Overview

Henry Jambt-tower-2es never saw this. Stepping out of the lift into the former restaurant at London’s BT Tower, the most extraordinary night-time view of a massive city stretches away in every direction, lights twinkling as far as the eye can see. I suppose city workers in their skyscrapers behold such things every evening, but an overview of London is a rarity for me; like James—for whom only the smog of late 19th-century London suggested its magnitude—I am usually grounded, hemmed in by uniform canyons of 5-storey high buildings.

I’ve been up the Mordor-ish London Shard, looked down the Thames from the Eighth Floor of the King’s College London History Department, and experienced the measured revelations of the London Eye: but the BT Tower, isolated in Fitzrovia better to transmit all London’s telecommunications, outdoes them all, not least because the cluster of other view-points are in its purview. (It reminds me of how Guy de Maupassant lunched at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant simply so he wouldn’t have to look at it.)

640px-BT_Tower-1I am here to help celebrate the achievements of the 2014 Accelerate Award recipients, arts professionals who enter a British Council mentorship and placement programme in Australia and the UK. They are so impressive a bunch of Australians I’d appreciate some mentorship from them in turn; and indeed a clear outcome of the scheme is that the experience flows out from a single award to the recipient’s community. The affirmation of commitment and hard work is, I suppose, a considerable reward in itself, but it is also extraordinary the effect of being lifted from one’s own locality and given a new perspective on it to draw back into one’s everyday view.

Becoming Director of MCAS has been to enter something of an accelerate programme of my own. Firstly because I feel like I have been slingshot into a new temporality, when systems for promoting change all need, it seems, to have been instituted yesterday. And secondly because I have suddenly and repeatedly bourn (sideline) witness to the ‘business’ of the university executive, of diplomacy, governance and trade in ways I have never experienced before. Without going over to the dark side, it is impressive stuff that goes on. And there is an extraordinary sense, more often than I expected, of arts and educational institutions, government and business pulling in the same direction. I may look back at this post and see only my own naivety, but it is also easy to be prejudiced against the work of those whose perspective is always well above the ground.

Previously I have used the low-high perspective metaphor to explain to undergraduates something of the university ‘hierarchy’ also: lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor. The latter, through the simple expedient of having had longer to read and write—and having witnessed directly shifts in their field(s) of expertise (sometimes occasioned by their own writing)—are often able to offer widening perspectives on disciplines and the future of academic research. It’s about looking at, moving through, and helping forge an intellectual terrain over extended time.

We saw something of this in action at MCAS during our Remembrance Day seminar (12 November 2014) when our own resident professor, Carl Bridge, gave a masterful account of British-Australian diplomatic relations during the Great War. He was able to ‘dive in’ to a selected point in each year of the War and dispel prevailing myths; and also afford insight into the reasons—not delusions—of Australians’ sense of direct involvement in the conflict (i.e. not merely as dominion Britons). Dr Noah Riseman, a youthful Senior Lecturer in History at the Australian Catholic University, provided a tighter focus, but no lesser insight, into the amazing and still neglected story of Aboriginal Australian diggers: their often having to lie about their identity to be enlisted; their extraordinary contribution to the war effort; and their appalling treatment at the end of the war. Both speakers, in their way, provided overview and spotlight; if varying degrees of each.

BTtowerBut I want to start messing with the low-high perspective metaphor. For one thing, going up the lift I also got younger, undercutting the hierarchy. At 177 metres tall—the restaurant is lower than that of course—the Tower makes a perfect toy-town of the streets below. You feel like you could reach out, grasp a double-decker bus and whoosh it along Tottenham Court Road. I am inside my childhood in another way also: watching The Goodies repeats on the ABC, laughing myself silly as a giant kitten pushes us over.

And let me end by inverting my hierarchical metaphor altogether. If the Indigenous Australian visual arts have taught me anything it is the priority of ground, not sky. It reminds me of a discussion I had with MCAS’s Helen Idle about whether we had ever seen the sun depicted in a work of Indigenous art. I couldn’t recall it (if you have let me know!): but wanted to say it is everywhere in evidence, as if light came out of the ground. It is a paradox corresponding to the way grounded traditional art often looks like a birds-eye view. And to how ochre placed on skin seems rather to express law that comes from within it. I sensed, then, that the Accelerate Awards recipients might have a thing or two to teach all of us up the Tower about perspective.

Let this learning stand as an early account of my first three months in office. I am about to head to Australia for a couple of months, first to the International Australian Studies Association conference in Hobart, where I will seek further input into the future of MCAS; afterwards to put my head down and write during my research leave. MCAS has two exciting events still to go in 2014: the second meeting of the Group of Readers in Australian Studies (26 Nov) and a launch of Anne Henderson’s Menzies at War (10 December).

And our incredibly exciting January to June 2015 programme is soon to be released. In it you will find strands focused on public affairs, the centenary of Anzac Day, Indigenous Australia (in association with the upcoming British Museum exhibition), and Australian print culture. My colleague Dr Simon Sleight will kick these off in January in his new role as Acting Director of MCAS while I am on leave.

But I will keep posting: from Down Under.

Dr Ian Henderson

MCAS Website

 

 

MCAS Remembrance Day

poppy

MCAS is looking forward to our Remembrance Day seminar 18.00 on 12 November 2014 in SW1.09. That’s in Somerset House: the entrance is half way down the quadrangle at King’s between the King’s Building and Somerset House. Reception staff will guide you to the room, which overlooks the fountain forecourt.

We will have two speakers: Carl Bridge on Anglo-Australian diplomacy during World War I, and Noah Riseman (ACU) on Aboriginal Australians and the First World War.

