Saturday, December 12, 2015

Instances of the Number 3

When working on the FutureLearn course on Hans Christian Andersen recently we were asked to consider the author's use of numbers in many of his stories, particularly the numbers 3 and 7. In the discussion on the forum this book by English novelist, Salley Vickers, was mentioned so I decided to borrow it from the library.

Peter Hansome is married to Bridget but also has a mistress, Frances. Both of the women know about the existence of the other but are not aware that Peter is on his way to visit another woman when he dies in a car accident. The book explores the lives of Bridget and Frances as they form a friendship of sorts after Peter's death. It looks at relationships and love and has as a major theme the need to know and understand oneself. Bridget loves the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of John Donne and quotes from their writings appear throughout the novel. Frances works in a gallery and there are also references to art. The story primarily revolves around incidents during the first year after Peter's death but there are also descriptions of events that occurred before he died. Other characters appearing in the lives of the two women are Zahin -a friend of Peter's, Painter - a friend of Frances, Mickey - Bridget's neighbour and Stan - a friend of Bridget. Throughout the book there are discussions on religion (unknown to his wife, Peter had converted to Catholicism) and forgiveness. From time to time Peter's ghost appears observing the lives of the people he loved as they continue living without him.

This is a book that I wanted to continue to read. Although I worked out part of the plot before the outcome was revealed, it did not detract from my wanting to read the book to the end. I shall certainly look out for more books by Salley Vickers.

The cover of the edition of the book I read showed the Three Graces - part of the painting La Primavera by Botticelli.

Old Hobart Town and environs 1802-1855

Carolyn R Stone and Pamela Tyson collected selections from official reports and accounts of the settlement of Hobart which have been published with a collection of maps and early drawings and paintings depicting the new settlement. This volume, published in 1978, provides valuable information about the establishment of Hobart Town from the initial colony led by David Collins in 1804 until the end of transportation in 1853 and obtaining self government in 1855.

The first members of my family to live in Tasmania arrived from Norfolk Island in 1805. Consequently it is interesting to read the accounts of what the settlement would have been like when George Guest and his family arrived and how the town developed. Thomas William Birch arrived in the colony in 1808 and prospered as a merchant and land owner. In 1834 the merchant, George Mackillop, brought his family to Hobart Town and lived there for approximately six years before returning to the UK. Simeon Lord junior arrived in Tasmania in 1826, initially to look after some of his father's interests in the colony until developing his own enterprises in the state. Recently I was in Hobart for a week where I spent as much time as I could exploring the area where my ancestors once lived. It has therefore been interesting to read these early accounts comparing the descriptions in the book with the city of today.

I found looking at the maps and illustrations fascinating and there is also a select bibliography listing further reading. Hopefully I will find some of these titles in the State Library. All in all this book is a good introduction for anyone interested in the establishment of European settlement in Hobart.

Friday, December 11, 2015

World War I a history in 100 stories

In April / May this year Monash University ran an online course via FutureLearn. The course was World War I a history in 100 stories and it was also repeated later in the year. During the course we looked at stories illustrating the effects of war on participants and their families. The stories studied were short versions taken from a selection of 100 stories, researched by Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, which have now been published in one volume.

Collectively the chosen stories portray the effects of war. However, as noted in the introduction, the collection is not truly representative, in a statistical sense, of the possible stories that could be told. The authors have perhaps over represented the stories of nurses and Indigenous Australians as these stories have often previously been under represented in other collections.

As well as looking at the direct effects of war, including death or being wounded, the stories look at lasting effects of war, both physically and mentally, as those returning from war tried to readjust to civilian life. Some did not succeed. Mourning and commemoration are themes examined in some of the stories.The work of women as nurses and in other support roles are also recorded in the book.

The book is illustrated and at the end of each section there is a section: Sources and Further Reading. These are only some of the stories that could be told about the effects of war on Australian and New Zealand families. The stories have been compiled from official records, other material in archives, newspapers and, in some cases, information from family members. The book is a welcome addition to the growing collection of material on Australia and World War I.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hadrian's Wall

Newcastle University (UK) prepared an online course about Hadrian's Wall built by the Romans around 122 AD as a frontier to mark the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain. The six week course is one of the many online courses to be found on the FutureLearn website -

The structure known as Hadrian's Wall is not just a wall built across Britain but it also contained a series of forts, milecastles, turrets, outposts and watch stations. This complex not only housed one of the largest concentrations of Roman soldiers in the empire but also supported a large cosmopolitan civilian population. It is therefore not just a study of buildings but also of the diverse frontier communities living beside the Wall. The course looks at surviving sources from the Roman period as well investigating archaeological skills and methods used to investigate the past. The background to the building of Hadrian's Wall includes a study of the life of the people living in the area before the Wall was built, the arrival of the Romans and the building of the first outposts culminating with the actual building of the Wall. The organisation of the Roman army and what it was like being a members of such an organisation is explored as well as the interplay between soldiers and civilians two thousand years ago. Ritual and religion is another theme. The Romans were in Britain for around four hundred years so the course also looks at the later part of their time in the country and then explores what happened after the Romans left Britain and how subsequent generations tried to understand the Wall.

In one section of the course we looked at the use of geophysics (resistivity, ground penetrating radar and magnetrometry) to explore what is beneath the ground. The example used is investigations carried out at Maryport on the west coast of England just south of the Wall. We visited this area on one of our trips to the UK and had walked around one of the fields being discussed in the course so it was fascinating to see some of the results of the investigation of the area. Some of the stones from Roman buildings could be seen in the ground in the area we explored.
Another part of the course looks at some of the altars discovered at Maryport in the nineteenth century. During the past four years archaeological excavations have been undertaken in part of the grounds surrounding the museum.
I found a number of books about this period of British history in local  libraries.

