianism of the colonies or were they something in between? Would people be happy to have the old order upturned or were they anxious because they didn’t know their place in this new order?

Monday, 17 September 2007


There are days when family life overcomes me, Friday was one of those days. Special activities at school required all day parental attendance followed by tiredly and crankily dealing with tired, cranky children. I was one of those mothers you look at askance in public places, trying vainly to shepherd children in one direction and equally vainly to not boil over. Bedtime for them (and me) couldn’t come soon enough. In all of it: no writing, no reading, but a few moments for thoughts. And those thoughts were all along the self-flagellating line of “What made you think that you could ever write a book?”

Saturday was full of family birthday celebrations for one very small, totally thrilled little boy. Sunday opened early with children amazingly bright-eyed after the busyness of the last week, cheerfully playing with new (and very loud) acquisitions. No time for anything other than the immediate needs of the moment.

Then Sunday afternoon: four whole hours of solitude. I hope I didn’t forget any major commitments because if I did, I can’t apologise. I finally sat down in the study, looked at the distant mountains and wrote solidly. No cleaning, no mountain of laundry reduced, no preparation for the week to come, but a story emerging, peopled with real characters.

Sunday evening: beloved partner, children weary, scraped of knee, grimy faced and happy after a full afternoon at the park. Myself: satisfied at the thought that a story may finally be emerging.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

New frontiers

Today was a historic day for Queensland and a small personal step for me as well. Our state’s first woman premier was sworn in amidst the conservative’s prophesies of doom. I think their gloom is more over the fact that Anna Bligh is Peter Beattie’s handpicked successor and that the conservative parties really have no viable alternatives to offer, than the fact of her gender. However, after a meeting recently during which the fact that someone worked with a female diesel mechanic caused great amazement, this may not be the case. This is after all the state of Sir Joh in which Flo’s job was to make the scones and bear the children. And I have been asked if I wasn’t selfish to do a Ph.D. which “You’re after all not using” when there are so many men needing jobs in academia.

Bligh is not Australia’s first woman premier. We’ve had Joan Kirner in Victoria, Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia and Claire Martin and Rosemary Follett as Chief Ministers respectively of the Northern Territory and the ACT. However, to the best of my knowledge, Follett and Martin are the only elected women leaders. All the others, including Bligh, have stepped in after a male premier has resigned. What will be interesting is to see how she fares in the next couple of years and when the election comes.

My personal step is both far less important and far more significant to me. After years of ideological resistance I finally bought a mobile phone. All I can say is that buying it was the easy part. Several hours of crankiness later involving telephone calls, internet intervention and other things, I think I have it up and running. I don’t know how a lot of technology makes sense to me, but such a small instrument can cause so much torture.

The nicest thing today was the lovely drive over the chocolaty soils and tenderly green and yellow leafed Lockyer Valley to Gatton. I wondered briefly as I drove why I had turned my nose westwards instead of eastwards. There are certainly larger shops with more options in Ipswich. The fields garlanded by the distant mountains were their own answer as was the time to think as I drove. In the absence of a good door or an exotic voyage, you have to use what you have.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007


Most days I manage to read and write while Blithe Boy is napping. Some days, this doesn’t happen. Days like today, I am trying to write with Blithe Girl and Merry Girl squabbling like chickens in the background and Blithe Boy rampaging around the house seeking targets for destruction. The squabbling pauses only for pleas for adult intervention, which are usually preceded by elaborate explanations of wrongdoing on the part of the other. How do people actually manage to work at home? I read one account of a father who worked at home only by having a plate glass soundproof door between the children and he. Such a door inspires envy.

On the subject of closed doors, sometimes research pathways that look the most exciting can be the most frustrating. This morning I picked up from my friend the family history book she mentioned. This is the history of the family that moved from Marburg, Germany to Queensland in 1884. Like many family histories, it is very light on historical detail sticking mostly to brief biography. Details are what I need. Who were these people? Why did they leave? What was their journey like? What did they think when they arrived in Queensland? Few family histories have access to these personal recollections. I wonder if diaries were the preserve of the affluent migrant. Or did families not recognise the value of diaries and family papers for the future. Did diaries and photos languish in someone’s shed until they were eaten by mice and disintegrated with age?