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/ahri/eventrecords/2014-2015/MCAS/MCAS-R.aspx

In the lead-up, it seems a good moment to glance back at last year’s Reese Lecture by Monash’s Professor Christina Twomey who gave the lecture ‘He Ceases to be Quite Human’: Compensating POWs in Post-War Australia’.

Here is MCAS’s Dr Simon Sleight’s response to that lecture.

SimonSleightKCL6851Dr Simon Sleight:

War leaves many traces. From ordnance-strewn battlefields to sunken warships; from marble headstones to empty chairs in suburban homes, the silences associated with conflict can be just as deafening as the crack of gunfire. Christina’s lecture this evening has, I think, spoken succinctly to the very essence of the theme of ‘Being | Human’, addressing some of those silences through the close scrutiny of one of the more profound archives associated with Australians at war.

We’ve all no doubt baulked from time to time at the straightening logic inherent in paper questionnaires, at the too-small boxes in which we must fit our too-big answers, but the dehumanizing form-filling described tonight is of a different order. Called upon to answer for persons unseen in a language comprehended fully by neither writer nor reader; to argue for need but not suggest total psychological collapse, evidence of drink or so-called ‘malingering’ tendencies: this was a veritable paper minefield which must have created considerable emotional havoc. It is moving to hear of intimate excursus yielded as a result of the opaque language on the forms, and to learn of the burdens carried decades after the ending of war. To our more modern sensibilities, and knowing all that we do about the privations of wartime captivity under the Japanese, it is astonishing to hear of the fear harbored by the authorities of creating a ‘monetary premium’ for surrender or capture.

But it is not easy to dismiss the bureaucratic grinding of the mill as the inevitable result of casework processing by persons removed from the issues at hand: as Christina has observed, when the POW Trust Fund was established, three of the five committee members were ex POW. How, then, to explain their seeming intransigence in many instances? For Australians – whose military mystique is based in no small measure, it should be noted, on a tenacious but salutary defeat – one wonders whether the stigma of surrender proved especially hard to transcend, despite the later elevation of prisoners into the pantheon of wartime memory, alongside battlefield fighters. Or perhaps we should simply not be surprised: in history foot soldiers seem always to be treated less than well after returning home, having done their bit. Does it, should it, always come down to money? The Australian Government was forthcoming in the end, of course, but only after a whole new language of trauma had arrived and many potential recipients had gone, or given up.

As Christina has outlined, having (by the 1960s) one’s former enemy as a principal trading partner complicated still further the legacies of war. Australia has of course often sat uneasily in its geographic position. The view from the verandah has often been enjoyed, but not always the sight of the neighbours a block or two to the north. As well as deepening our understanding of this encounter between Australia and Asia, tonight’s lecture is part of a strengthening trend within Australian historiography to focus less on the sweeping moves of battle or the tactical stalemate of the trenches, and more on the long legacies of war. Shattered Anzacs by Marina Larsson, as well as work by Michael Roper and others, compose companion pieces here. Now that psychological scars have been placed alongside broken limbs as part of the historian’s archive, one wonders what the centenary events of that earlier World War will offer from next year. Here in England are we to celebrate, Jubilee style, as the Prime Minister has encouraged, or is the occasion to elicit more somber commemoration, a sort of vastly elongated two-minute silence? Perceiving the differences between Australian, British, German and Turkish responses will be fascinating. What will happen at Anzac Cove in 2015? Will it be a backpacker party or a quiet occasion?

As tonight’s Trevor Reese Memorial Lecture suggests, we would do well to reflect carefully, and to keep the bunting in the box. Bookshelves will soon be heaving under the weight of new histories of battle; one hopes we can have more histories like that offered this evening among them.

All that remains is for me to thank Christina for her involving and affecting lecture, and to ask you to join me in expressing our gratitude for what we have heard.

Dr Simon Sleight

MCAS Website

Reese Lecture Vote-of-Thanks by Simon Sleight

Ian Henderson writes: The Trevor Reese Memorial Lecture is one of two formal public lectures hosted annually at MCAS, and each year is given by an up-and-coming young historian of Australia. This year’s Reese Lecturer was Dr Melissa Bellanta (ACU) on ‘Tender Feeling in a Hard Man’s Country: On Sentimentality in Australian Culture’, a splendid lecture which was filmed, and will be posted to the MCAS website in the new year. My own response to Melissa’s lecture can be found in my previous post. The marvellous vote of thanks on Thursday was given by another outstanding young historian, MCAS’s own Dr Simon Sleight (History, KCL), author of Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914 (Ashgate, 2013), and is posted below. This is also Dr Sleight’s debut on this blog: and a prelude to his becoming Acting Director of MCAS in January-March 2015 while I am on research leave.


DR SIMON SLEIGHSimonSleightKCL6851T:

It is my great pleasure to offer a formal response to this year’s Reese Memorial Lecture. In carefully unpicking strands of feeling – indeed, ‘structures of feeling’ if we follow cultural critic Raymond Williams – Melissa has given us a good deal to think both with, and through. Williams famously identified ‘meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations [between them]’ as especially significant in perceiving the shifting outlines of affective configurations, and this evening our speaker has discerned for Australian culture an evolution of individual and collective sentiment. This, I think, is one of those lectures where having pondered the point – having considered, for instance, the changing cultural rules by which men felt they could abide – one starts to perceive parallels and supplementary examples everywhere.

