On the Road with Comrade Khrushchev

K blows top

It is fair to say that this was the most unique road trip across America ever undertaken. In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev and his entourage spent 15 days in the USA visiting Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Iowa. Along the way he met politicians, capitalists, movie stars and a few ordinary people at whistle stops on the train journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Khrushchev’s political agenda was to force the hand of the USA on disarmament (on his terms) and to get it to accept the USSR as an equal partner on the world stage. Khrushchev had every faith that the USSR would soon surpass the USA as an economic and political power, thus demonstrating the superiority of the Communist system, and he used every opportunity to present his case to American leaders and the American people.

After the horrors of the first half of 20th century in Russia which included the First World War, the 1917 revolution, the subsequent invasion and Civil War, the genocidal horrors of forced collectivisation and famine, and the all consuming disaster of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis which left 14% of the pre War Soviet population dead, along with the ongoing Stalinist tyranny, the years of comparative peace and development after Stalin’s death in 1953 were a welcome relief for the Soviet people.    Continue reading

Posted in Books, European history, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Preserving Sisters Rocks – Stawell

Popular Site for Picnics – Stawell Times-News Supplement (Town of Stawell Centenary) October 3, 1969

One of the most popular roadside picnic sites on the Western Highway is provided by the huge granite tors known as the Sisters Rocks, three miles south of Stawell.

Referred to as Victoria’s Devil’s Marbles, these great boulders are at least 250 million years old.

They formed below the existing land surface in the post-Devonian era in sediments which have now been eroded, and are similar in formation to the granite outcrops found in the nearby Black Ranges.

But families who picnic there and young people who daub their modern cave art on the surfaces, may not be aware to whom they are indebted for the preservation of these rocks.

The rocks were named after three sisters called Levi who camped there on their way to the Pleasant Creek goldfields.

During the goldrush the big rocks the big rocks attracted little attention and were almost hidden by the surrounding timber.

After the formation of a District Roads Board, the services of a photographer named Armstrong were secured to take pictures of places of interest for an exhibition.

The rocks were the subject of one of these pictures, the whole series of which was later hung in the Shire hall.

At the height of Stawell’s building boom, granite was in great demand for public buildings and foundations.

Fearing that the Sisters Rocks might be demolished for building stone, Mr Armstrong protested that this would be vandalism and that they should be protected and preserved.

One of the members of the District Roads Board – Mr. S. J. Davidson, who was elected in 1861 – took up a small piece of ground under the Lands Act and enclosed the area.

This saved the rocks from destruction.

ABC Radio doco on Sisters Rocks and Bunjil’s Cave / Shelter

Posted in Nineteenth Century, Stawell | Leave a comment

Wimmera – Mark Brandi

If you like a bit of literary crime fiction, the novel Wimmera by Mark Brandi is set in my old home town of Stawell with two acts – act one in the late 1980’s and the finale a decade back. It got a good review from Sue Turnbull in The Age to go with many other good reviews along the way. I started the book at Southern Cross on the bus and finished it by touchdown in Sydney. It really is worth all the accolades and I can foresee Mark Brandi being granted as many literary honours along Writer’s Row in Stawell as Marcus Clarke.

It is a novel of corrupted childhood as much as anything and Sue T’s comments on the pacing of the book reflecting the slow cadence of the summer holidays for kids in a bush town are well made. I’m glad the kids were able to go yabbying in the nearby dams as I thought they had been ruinously dredged in the late 70s. 

I never knew I grew up in the outback, though; I just thought it was the bush. Shit, the outback’s full of rednecks. The depictions of Stawell and the people rang true to me as did some of the small points about booze, food and the sparseness of communications within families and in the public places. Not a real centre of wit and repartee my old town, more like kids are seen and not heard a lot. Similarly there are some nice points made about tensions between locals and blow-ins and the re-opened (and recently closed) gold mine was somewhat contentious over it’s 30 year life.

One small error in the review is that Fab is near 30 at the conclusion of the book, not 23. This is important in that by that age he has obviously settled into a stoner, at home with mum, crap job mediocrity, whereas at 23 you could allow the possibility of hope for the future.