What I can tell you is that Johannes was born in Marburg in September 1858. On 18 May 1884, at the age of 26 he married the 23 year-old Elisabeth. By October of that year, they had embarked for Queensland on a ship sailing from London. Their voyage must have been a honeymoon of sorts, if packing up your entire life and moving to the other side of the world can be counted as such. The Waroonga made a record voyage to Moreton Bay arriving on 15th December. The voyage started at Gravesend and proceeded via Cape St. Vincent, Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, the Suez Canal, Aden, Batavia, the Lombok Straits, Thursday Island, Cape Restoration, Cooktown, Townsville, Bowen, Mackay, Port Alma, Cape Moreton finally anchoring at the Brisbane Bar. Such a voyage sounds exotic and very desirable in the midst of my household chaos.

The ship carried 30 first class passengers, 460 migrants, mails to the 31st October and 2000 tons of cargo. She had fine weather and favourable winds all through her passage. The voyage was judged “prosperous and enjoyable.” Good health was enjoyed with only four deaths (all children) and one birth. Cargo included a black bear from Java for the Brisbane Botanic Gardens.

Johannes and Elizabeth produced seven sons and three daughters in Australia. Johannes was a labourer, then a farmer. Elizabeth died in 1927 aged 66 and Johannes in 1934 at the age of 76. They are both buried in Toowong Cemetery in Brisbane. 600 plus people in South East Queensland trace their ancestry to these two.

Not a lot of information of the kind that I seek, but it is on bones such as these that I must hang my story. And now I must go – Blithe Boy is eating his sisters’ game.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

A splendid dream?

One of the prerequisites for travel in the age of sail was a strong stomach. A similarly strong stomach is required to read about everyday life on board ship. Admittedly, the title of the book I’m reading, Life and Death in the Age of Sail: the Passage to Australia, should give ample warning of the contents.

I am not a particularly squeamish person. You can’t be if you have children. But some of the descriptions of the illnesses on board ship, the births and the deaths bring nausea to the surface. Others just bring tears to my eyes. Edward Allchurch wrote in his diary that “a poor little Child died last night …so they opend [sic] the [Surgeon’s] Cabin Windows and threw it out.” I simply can’t imagine the parents' grief and pain in this situation.

Mortality on most voyages was about the same as on land, but as on land, disease could have a rapid effect. With the passengers closely confined, a narrow variety of food, and small amounts of poor quality water, diseases could sweep through the ship. Measles and whooping cough were common, as was diarrhoea, other gastric upsets and worms. One passenger in the 1860s reported that “a child this morning brought up a worm just like a garden worm 9 inches in length, the child has been very ill for a long time, several has [sic] been the same.”

On the other hand, each ship had a surgeon and for many of the migrants, this was the first time they had had access to a doctor. Surgeons were kept busy dealing with shipboard illness but also with what the health insurers now call “pre-existing conditions.” Edward Allchurch’s wife, Anne, reported that the birth on board of her fourth child was the easiest delivery of all her children. It was the first time she had been attended by a doctor and the first time she had access to painkillers during delivery.

Ship surgeons and captains had a financial interest in the safe arrival of passengers. In addition to the regular salary, a gratuity would be paid for each passenger on arrival if the Immigration Agent was satisfied with their condition and that of the ship. In 1866, the surgeon of the Atalanta sailing from Plymouth to South Australia was paid £1 for each “live migrant,” while the master received 2 shillings per migrant. The first and third mates, volunteer schoolmaster, matron, voluntary constables and hospital assistants all received small gratuities.

