A highly readable history of modern China that will answer many questions about the country's development and its current political challenges.
Jonathan Fenby's sweeping history of China covers the modern period from 1850 right up to today, finishing with Xi Jinping (updated in 2019 for the third edition). The book starts by chronicling the last days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which featured prominent figures such as the Empress Dowager Cixi who was the power behind the throne for close to five decades.
Upon the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the country was run by a disparate group of warlords until civil war broke out between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and Mao Zedong's Communists. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was declared. Mao's rule, from 1949 to 1976, would see some of the worst crimes against humanity, with millions killed due to unnecessary famine and ideological warfare. Mao's Cultural Revolution tipped China into a veritable state of madness. Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping would start to open up the country's economy and herald a new era of rising wealth. Despite liberalising trade and lifting living standards, politically China remains authoritarian. Many Western thinkers have presumed that China would follow the West into democratic government due to its embrace of capitalism, but this hasn't happened.
China's last 170 years have been turbulent, violent and full of terrible suffering for its people. The humiliations it suffered at the hands of the Japanese and Western powers has left its indelible mark on the nation's psyche. Descriptions of the Nanking Massacre are beyond horrific. Yet despite many decades of tragedy, China has managed to rise and become a formidable global power.
One of the main questions the book raises is the contradiction between China's liberalised economy, which has brought much wealth, and it's autocratic government, with more and more power concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping. This contradiction is causing much tension in Chinese society and it remains to be seen whether this is sustainable. Will public unrest breakout and destablise the country, or will China retain its repressive government?
For anyone looking for a bracing recent history of China, Jonathan Fenby's brilliant book won't disappoint.
The Penguin History of Modern China, by Jonathan Fenby. Published by Penguin. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold presents the harrowing biographies of the Jack the Ripper victims.
The five victims of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – are often assumed to have been prostitutes. This assumption, stubbornly in place for 130 years, has allowed a terrible misogyny to go unchecked. These women it has long been thought were “just prostitutes” who had put themselves in harm's way and were therefore in some way the authors of their own misfortune. While no one deserved to be brutally murdered, that it happened to these women was somehow considered to be understandable.
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold has done a stunning job in getting to the truth of the matter. Researching the lives, social milieu and economic circumstances of “the five” she has created nuanced portraits of Victorian women and the brutal, unforgiving society they had to navigate. It's a story of alcoholism, domestic violence, economic exploitation, sex trafficking, hard labour in workhouses and endless childbearing. Women had only one career option, marriage, which mainly involved looking after a husband and an ever growing brood of children, often on a limited income.
Poverty was the main reason Mary Ann, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane were targets of Jack the Ripper. Most had their throats slit while they were sleeping rough on the streets. One one of the women, Mary Jane, worked professionally as a sex worker. Elizabeth Stride, like many poor and destitute women, reluctantly performed some sex work to keep her head above water, but most likely would not have identified as a prostitute. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes were not prostitutes.
Most of the women had problems with alcohol, some cases severe. The most bracing parts of the book describe some of London's most notorious quarters, with their desperate poverty. Women who lost a male partner or fled an abusive husband could find themselves soon sinking fast, living in crime riddled neighbourhoods and rubbing shoulders with all sorts of unsavoury types. The only other option besides living rough on the streets was to enter the workhouse, often considered a fate worse than death, with its abuses and punitive regimes.
The Five demonstrates how much popular thinking still likes to blame the victim. Hallie Rubenhold redresses this error, bringing to light the many injustices against women of the Victorian era.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold. Black Swan. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A gorgeous romp through the French Belle Epoque.
Award winning novelist Julian Barnes starts his new work of non-fiction with three men on a shopping trip in London. The year is 1885. The three men are all French - Prince de Polignac, Count de Montesquiou-Fezensac and famed gynaecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi. When Barnes discovered the sumptuous John Singer Sargent portrait of Pozzi, Dr. Pozzi at Home, he was inspired to trace the doctor and his milieu.
For the most part, The Man in the Red Coast is a dizzying, kaleidoscopic ride through the French Belle Epoque. It's an age of outsized egos, quick tempers, frequent bitchiness, aristocratic entitlement and easy wealth. Friendships play out like complex chessboard manoeuvres, and when associations sour and allies turn, aggrieved parties slander each other through the press. All the big names of the age walk regularly through these pages – Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Zola, Guy De Maupassant, Colette. Plus lesser known characters, such as the overcooked dandy Jean Lorrain and gossip mongers, the Goncourt brothers.
