Tag Archives: racism

Sarah Maddison’s Beyond White Guilt

Sarah Maddison, Beyond White Guilt: The real challenge for Black–White relations in Australia (Allen & Unwin 2011)

I’ve been having trouble blogging about this book – maybe I would have been better off writing one of those ‘X reads Y’ series of posts that take you through the book along with the blogger over the days or weeks it takes to read it. There was hardly a page when my mind wasn’t firing off in many directions, excited by one idea, quarrelling with another, irritated by an elliptical use of a reference, challenged and provoked and challenged again. But here you are, just one little blog post.

The book starts brilliantly. While strolling around her inner city suburb the author sees on the bank of the polluted and deformed Cooks River a tiny space that she imagines to be pretty much unchanged in the 200 and more years since white settlement. She pictures a group of people of the Eora nation going about their lives there, and is shocked by the mental image, not because it is new or surprising, but because she realises ‘that [she] had allowed [her] consciousness of that reality to fade.’ She goes on, ‘Unlike Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, I could choose to “forget” or to deny or repress the reality of my place here.’

Such moments must have been experienced by every thoughtful non-Indigenous Australian – moments when, in shocking contrast to our habitual complacency, it becomes blindingly clear that our current lives rest on a history of colonial invasion and dispossession. Recounting this example in the Introduction implies a promise that the next 200 or so pages will unpack such moments: How and why does that forgetting happen? What would happen if we stopped ‘forgetting’ and began to live in the real world? How do we go about making that change? Is this a thing that we need to address as so many million individuals, is there a challenge we need to meet collectively, and if both how are they connected?

Coming from the author of Black Politics, a powerful account of the main themes and tensions in Aboriginal politics based on extensive interviews with a range of Aboriginal leaders, this implied promise feels anything but hollow.

I’m not confident that I can summarise the book’s argument adequately, but here goes:

  • When the British arrived on the continent of Australia in the late 18th century, they wanted the land, and took it, with devastating consequences for the people who were already living here. Some people baulk at calling what happened genocide, but it’s hard to see how that word is far off the mark.
  • As the Australian nation formed, and people took on the  Australian national identity, they needed stories of the nation’s origin that would allow them to feel good about themselves and the identity. Stories were told of pioneers’ hardihood, of Anzac larrikin heroism, of sporting accomplishments. The history of European–Aboriginal relations was marginalised or silenced. This version of national identity became entrenched both in public institutions and in people’s minds.
  • The objective reality is that all non-Indigenous Australians continue to benefit from the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to struggle with the consequences of the huge and ongoing assault on their ancestors, their cultures and their communities.
  • We know this. We mostly ignore it, but we know it. [This has to be very confusing for us as children: the stories are told and discounted in the same breath.] This is a kind of anaesthesia, a dissociative story we tell ourselves.
  • To break through that anaesthesia and face the reality of our history involves emotional discomfort. Unless we face this discomfort we’re likely to either a) see the problem (if we admit there is one) as inherent to Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures and so none of our business, or b) intervene in ways that  don’t challenge the assumptions that allowed the past and ongoing injustices to happen in the first place. [Her discussion of the Intervention is compelling.] Either way, we continue to live in a strange, dissociated state.
  • What has to change is us.
  • Real, effective change isn’t impossible. Australian history is full of examples. [She discusses  the 1967 referendum, the Reconciliation process of the 1990s, and the Sorry Books and the apology for the Stolen Generations.]
  • So what is to be done? We need a difficult conversation about remembering and forgetting. We need dialogue – as opposed to debate or just conversation – in which [I'm quoting Boori Pryor, not anyone in this book] ‘we see your tears, you see our tears’. We need to acknowledge our [now I'm quoting Sarah Maddison] ‘bonds of solidarity with the perpetrators of historical and human injustice’, and find a way to break them, that is, ‘to rethink who we are as a nation’.
  • ‘Relationships will be central to whatever path lies ahead’. An immediate opportunity is the referendum coming up in 2112 to include an acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.

