Australia and how to find it

(Extract from my forthcoming book on a Pom’s view of Australia)

In 1855, at the height of the Australian goldrush, a man named Henry Capper produced a pamphlet, price 6d, entitled The Australian Colonies: where they are and how to get to them. 

Title page

He advised readers to buy a map, ‘look at the right hand lower corner, and there will be seen a very large island – the largest in the world – this is Australia, or as it was called in former days, New Holland . . . New South Wales  can be found on the east coast, or right hand side of the map, is larger than the kingdom of Portugal.’

He described the general layout of the continent, its weather (‘seasons are reversed’), its topography (‘If it is allowed that only one half of Australia is good land, that will yet be twelve times as large as the whole of England, Scotland and Ireland) its wildlife, including snakes (‘not many, few venomous‘) and insects (‘mosquitoes and ants numerous and troublesome‘), and in particular – bearing in mind his expected readership – the fact that the country, especially Victoria and New South Wales, was rich in minerals.

Apart from the snakes his description was remarkably accurate. He also outlined the type of person who was eligible for ‘assisted migration’, viz: ‘The industrious, sober, healthy of the following classes: female servants,  bakers,  butchers, brickmakers,  bricklayers . . .’ While ‘The class of person not wanted . . . are clerks, shop men,  artists,  schoolmasters, lawyers, doctors, workmen in the finer arts . . .’ unless they were prepared to work as labourers. Likewise with the women, ‘governesses, milliners, dressmakers, and any females who are not of the labouring classes are not wanted’. Which explains why virtually all my Australian antecedents – with the notable exceptions of my pioneer Australian emigrée Mary Pitt, and my good self – were ‘unassisted migrants’: they paid their own way because they did not pursue ‘useful’ professions. (The fact that in the late 1960s I was allowed to migrate to Australia for ten pounds despite the fact that I was an actress – hardly an under-subscribed profession – shows how such things have changed through the years.)

Australia on the map

Most 21st century Europeans probably have a rough idea where Australia is these days, but the country still rarely features in British consciousness, except when it comes to sport, and cricket in particular of course. This is partly because it is by and large a peaceful place that is not trying to extricate itself from a complex partnership with its neighbours, is not governed by a xenophobic racist, is not currently suffering from famine or civil war, and has never been invaded (except, notably, by the Europeans back in 1788, which is a whole other story that very few Brits are familiar with).

Globally it ranks below Canada in influence and power. Culturally it is not necessarily recognised as being in the top rank – not because Australia lacks culture, but because so much of the best of it doesn’t travel, simply because it is uniquely Australian. But whereas Aussies will happily sit in front of quintessentially British TV exports such as Monarch of the Glen or Fawlty Towers (or even, God help us, Midsomer Murders), the Australian equivalent rarely seems to hit our television screens. And whose fault is that?

the-legend-of-king-omalley-seymour-centre.jpg
The Legend of King O’Malley (Seymour Centre)

One of the most memorable shows I have ever seen in the theatre, still in my consciousness fifty years later, is The Legend of King O’Malley – a gloriously irreverent take-off of the man (an American as it happened) who ‘created Canberra’. More recently there was ‘Keating!’, an equally hilarious piss-take of the rise and fall of the ex Labor (sic) prime minister. To my knowledge neither of these shows has been produced outside Australia.

The Boy from Oz, a musical based on Peter Allen, singer-songwriter and, briefly, husband of Liza Minelli, ran on Broadway but never reached London. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet had a brief run at the National Theatre here (which I missed because the performance I booked for was cancelled – due, I later learned from my Australian brother, to the fact that the leading actor had broken his ankle in a cricket match between the cast and the British crew); and the Sydney Theatre Company’s miraculous The Secret River, adapted by playwright Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s Booker Prize nominated book – which I saw in a quarry near Adelaide a year ago, one of the most memorable nights I’ve ever spent at the theatre (see here) – again has never been seen outside Australia. Our Country’s  Good on the other hand, adapted from the Thomas Keneally book by (UK-based American) playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, premiered here at the Royal Court Theatre and has been revived on several occasions, the most recent in my experience at the National Theatre; where, confusingly, many of the white British invaders were played by black actors, and the token Aboriginal narrator told his story in what I can only describe as RADA English.

Our Country's Good NT 2
NT poster

As for television – when did you last see an Australian production on prime time British TV? Yes they do exist, but again the landmark series of recent years, Redfern Now, which tells separate stories of Aboriginal families living in a suburb of Sydney, has not yet appeared on our terrestrial channels, and why not? (It is available on Netflix, watch it if you can.) Whereas Banished, about the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, notable for its total lack of Aboriginal characters, and like Redfern Now the brainchild of Liverpool’s Jimmy McGovern, was shown on BBC2 and dismissed out of hand by viewers and critics on both sides of the world. (It never made it to a second series as a result.)

Ali G, aka Sacha Baron Cohen – famous in the UK and I imagine in Australia – was not the first dim-witted character to conduct mock interviews with famous people. Norman Gunston, aka actor Garry McDonald, was doing exactly that back in the 1970s. (Clips of his shows can be seen on YouTube.)

Twenty Twelve (bbc.co.uk)
Twenty Twelve (bbc.co.uk)

Nor was Twenty Twelve, the much-loved BBC ‘mockumentary’ about the leadup to the Olympics, a British invention. The Aussies did it twelve years earlier, with The Games (never seen on British TV). The makers of The Games not surprisingly accused the BBC of plagiarism, which they, not surprisingly, denied.

 

The Games (theaustralian.com.au)
The Games (theaustralian.com.au)

Co-creator and lead actor (the late) John Clarke described himself on his website as running ‘a charitable institute supplying formats to British television’.
(From https://mrjohnclarke.com/projects/the-games, cited on Wikipedia.)

So there we are. Australia is a much more inventive, interesting, and above all different place than Brits give it credit for. There are some great stories to be told, but meanwhile we in the UK have to put up with endless cop series featuring down-at-heel, harrassed female DIs and more reruns of Scandi Noir (nothing against them but they are all looking a bit the same now).

Just saying.

Patsy Trench
London, June 2018

patsytrench@gmail.com 

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The family historian

She sits alone, in her kitchen, or her bedroom, or maybe even in her office. Just her and the computer, a desk and a pile of books. Shoulders ridiculously hunched, nose almost touching the screen, as if her breath alone can conjure magic out of those search engines. If she’s lucky she’ll have a relatively unusual surname, though thanks to the traditional family habit of naming offspring after themselves she’ll have a merry time figuring out James senior from James junior and James junior junior. She spends a good deal of time sighing, and occasionally swearing and muttering to herself, and wondering whose idea it was in the first place to set off down this endless, foggy path into her family history.

It doesn’t help to know it was her idea, and that no one ever forced her to do this, or pressured her to keep going, or let’s face it, gives a hoot one way or another.

The one thing she knows is she will never give up: despite the outside world’s indifference, the loneliness and the frustration and the thought of all those other things she could usefully be doing with her life, such as earning a living, or volunteering, or improving her house. This is not a hobby so much as an addiction.

On occasion,  as a treat,  she will don her hat and gloves and trot into town to visit the library. This is a real day out: lofty surroundings, special, even rare books, carefully selected and placed reverentially on the desk in front of her.

Hours later and they’re switching off the lights and metaphorically putting the chairs on the tables. She blinks into the daylight and forces herself with difficulty back into the 21st century. It’s not until she gets home and looks through her notes that she realises,  really, how little of value she’s managed to discover in all that time. Except. Except. You never know. Nothing is ever wasted, except time.

Now and again the miraculous happens. After hours rummaging through Trove, hunting, hunting, revising the search terms, ignoring the creeping feelings of despair,  the ticking clock and the rumble of a stomach deprived of nourishment, she has a Eureka moment: a genuine find, a nugget of new information, an explanation of a puzzle only she was ever aware of. This is her very own piece of solid gold. So what if her excitement is out of all proportion to the size of the piece of the jigsaw.  It is one small step on the way to the filling in of the puzzle, the lifting of the fog.

Now and again she will receive a message from a stranger, a distant relative who’s found her on the internet. And they will share their knowledge and findings, and the puzzle will become a little more complete and for a short glorious moment she will know she is not alone.

She is in her own way a hero. Unsung, unrecognized, but a hero nonetheless.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Coming soon:

A Country Kindle

Book two  in the Pitt family saga.

 

 

Charles Dickens and Australia

As part of my researches into my great-great-grandad George Matcham Pitt, I was scrolling through Trove looking for information on an Aboriginal man named ‘Fryingpan’ – who had been accused and convicted of spearing a cow on my ancestor’s property on the Gwydir  – when I came upon what looked like a first-hand account of the trial written by none other than Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens (independent.co.uk)
Charles Dickens (independent.co.uk)

Wow, I thought, what a coup. What family historian isn’t thrilled at the thought of direct connections with famous people?

The trial took place at Maitland Assizes in 1842. To be precise, the only man tried that day – for some reason the writer wasn’t aware of, Fryingpan, while in court, did not enter the dock – was Fryingpan’s friend The Duke of Wellington (these monikers presumably bestowed on them by convicts), also accused of spearing a cow. The writer gave a vivid description of the defendant with his ‘coarse-matted’ shoulder-length hair, bright expressive eyes and a mouth ‘enough for two faces’. It took some pushing and shoving to get him into the dock apparently, and then, the writer went on:

‘When fairly confronted with Sir James [the judge], a violent grin broke out half-round Wellington’s head, evidently caused by his Honor’s wig, bands, and red gown, on which the savage’s eyes seemed to be fastened with a fascinated stare. Nor did he, in his unsophisticated nature, attempt to conceal the emotion excited within him; for, notwithstanding the additional gravity laid on by the judge for the occasion, the joke appeared to improve so much in the black man’s mind that at last he laughed outright. Moreover he seemed to grin a kind of circular invitation to all the people in Court to join in the laugh with him. He grinned the rebukeful countenance of the Sheriff into such a state, that that solemn officer of justice was obliged to turn his face away, and discharge a short private laugh of his own. He grinned at the counsel and the crowd, until giggling became irrepressible, and even the countenance of the Chief Justice, who had a keen perception of the ludicrous, was becoming rapidly unmanageable.’

Eventually things calmed down and the trial was under way. Wellington, through an interpreter, claimed the evidence against him was ‘a pack of lies’, but unfortunately his plea was contradicted by several witnesses and he was found guilty and transported for ten years to Van Diemen’s Land. He was led from the court still grinning, ‘as if he had got to the end of a pleasant entertainment’.

The writer, while enjoying the spectacle, and disregarding his use of the word ‘savage’, was on reflection appalled and dismayed. What right do we have, he wrote, to submit ‘this poor child of nature’ to ‘an English court of justice, mock his ignorance with a jargon of law forms, and conclude by tearing him from his hunting grounds, his wife, and little children, for ten years?’

The tone of the piece, the humour and the empathy and understanding of what it meant for an Aboriginal man to be stripped of everything he had ever known, sounded pure Dickens to me. The Trove article appeared in the Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer in 5th September 1919, and clearly the newspaper thought the same. It didn’t take me long however to discover that Dickens himself never actually visited Australia, even though it featured in several of his books in one way or another, and he sent two of his sons there (about whom more at another time). The original article, Going Circuit at the Antipodes, appeared in Household Words – which called itself a Journal ‘conducted’ by Dickens – in 1852, and like all the other contributions, there was no author credited.

Household Words-1
Household Words (googlebooks.com)

So who was the mystery writer?

A bit more research turned up a book compiled by a Canadian writer called Anne Lohri (available in the fabulous British Library), in which she lists all the contributors to Household Words . It transpired the writer was a “London barrister” and part-time journalist called Archibald Michie, who’d arrived in Sydney a few years earlier and had been invited to attend the court by an Australian lawyer friend.

Anti-climax? Well yes and no. The fact that the writer was not Dickens does not make it any less noteworthy as an account, by an outsider, of how colonial law dealt with Aboriginal wrongdoers. And anyway, Dickens thought nothing apparently of taking a story sent to him and ‘playing with it until it was practically rewritten’ (according to Coral Lansbury, JRAHS, Vol 52 part 2, 1966).

The one thing it does do is throw up the pros and cons of trying to write a book about family history: getting sidetracked by famous people makes the exercise both all the more fascinating and all the more endless. Publication date? Don’t mention it.

Patsy Trench, London, June 2017

 

 

 

My five favourite books

In what she describes as a ‘Five Faves Geneameme’ Jill Ball of Geniaus, the Australian family history blog, has invited other family history bloggers to share details of five books they’ve found most useful in their ‘geneactivities’. (Enough puns already … )

So here, whittled down with great difficulty and in no particular order, are my chosen inspirations:

 

Australia, Frank Welsh (cropped)  Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, by Frank Welsh (The Overlook Press, New York, 2006)

Since my books are set very much in the context of early colonial Australia I needed to gen up on my history. This book is not just all-encompassing, it looks at Australia in the context of a larger colonial world. It’s also very readable and has a nice, wry take on historical events, which I really like. 

 Station Life, Peter Taylor Next on the list is Station Life in Australia by Peter Taylor (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988)

Also very readable, with some wonderful anecdotes about the New Chums in early colonial Australia. (The ‘New Chum’ was the Pom who arrived fresh-faced and dewy-eyed and ready to make his fortune on the land without knowing a horse from a heifer; a bit like me.) Essential introduction to a subject I knew nothing about.

 The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

Eleanor Dark was doing in the 1940s what other writers such as Kate Grenville don’t dare to do in the 21st century, which is to write about events such as the arrival of the First Fleet from the point of  view of Aboriginal people. In fact she writes from the point of view of everyone, from Governor Phillip to convicts and settlers, evenly-handedly and with great perception and understanding. The Timeless Land is book one in a novel trilogy.

 Macquarie Country, D J Bowd cropped

 

Macquarie Country by D G Bowd, (Library of Australian History, 1979)

I had to include this one. It’s about the Hawkesbury – where my ancestors made their first home in New South Wales in 1802 – in the days of Governor Macquarie. It even features my family, who were visited by the governor and his lady wife soon after they arrived in the colony. Full of vivid and useful detail about the earlier days of settlement.

 Old Days Old Ways, Mary Gilmore

 

In her memoir Old Days, Old Ways (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934) Mary Gilmore was actually writing about her childhood in the Riverina district in the latter part of the 19th century, where she was brought up. The book is a cornucopia of intricate and sometimes hilarious social history; such as the rope that was strung across the room during the Wagga Wagga Gold Cup ball in order to segregate the ‘grandees’ from the ‘commonage’; and the way in which ladies riding horses in crinolines wore weights in their hems in order that their ankles should remain hidden from the gentlemen. Like Eleanor Dark she writes with great humanity and understanding and, crucially, humour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you write? – The power of negative motivation

So, dear writer, what is your answer to this question?

sketch reduced
Sketch by Anna de Polnay

I expect many people will say ‘Because I have to’ or ‘Because I’ve always done it/wanted to write’ or even ‘I feel I have something to say’. Some might actually confess they enjoy writing. (Weird, but possible.) Some non fiction writers are probably motivated by a passionate interest in a subject, a place, or maybe even themselves and their own story.

My answer to the question is a rather negative one: ‘To fill the void’. Or to put it another way, because I had nothing better to do.

I’m not being entirely disingenuous. If you’ve ever felt the need or the urge to express yourself in a creative way then nothing else will give you the proper fix. Writing books is one of the most purely creative ways of expression – it’s just you and the page, or the screen, with no one telling you what to do or, to put it another way, trying to curb your creativity. If this is indulgence so be it, but it’s not an easy option to say the least.

I once earned a living writing scripts for television. I really wanted to be a playwright but having spent many years reading and commenting on other writers’ plays I couldn’t find any ideas that I could make work on a stage. I never saw myself as a writer of books partly because it is an impossible way to make a living and partly because, yes, I confess it, I’m not much of a reader. I’d rather watch a play or a film, no question.

But when I hit my sixties and I gave in my part-time job I didn’t know what to do with myself. Too old to be employed, all I had to keep wolf from door was bits and pieces of teaching and theatre tour organising and a small state pension. So I decided to do two complementary things: let my flat and go off to the far side of the world to write a book about my ancestors, the former paying for the latter.

And it worked. It took me several years, and a lot of hard work and learning. In my first effort at writing a scene set in late 18th century Dorset I had one character crossing his legs four times without ever having uncrossed them, ending up therefore as a corkscrew. As an (ex) actor and would-be playwright I could handle the dialogue, within reason, but had terrible trouble with the bits in between; where in a play you can simply write ‘pause’ or even ‘silence’ or at a pinch ‘beat’, in a book you’ve got to have your character do something, and I still find that tricky (hence the corkscrew legs). Not to mention the ‘she saids’ and ‘he saids’.

George Matcham (Illustrated London News 10 October 1931, p573) bl newspaper archives-page-001
George Matcham, family member, the man who crossed his legs

But along the way I discovered a passion, which simply put is – for finding things out and writing about them in (what I hope is) an entertaining way. The topic in my case was early Australian colonial history, as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, about which and whom I knew nothing and cared less. The first is not a disadvantage because part of the process of writing about what you don’t know is discovering things you find interesting and then finding a way to convey your interest to other people. The caring naturally follows. Or if it doesn’t, then look for another topic.

So what was once a void has now been filled to bursting point with what has become a passion and an addiction. Twelve years later I am halfway through book two of my Australian ancestors, still struggling with the bits between the dialogue and the he saids and she saids, but still engrossed in the business of learning about, in this case, Australian agricultural practices in the 19th century and trying to make it interesting.

It hasn’t earned me a living, needless to say. I’m not even sure that I’ve broken even. Truthfully speaking when asked my profession I should say ‘landlady’. But hard work though it is it gives me a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction, not least to know that in my seventies I am still learning things; and that, who knows, one or two people out there may also discover something as a result of my efforts.

So there’s my answer to my own question. I’d be interested to hear yours.

The Secret River

Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.

20170309_114322
Nathaniel Dean (Thornhill) and Ningali Lawford Wolf (Dhirrumbin); Adelaide Festival programme

It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.

Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.

The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.

The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.

Secret River
Theatre backdrop (photo by Tony Trench)

I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the Worldwere granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.

The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia

Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.

*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.

Writing about what you don’t know (2)

Writing about droving and farming in 19th century Australia from a flat in north London?

… is quite a challenge, believe me, especially when the writer barely knows a heifer from a ewe.

sheep-droving
Sheep droving, after a fashion. (Yes, I have been on an Aussie farm)

I first blogged on this topic a year ago; I was about to embark on my latest oeuvre about my great great grandfather, who was a pioneer farmer and stock and station agent in remote 19th cenury New South Wales. I’d been putting it off thinking this is completely beyond me, but then I was reminded that that is precisely what I said about my first book The Worst Country in the World, about my original Australian ancestress.

G M portrait
George Matcham Pitt, my great grandfather

I am not saying I have cracked it, but there are positive advantages to writing about unfamiliar topics, and the most obvious one is:

If you can take an unfamiliar subject about which you know nothing and find it interesting, then it should be possible to make it interesting to your readers.

We’ve all picked up a newspaper or maybe glanced at someone’s blog and found ourselves drawn in to a topic we didn’t think we had any interest in. It’s called good writing of course.

cows
These are cows

There’s another advantage: whatever I’m writing about there is no pretence. I am looking at things like cattle droving for instance with the fascinated and sometimes bemused eye of the outsider. Do cattle really behave like that? What do you mean all sheep are not the same?

rabbit-proof-fence
Rabbit fence

To see what I mean take a look at my chapter on The Drover. I’d be interested in your comments.

Patsy Trench
London, 2016

patsytrench@gmail.com

Keeping a diary

If Shakespeare had kept a diary there would arguably be far fewer books written about him.

shakespeare-2

If we knew for instance

  • What he got up to during the ‘missing years’
  • How he got to leave his home in Stratford and fetch up as an actor/playwright in London
  • How much of the 37 plays he actually wrote
  • Whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or someone else
  • Who the Dark Lady of the sonnets was
  • Whether or not he got on with his wife
  • Etc etc etc

We wouldn’t need to endlessly speculate. And it would not be half as much fun.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

What will people say about you when you’re gone? 

Diary-less ancestors tend to be remembered for what they did rather than what they might have said. Or rather for what they did that made the public records. So we are likely to know more about men than women, especially if they played a prominent part in society. We may also know more about the ones who got into trouble, and the ones with police records, especially if they ended up in Australia.

silhouette-sepia-again
Who was Mary Pitt?

As a family historian I’d have given anything for my ancestors to have kept diaries so I knew exactly why my four times great grandmother decided to emigrate to a penal colony. 

On the other hand lacking the facts gives one scope for one’s imagination; so what would have been a case of simple transcribing becomes something rather more creative. The challenge of filling in the gaps while remaining as true as possible to the character you think your four times great grandmother was, for instance, is a fascinating one. 

A certain amount of mystery is no bad thing.

If you want to read the story of my pioneering Australian ancestress please click here: The Worst Country in the World.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Who was Claudia Faraday?

brown-flipped-smaller
Claudia Faraday?

Claudia kept a detailed diary of a crucial period in her life when she made a discovery that altered her entire outlook on life and on the people in it. The fact that she kept this diary in her loft, to be discovered by generations to come, suggests to me she wanted them to be found, and to be published.

Nonetheless such was the intimate nature of the diary I went to great lengths to protect her reputation by not just changing her name but the names, and some details, of her daughters and her friends, and a few other bits and pieces beside.

So I defy anyone to identify her.

If you’d like to read her story click here: The Unlikely Adventures of Claudia Faraday.

Have you kept a diary?

I have, from time to time. It makes for hilarious and sometimes embarrassing reading. It is also a handy reminder of the person you once used to be, and if you think – as I often have  – you are still an eighteen-year-old wrapped up in a middle-aged woman’s body, it is good to be reminded that, actually, you aren’t.

But I wouldn’t want anyone to read them, no way. Unlike Claudia I will make a point of destroying them before I pop my clogs.

 

Chasing Asylum

A few years ago while refugees were risking their lives on the Mediterranean Australia’s then Prime Minister Tony Abbott swept in to put us to rights and tell us Europeans the problem could be solved with three words: Stop the boats.

chasing-asylum-government-poster
Australian government poster

After all that’s exactly what he had done, and his predecessor Kevin Rudd, and look how successful they’d been. By telling the refugees in no uncertain terms that no one trying to reach Australia illegally would be allowed to settle there, they were saving the lives of untold hundreds from drowning, he said. Then just to make it quite clear, those who still tried to make the journey were to be intercepted and transferred to detention centres in remote islands in the Pacific – Nauru and Manus Island – in such terrible conditions that they’d be sure to return home, and to spread the word there that trying to seek asylum in Australia was a waste of time.

Abbott’s response to being told he was breaching United Nations law was ‘I’m sick of the United Nations telling me what to do.’ The only sign that the Australian government are not 100% proud of their policy is that the detention centres are a dark secret. Not only are journalists prohibited from visiting them, anyone caught whistleblowing could face two years in gaol.

Despite this, filmmaker Eva Orner managed to smuggle cameras in to expose the degradation, deprivation and despair of the men, women and children in these detention centres. She also managed to get social workers and others who’ve worked there, most of them young, to tell their story and risk being detained themselves. To date, unsurprisingly, nobody has yet been imprisoned for spilling the beans. Her film Chasing Asylum was screened this morning in London as part of the London Film Festival. It presents its story without comment – other than from past Prime Ministers and Ministers of Immigration. It sings the praises of the late Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser, who was responsible for welcoming Vietnamese boat people back in the ’70s and who right up until the day he died still campaigned for a more humanitarian attitude towards the less lucky in the world. After all what is Australia but a country of immigration?

chasing-asylum-guardian
theguardian.com

It doesn’t pay to be too complacent however, not if you live in Britain. By accident of geography the refugee crisis doesn’t hit us like it does the rest of Europe and North Africa. Perhaps the brave and talented (and Oscar-winning) Ms Orner could turn her attention next to Calais.

Family History – the Eureka moment

As any family historian knows, we live for these breakthrough moments, but they come along very rarely.

Mary Aull (Johnson) absconded cropped
The Colonist, 6 February 1839

My three times great grandmother was a convict called Mary Moore, transported to New South Wales in 1808 for 7 years for stealing items valued at  £1.15s.6d. A few years after her first husband – my three times great grandfather – died she married again, another convict, Irish this time, called Robert Aull, and took her four children to live with him and his five children in Richmond, where he bought the license for a pub on what they called  the “Yellow Munday’s” (Yarramundi) Lagoon, which he named the General Darling.

As tended to happen in those days once she married Mary disappeared from the records. She had appeared in a previous census as a shopkeeper, but from the date of her marriage in 1829 she vanished off the apparent face of the earth. Two niggles stopped me from thinking she lived happily ever after with her new hubby: the 1841 census – where she did not appear to be living with him – and the fact that she was buried in the name of Mary Johnson, after her first marriage.

I was searching for Robert Aull in Trove – the Australian digitised newspaper website – and had got to the stage where all that was cropping up were the odd Robert and ‘aull’ in place of ‘all’ when Eureka: I came upon the notice, inserted in The Colonist three times and The Sydney Morning Herald once by her hubby, announcing her sudden and obviously unwelcome departure from the family home. I’ve no idea where she went, but the tone of the ‘advertisement’, as that is what it was, makes it very clear Robert was not pleased; worse, he makes her sound like a runaway convict, or even a stolen cow, threatening anyone found ‘harbouring’ her.

The moral of the tale is keep looking: even when you think you’ve exhausted the records there may just be a nugget of gold awaiting you.