Melissa, you’ll recall, began with a lively sporting anecdote; let me reference another here by way of response to a point made in the conclusion to the lecture. The date for this anecdote is 25 April 2004, and I’m at Melbourne’s temple of sport, the MCG, to witness the Anzac Day clash between Collingwood and Essendon. It’s been a long day for me already: as anthropologist-cum-historian, I’ve attended the dawn service that morning, partaken in a ‘gunfire breakfast’ near the Shrine and watched the march-past of veterans and their descendants. Now I’m looking out from the stands across the oval, the crowd applauding, as still more veterans in open-top cars process around the outer. As the cars leave, a noisy military helicopter comes into to view and hovers low over the centre circle. A marine rappels from the helicopter, clutching – of all things – the match ball, which he gives to the two footballing captains. Shortly they and their teammates will compete for the ‘Anzac Medal’, bestowed around the neck of the player said to best exemplify the Anzac spirit: defined in the rubric as ‘skill, courage, self-sacrifice, teamwork and fair play’. Heads are bowed on the field and in the stands as the fallen are remembered, the ‘National Anthem’ is sung, and the negotiated violence of battle commences afresh. This extraordinary nexus of sport, war and manly beef and brawn seems to strike almost no one as unusual, but this of course is a country where the word ‘guns’ refers to biceps as well as howitzers. All this links to one of Melissa’s central contentions:  here is one of those instances for men to express pathos without feeling in any way that they are compromising masculine self.

I mentioned ‘negotiation’ and ‘violence’ a moment ago. There was rather more of the latter and less of the former some years ago when Labor politician Mark Latham (allegedly) broke the arm of a Syndey cabbie in a dispute over a fare. Latham later made a spectacular intervention into the debate on masculine norms in Australia when in 2006 he published a book lamenting an apparent ‘crisis’ in contemporary masculinity. ‘One of the saddest things I have seen in my lifetime’, Latham opined, ‘has been the decline in Australian male culture – the loss of our larrikin language and values. Australian mates and good blokes have been replaced by nervous wrecks, metrosexual knobs and tossbags.’ Latham’s street-talk was meant to be hip, but he merely came across as reactionary. Since then, in Australia and elsewhere, much ink has been spilt on ‘proper’ modes of masculine behaviour and a seeming loosening of strictures. Just last weekend, for instance, I read that we’re in the era of the ‘man-hug’. Obama’s loving them, apparently, Boris Johnson too. ‘There was a time when it was only ok to hug another man if you’d dug him out of an avalanche or he’d been released from prison’, wrote a newspaper columnist; now, by contrast, lots of men were at it. With a title surely imposed by the publisher rather than the author (and prone to unfortunate misunderstanding in an Australian context), Professor Eric Anderson’s new book, 21st Century Jocks, argues that a decline in homophobia has changed the social landscape, making it more acceptable to be all touchy-feely as brothers-in-arms. I wonder if the same applies in Australia.

Now, of course, Melissa’s main object this evening has not been to reflect upon contemporary times, but instead to dig beneath, back to the nineteenth century – an archaeology of emotion, if you will. We’ve heard about the role of ‘muscular vulgarity’, the strategic deployment of sentimentality, the rise of new conventions at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the link with the rolling wheel of colonisation. Thinking about the impact of such developments upon women, what place, I wondered, the attempts to dissuade sisters, wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters from attending early Anzac Day commemorations for fear of the effects of their public weeping? In another realm, might we see the so-called female ‘slummers’ and social reformers of the late nineteenth-century city as pioneering new modes of being for well-to-do ladies, in the terms that Melissa has outlined tonight? And how might we link this focus on the emotional self with the wider quest to understand human interiority that, for the Victorian period, Carolyn Steedman describes (in Strange Dislocations)?

BratzThese threads and others we can continue to pull and weave during informal conversation with our speaker shortly. Melissa featured the subheading ‘laconic sentimentality’ in her lecture – this, she argued, has been one of the modes by which Australian men have performed their identities. Linking this observation with what’s coming next, I’d like to finish my response by taking you – figuratively at least – to a cemetery in Coober Pedy, a rugged mining town south of Alice Springs. This is as good a place as any in Australia to seek out hard men. One plot in the cemetery stands out in particular, and recalls perhaps what Melissa was saying about the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. Atop the grave of Karl Bratz, a Coober Pedy opal miner, sits a engraved beer keg, which serves as a headstone. Functioning as both epitaph and instruction, the beer keg, besides which could once be found an akubra hat and glasses to fill, states simply: ‘Have a drink on me’.

In the spirit of all that this might say about the place of sentimentality in Australian culture, let’s move though now to our drinks reception, having first and most importantly offered another round of well-deserved applause to our speaker, Dr Melissa Bellanta.

Dr Simon Sleight

MCAS website

 

 

Among the Historians

Frederick_McCubbin, A Bush Burial (1890), Geelong GalleryDr Melissa Bellanta from the Australian Catholic University in Sydney treated us to a brilliant Reese Lecture on Thursday evening, focused on cultural figurations of turn-of-the-century white masculinity and their underpinning by, in turns, strategic sentimentality and anti-sentimental rhetoric.

For me the lecture was particularly rich for Melissa’s insightful but succinct articulation of the longer history and politics of sentiment, her deeply contextualised use of diverse archival sources (poetry, song, journalism and political rhetoric), her sensitivity to the shifting attributes of gendered identities, her intervention in other recent Australian and non-Australian histories of late-19th– early 20th-century emotion, her recognition of the role of sentiment in the enactment and the representation of frontier violence, and her subtly conceived but forcefully conveyed underscoring, at the end of the lecture, of her topic’s relevance to contemporary ‘shirtfront’ politics.

There was something, also, in Melissa’s style of delivery that particularly appealed: it was a thoroughly pre-prepared piece tailored to her audience (challenging us, nonetheless, to meaty fare), but throughout which one could sense a deep intellect at work, thinking as the lecture unfolded through persuasive stage after stage of the argument—like it was being delivered off the cuff—and leavened by a wonderful moment when she sang us—in a beautiful voice—one of her source folksongs. Both aspects were enactments of the breadth of Melissa’s disciplinary knowledge.