Of the three men introduced on the 1885 shopping trip, it is Montesquiou and Pozzi who get all the attention. (Prince de Polignac makes only minor appearances. He marries a lesbian heiress, and being homosexual himself, lives pretty much happily ever after.) Dilettante and aesthete Montesquiou rubs shoulders with the great and rich of the age, and will appear as a character in many fictional works, most notably in Joris-Karl Huysmans' À rebours and Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. He's a pretty unsavoury character – vain, insecure, frivolous and mean. In the one endeavour where he tried to make himself useful – writing – he failed. Not many people read Montesquiou in his day, and less do now.
The bright light of the book, surrounded as he is by so much decadence and sickly self-indulgence, is the gynaecologist Samuel Pozzi. He was progressive in his thinking, cultured, well educated, a collector of beautiful things, but also a useful person. He worked at the forefront of medical science, was instrumental in spearheading new procedures and took great interest in the personal well being – the comfort and ease – of his patients. By most accounts, an all round nice guy. (His predilection for seducing patients, however, would get him struck off the medical register if he were practicing today.)
An education in the Belle Epoque and a lively entertainment (Barnes obviously loves the period and relishes its eccentric cast of egomaniacs), The Man in the Red Coat is a tonic and a delight.
The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape. $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Garry Linnell’s portrait of escaped convict William Buckley is a stunning triumph.
William Buckley (1780 – 1856) is surely one of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters of Australian history. He fought Napoleon as a soldier in the King's Own Regiment in 1799, but later came undone for receiving stolen goods - a bolt of cloth. He was given 14 years and sent to New South Wales, arriving upon the Calcutta in 1803. Exhausted and terrified, Buckley soon bolted with three other prisoners. The group separated and Buckley spent weeks on his own, living off shellfish. He probably would have expired, if not for the contact he made with the local Aboriginal people who thought he was a ghost, one of their ancestors who had died, then “jumped up” again as a white man.
Buckley spent the following 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people. He was respected by the Wadawurrung and was influential in trying to preserve the peace between different clans and groups. In 1835, Buckley re-entered European society. He was given a pardon by Governor Arthur and worked as an interpreter. This role as intermediary took its toll on Buckley, who saw many abuses of First Nations people and moved to Van Diemen's Land for the rest of his life.
Garry Linnell takes an interesting approach in Buckley's Chance, presenting the narrative in an almost fictional form. In some ways the structure of the book is like an 18th century epistolatory novel, with Linnell addressing himself to an imaginary Buckley, posing questions about his emotional state and responses to key events. Almost like speculative fiction, this style of writing gives the book a tone of intimacy and humanity, asking the reader to imagine Buckley's personal conflicts and psychological states of being. The narrative is interweaved with thorough research and quotes from key contemporaries, making the book invaluable as an early history of New South Wales, Tasmania and most notably, Victoria.
The portrait that emerges of Buckley himself is of a sad and tortured soul, caught between two cultures, one exterminating the other. His two years working with the Port Phillip Association, most notably with John Batman, was extremely painful as he assisted the land grab that saw widespread dispossession of the Wadawurrung and other peoples. Yet for all that we have on the record, plus Buckley's own memoir, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley written by journalist John Morgan (Buckley was illiterate), the man himself remains frustratingly distant and mysterious. He was often portrayed as a dolt, but surely knew more than he let on.
Buckley's Chance is a tremendous achievement. Engaging, passionate and fascinating it's a book that invited the reader to re-imagine Australia's formative years, a time that was harsh and often horrific.
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. Published by Michael Joseph. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
David Day brings to life an important figure in Australian history.
Maurice Blackburn (1880 – 1944) was an influential member of the Australian Labor Party and a barrister, specialising in cases defending socialist causes. He held seats at both the state and federal levels, was heavily involved in the divisive conscription debates during the First World War and could at times be a controversial figure, due mainly to his intellectual independence and dogged integrity. His relationship with the Labor Party was often strained as he differed on party policy and would not compromise his beliefs for political expediency. The Labor Party twice expelled him.
