True Stories by Inga Clendinnen

Inga Clendinnen’s True Stories assembles her 1999 Boyer essays, revised in 2008 after the fall of the Howard Government. She personifies what Howard would have described as ‘black armband history’.

Looking back over the settlement of Victoria, she follows Chief Protector George Augustus Robinson, sent to curb the violence of the squatocracy, in the 1840s. He didn’t have much luck. Going through his records, Clendinnen writes:

[Robinson] follows a trail of black complaints to the farm of a man called Francis. Francis blandly admits to having shot five blacks down by the river – they attacked him, he says, so he shot them, and later shot another black he saw running from his sheepfold close by the homestead. Robinson finds the man’s skull still lying where the body had fallen. He discovers that Francis has forbidden his black workers to touch the corpse. They have had to watch it as it withered, as dogs worried at it and dragged most of it away until only the skull is left.

The Aboriginal population around Port Phillip Bay declined by 85% in the first 25 years after contact. It’s hard to see how you’d document this as anything other than ‘Black Armband’ material. Yet Clendinnen rejects the term:

We need history: not Black Armband history, and not triumphalist white-out history either, but good history, true stories of the making of this present land, none of them simple, some of them painful, all of them part of our own individual histories.

Unfortunately, what jumps out from Clendinnen’s writing is the sense that things have moved backward over the past decade. I read this just after Abbott made his ‘lifestyle’ comments, which makes it perhaps a little harder to believe ‘true stories’ hold much weight. To that end, this is sort of an interesting time capsule as much as a set of essays; a reflection of a more optimistic era, albeit only a few years back.

Would My Mother Like This Book: In theory, yes. In practice, it’ s a bit grim. But she would read a couple of the essays and we would have a chat about it.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Tove_Jansson_1956Tove Jansson is best known for her children’s books on the Moomin trolls, but Sort of Books has just translated and published a bunch of her non-children’s books. They’re all great, but Fair Play has the added benefit of being the first book I’ve read this year I think my mother would actually like.

More than a children’s book author, Jansson is something of a bohemian icon; supposedly the original sketches for the Moomin family came from a derogatory sketch she drew of Immanuel Kant. There’s a documentary on her here:

I’ve read three books by Jansson in the past few months. I’ve been told they read like Banana Yoshimoto or Haruki Murakami; sparse in that Raymond Carver way, with a similar tendency towards narratives that work around the point, rather than towards it. That’s true, but Jansson is much more elegant and unique.

Fair Play is a series of vignettes based on Jansson and her partner, the Finnish designer and academic Tuulikki Pietilä. Jansson tends to write entirely pleasant short stories, of a length and tone perfect for someone who gets distracted every fifteen minutes or so by their dog, their garden or the need for a quick nap. This is true of all her work, but Fair Play has the added distinction of being about old women having adventures by the beach, as this picture shows: Tove JanssonFor this reason, I think it’s a safe bet my mother would like it.


Would my Mother enjoy this book?:

Yes, font size is good, can be read between naps/gardens/dog walks, and it is about old women going to the beach.



Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Female Publicans by Clare Wright

Liquor licensing is, like planning and building law, fascinating in that it’s all about deciding who has the right to do certain things, and where they can do it. Unfortunately, it’s also very boring because its political impact is concealed by reams of dull regulation.

Accordingly, I was thrilled to find Clare Wright’s Beyond the Ladies Lounge, documenting the rise and fall of female pub owners in Australia, who were banned outright in some states, encouraged in others, and subject to the weird moralism that surrounds both alcohol and gender.

The sale of alcohol had, until the 18th century, always been dominated by women, and operated as an ad hoc cottage industry. With the mass production of alcohol in the 18th and 19th centuries, things began to change. Wright notes:

In South Australia… the Licensing Act 1908 prohibited single women from holding a publican’s license. Remarkably, in 1915, this disqualification was extended to include widows as single women.

Of the 700 hotels in SA at that point, about a quarter were owned by women, many of whom found their licenses revoked purely on grounds of their gender and marital status. In NSW, no single woman could apply for a new license after 1912, although they could take over an existing license. In Tasmania, the 1902 Act barred married women from holding a license, and disqualified all women aged under forty-five.

These laws were based around an assertion that alcohol consumption required moral moderation. Most states banned single women from holding a license on the grounds they might be immoral, banning bar maids for much the same reason. By contrast, married women, older women, widows and the occasional spinster could apply for licenses on the grounds that they possessed a matronly spirit which, it was felt, would give a public house a sense of calming domesticity. Wright cites Victoria as the key state for this approach, actively shaping its licensing laws to ensure female licenses acted as ‘moral guardians’.

Wright makes an interesting point that this attitude changed when Six O’Clock Closing came in, at which point the pub ceased to be a ‘domestic’ environment:

The distinct snugs and parlours which catered to a variety of intimate social exchanges were sacrificed to the ‘egalitarian’ needs of after-work drinkers… tables and chairs were removed; billiard tables, dart boards and lounge furniture sacrificed for sheer empty space that could be filled by the daily crush of bodies.

During that time, the Temperance Movement successfully turned the pub from something akin to a private house into a building with a “cold, lavatory like atmosphere”, taking with it the sense of domesticity, which had legitimised female ownership. Regaining the ‘moral influence’ of women in the front bar was, oddly enough, one of the arguments for the retraction of 6 O’Clock closing, as this beer had attests:

Actually, this one is even better:

If this sounds of interest to you, you should also look up Jessica Warner’s excellent Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, which looks at the way female licensees were simply priced out of the market through high licensing fees. This is essentially the same tactic still used to discourage smaller enterprise, and retain a monopoly in certain areas.

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?

Yes, but she’d probably only read the beginning and the end.