Edward’s verdict on a voyage that had seen him caring for a constantly seasick wife, three sickly children under the age of seven and the birth of a fourth child? “The Voyage seems like a dream tis been a splendid one.” Edward died aged 88, father of eight children, having risen to being Constable in Charge of the Glenelg police station.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Future tense

It is hard work getting my family to all go in the same direction. It’s hard work in a marriage to keep your paths intertwined and expectations in synch. It’s hard work keeping strong ties with relatives and friends. Imagine how hard it is to get a large group of people of different ages, experiences and expectations to sit down and come up with common goals for the future of your town.

It was a surprisingly large and congenial gathering at the community centre on Saturday who gathered to discuss this very thing. On a clear, sunny weekend afternoon, it was a miracle to get a good turnout. Not everyone could stay for the three hours, but many made the effort.

And it was an effort. These were not easy things that we were thinking about, nor were people used to thinking in abstract terms about their community and lives. We talked about what things people valued about Marburg. We talked about challenges and opportunities. We tried to think about what we would like to see when we walked down the street in ten or more years.

I met people who previously were only names to me. I found out that some devils aren’t so devilish in person and I found out that claws lie beneath friendliness. Everyone has an agenda and an ideology, even those who stoutly deny it and swear by the gods of functionalism and pragmatism. The goal of this meeting was to put these agendas on the table and try to find some commonalities, some things that people could agree upon as “good things.”

The workshop had a professional, non-local moderator which elevated the tone of discussion and kept old rivalries quiet. I was impressed at his ability to draw things out of people and to hold clearly antagonistic ideas in balance in the discussions.

I can’t imagine such a meeting taking place fifty or more years ago. The township was thriving in the early part of last century. There were three pubs, multiple businesses, a railway, a School of Arts and a circuit court, amongst other things. The main road to Toowoomba ran through town and provided much passing business to cafes and shops. People didn’t have fast reliable cars that they could use to drive elsewhere. Everyone’s children went to the local school because that was the only option. Now there are a handful of schools both private and public within a twenty minute drive. Most of the residents were at the Saturday night dance because there wasn’t anything else on offer. No-one went clubbing or to concerts or movie theatres or sporting matches on Saturday night.

Yet part of the decline of the town can be attributed to a lack of planning, at the individual and corporate level. People did not think about the implications of everyday decisions. Some of those at the meeting complaining about low numbers at the school, chose to send their children elsewhere. Some of the people upset at things local community groups have or haven’t done aren’t part of these groups themselves. Our moderator said that “he who plans wins.” To that can be added, “they who take part have a voice.” And the great thing was that there were plenty of voices at this workshop.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Other kinds of history

The history of women’s work is fascinating. I come from a family with a history of strong, intelligent women who all have struggled to find their place in the world. One of them was my great-aunt, whom we all called Nen, but was known to the rest of the world as Nell or even Nellie. She was one of the earliest graduates from the architecture programme at the University of Sydney. I say, earliest graduates, not earliest women graduates because the Bachelor of Architecture programme was in its infancy. Nen graduated in 1923 and the faculty had only been established in 1919. Leslie Wilkinson after whom the faculty building was named, was one of her teachers and mentors.

Immediately after graduation Nen worked for Dorman, Long and Company as a draftsperson on their big project of the 1920s – the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Nen then moved to Cairns for a short time and then to Brisbane where she worked for the Workers' Dwellings Branch of the State Advances Corporation from November 1925 to early 1929. The main purpose of the State Advances Corporation was to design and build simple, affordable housing – what we know as public housing.

Nen had always been interested in craft, studying and making jewellery and other things. While in Brisbane she studied pottery with LJ Harvey from 1929 to 1932. She returned to Sydney and set up a commercial pottery with her brother Robert. This pottery made simple, organic stoneware drawing on ideas of nature and elegant, simple design. The pottery was in many ways ahead of its time. The aesthetic of the time demanded fine bone china, not what was seen as “coarse” stoneware. It was a good livelihood for Nen and Bob, but it was never a raging success. In stark contrast, the pottery is now avidly collected with certain rare pieces having several thousand dollar price tags. The more common vases do a brisk trade on EBay.

