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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Not Your Usual Australian Tales



This is a new, all-singing, all-dancing  Australian social history, and it's in e-book format, because that way, I can offer the reader >1200 hotlinks to the sources that I used. It is just a tad under a quarter of a million words, in 48 chapters.

You can buy it from Kindle for $4 (US or ~$5.27 AUD) right now. If you go to that link, you can view the first six or so chapters for free, using the 'Look Inside' link on the left.

And there's a great deal more background on the book if you look at this link.

What I am trying to do before I get old and gaga, is  quite deliberately to subvert the way people see e-books: this work is self-published, but that's because no commercial publisher has yet realised that there are really exciting things you can only do by exploiting a new medium.

I have no plan of going gaga soon, but I want to put my feet up in the next few years, and then howl with mirth as newbies realise I was right, and try to claim my ideas for themselves.  They are going to have this priority claim to get around :-)

How is this book subversive?

This is history like you never saw before: it is participatory history, where the reader can become a player.  You don't have to, but I hope you will.

If you are Australian, this book fleshes out the bald, dead-white-male hero story you learned at school. It introduces new characters (not all of them white, or male, or heroes); provides contexts; and encourages you to ask your own questions.

And if you have the misfortune not to be an Australian, Mark Twain explains why you should read this book:
“Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.”
Here, you will meet reformed would-be assassins who fought bushrangers; the first cases of redbacks on the dunny seat; the truth about bunyips and the crocodile in Sydney’s Rocks; methods for getting rid of fleas; how horse thieves worked; what had to be done before paddle steamers could run on the Murray River; the Russian invasion ‘scare’ in Melbourne; duels fought by foolish men; a scandal over a dead horse; cruel treatment dished out to coolies; wrecks, floods, bushfires, droughts and plague; booms and busts; early schools and early poets: some sublime and some awful.

The real history of Australia, the untold stuff, has many diversions, like the case of the society ladies who stood on their chairs, waving their handkerchiefs: their action was one of the starting points for the book, and in chapter 48, you will learn why they did it.

The real Australian history is very different from the packaged stuff that you get from written and dramatic fiction in books. The judges weren’t all monsters, screaming “Hang Them!”. Judges often worked very hard to save prisoners from the gallows (even Samuel Burt, who really wanted to hang!). That said, quite a few of the convicts were serious villains, who did far more than “steal a loaf of bread to feed their hungry children”.

Then again, some of the other convicts were political prisoners, and at least one was falsely convicted: you’ll find all of those here, and you’ll also learn that transported convicts weren’t kept below decks, in chains, the whole voyage — and Norfolk Island wasn’t always the hell-hole it was in later years.

Then again, the people they called squatters weren’t always rich, the first bushrangers weren’t thieves, and Edward Hammond Hargraves wasn’t the first to discover gold — in fact, he never did discover gold, but he conspired to make Australia’s gold rush happen. Oh, yes, and if you learned about the explorers at school, they weren’t all heroes, some were villains, and some of them were fools.

The surprises don’t stop there: specialist pedants will tell you that Matthew Flinders was the first to use the name ‘Australia’, but this book offers two earlier documented sources for that name. Then again, pop history has swimming only starting with ‘neck-to-knee’ costumes in the 1890s: sorry, but your ancestors, if you are Australian, probably skinny-dipped. Certainly, the nation’s first swimming races came off with it all off, so to speak.

In short, this book tells it like it was, but more importantly, in the age of Fake News and Alternative Facts, this book gives you the sources, so you can ask the important questions:
* what happened before that?
* do you really expect us to believe that? and
* what happened next?

Come on in: the water's fine!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Our Easter is in the autumn

Easter in Australia is a major holiday period.  Our schools have a four-term year, with the first two terms being divided by a break beginning around (or before) Good Friday and running through the following week.  Nominally, it is autumn, but this blog includes a dozen or so species of wildflowers that were photographed, in bloom, in the sanctuary where I work on North Head, on 11 April 2017.

Our seasons are weird, as I said before. Anyhow, the first six are: three banksias and three Acacia species.


Many Sydney people will be off to the coast, or inland, or anywhere, queuing in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours, just to escape the crowds.  We who stay here say nothing about how Sydney at Easter can be very quiet indeed, for most of the remaining locals gather in just a few crowded venues.

