The Power of Audio: Presenting the Past

A cornerstone of this week’s New South Wales History Week was Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media, held at the State Library of New South Wales. The symposium has its own blog which will soon feature detailed reviews of the sessions. Suffice to say I came away from the Symposium inspired about the potential for public history, education and story-telling!

What I’ve been thinking about most since the symposium is the power of audio. As Michelle Rayner, Executive Producer of ABC Radio National’s history program Hindsight said, radio is undergoing a renaissance in the age of the podcast. The possibilities for using radio and audio for history teaching, story-telling and for connecting with the public are enormous. History programming on radio is no longer the ephemeral thing of the past, once heard, often forgotten (unless of course you had your tape recorder at the ready to record a program…)

Dr Siobhan McHugh’s presentation during the Radio Panel in particular evoked the power of audio. She argued her case for the need to connect emotionally as well as intellectually with an audience using the medium she is so passionate about.  We heard clips from radio documentaries she’d made about the Snowy Hydro scheme, with the rich variety of voices and accents  of the Scheme’s workers; from Beagle Bay, which featured the voices of a child of the stolen generation, and one of the Irish nuns who cared for the children.  Siobhan’s excerpt from Marrying Out reminded me of stories my Mum has told me of growing up Catholic in small-town NSW. But the most powerful piece for me  was an excerpt from a program about Vietnam, in which an army nurse described cradling a soldier as he died. It took enormous self-control not to dissolve into tears in the midst of the symposium. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that.

 This experience took me back to a lecture that the late great Dr Tom Stannage delivered in my first-year Australian history course at UWA in 1988. I will never forget the recording he played of Aboriginal women describing the day their children were taken from them, talking about how the children’s footprints remained on the sandy ground of their huts long after they were gone. It was the most powerful lecture I have ever attended—of course that has to do with the lecturer’s skill, and the emotive subject matter, but it was the voices of those mothers that remain with me to this day.

Attending the Symposium reminded me I hadn’t listed to Hindsight for a while, so I listened yesterday to The Catalpa Escape, which aired about a month ago. My connection with that story and the hold it has over me is probably the subject of another blogpost, but hearing the voices in that audio as they discussed a story I so love gave me goosebumps. Historians can  reach different people in different ways, for me audio seems to evoke a deep-seated response… Surely the aim of any public history project.

Out of Work: A VC’s relief

Out of Work: A VC’s Relief

In 2012 Professor Bruce Scates gave an interesting interview about ANZAC Day:  Listening it to again got me thinking about what ANZAC Day means,  how it’s commemorated, and how that commemoration has evolved over time.

Prof Scates mentioned a soldier who had been awarded a Victoria Cross after Gallipoli, but returned from war a pacifist. Hugo Throssell’s VC was recommended for “most conspicuous gallantry” during operations on the Kaiajik Aghala (Hill 60) at Gallipoli. On his return to Australia, he was invited to open a war memorial but shocked the attendees by proceeding to advocate pacifism in his keynote speech.  I was intrigued, having grown up in WA I’d never heard of Throssell.  A quick search of Trove took me to this article about  his return to WA— subtitled “Out of work, but never so pleased to lose a job in my life.”  The journalist hoped Throssell would share his story in public…that he did in a way.

Throssell was a well-connected West Australian. He was the son of a former Premier, and married to the novelist Katharine Susannah Pritchard. A war hero, he was destined to remain in the public eye. Perhaps post-war Perth wasn’t quite ready for his message.  Sadly, Throssell took his own life in 1933. Like many veterans he struggled with the physical and psychological scars of war, never really recovering.

As Prof Scates said, ANZAC day is a day of remembering. But it’s not just the ‘conspicuously brave’, or those who died on the battlefield that we should remember. It is the myriad of stories,  with twists and turns like Throssell’s, that comprise the ANZAC tradition. Lest we forget.

Ned Kelly Interviewed

My first #TroveTuesday post…and I’m sticking to family history.

I’ve been researching the life and times of my great-great-grandfather—nicknamed Brickie—on and off for a few years now. It’s been a somewhat frustrating search, as most of the narrative I’ve found leads back to a setting-the-record-straight-letter Brickie himself wrote to J.J.Kenneally, author of The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers (1929). Being a lover of evidence to back up a story and an argument, I want more than his word for it.

The official record tells us virtually nothing about Brickie’s early life, but he burst onto the public scene in spectacular fashion in 1878 when he was arrested and charged—along with Ellen Kelly—with the attempted murder of Constable Fitzpatrick. The events of that night, confused as they were, snowballed and lead ultimately to Ned’s famous last stand. Was Brickie just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was he close to the Kelly family?  My Trove search tonight dug up an interview with Ned Kelly from 1880 which I hadn’t seen before: I loved hearing Ned’s voice; the Q&A format gives the interview an aura of authenticity, leaving little room for journalistic interpretation. Ned described Brickie as “not related to us; he occupied land at Greta.”   Maybe Ned was just trying to do Brickie a good turn by dissociating him from the Kelly family,  but it strikes me as a dismissive assessment of Brickie’s role. But that’s my interpretation, isn’t it?!

Like most families, mine has a few skeletons in the closet. Finding those skeletons has made me question whether I should really be digging up and exposing episodes in my ancestors’ lives that they most likely wanted to keep private, even secret. Is it really fair to their memory? I think the answer lies in what I do with the information. In Brickie’s case, I know that he was ultimately pardoned, so I want to finish the job and put the events of 1878 in context by finding out all I can.

P.S. Trove also pointed me to the fact that the proceedings of the Royal Commission into the Victorian Police Force which ultimately granted Brickie his pardon are available at the State Library of NSW—easier (but much less fun) than the trip to the PROV in Melbourne I thought I’d have to make!

Napoleon – On the Defensive?

I’m looking forward to seeing the National Gallery of Victoria’s Napoleon exhibition in Melbourne in a couple of weeks. I studied Napoleon earlier this year and while I had the chance to re-assess his actions and legacy, I’m not sure I really changed my mind about him. But I did realise just how much I had been brought up with the ‘English’ version of Napoleon.

I scoffed audibly during a lecture when I read Napoleon’s words “Is there any point on which I could be attacked and which a historian could not take up my defence? My intentions perhaps? He has evidence enough to clear me. My despotism? He can prove that dictatorship was absolutely necessary. Will it be said that I restricted freedom? He will be able to prove that licence, anarchy, and general disorder were still on our doorstep. Shall I be accused of having loved war too much? He will show that I was always on the defensive.” (From The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from his Written and Spoken Words, edited and translated by J.Christopher Herold (Columbia University Press, 1995)).

Always on the defensive?? But to put Napoleon’s early years in context, he was ‘installed’ at the point at which the Revolution was in danger of falling apart. France was surrounded by monarchies and Empires desperate to defeat the upstart revolutionary, ‘new’ nation. Napoleon fought the war to save the Revolution on many fronts. He succeeded in salvaging the Revolution. So initially he can perhaps justifiably claim to have been on the defensive. Unfortunately he went on to instal himself as Emperor and to sacrifice the lives of countless young men in his pointless push into Russia – it is for this military debacle that he is perhaps best known in England.

Napoleon was and remains a polarising figure. I look forward to seeing what the NGV makes of him.