It’s an important subject, and an important book. When you read it you may find my summary inadequate, and if so you’ll get no quarrel from me. The fact is, I found the argument hard to follow. My best guess as to why is that there are actually two books here struggling to co-exist. One is the one I’ve tried to summarise above. The other is a companion volume to Black Politics, which acknowledges and synthesises a vast body of thinking in a range of disciplines that addresses the issues of racism, colonisation and collective guilt. Notes and the bibliography account for nearly a quarter of the book’s pages. The text is studded with rich, provocative quotes, but at times it feels that no phrase, no concept can be used without deference to its originator. This may be sound academic practice, but the effect – at least for my kind of reader – is that hardly any time at all goes by without someone identified as political scientist A, legal scholar B, anti-racism educator C, political psychologist D, historian E … the list goes on … popping up, throwing a couple of words into the ring and then disappearing. I’d be going, ‘Who was that talking head? What  context did they use that phrase in?’ I would rather have read an overview of the scholarship,  White Politics, perhaps, and then moved on to Sarah Maddison’s argument. Or perhaps this is just a longwinded way of saying I found the scholarly apparatus distracting here.

Another reason for my difficulty is confusion about the word guilt. You’ll notice I haven’t used it in my summary. Is guilt a feeling or a legal verdict? Does it refer to a subjective state or a collective condition, or a vertigo-inducing combination? It seems to me that there are a number of quite distinct things rolled together in the one term here.

You can see Sarah Maddison speaking loud and clear in her own voice in a talk given at the Wheeler Centre here. I recommend it.

Meeting W E B Du Bois

W E B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, Barnes & Noble Classics 2003)

I got a BA Hons degree in English Literature from a Good Australian University in 1970. Forty years later, it’s as if I’m standing on a hilltop with a view to the horizon in every direction, and all I can see are the boundless plains of my own ignorance. I hope I’ll go to the grave reconciled to the fact that I know almost nothing about anything, but for now I find the condition not so much frustrating as tantalising: so much to learn and only one brain. It may be a kind of information gluttony, but I can’t quite see that there’s anything wrong with it.

Reading W E B  Du Bois was like climbing a little higher up my hill and seeing that my ignorance was even vaster than I imagined.  I knew vaguely that he was an eminent African American scholar who wrote about racism, that he became a Communist. I may have half heard that he renounced his US citizenship in the 1960s. It never occurred to me that I might want to read him until Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds began their Drawing the Global Colour Line with a quote from his ‘The Souls of White Folk’.

The Souls of Black Folk, published a couple of years before that essay, is his best known work. I’m going to assume that I’m not the only person in the world who doesn’t know it well, and tell you that it a passionate and judicious exposition of the condition of ‘Negroes’ in the USA, particularly the South with detailed attention to the ‘Black Belt’ of Georgia, three decades after Emancipation. This centenary edition has an excellent introduction by Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor at Columbia University, who identifies features of the fourteen essays that account for their  status as ‘a founding text of African-American studies’:

its insistence on an interdisciplinary understanding of black life, on historically grounded and philosophically sound analysis, on the scholar’s role as advocate and activist, and on close study of the cultural products of the objects of examination

I would add that the book is beautifully written: all the marshalling of fact, the polemic, the analysis would stand strongly by themselves, but the music of the writing carries them home. And it’s intensely personal. Perhaps the most poignant moment  (poignard means dagger) occurs in the 11th essay, ‘On the Passing of the First-Born’, in his description of his infant son’s funeral procession:

The busy city dinned about us; they did not say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they did not say much, – they only glanced and said, ‘Niggers!’

In a book that often says we to mean the society as a whole, that consistently speaks to our common humanity, that last word is worth a thousand pictures.

The word racism didn’t exist until the 1930s. Du Bois  talks about ‘the Veil’, sometimes ‘the Veil of race’. Far from being a literary affectation as a contemporary review included in this edition implies, the image communicates powerfully. Du Bois describes himself as living within the Veil; he holds his baby son in his arms and see the shadow of the Veil fall across him; he hopes that for the ‘thousand thousand dark children’ tempted to hate, ‘someone will some day lift the Veil, – will come tenderly and cheerily into those sad little lives and brush the brooding hate away’; he takes joy from Shakespeare, Balzac, Aristotle, because when he is with them, he dwells above the Veil.