Wimmera was paired in the review with The Dry by Jane Harper which I read on the way back. The Dry is set in a fictional Mallee town five hours from Melbourne and the plot and the characters are very well drawn. Jane Harper is on a roll after the success of The Dry and has recently released a second novel with Aaron Falk, the Financial Crimes analyst which I will keep an eye out for. 

The very small difficulty I had with it relates to the nebulous geography of Kiewarra which I suppose has to be somewhere between Wycheproof, Ouyen and Robinvale on a river. Is that really sheep country? Is a farmer up there meant to be able to get by on a couple of hundred acres? Are those towns surrounded by dense scrub? These are quibbles when set against the many fine qualities of the book. I just expect plausible geography with my fiction.

Given this quibble I was amused to read a report of The Dry picking up a British award recently citing it for it’s wonderful evocation of place out there in the dusty Mallee. I suppose people who live in picturesque English villages where dastardly deeds take place have some troubles with the local geography as well.

Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera evokes a rural landscape that provides a perfect setting for crime.
Posted in Books, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

$10 & zero cents for all that English History

So that was a good find …. the hardback edition of 1066 and all that as it was inducted into the Folio Society collection in 1990. It is well regarded as a minor English comic classic and the writer of the Introduction placed it appropriately alongside Three men in a boat. Jolly good show, I say.

1066 and all that became an instant classic upon its release in 1930 and there was a London musical running by 1932. Sellars and Yeatman borrowed the “and all that” from their friend Robert Graves’ best selling kiss off to England, Goodbye to all that. In turn they were appropriated by Arthur Mailey, the Australian slow bowler, in his memoir commemorating his best bowling figures of 10 for 66 and all that.

Sellars and Yeatman almost look as if they have compiled a bunch of schoolboy howlers from English History exams from the era when history was delineated by the reigns of monarchs. What they actually did was to write up the bits of history that managed to penetrate the skulls of disinterested schoolchildren and almost stay there. Of course, a mangled version of history lends itself to a wondrous array of bad puns, spoonerisms, malapropisms and other literary devices which my modest comprehension of English history (itself mangled years back by 1066) and absent understanding of “the classics” render me inadequate to decipher. But the bits I get are pretty funny, even 90 years on. It is justifiably a minor comic classic.

Chapter XII – Rufus, a ruddy king  (William II 1087 – 1100)

This monarch was always very angry and red in the face and was therefore unpopular, so that his death was a Good Thing: it occurred in the following memorable way. Rufus was hunting one day in the New Forest when William Tell (the memorable crackshot, inventor of Cross-Bow puzzles) took unerring aim at a reddish apple, which had fallen on to the King’s head and shot him through the heart. Sir Isaac Walton, who happened to be present at the time, thereupon invented the Law of Gravity. Thus was the reign of Rufus brought to a Good End.

The illustration pads this brief chapter out to 3 / 4 of a page.

and, Spoiler Alert, the final chapter which includes a punctuation joke:

Chapter LXII – A Bad Thing

America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a .

Posted in Alt History, Books, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sir Richard Tangye & the Cornubia: Steam Age dreamtime

Once upon a time (1833) in a small Cornish village (Illogan, near Redruth) two brothers had sons they called Richard. This in itself was not unusual in that time and place as the same names keep cropping up, over and over. Richard Tangey married Jane Michell and they honeymooned on the ship out to Victoria where they eventually settled in Castlemaine and raised 10 children. Richard then moved to Tasmania and inherited and added to a second family, but we don’t speak of that too often.

While my great grandfather was mining and butchering in Castlemaine his cousin Richard Tangye (the spelling wasn’t great in Cornish villages in the early C19) moved to Birmingham to work with his brothers in developing the steam powered future. This may not have been entirely unexpected as Richard’s full name was Richard Trevithick Tangye in honour of the recently deceased Cornish steam engineer Richard Trevithick who had been born just south of Redruth. It would be like calling a Syrian kid in San Francisco Steve Jobs Surname to encourage him to turn into a software mogul.

