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Allport Library talk on Musquito

In March 2021, I was fortunate to be able to return to Hobart and was invited to present a talk for the Tasmanian branch of the Professional Historians’ Association. It was called ‘Writing Narratives: Writing Lives,” and was held in the Allport Library at the Hobart Library, and I am grateful they put it online. It was about my work-in-progress, which is a biography of Musquito that works in the people around him.

The recording is here:

Family History 2021: More than a story webinar

In October last year, despite the vagaries of the pandemic, I was fortunate to begin teaching in the Diploma of Family History at the University of Tasmania. I work in the digital sphere, so haven’t relocated, but it’s a homecoming nonetheless and I’m very happy to be doing it.

One of my jobs has been to coordinate a webinar series, and I’m very pleased to announce that the first one will be on Wednesday 24 March 2021 at 6pm, via Zoom. The series explores the ways that family history has informed the thinking of historians, writers and artists. Our first is a conversation between Professor Victoria Haskins of the University of Newcastle and Purai Global History Research Network and Victoria University PhD researcher Kath Apma Travis Penangke.

It’s open to anyone and it’s free, so please register! Please tune in if you can (and we’ll record it). Register here.

Concussion: Anzac Day 2020

Long white spear of xanthorrheoa with a backdrop of a black dead banksia against a bright blue sky

At dawn on Anzac Day 2020, I lit a candle and took it to my front gate, with a transistor radio tuned to the ABC broadcast of the service from the Canberra War Memorial. My neighbours slipped out too and we stood on the roadside, four women keeping vigil. Our candles barely flickered in the stillness. As the bugle of the Last Post travelled through the radio we came to understand that other notes were floating from the darkened houses up and down our valley. Buglers and trumpeters and trombonists, all playing in isolation, making an orchestra that held us all. As the music faded for the Minute’s Silence the birds filled in the space, our own magpies adding their wardles to the raven caws from Canberra. Time and sound and life looped in a moment of copper light and brass notes and birdsong, of candle flame and radio waves, of communion and remembrance for what has been endured.

At the year’s beginning the air had been thick with the smoke of burning forests and animals. We lived with the scream of sirens and the thrum of helicopter blades and fingers of flame along our ridges and clifftops. The valleys were charged with fire until February, when strafing rain brought floods. We coiled all this fear into our chests and forgot how to breathe.

And then the pandemic.

Concussion happens when the frail vessel of a body hurtles towards something and is suddenly stopped. The collision and agitation alters our brains – the first psychologists of the Great War attributed shell shock to concussion, thinking it was caused by sound, percussion, instead of by trauma. The virus stopped us. The shutdowns separated us from each other and our critical moments of connection: our Blue Mountains Music Festival, the Anzac Day marches, Winter Magic, every musician’s gig, the dancing, the choirs, the libraries, our jobs, our families. Everything that made us human; our embraces, our very breath, was a danger. In the shock we became inarticulate and distracted. Time lengthened, and slipped.

In those days I walked in Darug and Gundungurra country. Fire and rain had stripped the plateaus back to elemental forms, to rock and carbon. I could see the bones of the country, the layers of sandstone and lava. Horizons once wooded looked like rows of burned match heads. The trees that survived had dropped their bark in tiles and their ivory trunks were etched with smoke stains. There was no birdsong, or insects.

We are emerging from isolation. The fire grounds are changing. Grasses begin to run across the scorched soil, little threads of hope. New leaves spin from the carbonised trunks of gum trees in stained glass colours; ruby and emerald, brass and copper. The landscape fills with young xanthorrhoea, their bases like a brocade, exploding pale green.

From each one rises a single spear, sheathed in a bridal lace of tiny cross-stitched flowers and spangled with sweet nectar. They are beacons, pennants borne by the vanguard of regeneration.

No battle leaves things unchanged. The fragile new bush is volatile. The smoke from the fires still circles the planet in the stratosphere and the pandemic continues to rage.

We cannot rest yet, and we cannot forget.

Suspended in the new normal

Something very big is happening in Australia right now as the entire eastern seaboard and the Great Dividing Range burns out, taking human lives, homes, farms, businesses, livestock, wildlife, threatened species and sacred places with it. I was in Narooma on New Year’s Eve with my partner Neill, having headed to the south coast of NSW in the hope of respite from the month-long anxiety of living between two big unpredictable fires in my Katoomba home. On the way down we stopped with mountains friends in their holiday home at South Durras. They said they’d had word of something happening near Narooma and warnings of extremely adverse weather conditions but we couldn’t find out much. We arrived to blue skies at Bateman’s Bay – the first blue I’d seen for a month. When we approached the road to our AirBNB near Corunna Lake there was a sign saying it was closed due to bushfires. Our hosts were mystified – they hadn’t heard a thing. There was nothing much on Fires Near Me. It was 22 degrees. There was no smoke. It seemed fine.
A massive thunder crack at 5.30am signalled the lightning strike on Cobargo, which was just 20km from where we were sleeping. We rose at 8am to sky so dark we thought it was dawn and found our hosts had pulled in their staff and kids to prepare for the conflagration. We decided we would get out of their way. We drove into town to find no traffic lights and that all roads out to the north and south were cut. By 9am we were settling into the evacuation centre at Narooma PCYC, with friends and safe, but without communications, electricity, access to shops, fuel, banks, or any information about what was happening in the hills around us. We are all such babies without our smartphones and EFTPOS – by 11am most of us had no reception and later that night the mobile services were all diverted to emergency services so phones did not work at all. Fires Near Me crashed completely (it links to 000 callouts, which were apparently coming every four seconds from Cobargo, Bateman’s Bay and Malua Bay) and Live Traffic and Google Maps conflicted. Everyone turned to ABC radio, listening in using the precious batteries in our cars.
We all sat there under a deep red sky, with the air filled with smoke and ash, and a light drizzle that put black streaks over everything. By 11am the sky was black overhead (that was Cobargo) but you could see the fire roaring through the hills to the west – a foreboding glow on the horizon. Puffs of white to the north-east were, we later found out, fires in Bateman’s Bay, Malua Bay, Rosedale. And to the north was Mogo and Lake Conjola and Bendalong. Lots of people had come in a hurry, woken by a knock on their door in the early morning and told they had to leave, and no one would be able to defend their properties. The day was long in the gloom of the PCYC but what else could we do but settle in. Suspended animation, literally.
I hasten to add here that we two were fine – we had cash, some food, and a car full of petrol so we knew we had the capacity to leave if the roads ever opened. We weren’t worried for ourselves and none of our kids were with us but we felt for those who had houses in the line of the fire and my friend with her young child and baby. Still, it was sobering to see how long it took for the state government agencies to arrive, and how hard it was to rustle up enough generators, fuel, water, medicines, nappies, blankets and foodstuffs to keep everyone going – even in a country area where properties are often equipped with such things. There was plenty of initiative on display – local butchers, bakers and cinemas came by with the stuff from their now useless freezers and community and church organisations whipped up tea and coffee and sausage sizzles (no vegans were catered for). Someone filled a car boot with dog food. Anglicare Disaster Relief and the Red Cross were there and began asking everyone to sign in. The ABC radio was a godsend and big thanks to Telstra for offering free use of the payphones and wifi points, where dozens gathered. Eurobodalla Shire Council did a superb job of keeping people calm and informed and the RFS were great at telling us what they did and did not know (the latter outweighed the former). Regular meetings outside the PCYC with the disaster liaison person, the police and the RFS were a key source of information and helped put paid to the whispers of what was really happening. We were safe but we were cut off and we knew nobody was really in charge.
We managed pretty well. The 500 or so people in and around the PCYC, and the couple of thousand in the town, were good and kind to each other. The dogs (so many!) were serene and seemed to understand the situation required them to be sensible and sedate. Cats sat silently in a line of boxes near where the tea was being made and horses ate grass on the foreshore. A friend in the mountains reached us via facebook in a rare moment of mobile reception and put us onto her mother, who had a waterfront apartment, and there we waited, safe and comfortable, wondering what would happen next. We got her gas BBQ going so we could eat and wandered about the town on New Year’s Eve, up to the candlelit golf club and down to the foreshore, where a disco mounted by the ‘Renegade Fire Services’ entertained a group of dancers and dogs, many of them stranded in town like us. A DJ spun tunes from the top of a demobbed fire truck to welcome in the New Year, sending laser lights through the smoke and making a sublime moment of people dancing and smiling despite everything.
Waking up the next day was a time to count the many losses. We heard of lost lives. We heard that other towns had no water or sewerage. People were still coming into the evacuation centre but the roads opened momentarily to the south, presenting the first opportunity for those who had petrol enough to get right away to Canberra or Eden. Of course the locals could not so easily flee.
We waited one more day and walked the town and its beaches. The shoreline was full of crumpled black leaves that looked like shards of silk; like widows’ weeds. We laughed with Blue Mountains locals who had also come to the south coast with the same dumb idea of escaping our own fires. We found new friends in Narooma and at a phone box I ran into a former workmate who lives there now. The next morning we headed out ourselves, driving south although the northern route was technically open (it turned out nobody got past Ulladulla that day). We drove through poor blasted Cobargo, through smoking black paddocks (not bush, just paddocks and scrub and open land that is normally green and should not burn like that). We climbed Browns Mountain, through the noxious gas laying over the bare-eaten Monaro Plains, and to family in the choking air of Canberra. The next day we threaded our way up through two more fires, and got home to Katoomba. At home we endured the disgusting heat of Saturday, watching the ABC as the disaster rolled over even more of the south, knowing the southerly buster we all used to pray for would bring more death and destruction. The tiny bit of rain we got yesterday only prolongs the agony.
If this fire season is the new normal, we aren’t ready for it. This country needs extraordinary resources to fight the fires but also to deal with the people displaced by their arrival. An emergency is only one lightning strike away from anyone and it’s going to be a challenge to keep communications up and maintain evacuation routes. And what do we do about the air that is poisoned and the black slicks in our seas and the animals starving because the whole land is burned?

Breakfast with Dan Bourchier, ABC666 Canberra

This morning I had the pleasure of doing breakfast radio in Canberra with the wonderfully clever Dan Bourchier, to talk about my work here as writer-in-residence on The Level and Endeavour House, where I am hosted by the Australia Institute. It was a great interview and if you care to listen, it’s about 1:45 into this segment.

On The Level at Endeavour House

I’m really pleased to announce that I’m starting my new year in Canberra, where I’m the inaugural writer-in-residence for the Australia Institute at The Level, in Endeavour House. It’s a funky co-working space in Manuka, and I’m very happy to be here.

I’m working on my long-cherished project about Musquito, and I can’t begin to tell you how encouraging it is to receive this support from the Australia Institute, which is an organisation devoted to progressive ideas and social change. Great people, and as well as that the food in Manuka is to die for!  It’s quite strange to be entirely alone and have no one to look after, but also wonderful.

Vale Inga Clendinnen

A writer who taught me that there is so much more to exploring history and the self than what is in the academy. I have never felt so giddy as I did when I got to hold her hands when she won the Premier’s Literary Awards for Dancing with Strangers. That book, which I return to again and again, I loved for showing me new sides to material I already thought I knew. Here is Text’s obituary.

Open letter to Turnbull and Dutton about asylum seekers

Dear Minister Dutton and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull,

I am a historian who has spent nearly two decades studying the history of child welfare in this country. My PhD ‘“Such a longing”: the treatment of black and white children in welfare in NSW and Tasmania 1880-1940’ (UNSW History, 2007) was written while the previous Liberal government asserted that the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were separated from their families was in accordance with the welfare standards of the time. In 2008 the Parliament of Australia, with the support of Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the opposition, reversed that position and apologised to the Stolen Generations for what had been done to them. Since then, the Parliament has apologised to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants and to those affected by Forced Adoptions. In each of the three apologies the stakeholders have felt they were supported by Malcolm Turnbull – I know this, because I spent three years working with those stakeholders as part of the team which put together the Australian Government’s Find & Connect web resource.

As the conditions for detained asylum-seekers on Nauru and Manus Island deteriorate I am moved to remind you both that the damage being done in your names will have a high cost. The adults you have detained there are suffering and so are their children. Small children and babies. Our own very recent history shows us that this sort of ill-treatment wreaks havoc on the current generation and their descendants, leaving very real scars on the people affected. The shame for our own community is incalculable and you should not be doing this in my name. 

I would like you both to answer the following questions to ensure immediate improvement in the lives of people on Nauru and Manus Island:

1. What will you do to ensure that medical attention, to Australian standards, is available at Nauru and Manus Island (or that speedy evacuation systems are in place)?

2. What will you do to ensure women and babies receive Australian-standard prenatal, post-natal and infant welfare care? 

3. What will you do to ensure Australian-standards of child protection are in place on both Nauru and Manus Island and when will you do it?

4. How and when will you improve security for asylum-seekers on both Nauru and Manus Island?

Finally, when will you resettle people found to be refugees from both Nauru and Manus Island?

I would appreciate a prompt answer to these questions. Please do not write back saying that this is the responsibility of the PNG or Nauru governments. You are party to contracts with these governments and you remain responsible for this situation.

Sincerely, Dr Naomi Parry

The end of a working class pastime

Working class pastimes are always complicated, aren’t they? Gambling, in all its forms, is destructive, whether it’s cards or betting. Ancient “sports” like cockfighting, dog-fighting, bull-baiting and bare-knuckle fighting have all been so brutal they have been banned in English-speaking countries. Then again, “sports” favoured by the upper-classes, such as horse-racing and the betting associated with it, have been heavily regulated to standards of what some consider to be safety.

Greyhound racing in Australia arose from the ancient practice of coursing, which involved setting fast hounds in pursuit of small prey.  Scratching Sydney’s Surface has a great piece about the origins of coursing, which I drew on when I wrote about Lithgow Greyhound Racing Track for Lithgow History Avenue. The electrified greyhound racing track (the tin hare), which we now know as part of the sport now, was introduced in the late 1920s and both reduced the (public) cruelty of the activity and increased its popular appeal. Greyhound racing was accessible, low-cost (compared to horses) and became part of the fabric of many working class communities. There was many a working class household with a racing dog in its backyard.

And now, with Mike Baird announcing the banning of greyhound racing, it’s all gone. On the one hand, too many dogs live intolerable lives, too many small furry creatures are sacrificed and too many beautiful greyhounds die horribly. But it’s another element of working class life that is biting the dust, taking much that is positive with it.

And what will become of those hounds? They won’t all be converted to pets or rehomed. It’s a big change. Necessary, but big.

Neighbourly fun

This year’s Speaker Connect programme for History Week has the theme of Neighbours and I am trying to think of something I have worked on that might make a substantial presentation but I am stumped. In the meantime, as it’s election time, my current-day neighbourhood is always good for a laugh. The defacing of my Liberal-voting neighbour’s corflutes with some very silly symbols has led to media interest!