There’s an awful lot in this book that’s quotable, an awful lot that could have been written this morning, though it probably would have been couched differently – less reference to classical myth, for instance). The need to communicate through the world’s many Veils is at least as pressing today as in 1903 (not for nothing did the government of the day ban journalists anywhere near the asylum seekers on the Tampa in 2001). Du Bois writes (ignoring the existence of women as he does when generalising though not when attending to specific events):

herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, – all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, – who is good? not that men are ignorant, – what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.

But the book is not just about racism or Black folk as victims. It’s about people with souls. In the final essay, he writes:

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song – soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation, – we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

Namatjira, Perkins, Du Bois, Stojanovski

There’s been an extraordinary confluence in my cultural intake over the last week: Hettie Perkins’s Art + Soul on the ABC, Big hART’s Namatjira at Belvoir Street, Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe, and W E B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which I’m just starting. If I was a public institution and the Coalition was in power I’d have my funding cut.

A major element of Namatjira is the story of the friendship between the man known to non-Arrernte people as Albert Namatjira and the white World War One veteran Rex Battarbee. If Dog Ear Cafe had a single take-home message, it would be about the importance of solid relationships. In an exchange between Stojanovski and Robin Japanangka Granites, a Warlpiri elder. Stojanovski (named Yakajirri in Warlpiri) says that he feels that blackfellas (Yapa) and whitefellas (Kadiya) are standing on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon ‘looking at each other and waving at each other, but our cultural worlds are so different that we are not connecting at all’. Robin answers:

No, Yakajirri, I think you are wrong. I see tightropes across that canyon, and I see people like you and me walking those tightropes, connecting both sides.

Probably the most attractive thing about Art + Soul is the way Hettie Perkins puts herself in the frame, letting us see the warmth, but also the awkwardness of her relationships, as an urban Aboriginal woman and curator, with artists from remote communities.

The first of the 14 essays in Du Bois’s 1903 book begins with a brief impression of white folk clumsily attempting relationship:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville [site of a Civil War battle]; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

I know the legacy of US slavery is very different from that of Australian genocide and dispossession, but they do share some features, and I couldn’t resist blogging about this  little volley of reminders of the importance of personal relationships in dealing with those histories.

I know this is racist, but …*

A little after 7 o’clock this morning I was up the street buying carrots for our breakfast juice.

‘How are you?’ I asked, as the owner weighed the carrots.

‘Good so far,’ he said.

‘Too early in the day for things to have gone too wrong?’

And we were launched into a conversation about things that can go wrong in a small supermarket like his. In particular, he said, it can be five minutes from closing time and a couple of drunks will come in and wreck the place, or steal something. But thieves are a big problem at any time of the day. (This is Annandale, remember, whose public schools’ rankings on the Sydney Morning Herald’s League Table established it as a nice middle class suburb.) Talking about ways of dealing with thieves, he said, with an apologetic shrug:

I know this is racist, but they’re mostly Australian1, and Australians think you should do things by the rules. So when I catch them they expect me to call the police. Then the police take twenty minutes to come, and the thieves just swear at me and walk away. But I don’t give a f*** about the rules, I push them to the ground and search them, then I tell them to get out of my shop and not come back.

You can’t do that with women, of course, especially if you’ve seen them put stuff down the front of their jeans, and the ‘girls’ who work behind the tills won’t do it because they shrink from violence. He does ban people from the shop if he checks the CCTV after their visit and sees that they’ve lifted something – he’ll walk up to them out in the street, tell them they’ve been sprung, and warn them off. He’ll also send a copy of their image to his brother-in-law who has a shop down the road.

(I forgot to mention, the shopkeeper is originally from Lebanon, and I expect he has an Australian passport.)

* My blog had a huge surge of hits when I gave a post a provocatively sexist-sounding title a while back, so I’m experimenting to see if racism has the same pulling power.
1 He probably would have said ‘Skips’ if we knew each other better, but we both knew who he meant by Australians.

Web of Lies

Beverley Naidoo, Web of Lies (Puffin 2004)

Someone recommended this book last year during the kerfuffle over Bloomsbury’s US cover of Justine Larbalestier‘s Liar. That book’s narrator and main character is African American, but the girl on the kerfufflised cover was unmistakeably white, giving rise to animated  discussion of the many fronts on which racism us still being combatted in children’s and young adult literature (not just someone is wrong on the internet), including debate about the doctrine long propounded in Australia as well as the USA that books with non-white characters on the cover won’t sell. A number of well informed participants in the conversation gave us lists of books that are on the side of the angels – Web of Lies was one of them. That kerfuffle, by the way, had an excellent outcome: Bloomsbury replaced the offending cover with one that didn’t tell young readers of African heritage that they were profoundly anti-photogenic. A lesson had been learned.

Or had it? It turned out that when I finally got around to reading this book another kerfuffle had arisen over another whitewashed cover from, yes, the same publisher. This time the book is actually published. It might seem like a storm in a teapot, some blogospheric ephemera, but there’s an important issue here. A young woman named Ari published an open letter to Bloomsbury on the blog Reading in Color, which said in part:

Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don’t see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can’t be that certain character because you don’t look like them. I love the books I grew up with, but none of them featured people of color. I found those later, when I was older and I started looking for them. Do you know how sad I feel when my middle school age sister tells me she would rather read a book about a white teen than a person of color because “we aren’t as pretty or interesting.” She doesn’t know the few books that do exist out there about people of color because publishing houses like yourself, don’t put people of color on the covers. And my little brother doesn’t even like to read, he wants to read about cool people who look like him, but he doesn’t see those books in bookstores and now he rarely reads.

The whole letter is worth reading. So is Justine Larbalestier’s post.

With all that in mind, Web of Lies is impressive. Not only does it have a Black youth on its cover, but it’s a gripping yarn whose main characters are African asylum seekers in England. I don’t know what Ari’s little brother thinks is cool, but there’s a fair chance that – when he’s less little – he’d be interested in Femi, the boy who gets mixed up with what used to be called bad company, and finds himself on a slippery slope involving petty theft, then drugs and violence. The author is white, originally South African, and has clearly done more than academic research into the experiences of African teens living in London. The story rings true and powerful, and if anyone was thinking of putting it in a niche category because its characters aren’t white, they’d be doing the world a disservice.

I know, it’s a bit odd to spend most of a post that’s nominally about a book talking about other things entirely, but I suppose what I’m trying to do here is to admit that I wouldn’t have read this book if not for the kerfuffle, and while part of the reason is that I don’t read much YA literature, another part is that I’ve unwittingly bought the propaganda that books about Black people are only for Black people to read. Wittingly, of course, I don’t believe that for a moment and have read many books that should have made me wiser.

Update: Within hours of my blogging about Bloomsbury’s bloomer, they have withdrawn the controversial cover. To quote their web site:

Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.

Thanks to Alien Onions for the news. (Though you know the problem isn’t that the jacket ’caused offence’. You can’t do much at all without offending someone. I would have preferred them to say something like ‘the jacket design was unintentionally hurtful’ or even go so far as to use the word ‘racist’.)

Travels in Atomic Sunshine

Robin Gerster, Travels in atomic sunshine: Australia and the occupation of Japan (Scribe 2008)

Thousands of Australian soldiers and their families were part of the Occupation of Japan from February 1946 until early 1952. They formed the bulk of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, generally overlooked in the shadow of the much larger and better equipped US occupation forces. While the US occupiers, with headquarters and amenities in Tokyo, set about imposing democracy by decree and using military might to change a militaristic culture to a peaceful one, insisting on freedom of the press except for stories that might make trouble for the occupiers, the Australians – whose generals led the BCOF – were stationed near the devastation of Hiroshima and seem to have managed without any sense of themselves as Liberators. They are scarcely mentioned by any of our otherwise zealous military historians, and barely appear in the Canberra War Memorial. Sneered at by the British, discounted by the US,  at home they are ‘the forgotten Force’.

At the time, thanks to reports of atrocities in the Burma–Siam Railway  and Changi Prison as well as the bizarre White Australia Policy, anti-Japanese sentiment was fierce in Australia, and the occupationnaires were in a bind. If they enacted the home sentiment, as many did, they were likely to be brutal, even criminal, in their dealings with the already shattered population, and there are plenty of stories of rape, sexual exploitation, black marketeering (‘wogging’) and careless disregard for human life. If they were open to Japanese culture and the humanity of the people, as again many did, they were likely to be shunned as ‘Jap-lovers’: there were plenty of headlines at home to that effect, and when people returned it was to even less acknowledgement than the troops who served in Vietnam. Governments still deny that their might have something to do with the high incidence of cancer might be connected to the time they spent at nuclear ‘Ground Zero’.

If someone wanted to make a serious war movie, they could do a lot worse than mining this book. The movie would run very little chance of feeding adrenaline addiction the way so many well-intentioned anti-war movies do. It would have trouble being read as a tale of Good vs Evil. It would leave a number of received True Stories looking decidedly tatty. After so many movies about the horrors of the Japanese prisoner of war camps, how refreshing to show those liberated Aussies as occupiers of post-War Japan – some acting out their racism-boosted vengefulness on the civilian survivors of Hiroshima, others coming to appreciate the culture  and even falling in love. The book seethes with potential story lines. Here’s the tale of  the young Australian signalman, John Henderson:

IN early 1948, immigration minister Arthur Calwell had reasserted the government’s position that no Japanese woman would be permitted to enter Australia, irrespective of whether she was he wife or fiancée of an Australian serviceman … Henderson had married a young university graduate, Mary Kasahi Abe, by Shinto rites. With his wife pregnant, and worried about the legality of the Shinto ceremony, he sought to be married by the battalion chaplain, the well-known BCOF identity Padre Laing. Laing’s duty was to inform military command, and Henderson was peremptorily repatriated. The officer given the task of putting the order into effect related, 40 years later, that someone at BCOF HQ had decided to make an example of him. This was easily achieved, as he was a low-ranking, demoralised youngster of no consequence. A ‘thin, frail-looking lad’, Henderson was reduced to tears upon hearing the news. Accompanied by the padre and two MPs, he was put on the Kanimbla and locked in the brig to be returned to Australia, the father of a baby daughter whom he never got to see.

… During the debacle, and while his family was receiving abusive anonymous mail for supporting their son, the papers were full of photographs of radiantly smiling British migrant families arriving in Sydney … [Immigration minister] Arthur Calwell played to the crowd, stating that, while there were living relatives of the men who suffered at the hands of the Japanese, ‘it would be the grossest act of public indecency to permit a Japanese of either sex to pollute Australia or Australian-controlled shores’. What an irony: John Henderson had himself suffered, directly and not vicariously, from Japanese wartime brutality. He had laboured on the Burma–Thailand Railway, no less, and later in the coal mines in Japan. There, he had been befriended by a guard wh\o handed him food, including small gifts from his sister, treats such as sweets, and rice cakes. The very reason Henderson decided to volunteer to BCOF after the war was that he wanted to meet his benefactress. He did, they became strongly attached, and they married – and now his own government had decided that he presence would ‘pollute’ Australia.

… Despite his promises, Henderson never returned to his Japanese family. He had asked a couple of his army mates remaining in Japan to keep a friendly eye on his wife in his absence; in the meantime, his parcels and letters stopped after some months. Years later, in late 1953 or early 1954, one of them returned to Kure after completing his service in Korea, and met the woman, by chance, downtown near the railway. She was with her pimp, having been reduced to prostitution, with a mixed-race child, in order to survive.

Travels in Atomic Sunshine won the 2009 NSW Premier’s History Award. It should also have a chance in the Literary Awards.

Drawing the Global Colour Line

Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge University Press 2008)

1colourThis shared the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award (non-fiction category). Otherwise, it hasn’t made much of a splash. I didn’t have to wait in line to get my copy from the local library.

The book starts brilliantly, quoting W E B DuBois’s 1910 essay, ‘The Souls of White Folk’:

the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter indeed. … What is whiteness that one should so desire it? … Whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen.

(The whole article was reprinted in the Monthly Review in 2003. He’s a formidable writer, one I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read until now.)

The historical narrative starts with the arrival of an entrepreneurial Chinese man in Melbourne in 1855, two years after the discovery of gold, and ranges around Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California, British Columbia, tracing the progress of the ideal of ‘white men’s countries’, and along with it the betrayal of promises made by the British Empire and US to their non-Anglo-Saxon subjects and citizens.

It’s a hard read, especially in the first two sections – ‘Discursive frameworks’ and ‘Transnational solidarities’ – where public intellectuals of more than a hundred years ago solemnly put forward blatantly racist propositions that are still awfully familiar, but with very little of the dog-whistling, denial and misdirection we’re used to these days, and then democracy-loving politicians proceed to build on each other’s successes in excluding and disenfranchising anyone who is classified as not white. We have our noses rubbed in the arrogant and repulsive racist atmosphere in which the Australian Commonwealth and the Union of South Africa were founded and first California and then the rest of the US chose ‘racial solidarity’ even with recent bitter enemies and legislated to keep Asian, particularly Japanese, immigrants away from their shores.

In some ways it’s like a horror story, a sort of I know what you did last century. The scientific consensus reached in the 1940s, that ‘race’ was ‘not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth, which had “created an enormous amount of damage, taking a heavy toll in human lives causing intolerable suffering”,’* followed by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, amounts to the moment where we wake up and discover it was all a terrible dream … or was it? That moment is followed by a long tail, in which the ‘white men’s countries’ one by one open their doors and legislate against racial discrimination, until ‘Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress sweep into power and dismantle the last bastion of white supremacy.’

Sadly, the book lacks the visceral appeal of (I imagine) even very bad horror writing. It marshalls a vast amount of material, and it has hugely enriched my understanding of the White Australia Policy, among other things, but the prose is heavy going, and the authors are often absent except as competent and passionate compilers of evidence. This may well be necessary when there is such a complex field to cover, but it makes me wonder how the arguments went in the judging panel for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. I know literature is a slippery term, but oughtn’t the quality of the prose (or verse), the way the author’s (or authors’) mind makes itself felt in the work play at least as large a part as the importance of its contents?

The chapter on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 is a rich exception to the prevailing drabness. The Australian Prime Minister, W M Hughes, emerges there as a lively fall-guy cum villain: he vociferous opposes  the Japanese delegation’s diplomatic, courteous and eminently rational push to include a paragraph on racial equality in the covenant of the League of Nations. The other white leaders, who generally despise the uncouth Australian, say that if it was up to them they’d include the paragraph, but you know, the Australians (who didn’t actually have a seat at the table) won’t stand for it … Hughes went to the grave thinking of this as a great victory. Someone ought to make a movie of that chapter.

Let me finish with two shiny factoids. First, when the Australian and New Zealand armies steamed to the Middle East in the First World War, their troopships were protected by the Japanese fleet. (Suck on that, Billy Hughes!) Second, tangential to the book’s main narrative (and incidentally an excellent example of the book’s prose style):

Australia remained constitutionally dependent on Britain and sovereignty remained formally with the monarch, but with effective sovereignty in matters of race, the quest for political independence lost its urgency. Not until 1926, with the Balfour Declaration, did Australia gain full power over foreign relations and the implementation of treaties. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster acknowledged the full statutory independence of the Dominions, but Australia didn’t sign until 1942.

Yet another thing we weren’t told at school!