Hadrian's Wall by Derry Brabbs (2008) - a detailed, illustrated study of Hadrian's Wall following its path from the west coast to Wallsend on the Tyne River. The illustrations in the book, as well as the text, provide the reader with a view of the area today as well as an understanding as to how it may have been 2000 years ago.

Journey to Britannia: from the heart of Rome to Hadrian's Wall AD 130 by Bronwen Riley (2015) - the author imagines a journey from Rome to Britain via Gaul then through Roman Britain to Hadrian's Wall. Places visited include London, Silchester, Bath, Caerleon and Wroxeter. An interesting introduction to life to life in the Roman Empire.

Roman Britain: a new story by Guy de la Bedoyere (2013) - an illustrated account of the Roman occupation of Britain. This book uses archaeological finds and sites to explain the impact of the Romans in Britain and life in Britain at this time.

The Wall: Rome's greatest frontier by Alaistair Moffat (2008) also published as an ebook in 2012 - a history of Roman Britain in general but the book includes chapters on Hadrian's Wall describing the building of the wall as well as the effects of the Wall on the people already living in the area.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a series of children's books about the Romans in Britain. The story of The Eagle of the Ninth revolves about the Ninth Legion which mysteriously disappeared in the area near Hadrians' Wall.
Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)  
Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles (2010) - as well as Eagle of the Ninth (1954) this work contains two other books,  The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959).

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Hans Christian Andersen

Most of us have memories of stories told to us when we were children that were written by Hans Christian Andersen. Some of these include The Ugly Duckling, The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina, The Emperor's New Clothes to name a few of the fairy tales written by this Danish writer in the nineteenth century.

The Hans Christian Andersen Centre is running a six week online course on Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales via FutureLearn. The stories being analysed during the course include The Tinderbox, The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Travelling Companion, The Red Shoes and The Story of a Mother.

As well as investigating the multi-layers of the stories, the course looks at sources used as the basis for some of the stories as well as examining the life of Hans Christian Andersen plus events occurring in Europe which influenced the author's thinking. Hans Christian Andersen did not only write fairy stories. He wrote for adults as well as children and also wrote books and plays and poetry and was an artist. Examples of his paper cuts adorn many of his works. Hans Christian Andersen belongs to the period in literary history called Romanticism and late Romanticism, important in European art, literature and culture. However he is known for changing the mould and trying new ways to express his ideas via his literature.

Two biographies about Hans Christian Andersen I have borrowed from the library are:

Hans Christian Andersen: a new life by Jens Andersen (2005), a biography emphasising how events in the author's life plus events in Europe at this time affected the stories that he wrote.

Hans Christian Andersen: European witness by Paul Binding (2014), a study of the works of Hans Christian Andersen especially in regard to the political and economic changes occurring in Europe at the time plus the author's connections to other prominent European writers.

The Hans Christian Andersen Centre provides translations of the fairy tales which can be downloaded however other translations into English exist and selections of tales have been published in a number of works. One such work is Tales of  Hans Christian Andersen translated by Naomi Lewis (2004) - thirteen tales including three of the stories being studied in the course. It is interesting to note the variations in the translations. Some of the stories, of course, have been completely retold to make them more acceptable for children in the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


2015 saw the celebration of 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415. As part of the commemorations of this battle between England and France the University of Southampton prepared a two week online course on this topic made available on the Future Learn site - The course looked at many aspects of the battle including why the battle is still significant, the background to the battle, information about medieval armies, equipment and weapons, clothes etc, logistics of establishing and maintaining an army in the fifteenth century, transporting troops overseas, feeding the troops, Southampton Plot, Siege of Harfleur as well as the actual Battle of Agincourt and its aftermath. The course also looked at historical records existing from the period and the challenges of using such records.

As well as a study of the battle this course provided an insight into medieval battles especially the many battles between England and what is now France in what has been called the Hundred Years War. Many books have been written on this period of history but for background reading I checked out the following books available in local libraries.

Henry V: leadership, strategy, conflict by James Cowper (2010) - a short illustrated introduction to the life and reign of  King Henry V of England.

Agincourt: Henry V and the battle that made England by Juliet Barker (2005) - a detailed study of the Battle of Agincourt.

Agincourt by Christopher Hibbert (1964) - a shorter study of the battle.

Agincourt: my family - the battle and the fight for France by Ranulph Fiennes (2014) - a study of the Battle of Agincourt with emphasis on the involvement of his ancestors in the battle.

Conquest: the English Kingdom of France (1417-1450) by Juliet Barker (2009) - a detailed study of the second invasion of France in 1417 by Henry V's army and subsequent conflict in France until the final defeat of the English in France in 1450.

Battlefield detectives: unearthing new evidence on the world's most famous battlefields by David Wason (2003)  - an examination of seven battles including Agincourt.

There are also a number of websites providing information about the Battle of Agincourt but one really worth investigating is Agincourt 600.

Next year it is proposed to run this course again over three weeks instead of two to include a more detailed study of  what happened after the Battle of Agincourt.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Shilling for Candles

The second book by Josephine Tey in the Inspector Alan Grant series.

Early one morning a woman's body is found at the bottom of a cliff. Initially it is thought that the death of the woman was due to suicide but when the body is examined a button is found tangled in her hair. Inspector Grant is called to investigate the murderer as well as determine why the crime was committed. The main suspect is a young man who was living in the same house as the victim however a number of other possibilities also keep Inspector Grant occupied as he tries to unravel the mystery.

Like many other Josephine Tey novels part of the plot is linked to the theatrical world. This time the victim is an actress. Inspector Grant investigates all the possibilities methodically and is assisted, and at times possibly hindered, by Erica, the daughter of a local policemen. The author is interested in people and spends time making her main characters human, including showing weaknesses. Grant makes mistakes from time to time and worries about having made them, however one of his strengths is his ability to examine and observe suspects as complex people in order to eliminate them from the enquiry.