I have always thought that Nen might have been disappointed in the technical demands of architecture – that it didn’t satisfy her aesthetic needs. If you look at her drawings and designs, they exhibit great artistry. A combination of this artistic drive and the difficulty of always being the pioneer in a male-dominated field, may have been behind her shift from architect to potter.

From family tales, Nen very much saw herself as the artistic driving force of the pottery, with Bob providing the technical know-how. Ironically, Bob had great skill with sculpture and made all the molds for their production line. Nen concentrated on throwing and wheel work. All the pottery produced at their Epping pottery was signed collaboratively. However, Nen continued to make experimental pieces and exhibit through the NSW Society of Arts and Crafts. These pieces she signed on the base with her own monogram. In 1951 she won the Society's Elizabeth Soderberg Memorial Award for pottery.

McCredie Pottery is represented in five public collections in Australia: the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, the Art Gallery of South Australia and Shepparton Art Gallery.

Yesterday, I had a day off and we headed for Brisbane for the day. One of our goals was to hunt down the heritage listed Uanda, Nen’s only publicly known building still existing in Queensland. The state heritage register lists it as her only known existing work, but my grandfather’s (Bob of pottery fame) house in Sydney, still stands, as do several other Sydney houses.

Driving along a wet Wilston street, I pointed out a particularly attractive house. “Oh, I like that one.” And yes, it was Uanda, newly restored albeit with an ugly extension out the back. I suspect the extension was allowed because it doesn’t impinge on the body of the house – like a box attached to an ornament. And the name is no longer on the house. But I was thrilled to see Nen’s work surviving so beautifully to today.

The other thing that I love is that the house was designed and built in 1928, which makes it about the same age as our house. I like to think of Nen being in Brisbane while our house was built. Bob was very much the younger brother and we have a palm stand that he built in 1928 while still at school. I love the sense of connection to the past that these things bring.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Serendipitous alleyways

“A committee is a dark alleyway down which ideas are lured and quietly sandbagged.” I don’t remember where I read this quote, only that I came across it as a teenager and it has never seemed more apt than recently. The last few weeks seem to have been comprised of meetings, emails and paperwork while progress seems to have been negligible.

Good news though can be reported – one of the grants that I applied for on behalf of the school has come through so we are $44,000 closer to a new tennis/multi-purpose court. Several of the exchanges have been on that and on “appropriately” recognising the granting body, that is, our about-to-call-an-election-and-keen-for-publicity federal government, for previous grants; others on developing the website for the district; others for various groups in which I am involved. I laugh sometimes when people ask how I fill my days as a (gasp) “stay-at-home mum.” Rather than boringly list the various groups I work with, my writing, research and parenting, I usually tell them that I do the things they pay other people to do, but just don’t get paid for it. That stops the questioning in its tracks.

Today’s meeting however illustrated that wondrous quality of serendipity. In the midst of what had turned into a gossipy moral support gathering, the words, “My grandfather was born in Marburg, Germany” dropped into the conversation. Pouncing, I have extracted a promise to show me the family history book and tell me all the stories this eighty-year old can remember about her grandfather, his journey to Australia and experiences settling into the Rosewood Scrub. Committees and meetings aren’t just dark alleyways. Sometimes they are thoroughfares to other places.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Old and new technologies

According to the American Bookseller’s Association and the Associated Press, one in four Americans surveyed had not read a book in the previous year. I have not seen comparisons for Australia, so I wonder if the statistics would be similar. In the American survey, more than half of those who had read a book had read more than six books and a quarter of the readers had read more than fifteen books. The Midwest had the highest percentage of readers, but southern readers read the highest per capita number of books with 31% reading more than fifteen books.

Spokesperson for the survey, Michael Gross of Ipsos Public Affairs, claimed to be surprised that in a country that likes to think of itself as “intelligent and well-read”, a quarter of those surveyed did not read books. He stressed that no conclusions could be drawn about American’s reading habits as the survey asked specifically about books.