For many people there may seem little difference between researchers in English Departments, like myself, who concern themselves mainly with historical material, and historians working in History Departments. And yet in a large research university like King’s, it is rarer than you may think—and none of us is pleased by this situation—for literary historians like me to work as closely as the Menzies Centre allows with those whose discipline is history per se. Continuous contact with historians of Australia and indeed of other parts of the world is, in fact, one of the great pleasures of working at MCAS.

And in turn, Australian Studies has tended to attract historians sensitive to the histories of print culture, readership, formal innovation, aesthetic considerations and generic traditions that are the normal stuff of literary work. It is a little known fact that Professor Carl Bridge has a history of reading string to his bow—from work on public libraries—and over the years my Australian history colleagues, Dr John Connor, Dr Catherine Kevin, Dr Frank Bongiorno, and Dr Simon Sleight, have all deployed and commented upon literary and other artistic sources with sensitivity.

It isn’t always the way. Literary works are often threatened with being positioned as stable archives of representational data in ways that forget the complexities of even the most ‘common’ habits of historic readers, who were nearly always deeply attuned to the effects of form and genre on the meanings they produced from marks on the page: the more so for seldom thinking about it. It is not least for this that Melissa’s argument was so effective, beginning by recognising that it was through the assumption that certain emotions were widely shared and almost mechanically activated through generic literary convention that sentiment’s politics become apparent.

The sentimental trope Melissa turned to most thoroughly was of the dying stockman, or the explorer/bushman coming upon the body of a stockman well dead in the bush. There are numerous examples in popular Australian culture of the time, leaking also into reportage of ‘real’ deaths in the outback.

William Johnson, Henry Lawson (1915), State Library of New South WalesWhat struck me afterwards was the distinction of what a truly remarkable writer could do in front of, and with, this generic convention. Henry Lawson, without doubt still one of the most skilled writers our country has produced, was not above mawkish sentiment, particularly in his verse. But in his short stories, the dead white bush worker rather tends starkly to illuminate the locally-inflected proto-absurdism of his vision.

There is the highly ambivalent absent-present community when ‘The Union Buries Its Dead’—we are a long way from a society forged through communal and sentimental grief at that anonymous burial—and there is the chilling comedy of ‘The Bush Undertaker’.

In the latter an old man housed in a slab hut on the remote boundary of a sheep run sets out—on Christmas Day—to dig up an Aboriginal grave. He soon hits ‘payable dirt’ (the bones are headed for a museum somewhere), but seems also to unearth, disconcertingly, a live black goanna, who haunts the rest of the tale. Next the old man stumbles upon the desiccated body of his long-lost alcoholic mate Brummy. After a disturbing night—with Brummy’s body stuffed in the chimney and the Aboriginal bones in his bag—the old man buries Brummy, sealing the moment with the half-forgotten words of the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer.

Lawson immediately pricks whatever pathos the moment might occasion: after his fragmenting words, the old man simply ups his tools and walks back to the hut. So too the story lands with an immortal Lawsonist thump: ‘And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush—the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird.’

Life in the outback, for Lawson, is such that the Christian story has been inverted. Jesus’s resurrection (foreshadowed on Christmas Day) makes death the window to true life, causing the life-death distinction to collapse (‘Death, where is thy sting?’). Australia does away with the distinction too: only rather to occasion a living death. Human life in the bush, Lawson seems to say, takes us all under. Its sign–apart from its inhabitation by madmen and ghosts who walk–is a nihilism whereby other binaries also collapse, hence the old man has so much trouble identifying the race and gender of both the bodies he encounters: the one he digs up, and the one he returns to the earth.

Altogether, the settler economy is beyond even unsustainable in this story. Its absurdity presages some Beckett play on a continuous flat-screen loop. So if featuring a familiar trope, ‘The Bush Undertaker’, in this reading, takes us to an altogether different landscape of the emotions: one more reminiscent of modernist (dis)affect avant la lettre than of late-19th-century sentiment.

These ideas have been floating around the back of my mind for ages, but it took Melissa’s broader history of sentiment in Australian white settler culture for them to crystallise. As such they also demonstrate the interweaving of popular and rarer artistry in the making of our culture: and the importance of attention to both.

The outstanding quality of Melissa’s lecture and Dr Simon Sleight’s vote of thanks ably served the Reese Lecture, which memorialises Dr Trevor Reese, a pioneer of Commonwealth History. It is a wonderful thing to work among such historians.

Dr Ian Henderson

MCAS website

Same-Sex Marriage

CachedImageThe first pink-convertible Cadillac full of lesbian-identified women I ever dragged down a city street was during the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade of (I think) 1993.  I was a ‘twink’ at the time, dressed in plastic chains purchased at the local hardware shop and little else; I believe the whisper of a feather-ended whip was felt on my own and on the backs of my fellow labourers as our mistresses urged us forwards.

I write this merely to flag up a certain personal investment in the subject of last Tuesday’s MCAS seminar, led by Dr Rebecca Jennings of Macquarie University, Sydney, who addressed British and Australian women’s attitudes to same-sex marriage in the period 1945 to 1979 (the year after the first Mardi Gras protest march). This was a paper rich in new archival material, drawn from the pages of Australian and British lesbian magazines and newspapers and (yet more richly) interviews Rebecca has undertaken with women of diverse generations, class-affiliation and ethnicity who live in Australia’s and Britain’s cities, but also in more remote areas; part of Rebecca’s ARC-funded project ‘Lesbian Cultures of Intimacy in Australia since 1945’. And fascinating analysis it was too, for a Virginia Woolf Building seminar room packed with dynamic and bright young women. (Enough to draw tears to the eyes of a Director aiming to bring the very best of Australian Studies to youthful intellectual cohorts.)