In a research plot, fenced from rabbits,
the flannel flowers and wattle do well.
Here is a flannel flower or Actinotus,
called by that name from the feel of the petals.
Australia is a nominally Christian country, but once again this year, we will be reminded of just how nominal that allegiance is.  All over the nation, churches will swell to almost-full, as they only ever do at Christmas and Easter, but even then, few churches will overflow as they did in my youth.

Australian people seem to be able to find the comfort they need in more material things.  Perhaps we miss the symbolism northern hemisphere people get from celebrating the Resurrection in the spring.

Lambertia sp.
Epacris longiflora, long known also
as Native Fuchsia
Be that as it may, it is still autumn for us now.  We have just had two days in a row with 20 degree (C) temperatures in Sydney.  Over the Easter weekend, we have been promised maxima of 25C each day.

In Canberra, and in the mountains west of Sydney, and in the more pretentious suburbs, their foreign deciduous trees are turning to autumn colours and losing their leaves.  Elsewhere, people grow sensible Australian trees which are never bare, except after a bushfire.

One year at this time, a small bushfire broke out on the next ridge, smothering us in smoke.  It was a minor burn, though it crowned once or twice, sending flames up into the sky, and raining ash on the the houses nearby.

The blaze was soon controlled, but it's an ill wind, they say.  During the holidays that year, I found time to poke around the burnt areas, to see what relics I could uncover of the earliest inhabitants, whose engravings dawn many of the sandstone rock faces throughout the bush.  After a fire, many of these surfaces become accessible for the first time in maybe thirty years.

The clean smell of bush smoke was actually a blessing, for there had been a smell of mothballs on the bus, as woollen jumpers (our name for what others may call a pullover or a sweater) are resurrected from storage for yet another year.  All over Sydney, electric one-bar radiators are being pulled out and given their annual run-in, adding a distinctive burnt dust smell to the great indoors.

Our old dog always recognised autumn.  He would lie curled on his bed in their conservatory each morning, rather than standing hopefully and peering through the glass at us as we ate breakfast.  The humans are often a little less wise, and many of them will be swimming still. perhaps I will be among them.

Glycine, a delicate member of the pea family
We are ambivalent about our autumn.  Many people will cross the mountains to Bathurst on Thursday and Friday for a weekend of camping, drinking, and motor-bike races, but many will decide that it is too cold for a last swim, and spend their time in museums and art galleries.  After six years working in the museum industry, I have some sympathy for my former colleagues as they prepare for the onslaught of the masses.

Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower,
is around for most of each year,
Few people will go walking in the bush, which is where you will find us in the next week or so, making the most of the peace and quiet.

My wife and I found a whole new series of rock engravings two weeks ago on an isolated ridge.  We will work our way slowly along the ridge, following the fine smooth sandstone bed that attracted the artists. 

Hakea or needle bush
Not all sandstones are the same, but this stratum was once a washed-out river bed, filled later by sand that was particularly pure and free of clay, making a smooth, flat, tough sandstone surface to work on.

The bush tracks around Sydney are deserted right now, partly because there are fewer flowers blooming, maybe as few as a dozen or so species right now, and also because it is also Easter Show time.

I go to ‘the Show’ about once in ten years, and always come away swearing I will never do it again.  It looked for a while as if we would be going this year, and I found myself looking contemplatively at places I might fall from, breaking a leg as I land. That would  have saved me, but strategically placed rain did the job instead. Now the crowds will be too large.

Woollsia pungens commemorates an early Australian botanist,
William Woolls. Like Grevillea buxifolia, it flowers all the
year, almost.
One thing is certain: you will never find me travelling the roads at Easter.  There are just too many people driving at Easter.  Not that they can drive fast, of course, but there will be an ill-concealed fury in their driving that I have decided I can do without.

It would be enough to have to mill around the Royal Agricultural Society Showground with 150 000 other people, growing footsore and weary, getting annoyed by either dust or mud or both, becoming exasperated by outrageous prices, and yet somehow being entranced by some of the sights and smells that return me to my childhood.

Instead, I am at home, doing a last listen to the mp3 files version of my next book, a massive Australian history, as big as three normal paperbacks, which will be called Not Your Usual Australian Tales.