At an anecdotal level, when I taught a media and popular culture class in Minnesota, bastion of the apparently well-read Midwest, in early 2000, only a handful of a class of 150 put their hands up to say that they regularly read a newspaper or a magazine. A majority of the class did not listen to radio news or watch network news on television. And this was in a class that was full of journalism majors. Is this evidence of the triumph of the web, or can we in fact draw tentative conclusions about the reading habits of Americans?

Some people argue that those people not reading books are turning instead to the internet. I have not seen statistics for this, but I suspect that if people are using the internet, it is largely not for reading purposes. They definitely are not reading blogs. Again, in the United States, only 39 per cent of internet users (about 57 million) read blogs.

I was encouraged to find an argument in support of reading and blogging. Genevieve Tucker writes for The Australian that “readers of books who also enjoy reading blogs are conscious that they are drawn to the most highly powered technology in their homes and offices to talk about the simplest cultural technology there is, one that can be picked up, kept for many years on a shelf, borrowed and lent and returned to at will without needing to be refreshed or substantially remodelled. It is this poignant attachment to old technology, together with a well-balanced sense of the rich possibilities offered by new media, that is probably closest to the heart of blogging about books and writing.”

I certainly have an attachment to the grand old technology of the book. I read at least one book a week, more if I can squeeze it in. Then there are the newspapers and magazines that loiter in piles around the house. And I love the way that you can access fresh writing using the internet. Now if I can just manage not to let blogging get in the way of writing my book, then I will feel that I have the right balance between old and new technologies.

Monday, 3 September 2007

A long holiday?

I had never given much thought to what the immigrants actually did on board ship. My mental image was of passengers squeezed into row after row of bunks complaining about food, drink and conditions. In fact, passengers were expected to spend most of their time on deck. According to Rights of Passage, about two thirds of the total time was spent on deck. Everyone had duties to perform. Cooking, cleaning below and above decks, washing dishes and clothes, bathing – all the normal activities of life took place on board ship. Given a ship’s physical constraints, these things could fill up a day quite easily.

The government run ships, mainly on the England to Brisbane route had school for children aged three to fourteen. A teacher was provided and 90% attendance was reported. Class sizes ranged from ten to sixty. As many a parent would recognise, school would have been a great help in keeping the children busy and out of mischief.

Some of the German ships used teachers for English-language instruction. The school and the library had books available for borrowing. Some ships had newspapers while others organised debates and discussions.

Entertainment was allowed providing it was “innocent” and had “no demoralising tendency” but was “calculated to improve the moral tone and promote happiness.” Boring though this sounds, this encompassed concerts, theatricals, bands, choirs, games and even cricket. According to Woolcock other leisure activities included “story-telling or gossiping, writing, mending, fishing, watching the changing moods of the sea or the sailors at work.”

In spite of the uplifting tone of the above, other entertainments were gambling, thefts, intemperance and fighting. One passenger referred to being so bored that he “spent the evening nocking about the ship in search of some fun.” One can only imagine what bored young men got up to, and you can understand why the government preferred migrants to travel in family groups. Other less salubrious entertainment for single men was finding ways into the single women’s compartment. According to reports, no reliable way was found to separate the single young men and women, let alone the single women and the sailors.

Geoffrey Blainey called the trip to Australia the “only long holiday” that many of them would have. Some enjoyed the trip, others were bored and sick. Like many things, it must have depended on personal attitude as well as the crew attitudes. The Surgeon largely ran the non-sailing part of the ship so the individual surgeon, his competence and attitude would all have determined how pleasant the shipboard experience was.

Whatever the individual experience, it was a huge relief to finally arrive in Australia. This wasn’t a three month holiday cruise, but three months hard travelling in constrained conditions. People must have dreamt about standing on land, eating fresh food, bathing freely and privately, deciding things for themselves or even just seeing new faces.