Two persuasive arguments emerged from Rebecca’s paper which surprised me. The first was that women had consistently lobbied for same-sex marriage throughout the period under discussion; and the second was the significance of Christian lesbian-identified women—and to some extent the churches they attended—in urging forward re-consideration of marriage as an institution.

William_Yang 029_gallery

William Yang, http://uniken.unsw.edu.au/features/camera-man [Yes that is me on the right; and it is early 1990s, not 1980s as the weblink suggests…I’m not that old!]

The first surprise displays my ignorance, or rather the higher profile (for me) of other issues in gay activism when I was in my 20s and 30s: law reform in Tasmania, gay visibility, safe-sex campaigns, HIV/AIDS education, research and support for people living with AIDS. (These last were the matters which brought me out onto the streets in my brief moment of gay-activist commitment.) But the consistency of the call, from some women, for marriage equality was also held in tension with the feminist and lesbian critique of marriage as an irredeemably heteronormative and patriarchal institution. The latter tallied also with anti-marriage attitudes among some gay men who sought freer expressions of sexuality and community.

The histories Rebecca related of women living in regional Australia in the post-war period could be heart-breaking, and in some ways their isolation underpinned their advocacy of marriage. What was worse was when relationships broke down, and now ‘single’ women found themselves completely without support networks and, in some cases, without anyone in whom to confide the grief of separation. But it would be wrong to say there was a city/bush divide in the anti-/pro-marriage campaign: the complexities of the politics of marriage were everywhere debated among women. And if ever the personal was political, this was the topic: friendships came under strain where invitees refused to attend commitment ceremonies on ideological grounds.

It makes sense, of course, when you consider it, that it would be women of faith that would have a particular investment in the church’s recognition of their relationships. But that this might be forgotten tells us just how far removed marriage equality—as it is now being realised in various western states—is now from matters of spirituality. That said, as Rebecca’s discussion told us, some women express sentiments similar to ‘straight’ couples, that the ceremony ‘made a difference’ in their relationships and in their lives, no matter whether they claim to be women of faith.

The consistency of women’s advocacy of marriage equality shows that the swiftness of reform in some legislatures is deceptive. There may be other reasons, also, for further delays in the 1980s. Listening to Rebecca, I was reminded of how, in Sydney anyway, members of the lesbian community were instrumental in the response to the AIDS crisis—leading it in many instances—suggesting issues like same-sex marriage were de-prioritised in the 80s and 90s, to resurge in the new century. I recall it as an issue more vital to my women friends—particularly if they also had children—than for myself, though again I find myself a direct beneficiary of women’s activism.

Pardon, then, my comically embittered perspective, as one who became engaged around 2006 when civil unions were possible in the UK, held off the ceremony until I had gained permanent residency, and then again while ‘real’ same-sex marriage was debated in parliament, only to find himself abruptly single two months before ‘gay marriage’ became legal. A long engagement to a shifting set of laws: and finally, withdrawal. Oddly enough, as a ‘single’ middle-aged gay man still closely involved in the life of my former fiancé (while attempting to date others), I feel ‘queerer’ than I ever have: a kind of opposite-gender throwback to the late 19th century’s ‘odd woman’. However, while marriage equality is something I will therefore witness at a distance, I find myself strongly in its favour, not least for its public recognition of the commitment that underpins so many of the same-sex relationships in my acquaintance (and indeed my own). And it does finally solve a problem of what to call one’s partner; and to out oneself gently and without fuss in a range of situations. It has all the advantages of the ‘normalising’ effect; but the ideological crisis represented by any process of normalisation should not be underestimated.

Back in the day, watching (mostly from the closet) Rodney Croome’s leadership of an extraordinary and successful campaign for law reform in Tasmania, I never would have dreamed that I might one day be in London discussing such matters in a nation where it is quite ‘normal’ for a man to have a husband and a woman a wife. But how sad that Australia has lagged behind in this process of reform: that my fiancé, had I, Reader, married him, would not have been welcomed into Australia as I would have been into the UK. (What would Gough had done about this situation?)

How intriguing in all this, too—and this is a hunch, absolutely groundless beyond overheard anecdote—is the gay-if-ication (the Tindr-ification) of young urban women’s heterosexual expression. And yet if heteronormativity ain’t what it used to be, the objectification of women and violence against women by men are as prevalent and abhorrent as ever, while expanding their reach into new media. Action, for too many women, attracts violent responses designed to repress women’s voices. These days feminist women and men need to ensure the old Act-Up slogan isn’t perversely inverted: and uphold, with united strength, that ACTION = LIFE.

Dr Ian Henderson

MCAS Website

MCAS Live Symposium: A Response

Sympsosium iFor me the Menzies Centre’s symposium on the future of Australian Studies (Thursday 23 October 2014) was a splendid success. We had an excellent turn-out and very high-quality introductions by a range of discussion leaders with expertise in Australian history, imperial history, Australian literature, comparative literature, and media studies. In the lead up the symposium also built on ideas discussed at two evening panel discussions, one focused on mining literature from Britain and Australia, and the other featuring papers by experts in ecocriticism, curatorship, and urban geography.

The symposium was followed by a buzzy reception at Australia House, hosted by His Excellency the Honourable Mr Alexander Downer, High Commissioner for Australia, who re-iterated the government’s ‘energetic support’ for the work of the Menzies Centre. The Principal of King’s, Professor Ed Byrne, also spoke, underlining the Centre’s ambitious plans for the future.