Esteemed historian David Day brings to life the rowdy and theatrical politics of the time: street meetings in Melbourne's inner suburbs; rousing speeches on the Yarra; and dodgy political and business characters, such as Prime Minister Billy Hughes and thuggish businessman John Wren. Against this backdrop Maurice Blackburn emerges as a rare beast, a politician and activist who was broadly esteemed for his integrity and consistency.
David Day writes a splendid history of Australia's nascent Labour movement and one of its major figures, distilling the complex social and economic issues of the time into a bracing narrative. Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People will appeal to the general reader and history buff alike.
Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People, published by Scribe. $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba.
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
In 1945, a shocking wave of suicides spread across Germany...
As Soviet troops advanced on Nazi Germany, and all seemed utterly hopeless, large numbers of German citizens chose not only suicide for themselves, but suicide for their families as well. Florian Huber pieces together a chilling, tragic and sometimes bizarre narrative of ordinary Germans trapped in circumstances of their own blind making. Once Hitler had committed suicide, on April 30, 1945, there was no conceivable path out of the national madness he had created. Hitler was all; extraordinary numbers of Germans believed he was a virtual messiah, come to save them. When news got out of the death camps and gas chambers, Germans muttered that Hitler couldn't have known. If he had known, he wouldn't have allowed it to happen. Popular delusions ran deep.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself (named after a father who gave his daughter a gun, told her to run and then kill herself) has two major parts. The first is a history of that wave of 1945 suicides, the story of a people immobilised by fear and lacking any moral compass; the second part tries to analyse why Germans got taken in by Hitler. The harsh terms set out for Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War, goes some way to explaining Hitler's popularity, but not all. So much still remains an enigma.
The most fascinating parts of the book discuss political scientist Hannah Arendt's experiences on returning to Germany after the war. Ordinary Germans, she discovered, remained indifferent or unwilling to face the crimes of the Nazi regime. These callous, self-pitying responses left Arendt in a state of shock.
A fascinating addition to the history of Nazi Germany, using contemporary diary entries and letters to explain the mindset and attitudes of ordinary Germans who created for themselves a horrific nightmare.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, by Florian Huber. Text Publishing. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fascinating, brief overview of Australia's first languages.
R. M. W. Dixon is a Professor of Linguistics who specialises in Australia's first languages. Before Europeans and the English language, Australia's First Nations spoke some 250 different languages. Early on in Australia's Original Languages, Professor Dixon clears up a common misconception. The 250 languages originally spoken were not dialects. They were not variations on the same basic language, such as American English or Australian English. Each language was entirely different, with its own vocabulary, grammar and complex forms of expression.
If our language reflects our emotional, social and psychological complexity, then Australia's Original Languages provides a snapshot of its speakers' nuanced and intricate modes of thought, categorisation and social organisation. For example, First Nations' kinship structures provide a broad classification system with names for every member, describing how they relate to the society at large. The key is that everyone is interrelated, and the language reflects the social structure. Some First Nations speak two languages, one a regular, mainstream language, and another, what's known as an avoidance language, used for particular relationships.
This book is subtitled “An Introduction”. R. M. W. Dixon gives the broadest overview of a subject that, by its nature, has great complexity. It's a reminder of how the First Nations people who speak their own language carry within them a unique consciousness and view of the world, coupled with an expressive vocabulary and grammar.
For readers who enjoyed Bruce Pascoe's brilliant Dark Emu, Australia's Original Languages provides many fascinating insights.
Australia's Original Languages: An Introduction, by R. M. W. Dixon. Published by Allen & Unwin. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Two passionate botanists marry and embark on a quest to preserve Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain.
When journalist and novelist Kate Legge was told by a girlfriend that her favourite place in the world was Cradle Mountain in north-west Tasmania, she made a memo to self: go see. Upon visiting the famous landmark, she was immediately struck by its awe inspiring beauty and entertained writing a fiction based around two of the mountain’s great pioneers, Kate Cowle and Gustav Weindorfer. This idea soon lost its appeal; Legge realised that Kate and Gustav deserved a direct biographical account, one that paid homage to their contribution.