I will have more to say about that in a week or so, but here's an anecdote from the end of my foreword:
On a personal note, I have another reason for doubting paper records: I was born in Queensland in the latter days of World War II. When my father, who was in the RAAF, moved north into “the islands”, my mother flew to Sydney with me as a babe in arms on an Air Force Catalina.
The RAAF was subject to inflexible regulations, and the number of passengers allowed on a Catalina was restricted. An Air Commodore on the flight ordered that I be embarked as a Gladstone bag, and that was how I appeared on the manifest, so anybody would seek in vain who sought evidence of my travels on faded, curled, foolscap sheets.
I am grateful to the Air Commodore, but according to my mother, not the most reliable of witnesses, I showed my gratitude at the time by throwing up on him. I tend to believe this, because I have always been a bit of an anarchist at heart, but posthumously (so far as he is concerned), I express my thanks to that kindly and probably slightly smelly Air Commodore.
Still, neither my travel nor the arc allegedly described by my stomach contents appear anywhere in any surviving record. There is a lesson there for us all.



Monday, 10 April 2017

Life in Hyde Park

The easy way to Sydney's Hyde Park is by train.  There are two stations on the city circle that drop you off there: St James station at the northern end, named for the nearby early colonial church (designed by that great convict, forger and architect, Francis Greenway), and Museum station at the southern end, not too far from the Australian Museum.  Any number of buses run along Elizabeth Street past the park.

The pleasant way to get there is to walk.  Hyde Park lies along the eastern side of the main city district, so you can reach it by heading up almost any east-west street in the middle of the city.  If you miss it, you will probably bump into either the open grassed areas of the Domain, or the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Between them, these three open areas make an almost continuous belt of green, penetrating more than a mile from the harbour, up into the CBD.

There are no real times for Hyde Park to be open, and no gates or fences to keep you out, but it may not be the best of places to wander in the middle of the night.  It is not, however, a muggers' paradise like Central Park in New York.  Not yet, anyway...  On the other hand, it would be a shame not to go there at night, for the giant Moreton Bay fig trees are filled with tiny bud lights, making the park a fairyland for young children.  Fairyland with a bite, maybe, for you will often hear the harsh squabbling of the fruit bats as they feast on the figs overhead.

Tawny frogmouth, Middle Head, Sydney.
There are birds as well, ranging from daylight's noisy, pushy gulls and pigeons, to ibis with long curved beaks, prowling the garden beds and spearing the soil in search of worms.  By day, there will be a couple of tawny frogmouths, owl-like birds which imitate dead stumps, sitting motionless somewhere in the park, their disguise betrayed only by the spatter of white droppings beneath their favourite roost.  At night they hunt insects and small mammals, but by day, they remain motionless.

In about 1992, I was working nearby, took a camera into the park in the early morning, at a time when I calculated that the perch would be in sunlight, and took several careful photos.  An old man, one of life's less fortunate beings, wandered past.  He stopped to see what my target was, and said gravely, ‘Excuse me, mate, I think that kookaburra's dead.’  Then he wandered on without waiting for a reply.  Next came one of the gardeners, wanting to know how I had stuck ‘that thing’ up in the tree.  She had been working in the immediate area for a month, and had never noticed the bird on its branch, just three metres up.

The gardeners know all about the other wild life in the park.  There is an active population of possums living there, and the thick leaf litter of the garden beds provides a rich source of invertebrates to stoke a food chain which is also supported by the park's visitors.

The invertebrates have mostly come in with potted plants at various times, and include some rare treasures.  Around that time, I worked at the nearby museum, and we were in the habit of paying serious money to get Peripatus, velvet worms, from Victoria, so we could show these unusual animals to people.

Velvet worms have stubby little legs, and look like the missing links between the worms and the arthropods.  They catch their prey by spitting sticky slime at them, but they look delightful, with a jet-black matte skin.  You can imagine my delight (and the museum accountant's annoyance) when a children's workshop that I was running started to find velvet worms in leaf litter samples from Hyde Park!  Later, we found giant pseudoscorpions, 5 mm in length, and all sorts of other treasures that the passing tourist would never know about.  My friends the gardeners were equally excited when I took part of our catch back to show them what we were getting.