My own speech (see previous blog entry) attempted to sketch out the history of human life in Australia as an efflorescence of mind, where, in the recent past, Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing had come into violent collision: all Australian intellectuals work in its wake. My speech also celebrated the research and teaching of over forty Australian Studies professionals who had contributed to the Centre over the last 32 years, emphasising in particular the 17-year directorship of Professor Carl Bridge.

After recovering over Reading Week from this flurry of activity, I have now set my mind to considering some of the outcomes of the symposium in particular. I now ask all those who attended to consider submitting a one-page (though there is no word limit!) response to the symposium, positive and negative aspects of the experience, and your own further reflections on the past, present and future of Australian Studies. Anyone reading this is also welcome to contribute—just email a word-doc response to ian.r.henderson@kcl.ac.uk—whether you attended the symposium or not; and potentially in response to the ideas below or in other postings. (We will send out an email notice when the site for the collated postings is developed.)

starling-murmuration-3[2]

The great city spreads her dusky mantle over innumerable races and creeds, and I believe there is scarcely a known form of worship that has not some temple there […] or any communion of men that has not some club or guild. London is indeed an epitome of the round world, and just as it is a commonplace to say that there is nothing one can’t ‘get’ there so it is equally true that there is nothing one may not study at first hand. Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)

At a drink on the Friday after the symposium, Associate Professor Frank Bongiorno (ANU) commented on how privileged we all were to be able to come together in central London and discuss intellectual matters relative to our discipline. It is a comment that resonated with me for a number of reasons.

Firstly it underscored a number of comments from delegates about income/funding inequality across the Australian ‘planet’, in the range of communities where Australian history and/or literature are studied by students, but also in the diverse higher-education systems where Australian Studies researchers work. Most pressing for the Menzies Centre is the state of higher education in some parts of Europe where funding has reached crisis point not just generally but in the specific experiences of individual researchers, struggling to find the time and resources to undertake their work.

Secondly, it brought home to me something I had accidentally got right in organising the symposium. There had been a few different dates mooted, but the sudden availability of several of our speakers in late October, and the opportunity to place our evening events as part of the College’s Arts and Humanities Festival, meant we placed the symposium smack in the middle of the teaching term. This had negative side-effects (apart from nearly sealing my insanity) in making it difficult for several UK-based researchers to attend. But it also placed the symposium, which took place in the Council Room—in the very middle of the King’s Building—in a hive of other activity, students running all over the place and the College in full-scale chaotic-energy mode. It is this energy that we were seeking to re-harness: and thereby to speak with new relevance and vitality to the wider chaos of intellectual work in historically extraordinary transition.

It is, no doubt, not the taste of every one, but for the real London-lover the mere immensity of the place is a large part of its savour. […] Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot; but in imagination and by a constant mental act of reference the accommodated haunter enjoys the whole […]. He fancies himself, as they say, for being a particle in so unequalled an aggregation; and its immeasurable circumference, even though unvisited and lost in smoke, gives him the sense of a social, an intellectual margin.Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)

Thirdly, it helped emphasise for me that few of us are researching and teaching Australian Studies in a vacuum. We have many other subject areas and topics which we regularly teach and publish on. I’ve included snippets from Henry James in this response because this week for the core module I convene for the MA English 1850-present I have been reading a number of life-writing texts focused on London. Our regular intellectual habits, then, already enact the transnational Australian Studies we were discussing at the symposium.

Fourthly, seeing anew the symposium in the middle of my own teaching brought home that each of us practises Australian Studies in the context of a regional intellectual tradition. That determines things like funding and resources, as mentioned above, but it also shapes the preoccupations, disciplinary emphases, and publication forms of our research and the substance of our teaching. These matters come to the forefront when Australian Studies conferences take place outside of Australia, and even more so in places outside the Anglo-American-Australian tradition.

These differences should be confronted more openly. If we move from considering ourselves disciplinary ‘associations’ with ‘memberships’ and ‘journals’—subscribing, in other words, to the traditional structures of humanities research—to thinking of Australian Studies as a murmuration, a dilation of coherence and dispersal, the points of both need to be thought about directly. A related notion also struck me during the symposium: that the catch-all conference may be dead. It is a product of us each having to give a paper in order to receive funding to attend. What is needed, rather, are shorter meetings sharply focused on answering specific questions. Our flight into the future on this front is potentially limited by questions of funds; but it shouldn’t stop us thinking about it; and making greater use of technology. So too would breaking away from the heavy and slow tread of the refereed journal issue as the main publication outcome for our gatherings.

An overwhelming example of our failure to confront differences in regional intellectual traditions that bear upon Australian Studies is our only tiny accommodation of topics and research expressed in languages other than English.

For the moment I am speaking of the inspiration there may be in the sense of far frontiers; the London-lover loses himself in this swelling consciousness, delights in the idea that the town which encloses him is after all only a paved country, a state by itself. This is his condition of mind quite as much if he be an adoptive as he be a matter-of-course son. I am by no means sure even that he need be a son of Anglo-Saxon race and have inherited the birthright of English speech; though, on the other hand, I make no doubt that these advantages minister greatly to closeness of allegiance. Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)

Fifthly, consciousness of regional intellectual traditions supports a new focus on place, as a topic and as an organising principle (beautifully rendered in Associate Professor Mark McKenna’s contribution to the symposium). Locality seems the more important the wider we cast the net of Australian Studies. But place is so emphatically a structuring element of Indigenous Knowledges, that it can also become a node through which to confront the collision of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing which still energises Australian intellectual life.