Austrian born Gustav Weindorfer arrived in Melbourne in 1900. The following year, at a meeting of the Victorian Field Naturalists Club, he met Kate Cowle, a woman some 11 years his senior. Their shared enthusiasm for botany led to their marriage in 1906 and during their honeymoon at Mount Roland in Tasmania they both first glimpsed Mount Cradle, a place Legge describes as “…a sculpture garden of rock and cliff and tree.” The couple bought a farm in the nearby rural district of Kindred and made their first field trip to Cradle Mountain in 1909. Besides the intense study of the flora and fauna, the couple shared a passion to preserve the area as a national park and tourist spot. They purchased land in the valley of Cradle Mountain and built a guesthouse called Waldheim (meaning “home in the forest”).
The most tragic part of this story is Kate’s death, most likely from cancer, in 1916 (she was only 53 years old). Gustav was bereft. The two shared not only a deep love for each other, but a spiritual connection to the Tasmanian woodlands and its breathtaking scenery. Gustav pressed on, the uplifting Cradle Mountain environment sustaining him. There were unwanted difficulties, however. During the First World War, many locals made trouble for the Austrian born mountaineer, believing he was a spy. This hurt him deeply. The indignities of the war were endured and Gustav eventually returned to promoting Cradle Mountain as a tourist destination. He died in 1932, aged 58, of a heart attack.
Kate Legge has written a wonderfully energetic and bracing account of not only Gustav and Kate Weindorfer, but also a sumptuous natural history of a treasured Tasmanian landmark. Kindred is brilliantly researched, with Legge’s passion for her subject matter evident throughout the text. There is much to learn in its pages, not only about the width and breadth of our native bio-diversity, the magic inherent in our trees, plants and animals, but also the beginnings of Australia’s conservation movement and the great personalities that committed themselves to the task. A moving and inspiring story told with verve and affection.
Kindred: A Cradle Mountain Love Story, by Kate Legge. Published by Melbourne University Press. RRP: $44.99
Release date 5th March 2019
Review by Chris Saliba
David Sornig’s history of West Melbourne’s Dudley Flats provides an absorbing and evocative portrait.
Residents of North and West Melbourne would be well familiar with Dudley Street. The busy roadway passes by the Flagstaff Gardens, the iconic Festival Hall and down into the Docklands area. What is less known is the Depression era shanty town, the Dudley Flats, that was once located at the end of Dudley Street, south of Footscray Road, roughly on the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and Harbour Town shopping centre now sit.
The Dudley Flats had its heyday, if it could be called that, between the 1920s and 50s. When the land belonged to its indigenous people, a beautiful blue lake occupied a large part of the area. The lake was surrounded by a magenta coloured pigface flower, which grew in wild profusion. But along with European incursions into the land came intense industry, and rendering factories caused the blue lake to be polluted. By the 1920s it was the site of several council and railway tips. It was the tips that formed the backbone of the Dudley Flats economy. Residents foraged in the tips, sold scrap metal and other finds, and built their shacks with reclaimed materials.
The population of the “tin town” at its height was around forty people. It had a notorious reputation. Many of its residents drank, committed petty crime and got involved in fights. Despite this, authorities thought the Dudley Flats were no worse than many of Melbourne’s slums. Authorities who visited saw the makeshift homes were quite well put together and opined that the residents showed considerable resourcefulness.
Novelist and historian David Sornig grew up in Sunshine and well remembers the regular train journey from Footscray to North Melbourne station, a journey that roughly covered the area that once held the Dudley Flats. It’s a stretch of land that has always haunted the author, with its eerie, no man’s land quality.
In Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, Sornig concentrates on three characters who lived in the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. In telling the stories of these three characters, Sornig also tells the strange and wild history of the landmass along Footscray Road, a West Melbourne badlands if ever there was one.
Elsie Williams would walk the streets of North Melbourne, drunk and singing, picking fights, experiencing the racism that went along with the White Australia policy. Lauder Rogge had the misfortune of being German when Australia was frequently at war with that country. He experienced the humiliation of being interned as an enemy alien during the First World War. And finally Jack Peacock, who the authorities spent years trying to remove from Dudley Flats. An outsider, he preferred the lifestyle at the shanty town and never wanted to leave.
David Sornig has written a haunting and humane history of Melbourne’s Depression era, with its focus on the often lawless Dudley Flats, the down and out people who made a life there and the eerie, hostile zone of land that to this day still refuses to be gentrified. Blue Lake employs a novelist’s prose and imagination, bringing to life a seedy part of our city’s history, but done with a great sympathy and sensitivity. A book of superb imagination and scholarship that will transport you to a strange yet familiar land.
Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322743 RRP: $35
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books