Once upon a time, it was just a race course and a cricket ground, sometimes referred to as ‘the exercising ground’.  By 1816, it was Hyde Park, but even in 1840 it was nothing grand.  Mrs. Charles Meredith called it ‘a park utterly destitute of trees . . . merely a large piece of brown ground fenced in, where is a well of good water, from which most of the houses are supplied by means of water-carts.’
Hyde Park in the 1850s: no trees, but sheep as lawn mowers.

Here, that usually reliable observer was a little off beam.  After the original water supply for Sydney, the Tank Stream, was completely polluted, Busby's Bore was established.  The ‘Bore’ was a long sloping tunnel, running down from swamps in what is now Centennial Park to Hyde Park.  From there, the water ran in wooden above-ground pipes to the corner of Elizabeth and Park Streets, high enough for the water carts to be filled by water pouring from the pipes.

At least one modern guide-book to Sydney tells a sad tale of the convicts toiling away with windlass and bucket, hauling water to the surface, but the whole tunnel was started at the lower end, at ground level, and was always drained on gravity.  The only thing to be hauled out by windlass was the rock spoil from the tunnel, once the tunnel had gone far enough to make it difficult to haul the spoil back to the lower opening.

Water remains a theme throughout the park, with fountains and pools in many places.  The Archibald Fountain at the northern end is a delight when it is running  On a more serious note, the southern end of the park contains a large War Memorial and the Pool of Remembrance, which seems mainly to commemorate fallen leaves and ice cream wrappers.
The Archibald fountain can be fun when the wind blows.
The statue of James Cook at the southern end was set up where he could look down on the harbour, but now the trees have grown, buildings have sprung up, and poor old Cook is more or less landlocked.  Still, the statue can, if viewed from the appropriate angle, cause uncontrolled lewdness and hilarity in most adolescents, due to a most unfortunate telescope.

Hyde Park is largely a passive activity area, although the old men who play chess there are anything but passive, crowing with delight as they capture each other's pieces.  This activity is well worth watching, but be warned: they can be scathing in their response to those who offer advice.  Their version of chess is a no-quarters form of psychological warfare, and no prisoners are taken.

Anybody who walks there often gets to recognise the regulars, like the man with the long pole who goes around putting slices of bread in the trees for the possums, the power-walkers, the dawdlers and the bird-watchers.  The gardeners know the regulars as well, and when a flower bed is cleaned out in the early morning, the flowers are saved in bundles, and handed out to the recognised faces as they trudged along the gravel paths.  In a city of five million people, it is nice to know that there can still be a sense of community like that.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Goanna Friends

16 February 1788 An alligator, ab’t 8 feet long, was seen close by where I go to birdlime just behind the camp, and has been seen among the tents at night more than once.— Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal, HRNSW (2), 394.
A lace monitor (goanna) from Phillip's The Voyage to Botany Bay, 1790.
Gum trees in Australia are often identified by their bark type.  Stringybarks and ironbarks are fairly straightforward, and bloodwoods have a bark filled with gum pockets that spray out at you when you hit them with an axe.  Other gum trees have smooth barks which are kept that way because the outside layer of bark dies and peels off regularly.

In some cases, the bark lies thick on the ground, keeping down other plants that might compete for precious water, but the smooth-bark habit has another advantage.  It keeps a nice clean surface on which animals may leave their tracks, on which animals must leave their tracks, if they are to climb the tree.

One of my favourite picnic haunts is a clearing, close to a stream, surrounded by smooth-barked apples.  At least half of that name is self-explanatory, although the tree is a relative of the gum, and certainly bears no apples.  The smooth pale bark of these trees is a perfect place to go detecting, looking for signs of previous climbers.  No possum can climb up to its nesting hollow without leaving scratches, no bird can perch on a low branch without leaving claw marks, and no goanna can climb, looking for eggs, without leaving signs of its passing.
Perentie, a different sort of varanid, seen near Uluru.

Goannas are varanid lizards, members of a group that is mainly in Australia, but found also across Asia and Africa.  Their most famous member is undoubtedly the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, which is about 3 metres long, and able to attack children or sleeping adults.  We used to have an even bigger giant varanid in Australia, up until 30 000 years ago, about 7 metres long, but the biggest Australian varanid today is only about 2 metres in length, and much less fearsome.