Josephine Tey is considered one of the important authors in what is termed the Golden Age of British crime fiction along with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The Man in the Queue

This book, Josephine Tey's first novel, was published in 1929. 

A man, waiting in a queue to see a musical, is killed and no one appears to have noticed the murder or the murderer. Inspector Alan Grant is called in to investigate this baffling case. Unlike some of the later books in the series, this book is definitely a police procedural following Inspector Grant and his team as they endeavour to establish why the man was murdered and by whom.

When the most likely suspect disappears Grant traces him to Scotland where we get to know more about the thoughts and behaviour of this investigator. However when the suspect is captured Grant begins to doubt that they have the right person and now has to prove the innocence of the suspect as well as establish the  identity of a killer. One of the interesting aspects of these novels is observing the techniques used by the police to aid their investigations and the time involved in obtaining information so they can continue investigating the case.

The book has been criticised as the crime is solved more by luck than by police investigation but no doubt this may also happen from time to time in real police investigations. As the investigation continues we get to know more about the victim and one of the themes of the book encourages us to question our views of what we consider to be right and wrong.

A detailed review of this title see the post by Margot Kinberg in the blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The singing sands

After recently spending a week in Leicester where some of the time was spent exploring sites relating to Richard III I am currently rereading Daughter of Time, the book which originally got me interested in Richard III. However on the return flight to Australia from a visit to Hawaii I read another Josephine Tey novel, The Singing Sands.

Alan Grant is taking enforced leave from the police force due to his suffering from claustrophobia as part of a nervous breakdown. He travels by train to spend time with his cousin and her family in Scotland but as he leaves the train a body is discovered by the porter. Grant tells the porter to call the police and as he leaves he accidently picks up a newspaper owned by the dead man. Looking at the paper some time later he discovers part of a poem written in pencil, probably by the man in compartment B7. The poem refers to 'the beasts that stalk, the streams that stand, the stones that walk, the singing sand ...that guard the way to Paradise'.

Grant spends the next few weeks recuperating, enjoying Scotland and spending much of his time fishing, often with his cousin's young son. However he cannot forget the young man in the carriage and starts to investigate the death from afar. His investigations take him to the islands, the location of singing sands, and it is during his time there that his health greatly improves. An advertisement in the paper for information about the lines of poetry he discovered brings him in contact with a friend of the dead man and they continue the investigation together.

This was Josephine Tey's last novel and it was published in 1952 after her death. As usual the mystery is secondary to her study of people and places and the examination of why people act the way they do. However the the threads of the mystery and its investigation are gradually revealed and resolved.

The availability of Josephine Tey's books in public libraries may be limited to a couple of titles though some provide access to e-books for some of her works. However the University of Adelaide has made digitised copies of many of Josephine Tey's works freely available for download. Some other titles are available via Project Gutenberg Australia.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Wicked charms

Back home after having spent the past couple of months exploring parts of the UK I thought I would start reading again with something light. Wicked charms is the third title in the Lizzy and Diesel series and Janet Evanovich has co-written the book with Phoef Sutton. Lizzy Tucker and the mysterious Diesel once again team up this time to locate the Stone of Avarice one of the seven Stones of Power that they have been enlisted to retrieve.

Lizzy would rather lead a quiet life making cakes in the local bakery but as she is an Unmentionable with a special power for finding things she has been enlisted by Diesel as his assistant. The story starts when a body is found at the pirate museum and the hunt is then on to locate the stone, a treasure map and the coin that will assist in the reading of the map. Chaos then follows as Lizzy and Diesel attempt to keep ahead of others who are also looking for the Stone of Avarice for their own projects. They are assisted by Glo who also works in the bakery and experiments with magic and Clara who owns the bakery. As you would expect in a Janet Evanovich book there is a cast of of strange characters, not to mention Diesel's monkey, Carl, plus plenty of fast paced madcap action, supernatural elements as well as sexual tension. And there will be more to come.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The First Dismissal

In this essay by Luke Slattery he examines how political and social unrest in England affected events in New South Wales. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 many soldiers returned to England to discover the country in recession and jobs disappearing due to the industrial and agrarian revolutions.As unemployment rose, so did political unrest.

In New South Wales the colony was governed by Lachlan Macquarie who 'aimed to rule for all of New South Wales without favour or prejudice'. (p7) To the horror of some of the colonists, this applied to the convicts and emancipist as well as the exclusives. Luke Slattery provides the following example on pages 13 & 14:
Former convicts such as Simeon Lord, the town's richest merchant, and Andrew Thompson, a landowner and prominent figure along the Hawkesbury River, did not owe their wealth to Macquarie. But it was to him that they owed their rising social status. Macquarie appointed them magistrates of their districts and put them in charge of his first infrastructure project: the Sydney-Hawkesbury turnpike road. He befriended them, invited them to his table, and encouraged officers in the military to do the same. Men who would never have amounted to much at home - in separate incidents Lord and Thompson had been convicted of stealing small amounts of cloth- rose to the status of gentlemen in the colony.
Macquarie set out to build a civilised town and employed the services of the convict, Francis Greenway, as architect for his projects. Much of the essay concerns the relationship between Macquarie and Greenway in transforming the appearance of the colony. However New South Wales was meant primarily to be a penal colony and many people in the colony and in England disapproved of Macquarie's actions in turning the colony into a place where people might like to live. The result was the Bigge enquiry when John Thomas Bigge arrived in the colony to make an official report for the government in England.

After more than ten years as Governor, Lachlan Macquarie decided to resign his position and return to the United Kingdom leaving the colony, whether the authorities liked it or not, as a much more livable place. Although many saw Macquarie's departure as expulsion, he had decided to leave some years previously. However if he had not made that decision, no doubt he would have been asked to leave once Bigge's report reached England. Back in England in 1822 Macquarie had to justify his actions to Parliament.

A Forgers Progress: the life of Francis Greenway

Francis Greenway was transported to the colony of New South Wales in 1814. Originally he had received the death penalty for forgery but this was changed to fourteen years transportation. Francis was fortunate as he arrived in the new colony when Lachlan Macquarie was Governor and was attempting to turn the prison settlement of Sydney Cove into a more civilised town. He also believed in trying to give the settlers, emancipists, convicts and exclusives a fair opportunity so when he saw some of the architectural drawings that Francis had brought with him Francis Greenway was chosen as architect for the colony building many fine buildings, some of which remain today.

Alasdair McGregor provides a chronicle of the life of Francis Greenway including his life in England, his trial and journey to Australia, a description of the colony ruled by Macquarie, the work of Greenway and the demise of his later years. He died in 1837, a forgotten man. A series of plates in the centre of the book show illustrations of some of the Greenway designed buildings.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

Ian Mortimer uses this book to take the reader into the world of Medieval England, a period of great change in English history. The reader is introduced to life in the cities and towns as well as the changing life of the countryside. We meet the people and learn about the different occupations. The medieval character is examined including sense of humour, education and knowledge of the wider world. Use of language, measuring time, units of measurement, manners and politeness including how to greet people, shopping and money are described. Clothes you might wear, types of transport available, housing, health and hygiene, legal system and the courts are other topics. The final chapter looks at things people in the Middle Ages could do for entertainment including music and dancing, attending plays, jousting, playing games, partaking in pilgrimages. There is also a section on the literature and poetry of the time. In short this book is a good introduction to how people lived in England, particularly during the fourteenth century.

Station X the codebreakers of Bletchley Park

Michael Smith, who has worked in the intelligence service, published this book in 1998 on the activities of Bletchley Park during the Second World War. A number of other books on this topic have been published recently but it is interesting to read this account of the contribution of the codebreakers to the British war effort. Like other books on Bletchley Park quotes from people who worked at this secret establishment are used to tell the story.

The book looks at the attempts to break codes created by the many German devices used by different branches of the military. It also explores the relationship between those working at Bletchley Park and other sections of the intelligence service and particularly members of the military hierarchy, many of whom were reluctant to use the information gathered by the codebreakers. The way information gathered, when accepted, affected military battles is also described. It is stressed throughout the book the importance of ensuring that the Germans were never aware that their codes had been broken by the Allies.

Being interested in the Battle of Crete it was interesting to read how the British were able to warn the military leaders on the island of the coming invasion. Although the Allies were defeated they were able to able to delay their defeat and the number of paratrooper casualties dissuaded the Germans from repeating a similar operation elsewhere.

See also
Turing's Cathedral
Secret Life of Bletchley Park

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Return to Gallipoli: walking the battlefields of the Great War

This study by Bruce Scates investigates why so many Australians make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli and the Western Front and what the experience of the journey means to them. From the 1920s and 1930s Australians and New Zealanders have made the pilgrimage to war cemeteries and battlefields. In some cases it is family members who want to see where their loved ones fought and possibly died. In some cases it was former soldiers who felt the need to return. The thoughts of these people about the long journey can only be gleaned from newspaper accounts or possibly diaries. As more people, especially young people, make the trip to these sites it was decided to survey a selection of these travellers about their experiences. Seven hundred surveys were collected to provide some of the responses for this book.

The book therefore is an investigation of the idea of commemoration, memorials, of mourning and of grief.  The first chapter also looks at the creation of the large cemeteries and memorials to the war dead. The other three chapters investigate family pilgrimages since the war, the return of service people to these sites and finally why so many young people today make the journey especially to attend the Dawn Service at Gallipoli on Anzac Day. To some these journeys are almost a right of passage. To others they are an exploration of the making of Australia and New Zealand as individual countries, weakening their dependency on Britain.

The conclusion with the subtitle Journey's end begins with the search by parents for information about the death of their son, George Roy Irwin. Twelve years after George was reported missing in 1915 his parents made the journey to the Lone Pine Cemetery where they had a brass rubbing taken of their missing son's  memorial plaque. The basis of this story (with a number of changes) was used by Bruce Scates as one of the threads in his novel, On dangerous ground.

Walking with the Anzacs: a guide to Australian battlefields of the Western Front

In this book Mat McLachlan looks at fourteen of the battlefields of the Western Front during World War I. These include Belgium (Ypres, Battle of Messines, Battle of Polygon Wood, Battle of Broodseide Ridge and Battle of Passchendale), French Flanders (Battle of Fromelles), The Somme (Battle of Pozieres, Villers-Bretonneux and Hamel, Village Battles of 1918, Battle of Mont St Quentin), Hindenburg Line (outpost villages, Battles of Bullecourt) and The Aisne (Battle of Montbrehain). The introduction provides an overview for planning a trip to this area including information about cemeteries and researching specific soldiers. There is also a map and time-line of the battles. An outline of the significance of the location during the war is provided, reconstruction undertaken and places of interest that you might investigate on a tour of the area. A good guide for anyone planning to tour the World War I battlefields of northern France and Belgium.

And the band played on: how music lifted the Anzac spirit in the battlefields of the First World War

Prior to the First World War making your own entertainment -singing, playing musical instruments, recitations, story telling - was an important part of home and community life which accompanied the Australian soldiers to the battle fields. Robert Holden looks at how many of the units established bands or had impromptu concerts, perhaps around a camp fire, to entertain fellow soldiers. Although there was no chance for the relief of music on the battlefield, there was plenty of opportunity for musical and general entertainment interludes in the camps in Egypt, for example. Recreation areas behind the lines in France, such as those run by the YMCA, also provided the opportunity for soldiers to relax and listen to music and / or poetry as a relief from the horrors of battle. Those who had the opportunity to go to London on leave also had the opportunity to attend concerts and dances.

In this book Robert Holden describes the opportunities for making music and other entertainments for the troops as well as looking at a selection of the songs and poems popular with the Anzacs at the time.

Anzac Treasures: the Gallipoli collection of the Australian War Memorial

The story of Gallipoli is shown using photographs, documents and artefacts from the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. The material is divided into the following chapters: Collecting the record, Off to war, Plans, The landing, Holding on, Krithia, Life at Anzac, The August offensive, At home, Evacuation and Aftermath.  Dr Peter Pederson tells the Anzac story in his substantial volume (421 pages), often referring to the diaries of the official historian of the war, Charles Bean, as well as other diaries and correspondence. Photographs are a amjor feature but there are also paintings by artists including George Lambert, Charles Wheeler and Sidney Nolan. This work is an accessible introduction to Australia's role in the Gallipoli story.

On dangerous ground: a Gallipoli story

Gallipoli 1915 at Lone Pine Lieutenant Roy Irwin disappears and Elsie, the nurse who loves him, is determined to discover his fate. This is just one of three threads used by historian, Bruce Scates, to tell the story of Anzac and its affect on Australians.The novel begins when Charles Bean and George Lambert with soldier, Harry Vickers, return to the Dardenelles in 1919 to ascertain what has happened to the graves of Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died at Gallipoli. The third thread of the story takes place early in 2015 when two historians are invited to submit information to a government enquiry on whether a proposed new road would impact on possible bodies remaining at battle sites.

Each chapter of the novel contains sections that further develop each of the story threads. The novel also reveals issues affecting the interpretation of events that occur in the different time frames. Bruce Scates combines fiction and fictional characters with historical events and people to tell the story. In the Reflections section at the end of the book he describes where he altered historical events to tell his story. Scates is particularly interested in memory of historical events and also in mourning and grief and these themes reoccur throughout the novel.  These were themes that made up part of the online course, One Hundred Stories project. The individual stories can be viewed online. Another theme explored in the book is the Turkish viewpoint of the battles at Gallipoli and the aftermath of these battles in the creation of a place of commemoration, not only for Australians and New Zealanders but also British, Canadian and Indian families as well as the families of Turkish forces who fought and died in this region.

For those interested in this period of history, On dangerous ground, challenges the way we we look at the Anzac story.
Book Club notes

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Sweetland Project: remembering Gallipoli in the Shire of Nunawading

Twenty-seven men from the Shire of Nunawading died at Gallipoli in 1915. Although this book by Steven Cooke records information about what is known of the military experience of these men, the book is largely about the effect of the war on the Shire of Nunawading. The book also looks at the way memorials have been used in the region to remember those who served, and sometimes died, not only in the First and Second World Wars but also in other military operations. Along with Shirley Devery's book, For God, King and Country, this is a useful contribution to the history of the former Shire of Nunawading as well as being another chapter in the history of World War I.

Summer of blood - the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Dan Jones has written an account of life in England during the latter part of the fourteenth century, particularly during the reign of Richard II. This was the time where wars with France were costing the country huge sums of money and, in order to pay for the shortfall, new poll taxes were imposed on the populace. Richard II inherited the throne when  his grandfather, Edward III, died. As he was only nine when he became king, several of his uncles, including John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, helped him rule the country.

The fourteenth century saw the increase in the power of the Parliament in England resulting in rowdy discussion and complaints from the populace. After the plague had killed a large proportion of the population earlier in the century the power of peasants in regard to employment had increased. This was demonstrated when groups of peasants in parts of England began protesting about the new poll tax. Buildings and properties were destroyed and murders committed as groups of peasants marched towards London. One of the leaders of the peasants was a man named Wat Tyler while another was a preacher, John Ball.

In this book Dan Jones presents an account of the events leading up to to the peasant march on London in June 1381 when many major buildings were destroyed including the Savoy Palace, the London home of John of Gaunt. He describes the events leading to the revolt as well as the actions of the peasants and the reprisals when the revolt was over. This was a brief turbulent time in the history of England.

The making of the British landscape

Those who watched the British television series, Time Team, will be aware of archaeologist Francis Pryor. The sub-title of the book is how we have transformed the land from prehistory to today. In this book the author looks not only at changes to the British landscape from after the Ice Age until today but also the way we can study and evaluate these changes to the landscape. Frances Pryor provides an interesting view of the history of Britain through its landscape.

Bound for Australia

David T Hawkins has prepared this detailed guide to the records of transported convicts and early settlers in Australia. Originally published in 1987 this new reworked edition was published in 2012.   The work not only lists the available resources that provide information about convicts but also provides examples of the documents available. It is essential reading for anyone researching convicts in Australia.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Kingdom by Robyn Young is the third volume in the Insurrection trilogy which is based on the life and times of Robert the Bruce. This volume is a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert's army defeated the English army led by Edward II in Stirling in 1314. The other volumes in the series are Insurrection and Renegade. At the back of the volume the author includes a section where she discusses writing historical fiction and the changes she made to the characters (including inventing some) and events when writing this story. This is a series I have made a note to read when I have more time. It looks like a good series in which to become involved, probably holiday reading, provided that you do not worry too much about the actual history. After reading this series the reader should certainly have a better understanding of this volatile period in British history and may want to investigate the story further.

The roses of no man's land

One of the books that was frequently mentioned in the forum of the online course - World War I: a history in 100 stories - was the book by Lyn Macdonald, The roses of no man's land.  Lyn is a British author who has written a series of books on World War I based on first hand accounts of those who were involved. In The roses of no man's land she focuses on the stories of the medical personnel, particularly the VADs and nurses, as well as some of those injured providing another viewpoint of the events and effects of the war.

The book is divided into three sections - 1914-1915, 1015-1917 and 1918. Part of the first section tells the story of the unofficial teams of women, led by a woman of society, who took it upon themselves to establish hospitals and ambulance services for the injured. The book then looks at the development of the VADs - members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment - who initially assisted in hospitals in England but as the war wore on were used in medical units at the front, some undertaking nursing duties. The book looks at the development of the war through the experiences of these medical workers and their patients. One of the issues looked at is the reaction of trained nurses to the VADs. This experience parallels the accounts written of the experiences of Australian nurses working with British medical teams.

This book is another valuable contribution to the history of the First World War. Other books by Lyn Macdonald include They called it Passchendaele, Somme, 1914-the days of hope, 1914-1918-voices of the Great War, 1915 - death of innocence, To the last man: Spring 1918 and At the going down of the sun (co-author).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The last knight

Subtitled the twilight of the Middle Ages and the birth of the modern era, this book by Norman F Cantor is a biography of John of Gaunt (1340-1399), the third son of Edward III and Philippa de Hainaut. John of Gaunt through his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster became one of the richest men in Europe when Blanche inherited her father's fortune.

The book looks at John of Gaunt as a landowner, a leader as a soldier and in the political scene, relationships with women, relationship with the Church and patron of the arts. He owned large estates, particularly in the north of England, as well as the Savoy Palace in London. He was a soldier and with his bother, the Black Prince, was involved in successful battles against the French however his quest to become King of Castile was not so successful. As the uncle of Richard II John of Gaunt was a man of power, particularly in the early years of his nephew's reign. Cantor looks at Gaunt's role, not just in national politics but also at the local level. The political unrest known as the Peasants Revolt made John of Gaunt one of its main targets destroying his property in London. Fortunately John of Gaunt and his family were not in London at the time. Political change was also evolving with the development of elected parliaments. John of Gaunt strongly supported the succession of the monarchy but after he died his son took over the throne from his cousin.

John of Gaunt was married three times - first to Blanche, a woman he loved as well as being a successful marriage financially, then a purely political marriage to Constance of Castile and finally to Catherine Swynford, his long-time mistress. He had fourteen children and is reputed to ensuring that they were all well looked after. Family members held positions of power in Europe for many generations.

The author also devotes chapters to Gaunt's religious beliefs - his patronage initially of John Wyclif and later of the Carmelite monks - and also his patronage of the arts, particularly in regard to Geoffrey Chaucer. Cantor argues that the Reformation was beginning to evolve during the life of John of Gaunt. There were changes in attitudes towards the Church long before Henry VII had a disagreement with the Pope. There were also changes in literature with writers such as Chaucer writing in English and reflecting on life as they saw it. John of Gaunt supported some of these changes but as he grew older his views became more conservative.

John of Gaunt had the money and the power to live in style and he did. However the end of the fourteenth century was a time of cultural and social change in England and, argues Cantor, John of Gaunt and members of his family after him were part of the these developments.

Britain's railways in wartime

Kevin Robertson has compiled a pictorial account of the important role of the railways in Britain during the Second World War. The black and white images are from the Getty Collection and show the ways railways were used to transport supplies across Britain including coal, farm equipment and military equipment, the role of women who were employed during the war to work in the railways, the evacuation of children from the large cities to country areas, damage done to stations, locomotives and tracks during bombing attacks, the result of collisions between trains blacked out for the war, methods used to black out trains, stations and equipment in case of air raids, the use of railway land for farming and the preparation of fire trains and emergency vehicles in case of a gas attack. This book records an aspect of life in Britain during the Second Word War as well as illustrationg an important record of the part played by railways during the war.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Digging for Richard III

Published in 2014, Digging for Richard III: how archaeology found the King, by archaeologist, Mike Pitts, is another contribution to the story of the discovery of the body of King Richard III under a car-park in Leicester.

The book begins with a summary of the events leading up to and occurring during the Wars of the Roses. The next section explores how Leicester remembered Richard III before the discovery of his body, Philippa Langley's campaign to gain support for her quest, the search for funding, initial exploration of the site and the involvement of the University of Leicester. Part three examines the excavation as the friary, church and skeleton are uncovered. Details of the autopsy on the body are described as well as the confirmation that the bones discovered were those of the king. The final chapter includes the discovery of the site of the Battle of Bosworth.

Being written by an archaeologist this book provides a different interpretation of the events during and after the excavation plus the relevance of the discovery to the understanding of the history of the period. Readers interested in the discovery of Richard III's body would find this an interesting book to further their knowledge.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

For God, King and Country: the Great War 1914-1919

Shirley Devery has written this book as a salute to the Blackburn, Mitcham, Nunawading and Vermont volunteers during the First World War. The book is published by the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies at Blackburn and copies can be purchased from the AIGS.

The book lists the names of the 305 identified volunteers who were born in or enlisted from the area. An alphabetical listing of names is provided along with their service number (when known) and the local memorials that list their names. Fifty-one of these volunteers did not return and a page is dedicated to the memory of each of these men providing brief details about them, where they served and where they died. A photograph of these men is included when available.

A summary of the events leading to the declaration of war is provided followed by information about Australia's involvement during the war and the impact of the war on the local community.

The sections of the index include the names of those who died, references to the various sections of the Australian Imperial Forces listed in the book, naval vessels on which they sailed and the cemeteries where those who died overseas are buried as well as a general index.

In the foreword Shirley wrote:
It has been a privilege for Jane (Davies) and myself to be able to take a glimpse into the lives of the 305 men and women who served, and into the lives of their families and the local communities they left behind. The contributions made by individuals, schools, churches etc are in themselves worthy of praise.
Australia Calls is the theme for Whitehorse Heritage Week in September and Shirley Devery will be will speaking at Vermont South Library on 17 September at 10 am about her experiences writing this contribution to the history of Whitehorse.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Death and the Spanish Lady

The February 2015 issue of Boronia & The Basin Community News contains an article by David Doughty about the Spanish Flu - the influenza epidemic that occurred after the First World War. Many of the patients were treated in temporary hospitals, including one set up in the Exhibition Building, and photographs are included with the article.

Coincidentally I have just read a murder mystery by Carolyn Morwood set in Melbourne during the Spanish flu epidemic. Eleanor Jones, an army nurse recently returned from serving overseas, had experienced many horrors when treating patients injured during battle. Her two brothers had served in the army - one had died while the other was now suffering from shell shock. Her lover had also been killed. Arriving home safely Eleanor then nursed influenza patients in the temporary hospital now occupying the Exhibition Building. Many of the patients were also recovering from their war experiences. Nursing in these conditions was a strain for the medical staff but when one of the patients, who was thought to have recovered, is found dead a murder investigation begins. Eleanor is determined to find the truth when one of her friends is considered the main suspect.

The book provides a picture of Melbourne during the period immediately after the war. It is a city of fear - people go out only when necessary and they all wear masks. Entertainment centres are closed and people meet in groups only when absolutely necessary. It also shows how families were affected by the war. Many had lost family members who had died overseas but most of those who returned home were suffering  physically or mentally as the result of their experiences. The effects on men who stayed at home is also shown with Nick being the recipient of a collection of white feathers. The description of the use of the Exhibition Building as a hospital is another interesting aspect of the book. The work by organisation such as the Red Cross is also portrayed. Those who like mysteries and / or  are interested in this period of Melbourne's history will enjoy this book. A sequel to this book is Cyanide and Poppies.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A history of war in 100 battles

Richard Overy has chosen 100 battles across the centuries showing how the nature of armed combat has changed over time. The battles are not arranged chronologically but under broad themes - leadership (including Battle of Hastings, Battle of Bannockburn and Battle of Trafalgar), against the odds (including Battle of Agincourt), innovation (including Battle of Crecy and Battle of Britain), deception (including Fall of Troy and Normandy invasion),courage in the face of fire (including Battle of Poitiers-Tours) and in the nick of time (including Battle of Waterloo). An introduction to each section is provided. The stories are usually one or two pages and the book is well illustrated (usually paintings) and has a detailed bibliography and index. An interesting book to dip into.

Scottish history

With many branches of my family tree having Scottish connections I often look out for books recounting the history of that country. Three titles recently found in the library are listed below:

Collins little book of Scottish history: from Bannockburn to Holyrood by John Abernethy was published in 2014. This small publication aims to provide a broad coverage of the history of Scotland concentrating on the events that have made Scotland an individual country. Each page briefly covers a topic - a person or place or event or institution - providing a brief summary that can be investigated further in other publications. The book is arranged chronologically but the index also helps the reader locate specific topics.

The fourth edition of Scotland: a concise history by Fitzroy Maclean was published in 2012. This book, in text and pictures, provides an overview of the history of the country in nine broad chapters.  The sections of the book are easy to navigate allowing you to locate specific topics. The detailed index and the list of the many illustrations are also useful.

Scottish archaeologist, Neil Oliver, has written A history of Scotland, published, in 2009, in conjunction with his television series with the same title produced for the BBC. This is an exploration of the things that make Scotland unique. Not just its chronological history but also the development and divisions of language, religion, the economy, relationships with England over time. When reading this book, those who have watched Neil Oliver on television will imagine him there recounting the story of the country that he loves. Once again there is a detailed index as well as a list for further reading.

Each of these books has a different approach to telling the story of Scotland's history but they can all be useful. For example when looking for information on the Battle of Bannockburn, page 33 in Abernethy's book provides a brief outline of the battle, some information about Robert the Bruce on page 32 and information about Stirling on page 34. The first section (8 pages) of chapter two in Maclean's book covers the battle of Bannockburn, the lead up to the battle and the aftermath. Oliver provides his interpretation of this period of Scottish history in the first 35 pages of chapter 4 in his book.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Turing's Cathedral

The subtitle for this book by George Dyson is The Origins of the Digital Universe. It is largely a study of major research establishments in the USA, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, established in the twentieth century for the study of advanced science, especially mathematical sciences. Prior to the Second World War a number of prominent scientists left Europe to live and work in America and these became an important part of the teams that worked on improved weapon capabilities during and after the war as well as furthering the development of  what became computer science. One of these men was John von Neumann who was from Hungary.

After the war a group of mathematicians, including von Neumann, worked on building a universal machine such as the one proposed by Alan Turing, an English mathematician. Turing studied for his PhD at Princeton University for two years from 1936 where he worked with von Neumann. With war looming he returned to England where he worked as a code-breaker creating machines to decipher German coded messages. Turing visited New York for a short time during the war and returned again in 1947 but in 1948 he was back working in Manchester.

Meanwhile von Neumann and his team experimented in developing machines, initially following the ideas of Turing's theories and then developing them further. The book therefore looks at the the history of the development of computer science until around 1957 when von Neumann died. As a study of the history of the development of computers during and after the war this is an interesting book, however the story becomes bogged down with technical detail which for the non-technical person is not easy to follow. According to some of the reviews on Goodreads, some of those with technical expertise question the presentation in this book. Never the less, in our current computer age, skimming through the book provides an interesting overview of the early development of computers that we take for granted today.

Review of Turing's Cathedral in New York Times May 4, 2012

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

The subtitle of this book written by Sinclair McKay is The WWII codebreaking centre and the men and women who lived there.

Recently we saw the film, The Imitation Game, which is largely about Alan Turing, one of the codebreakers who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. ABC2 has also shown the British television mystery series, The Bletchley Circle, set in the early 1950s where a group of women who had worked at Bletchley Park use there codebreaking skills to solve crime.

Bletchley Park was an establishment set up at the end of the 1930s with the aim of collecting together a team of people to work on breaking the coded messages of enemy forces, primarily German messages. Eventually thousands of men and women worked at Blatchley Park and before they were employed they all had to sign the Official Secrets Act. They were not allowed to discuss their work with anyone not working within their section and could definitely not tell family and friends what they were doing at Bletchley Park. This secrecy continued until the early 1970s.

In this book, published in 2010, the author uses interviews with a selection of staff who worked at Bletchley Park to help tell the story of this large establishment. Some of the more famous people such as Alan Turing, Dilly Knox and Alistair Denniston (to name a few) are mentioned throughout the book but the story told tries to cover the work in the many sections of the organisation and investigates how the lives of the staff were affected by living in a world of secrecy. Much of the information relating to the work of the codebreakers was destroyed once the war was over so the author has to rely, to a large extent, on the memories of those involved. In sections there is repetition of some of the stories and I found myself skim reading parts of the book, however if you are interested in this important aspect of World War II it is a good book to read.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The means of escape

This collection of short stories was published after the death of the author, Penelope Fitzgerald, in 2000. Penelope Fitzgerald was renowned for writing short, concise, novels. Once again this is a short book containing eight short stories. The stories are set in a variety of countries including, Australia, New Zealand, France and Greece as well as Britain and in different time periods. The stories, dealing with human foibles, uncertainties and missed opportunities, are told with a quiet humour in the observation of the characters and their actions. Reading the stories, I found, however, was not always straightforward and I had to read several of the stories twice, to see what I had missed when reading them the first time, in order to fully appreciate what had happened and why. Like much of the writing of Penelope Fitzgerald the stories /  characters tend to remain with the reader after finishing the book as the author challenges the reader to think about the actions of the characters.

Small but perfectly formed - Observer 29 October 2000

Rough-hewn lives - New York Times 26 November 2000

Little big town

The subtitle of this book, A Photographic journey through Melbourne's Little Streets and Laneways, describes this work by photographer, Jamie Murcia. Murcia has included a collection of photographs of the lanes, cul de sacs plus the 'little' streets that run parallel to the main streets in the Melbourne grid. The majority of the photographs were taken at night and many explore the effect of light in these locations, street art, culture and subculture and parts of the city many of us never see. A different look at Melbourne.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Middle Ages: the illustrated history of the Medieval World

This book, written by Anita Baker and published by Carlton Books in 2014, provides an easy to read introduction to the history of life in the Middle Ages in Europe. The period known as the Middle Ages is generally considered to be from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 until, in Europe, the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1543 or, in Britain, the death of Richard III in 1485.

The book is divided into six sections - dynasties and empires; daily life; religion; medieval culture; war and conquest plus dawn of a new age. Although it is only 98 pages, this well illustrated book provides an understanding of what it was like to live in Europe at this time allowing the reader to then explore sections in greater depths in other books.

The chapter, daily life in the Middle Ages looks at feudalism, women in the Middle Ages, the Church in daily life, employment, food, science and technology, medicine plus crisis in the fourteenth century (including plague, famine and general discontent).

This would be a good book for those starting to investigate this period in history, those who may have been able to trace their family tree back to this period or those who enjoy fiction set in medieval times.


In 1995, Sabriel, the first book in the Old Kingdom series, was written by the Australian author, Garth Nix. This was followed in 2001 by Lirael and in 2003 by Abhorsen. This trilogy of books take the reader into a wonderful work of fantasy, Charter Magic and Free Magic and the world of Abhorsens. In 2014 the fourth book in the series, Clariel, was published. This book is a prequel to the trilogy and is set 600 years before the story of Sabriel.

Clariel and her family move to Belisaere where she was to attend the Belisaere Select Academy though, in reality, all she wants to do is to return to the forest and live her own life. Soon after their arrival her mother tells Clariel that they are to meet the King who has withdrawn from society and is waiting for his daughter to return and become ruler. In a short time Clariel discovers that all is not well in Belisaere and that Kilp, the leader of the Gold Guild, plans to overthrow the King. At the Academy she meets Kargrin and Ader, powerful Charter Mages who recognise that Clariel has special powers which may help them save the kingdom.

What follows is a fast moving story of magic and intrigue, treachery and power struggles as Clariel strives to discover the extent of her powers, avenge the death of family members, rescue her aunt and return to the life she really wants to live. Those who enjoyed the first three Old Kingdom books will welcome this addition to the collection.

In the author's note, Garth Nix mentions that he is working on sequel to the original three books, continuing the story of Lirael. I suspect that, in the future, we may also learn more of Clariel and her story.

Monday, January 5, 2015

St Kilda Blues

This is Geoffrey McGeachin's third novel in the Charlie Berlin series. The first two, The Diggers Rest Hotel and Blackwattle Creek, won the Australian Crime Writers Association Ned Kelly Award for fiction in 2011 and 2013.

The novel is set in 1967 when Detective Sergeant Charlie Berlin is asked to investigate the disappearance of the young daughter of a property developer. She was the latest of nine girls who had disappeared during the previous six months. Charlie Berlin had started investigating the first three disappearances but had then been removed from Missing Persons to the Fraud department. Accompanied by a former protege, Bob Roberts, he is asked to unofficially investigate the latest disappearance though an official investigation would still  be carried out by another team. There is also tension in the police force as an investigation into police corruption is being undertaken.

In the first part of the book, two parallel stories are told - the investigation of the missing girls as undertaken by Charlie Berlin and the account of the early life of a young English boy who is sent to Australia as a child and his development into a killer. The later chapters concentrate on the investigation.

When interviewing the father of the latest missing girl, Charlie Berlin notices a similarity with a German SS officer he had observed murdering a young woman during the Second World War. This forces Charlie Berlin to investigate and confront demons from his past. The book also investigates loss of a loved one, especially the loss of a daughter.

Another well crafted crime novel, set primarily in Melbourne, has been written by Geoffrey McGeachin.