London melts by wide, ugly zones into the green country, and becomes pretty insidiously, inadvertently—without stopping to change. It is the spoiling perhaps of the country, but it is the making of the insatiable town, and if one is a helpless and shameless cockney that is all one is obliged to look at. Anything is excusable which enlarges one’s civic consciousness. […] It is perfectly open to him to consider the remainder of the United Kingdom, or the British empire in general, or even, if he be an American, the total of the English-speaking territories of the globe, as the mere margin, the fitted girdle. Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)

For the American expatriate James, London was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon world and race, the centre of English and the medium through which he expressed his art. (Here I can’t help alluding to Malvina Hoffman’s statues on Bush House, opposite King’s–the former home of the BBC World Service–and their accompanying inscription: ‘To the Friendship of English Speaking Peoples’.) London as the capital of world Anglo-Saxonism is a myth Australian Studies should both repudiate and transform/reharness in London. Our shared language was, for A. A. Phillips, one of the problems forging the cultural cringe. And it overlooks that the Australian word is comprised of hundreds of different languages. But London’s long history as a ‘world’ city—abhorrent though that history has often been—and for many decades Australia’s ‘own’ ‘world’ city, still makes it a key site, along with other world cities, for thinking out what a ‘planetary’ Australian Studies might be; and how the ‘planetary’ itself shifts depending on the angle from which you approach it.

Hence, perhaps, a new significance for ‘Centres’ of Australian Studies. The Menzies Centre’s ‘object’ is to ‘promote the understanding of Australia in Britain and in Europe’. But as much as Centres have been established to serve a hinterland, their new charge should be to enable communication between other places, Centres, nodes, across the planet. And it will be as much in the mis-communications between such places that a new Australian Studies will emerge, as it will in the resources, research projects, and ideas which such communication will sustain. It seems to me, then, that a semi-marginal activity of the Menzies Centre—Centrelink—where staff and students from Dublin, Copenhagen and London came together (its apotheosis was the symposium itself) in fact now models a central object and activity of a Centre for a new Australian Studies.

It is in this way we can confront a key figure who emerged in discussion at the symposium. The lone researcher working on Australian topics in a non-Australian university with a sign saying ‘Centre for Australian Studies’ nailed to her/his door. The struggle of such lone hands should be supported via vastly improved communication nodes and much better use of digital resources, housed at larger Centres, such that they can sense, strongly, a large and worldly cohort of fellow researchers, potential visitors, and students, with whom they can instantly communicate and share ideas.

It brings me to a question which I was asked more than once over the week of the symposium: where is the Menzies Centre. My glib answer was that it is everywhere our new MCAS banner appears (which means often on my back, being carted between venues!). But the loss of the Centre’s ‘centre’, the grouping of mine and my colleagues’ offices, also symbolises its distribution across the entire College—our ‘marginal’ work is no longer hidden in small windowless seminar rooms—and the need to make of ourselves a digital arena in which anyone in the world can play.

This brings me to another key moment for me in the symposium week came on the Wednesday, a meeting with colleague Dr Simon Sleight and Associate Professor Anne Pender (UNE). We were discussing the challenges of editing a journal of book reviews, and quickly came up against the usual practices of distributing hard copies to reviewers, maintaining quality and range, and the failure of the higher education system to reward this work. And yet, quality reviews are absolutely vital for sustaining the book, still the centre-piece of humanities research, and something (understood as a long disquisition) we should defend.

Our conversation quickly veered into the opportunities presented by digital technology for rapidly speeding up the process of publishing reviews, and making these available and more attractive to much larger readerships. But what also became apparent was that to access this new world we need to relinquish some aspects of academic gate-keeping: and that considering what to maintain and what to give up quickly brings us up against large and fundamental problems facing academics in a time of open access. ‘What should we do with reviews?’ then became one of those sharply focused questions which warrant bringing together more talking heads; and we will continue to discuss it. But what became really clear is that we will sustain the review because it sustains the book: and that all our ingenuity is required to meet that goal. It may mean, nonetheless, doing away with some of those traditional structures of academic association.

It was a last-minute but brilliant coup for the symposium that Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska was able to join us—in a frankly crazy quick-trip from Melbourne—with funding support from the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash, where she is Deputy Director. She confronted us with a number of home truths, but emphasised also generational change, picking up the legacy Frank had outlined in his historical perspective on Australian Studies as a field, and casting it into a possibly bleak, possibly exciting future. World War One, its centenary, is upon us: but it, too, will pass. And the military underpinnings of Cold War area studies might also give way to unknown topics of the Australian Studies future.

Ecological issues, for example, wars on carbon emissions, are the ones about which our current students are politicised. They too want to know the kind of planet they will be bringing to the students they will one day teach, or their own children. They need to be even more alert than we to the politics of migration and population, to cultural collisions, and the violence of the future. Australian Studies research has enormous potential to contribute to these world debates, particularly if it has confronted its own diversity, its innate worldliness, through a field that—while ever alert to ideas of nation, the peculiarities of Australian disciplinary traditions, and questions that apply only to Australian place—must spin itself almost out of existence to create impact in those specific places and times when we come together, in person or online.

Dr Ian Henderson

MCAS website

MCAS Relaunch Speech

ReceptionThis speech was delivered at Australia House on the evening of 23 October 2014, after a warm welcome from His Excellency, the Honourable Mr Alexander Downer, High Commissioner for Australia, and a speech by the Principal and President of King’s College London, Professor Ed Byrne. Some sections were cut in the delivery itself.

Your Excellency, Professor Byrne, distinguished ladies and gentlemen…men and women of Australia….and of Britain and beyond.

Australia is also a problem of mind. It has always been so, right from the start. Here is Charles Harpur, the son of transported convicts and colonial poet detecting the pre-beginning.

Not a sound disturbs the air,

There is quiet everywhere

Over plains and over woods

What a mighty stillness broods

Out of smooth ground ancestral beings emerged—others descended from the sky—to form a massive but minutely detailed landscape. At that very moment they also transformed themselves into myriad creatures that crawled and hopped and flew and swam into the world.