In any case it worked out that way. Tangye Bros. were major players in the mid C19 steam economy and Richard Tangye is a steam age entrepreneurial hero. The Tangyes first rose to fame by getting the largest steamship built to that time out of drydock and on to the water. “We launched the Great Eastern, and she launched us.” Tangye Bros. had great success with their steam engines and pumps and in his later years Sir Richard Tangye toured the colonies touting his wares. He sold a few to the Chaffey brothers up in Mildura and I saw a pump about 10 k east of town early this century. He was also a philanthropist with a strong cultural bent and he was a significant donor to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. He was so impressed with the Macquarie library in Sydney that he donated a Shakespeare first folio, the only one in Australia. A long time back I picked up an essay prize at the State Library and as I was the closest thing to a relative of Sir Richard’s the library had ever seen they gave us a look at it. Very nice, if you like C17 books.

Continue reading

Posted in Alt History, Family history, Nineteenth Century, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rats, Lice & History – Hans Zinsser

Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice & History was written in 1934 as an explanation of one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments – the understanding and control of deadly infectious diseases, especially typhus. It was only in 1909 that Charles Nicolle identified lice as the means of transmission between humans. Subsequently the role of rats in the process of disease transmission came to be better understood. World War I added considerably to our knowledge of these diseases which had ravaged Europe in particular for centuries. Many of the great breakthroughs in our knowledge of these diseases came about as a result of a concerted international effort studying the impacts of the disease during WWI and the Russian revolution where 25 million people contracted typhus between 1917 and 1923 with 3 million dying as a result. The League of Nations helped to coordinate medical communications between the USSR, Germany and the western nations and great progress was made between 1928 and 1934 when the book was published – some of the scientific papers had not yet been published when the book was written.

Zinsser writes in an engaging not too technical style about a topic which really should form an essential part of any study of the longer term in history, and especially for economic and military historians. It is important that anyone postulating great themes in history should be aware that diseases themselves have histories. Rats were not known in Europe until the C12 when they arrived with returning crusaders from the Levant, a very early instance of blowback. These were black rats which were the predominant type until they were supplanted by the more aggressive brown rat in the C18. Medical historians in Zinsser’s time understood that typhus and the bubonic plague were not known in Europe prior to the arrival of the rat which aided the transmission of these diseases by sharing fleas and lice with humans. The Thirty Years War of 1618 -1648 is described as the most gigantic natural experiment in epidemiology to which mankind has ever been subjected. The war rolled back and forth across Europe bring first typhus and then plague in its wake.

Continue reading

Posted in Books, Disease, European history, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beatles or the Stones? A parliamentary verdict

Searching the Australian Federal Parliament Hansard between 1901 and 1980

#HistoricHansard now comes with its very own search facility. It’s still in beta, but feel free to play: http://search.historichansard.net/ 

Thanks to @wragge it is now possible to search Hansard from 1901 to 1980. This is an invaluable historical resource so what better to do in a shallow age of short term gratification than waste all that computing power on something tremendously trivial.

Let’s do some comparison shopping on one of the great vexed questions of my youth – the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? Admittedly very few MPs prior to 1980 could be expected to be legitimate fans of these bands who came to prominence after 1963, so all we are doing here is poking fun at the old squares. Really, it never goes out of fashion. Just ask my kids.

The Beatles clearly won the name recognition factor in Parliament once we stripped out references to misspelt insects and the proverbial use of the moss-less rolling stone. The self proclaimed bad boy middle class London college students attracted one neutral musical reference and two comments about their drug depravity. To be fair one of these was fended off by Bill Snedden, the Minister for Immigration, who nonetheless got a solid jab in at Mick Jagger’s unsuitability as Ned Kelly.

On the other hand there were seventeen references to the working class louts from Liverpool who Brian Epstein re-invented as lovable moptops. These ranged from the trivial to the borderline deranged. The honour of the first Beatles reference goes to Senator Ormonde on February 27, 1964 who laboured to score a point off the LNP government for having the DLP as a secret weapon in the same way that the British PM had referred to the Beatles as England’s secret weapon in America. This may help to explain why Senator Ormonde has left no trace in my memory.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment