Category Archives: Writing

A podcast on New South Wales and the Great War

In March I addressed a lunchtime seminar of the Royal Australian Historical Society and talk to them about the book. The Society then suggested I turn the talk into a podcast, so I had a go. It was interesting recording the podcast – I tried to use the radio trick of talking like you are having a conversation with a friend, except if I really was having a conversation with a friend it wouldn’t sound as formal or polite as this.

There is no MP3 for this, you have to watch it on YouTube, but that’s cool because then you can see the images I’m talking about.

Event: the Katoomba launch of New South Wales and the Great War

Megalong Books invites history buffs and students and teachers to an afternoon at Katoomba Falls Kiosk with Katoomba local Dr Naomi Parry and Sydney University’s Professor Stephen Garton, two of the four authors of a New South Wales and the Great War, a new book that Governor David Hurley called “visually arresting and authoritative account of NSW during and after the Great War”.
When the Great War began in August 1914, the people of New South Wales took up the call to arms. NSW sent more people than any other state to serve overseas and many more worked and volunteered to support the war effort. But the economic, political and emotional strains of war, and the loss of so many young men, and some women, in the service of their country, fanned social and political divisions and wrought lasting changes to the society to which serving men and women would return.
New South Wales and the Great War tells this story. It is drawn from the rich visual and written records held by the Anzac Memorial, the State Library of NSW, NSW State Records, the NSW Department of Education and the University of Sydney, as well as collections from Bourke to Gilgandra and Newcastle to Lithgow.
It is the official publication of the NSW Centenary of Anzac Advisory Committee and over summer it was distributed, free of charge, to all public and Catholic schools in New South Wales and to most libraries.
This event is an opportunity to meet the authors and the publisher learn about the writing of this important publication.
Venue: Katoomba Falls Kiosk, Cliff Drive, Katoomba
Date: Sunday 30 April 2017
Time: 2-4pm
Entry by gold coin donation.
Megalong Books will be selling copies on the day.

1967 in Tasmania

Collins Street in Hobart. ABC/TAHO

I’ve just come back from Tasmania, my home country. Today is 50 years since the 1967 bushfires, which devastated southern Tasmania. More than 60 people died. The Huon and Channel were also devastated and the town of Snug ravaged, leaving many dead. The fires raged so hard in the foothills of Mt Wellington that authorities contemplated setting off a line of explosives across West Hobart to stop them penetrating into the CBD.

Big fires leave scars. I wrote this in 2015, in an essay I contributed to Dee Michell, JZ Wilson and Verity Archer’s Bread and Roses: Voices of Australian Academics from the Working Class:

We arrived in 1974, at a time when there was little reason to hope in the valley. At intervals in the green rolling hills you could see ash-coloured chimneys, twirled with sheets of whitened corrugated iron and bed springs, marking places where people had lived before the 1967 bushfires, but were too scared or dead to return and clean up. The deaths spooked me as a kid. Tales of people who had hidden in water tanks and boiled had a horrible relevance when you heard that the fires had touched the very corner of your new bedroom. It is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the economic loss that went with those other, profound losses.

There’s a Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery exhibition on at the moment that talks about it, and some brilliant ABC Tasmania and LINC photo galleries that really show how awful it was. As climate change intensifies, we could all face this. I really hope we don’t.

Writing community and personal history: Part I

Ron Maslin, woman writing at Condobolin, State Library of NSW, bcp_02914
Ron Maslin, woman writing at Condobolin, State Library of NSW, bcp_02914

The work I am doing right now is mostly editing, in one form or another, so I am spending my days taking the words of others and turning them over and over, to remove the mistakes we all make as we write, and present a polished product. This is proofreading and we all need it, no matter what we are writing, because when we are working so hard to get content across we can no longer see the mistakes we have made; a date here, a silly word choice there, a disastrous error of grammar. It’s simple and straightforward work, very enjoyable, and mostly appreciated by the person being edited.

Other times, one has to be interventionist. Sometimes fact-checking is needed and other times the work has to be cut so hard it must be rewritten. When I am doing this I am obliged to identify what in the piece is not working, why that is, and the words that might work better. It is an intense and reflective process, and that reflection generates plenty of ideas about exactly what it is that makes good (and bad) history. (I then have to sensitively and kindly explain to the person being edited why I have done what I have done, and sometimes they are upset, and my reflections are necessary to win them over, or at least persuade them to accept it).

When I say I am reflecting on history, I’m not talking about a philosophy of history, or even a philosophy of writing. I certainly can’t talk about history in the way that Tom Griffiths and his subjects do in The Art of Time Travel. The down-and-dirty work of editing requires a narrower focus. Narrow doesn’t mean shallow though, because good history writing requires deep thought and a great deal of integrity, as well as commitment to the reader, and to the story.

My PhD supervisor knew that I thought most community history was deathly boring, and used to accuse me of writing it when I had produced something leaden. It got me thinking, and now I edit so much of it, I have to think more. So, a few insights from recent voyages in editing, and some general points from a long career reading community history.

When writing history

  • What matters is the story, so find it. Don’t tell us it is remarkable or important or tragic; show us that it was by setting the context.
  • Don’t do “this happened and then, and then, and then” history. Think in themes, not chronologies. Don’t be afraid to start your story somewhere other than in the beginning.
  • Never say “something was done”. Always tell us who did it. This is called writing in the active voice but it’s not just a grammar technique. Explaining who did what to whom puts the energy, heart and meaning into your story. The mine did not close. The government closed the mine. The workers were not sacked. The boss sacked them.
  • Never try to put yourself into people’s minds or insert thoughts in their heads or words in their mouths. Focus only on what they said, and what you can know about what they did. If they said one thing and did another, point that out, but never say “they must have thought …”

When writing (even a short) biography

  • Don’t tell us they were important/remarkable/amazing. Show us they were, by setting them in context and framing the times they lived in and their place within them.
  • You are writing about a person, so write about their personal life and their personality. It matters. This is particularly important from a feminist/other point of view. It’s important to ask not only how a subject’s personal life affected their actions and emotional wellbeing and capacities. It matters and we need to ask these fundamental questions about women and men.
  • Ask yourself in what ways your subject was awful and why they were like that (without putting your words into their mouths). Be really honest about these things and about how they shaped the person’s life and actions.
  • Then, ask yourself why you like them and be honest about that. Remember, you have an agenda too. What is it?

When writing history in Australia

  • Don’t forget this is Aboriginal land. Always was, always will be. Find out about the people whose land it was and is.
  • And, because of this, every single person who has come here since 1788 was a migrant. You can think of them in waves: Anglo-Irish, Europeans, Chinese, post-war displaced persons, Indo-Chinese, etc, but you must always think of migration as a continuum. We are a migrant country.

And finally, be kind to your reader. They don’t always know what you know, so make sure you give them a few words that will help them understand just why the cool thing you are telling them is so very cool.

Then, when you are finished, give it to a nice editor and let them knock those rough edges off, and hope your readers enjoy it.

New South Wales and the Great War is launched, and for sale!

In front of a portrait of George III at Government House, with my beautiful son, after the launch.

New South Wales and the Great War was launched by His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d), Governor of New South Wales, at Government House on 9 November 2016. He was very kind about it and his speech is here. It was rather amazing to sit there and listen (intently) while our book took on a life of its own.

The book was a headline project for the New South Wales Centenary of Anzac Committee, and their press release is here. Proceeds will go towards the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. You can also buy it from the State Library’s online bookshop and from Gleebooks for $35.

New South Wales and the Great War

fullsizerender-3I have received an advance copy of this, my first book, and I am pleased to say it’s going to be launched by the Governor of New South Wales, The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d), at Government House on 9 November 2016, with Lieutenant General Kenneth James “Ken” Gillespie AC, DSC, CSM, who is the chair of the NSW Centenary of Anzac Committee. I and my co-authors, Brad Manera, Will Davies and Stephen Garton, will all be signing copies in advance and the book will be sold through Dymocks.

On a more personal note, here’s some images of a historian getting her first book in her hands.

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Little treasures

‘Oxidised silver plated badge with real enamel’. Amor Ltd, 1918. State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary’s Special Bundles, NRS906, 5/5341.1

Archival research is one of the best things about being a historian. Although it usually involves inhumane levels of reading on microfilm, every now and again we get to don gloves and rifle through piles of old letters. Most of the archival material I’ve looked at for NSW and the Great War is old and little-used so remains in its original bundles. And sometimes those bundles contain tiny, overlooked objects.

These are badges, made as samples by WJ Amor of Amor Ltd, Newcastle, for Australia Day on 26 April 1918. They were tucked into one of the Colonial Secretary’s Special Bundles (NRS 906, Australia Day Red Cross Appeal, 5/5341.1) and were in amongst letters about race meetings, fund-raising and other issues that mattered on the day when the whole country stopped to raise money for the Australian Red Cross Society to help Australian soldiers. When I found them I was very excited – an excitement shared by my colleagues in State Records NSW, which owns these little treasures.

During the Great War ‘Australia Day’ was a day of pageantry and fund-raising that had nothing to do with the arrival of the First Fleet. Dreamed up by a Manly woman, Mrs Ellen Wharton-Kirke, who had four sons at the front and wanted to raise money for the Australian Red Cross Society, the concept was taken over by the NSW Government, who got expatriate American theatre entrepreneur Hugh Ward to organise it. It ended up being a nationwide event, was a roaring success, and became a feature of the fund-raising calendar from 1915 to 1918.

I like to think these little badges were made and adorned the patriotic breasts of Australians on 26 April 1918. I wonder if anyone has one?

My favourite place, Lockleys Pylon

DoS logoI’ve written a new piece for The Dictionary of Sydney on my favourite walk in the Blue Mountains, the path to Lockleys Pylon. It’s part of the lovely Blue Mountains Icons Project, which has been supported by Blue Mountains City of the Arts Grants and Varuna, the National Writers House. This project supported the writing of essays by John Low on Darwin’s Walk, Mark O’Flynn on Varuna, Julian Leatherdale on the Hydro Majestic and my dear friend Delia Falconer on Echo Point. It’s a privilege to be in company with such distinguished authors, and I’m looking forward to talking about the project with them and the City Historian, Dr Lisa Murray, at Varuna’s Writer’s Festival event on Monday 16 May.

Quick thoughts on writers’ block

State Records NSW, NRS9055_7442-16_40328
State Records NSW, NRS9055_7442-16_40328

I’ve been tangled up writing about home front dissent during the Great War – the peace movement, the International Workers of the World, socialists, feminists and other anti-conscriptionists, and I’ve been thinking about what it is that leads one to get tangled up, as I have at various stages as I work through the drafts of NSW and the Great War.

Here’s what I think. It’s hardest to write about things we know best or feel the most strongly about. How to cover all that we know and love in just a few words? But these are the words we really must write. We spur ourselves on, telling ourselves that no one else can talk about these things the way we can, that it is a duty and a mission, and end up putting so much pressure on ourselves we can barely breathe. Creating is hard, because you are constantly staring at the gulf between what you want it to be, what it needs to be, and what it currently is. The joy comes when you manage to cast a slender rope over that gulf, and start to think you might have the beginnings of a swing bridge and that, one day, you’ll let people walk along it.

Sydney Writer’s Festival Varuna Programme


It’s pretty exciting to be able to announce that I’m going to be on Varuna’s programme for the 2016 Sydney Writer’s Festival. With Delia Falconer, John Low, Julian Leatherdale and Mark O’Flynn, I was selected to write a piece for the Dictionary of Sydney and Varuna on Blue Mountains icons, as part of a Blue Mountains City of the Arts project. We’ve all been fellows of Varuna at one time and another and it’s been a big part of my life so it’s lovely to be able to do this.

I’ll be able to tell link to the piece when it’s published on The Dictionary of Sydney but I hope you’ll come and see us speak. I’ll be at the Carrington Hotel on Monday, 16 May, at 3pm. We’ll be there with the likes of Magda Szubanski, Tegan Bennett-Daylight, Charlotte Wood and Mireille Juchau if you need more reasons to go!