Mind you, that was enough to convince the early white settlers that there were ‘alligators’ around Sydney, and just recently, an alarmed tourist claimed to have seen a ‘crocodile’, probably at my favourite picnic site, but it was only a goanna, an old friend that we greet each time we stop by there.  Goannas are carrion eaters, and I suspect that it makes quite a good living from discarded scraps and from people like us, who feed it deliberately.

The goannas are supposed to get their name from a fancied resemblance to iguanas, a completely unrelated bunch of reptiles, but they are themselves, all 25 species in Australia, along with the other fifteen or so, scattered around the world.  You can find them scattered right across Australia.

A goanna on the prowl has a slightly evil look to it.  They walk with their upper leg joints held out horizontally, and there is an almost calculated threat in the way each foot is lifted, rolled around, and placed on the ground, like a sailor swaggering down the street.  The goanna holds its head high, then lowers it to the ground, moving it from side to side, and it flicks its tongue in and out, tasting the air to see what may be on offer.
Lace monitor, Port Stephens.

For a slow-moving menace, the goanna has an amazing turn of speed when it is threatened.  It rushes at the nearest tree, and hurls itself up the trunk, moving quickly to the far side of the tree.  Walk around to the other side of the tree, and the goanna will move with you, keeping a handy barrier of timber between you and it.  Goannas do not trust humans more than they have to.  Except in open country that is.  Frighten a goanna on a treeless piece of ground, and you may find yourself playing the part of a tree.  Avoid this if you can, for all tree climbing animals have sharp claws.

A treed goanna may be persuaded to leave its shelter, provided a reasonable offer is made to it.  Anybody who has ever kept poultry in Australia will know that there is one thing a goanna cannot resist: the chance to get its muzzle dripping in egg.  Put a hen's egg at the bottom of the tree, stand back about six to eight metres, and hunger will soon overcome its sense of distrust.

Turning around on a narrow tree trunk ought to be something of a challenge for something as long as a human, but not for the goanna.  Deftly, it turns from head-up to head-down, and stealthily approaches the egg, watching its watchers as it comes.

Goannas use their tongues only to sense things, and never to eat, so the feeding goanna needs to slip the egg into its mouth before crushing it.  If ever a reptile could be said to exhibit sheer sensual pleasure, it would have to be a goanna, sitting at the base of a tree, with traces of egg white and yolk dribbling down from its mouth.
You can find them close to homes, but they usually move away.

Many Australians accept without question that the goanna is an evil animal.  They will assure you that goanna bites ‘come back’ each year for seven years after you have been bitten, that they are venomous or worse.  Some Australians will make every effort to run over a goanna, believing that they are protecting the cuddly birds by doing so.  They have been conditioned to this by children's stories, and by a judgement based on appearances rather than knowledge.

In truth, a goanna bite might go septic on you, for they are great eaters of carrion.  Certainly they take a few eggs, but they also take lizards, snakes, and other invertebrates.  However you look at it, their reputation for evil is greatly exaggerated.

Many years ago, I worked as a ranger in a local National Park.  There was a large goanna in the park which was in the habit of basking on a rock, just below a lookout.  We park workers would often time our labours so that we were near the lookout at lunchtime, so we could take our break there, looking out over the sea and admiring ‘our’ goanna.  Looking back, it was unwise, but we got into the habit of sharing small bits of our sandwiches with our friend the goanna.  We would show our goanna to people, and encourage them to share suitable food with it as well.  After all, it was a carrion eater, so a dead sandwich would be no worse than any other dead thing, we thought.

Lace monitor, Port Stephens.
That argument was even more misguided.  One Sunday, I arrived to find some distressed people at the lookout.  A lout had proven his heroism by dropping down onto the warm rock, and smashing the goanna's skull with a stone before driving off.  Sadly, I picked up the body and I carried it around with me for the next hour or so, while I was on duty in the area.

Our goanna did not die entirely in vain, for I managed to explain in gentle factual terms to any questioners that this was an old friend, done to death most foully, and to no purpose.  I would add that we would at least be able to investigate its stomach contents to see what it had been eating, and I probably won a few hearts and minds that day.  I did not mention that we would probably find sandwiches as a major item.


I like winning hearts and minds to good causes.  It is something I do well, and I have no qualms about using whatever subterfuges and histrionics are needed to achieve my ends.  And while I feel that the ends properly justify the means, looking back, I cannot help wishing that I had not had the necessary means that day.