Here is Waanyi woman author Alexis Wright telling one sliver of that great story:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously—if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. Looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of years ago, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The first peoples to arrive in this new world were born of and with the word. Without language, paleoanthropologists tell us, they could never have breached the deep ocean trenches that separated the ancient continent of Sahul from lands to the north, even during an ice age.

Within some few thousand years our species had forged living cultures all over Sahul, cultures that saw their countries through extraordinary climate change, who lived through cataclysmic moments in their own political histories, who developed a plethora of the world’s great intellectual cultures, whose collective work in the global south amounts to an amazing efflorescence of mind that worked its thinking into and as the contours of the Australian earth.

Fifty thousand years later, a continent still animated by ancestors and the living, alive with stories, busy with trade, was linked—perhaps catastrophically—to other networks of being which had spread downwards from the global north. The men and women of Europe brought with them their own struggles with mind: and precipitated the most extraordinary collision of contrasting ways of knowing. Thousands of men, women, children, and non-human beings died in this collision over many years. Yet it also brought with it flashes of light, new conundrums, shocking revelations, epiphanies: a new elasticity of human being.

All Australians live in the wake of that collision: and we are still working it through. It pops up everywhere: in simple questions like how to live with but also draw resources from the land; who should be ‘allowed’ to live in Australia?; what do we do with bushfire?; How do we write about a possum? How do we design homes?; how should we educate our kids?  But it also drives the work of Australia’s intellectuals, some ‘academic’, some not, researchers working in all disciplines, but most self-evidently those who work ‘Australia’ itself as an idea, a history, a present, a conundrum: the field of Australian Studies. Insofar as Australian Studies, too, is ‘laden with its own creative enormity’, it too traces the path of the ancestral serpent.

This evening’s reception comes at the end of an enormously stimulating symposium confronting the future of that path: the future of Australian Studies. I was delighted to see many old friends and new among Australian Studies researchers here in London to join in a discussion which not only aims to revitalise the field, but also to feed into the life of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies.

As you have heard, and can read in the booklet we are launching tonight, the Menzies Centre has a distinguished history. But what has become most evident to me in reading about those who made that history is the Centre’s future orientation. It has always promoted, and promotes, understanding of Australia in Britain and beyond: but it has also been, over the years, a key training ground for Australian Studies professionals. So many of its workers arrived in their academic youth, Phds freshly out, ready to take on the world. They came away from London with extraordinary experiences which would fuel inspiration, in themselves and instilled in others, driving their careers, out into the world, and upwards. Their pathways are extraordinary: and so too—still—the Menzies Centre is a skills training ground for intellectuals working with Australian life.

I was one of those fresh-faced and hopeful academics once. And I will conclude by saying a few words about that. But before I do, I want to do what fresh faced, hopeful Director of the Menzies Centre should do and say a few thank yous.

I would like to thank the High Commissioner for hosting us this evening, the Principal Professor Byrne for showing so quickly and deeply his support for the Menzies Centre: the Vice Principal for Arts and Sciences, Professor Evelyn Welch, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Professor Russell Goulbourne, and the Director of the College’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, Professor Max Saunders. I want to express my eternal gratitude to my colleague Dr Simon Sleight, who will be taking over as Acting-Director when I am on research leave in January to March next year. I want to thank the Menzies Centre’s Advisory Board: its former Chairs Michael Cook and Professor Arthur Lucas, and its new Chairman, Mr John Dauth, a man I am proud to call a mate. I want to thank the Australian Department of Education and in particular Shelagh Whittlestone, for the grant which has funded today’s symposium and tonight’s relaunch. And I want to acknowledge mostly the extraordinary work of the AHRI’s professional services team: Pelagia Pais as manager, Laura Douglas who is bringing our website into the 21st century, Abigail Gerrard who has worked tirelessly to make this evening and a zillion other events happen, Sheridan Humphreys—who is also a Phd student at King’s—without whom our booklet would never have got published. Let me thank also the staff of the Australian High Commission, whose commitment knows no bounds, and Sandra from Elias Catering for feeding us all so well!

But to return, finally, to my fresh-faced younger self. When I arrived in London on QF1 at 5am on the first of January 2004, I did not know a single soul in this city. I began work almost right away, and since that time I have worked closely with Professor Carl Bridge, who holds the Chair of Australian History at King’s. When I first met Carl he had already been Director of the Menzies Centre for seven years, and he still had another ten of his sentence to serve.

I have worked for longer and more closely with Carl than I have with any other human on earth. I have witnessed him successfully negotiate the Centre through enormous structural changes. In the late 1990s he took on the Menzies Centre, a keen institution but one that was struggling financially. With Michael Cook and Arthur Lucas, Carl negotiated new funding from the Howard Government which has put the Centre on the stable footing it has today. He expanded the Centre from the home of one full-time faculty staff member to three. He taught me how to teach, how to speak to the media, how to meet and greet, and do all those human things which make a research centre work. And he has taught me the outward-facing, world-engaging ways which the intellectual work of those associated with Menzies Centre will continue to practice, as we bring our new exciting programme of public ‘conversations’ into being. Over eleven years Carl and I have walked each other through some very tough times in our respective personal lives: and we are still walking together as we bring the Menzies Centre into that new future.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Menzies Centre has been home to over forty Australian Studies professionals over the thirty-two years of its existence, but I doubt anyone of them has shown the long-term commitment that Carl has sustained for its health and wellbeing. Please join me then, in celebrating his work, and in marking the relaunch of this thoughtful, creativity-laden and precious thing, the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies.

Dr Ian Henderson

MCAS website