Category Archives: History

The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November, 2022.

As a Jill-of-all-trades when it comes to history, I feel like “the Mongols” is one of those topics that a lot of people have vague ideas about but don’t really know what they’re talking about, or any details at all. Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, greatest land empire of all time… done.

Yeah. This book has made an enormous difference to the way I see the Mongols as a group, as an empire, as an historical force.

In his Introduction, Morton promises “a multi-perspective history of the Mongol invasions constructed from many different viewpoints”. And that’s definitely what the book delivers, as the way that the movement of Mongol troops – in and out of territory, sometimes staying, sometimes just installing new leadership after dismantling entire areas – impacts on a variety of pre-existing governments. The thing that surprised me is just WHERE that is happening… because it’s the “Near/Middle East” (which is a stupid term for an Australian to use, but there we go). The book is focussed on how the Mongols impact on everything from Egypt, through the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, to Byzantium, and to Syria and Georgia and Armenia. I don’t quite know where I thought the focus would be – I knew the Mongols had briefly penetrated Europe and made everyone crap their pants – but this was not it. And the thing is, the Mongols are a significant force for DECADES. There are events in this history – across the 13th and into the 14th centuries – that I already knew but that I had NO IDEA were at least partly as a result of the pressure coming from the east, via the Mongols: either directly because of the Mongols’ actions, or because of the movement of people driven out by the Mongols (directly or through fear). How is it I had no idea of this?? I’m going to say it’s at least partly racism, and also partly the occasionally narrow focus of some histories – in trying to narrow down the historical story, some things get chopped. (Rant could be inserted here about how choices are made, etc… but I’ll spare my reader.)

One of the slightly odd parts of this book is that it is NOT as focussed as I had expected. There’s entire sections about the politics of the Franks in Jerusalem and the Crusader States… with no apparently connection to the Mongols. Morton gets there eventually, but it does sometimes feel like there’s a lot of extraneous detail that wasn’t required to actually understand the point of the book – the Mongols. Not that I didn’t enjoy the detail! It just wasn’t necessary.

Obviously, I learned an enormous amount from this book. About the Mongols themselves – how they were organised, how they viewed themselves (as having a mandate from heaven to rule, and that all religions were fine because they were all subsumed within their own), and how they dealt with subject people. I also learned a huge amount about what was going on in Egypt around the period of the Mamluks coming to power, and to the east I finally learned something about Georgia and Armenia, which hadn’t previously come across my radar in this period. Also more about the Crusader States, and generally how all of these states interacted with each other. Which is also something that I feel like has been missing from my knowledge here. Of course rulers were in contact, of course they were making deals and alliances, including across religious and ethnic lines… but I don’t really kn0w about them.

The book itself is well-written. I found it engaging – perhaps because I was already invested in the general period and area. As with all such books, I did sometimes find the names hard to follow… if only everyone in the past had differentiated their names more (did there need to be more than one Bohemond?). Morton has structured the book well, largely chronologically and within that, geographically. There are also some useful maps that make locating the changing circumstances of the various polities easier. Overall, definitely a good addition to my understanding of the world.

Budapest: Between East and West

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.

Things I knew about Budapest before reading this: it used to be two towns, and pictures of Soviet tanks in the streets in 1956. I think that’s about it, really.

An intriguing aspect of this book is that it’s written by a man born in Budapest, whose family fled Hungary when he was a child. Sebestyen makes no secret of this, and of his connection to the country and the city. So there’s a mix of ‘objective’ history, and also the occasional mention of how things relate to him personally. I like this kind of honesty a lot.

One annoying aspect – and this might just be a personal gripe – isn’t peculiar to Sebestyen, and is at least partly a reflection of the historical record (and my personal preferences). The book begins with a very brief look at what is known of the area around Budapest from pre-history, and then moves to what the Romans did. There’s barely a discussion of Attila and the Huns. By p30 we’re up to the year 1000. p109 and we’re already at 1800 and at p272 it’s the accommodation between Hungary and Hitler’s Germany. The book is 377 pages long. While I know that there’s a lot more evidence for the alter centuries, it always makes me despair that history is given such an unbalanced presentation. As if the modern world is the only bit worth discussing. Sigh.

Despite this preponderance of modern history, Sebestyen does give a good overview of the history of Budapest – as Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in the front cover quotation., it’s really a history of Central Europe. You can hardly have a history of the city without discussing the history of (what is now) the country; and in this particular case, at least some of what was happening in Austria for a few centuries. And so I learned more about the Turkish occupation, as well as how the Habsburgs managed to create Austria-Hungary as a dual monarchy; and of course the role of Hungary in both world wars and then as part of the Soviet bloc.

The story is largely told chronologically, with occasional chapter breaks about particular themes – one in particular that stood out was about the role of the Jewish population in the city. I had no idea that Hungary had been something of a haven for European Jews, although they were still not safe from the occasional pogrom (because anti-Semitism is apparently just too easy). The way that Jews stood outside of the feudal system, basically – and the incredibly bizarre way Hungarian feudalism was structured, with a massive number of nobles who refused to get into trade or anything similar – meaning that Jewish artisans and traders filled that niche.

This book fits into a tradition of using city histories as a way of looking at changes over time, to everything from culture and tradition to language and politics and everything else. The sub-title is pointed, here: part of Sebestyen’s argument is that Hungary doesn’t really fit into the way Europe sees itself, and doesn’t particularly fit elsewhere either. (The story of Hungarian as a language, and the efforts to revive and develop it, is a particularly fascinating part of the book.)

Thoroughly enjoyable.

Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl

I do love a good adventure/ travel story, so when I saw this in a secondhand book shop I thought – why would I not read the book that as far as I can tell, arguably started the modern version of ‘person goes on crazy adventure and writes about it’?

I am… ambivalent, now, having read it. Basically one part positive, two parts negative.

Positive: it really is a riveting story. Six men in 1947 on a balsa wood raft, sailing from Peru to Polynesia. They have a radio and a sextant, and modern clothes and sleeping bags; but their raft is genuinely balsa wood, held together with rope. They have no particularly good way to steer. It’s made (apparently) as accurately as they could to match the descriptions from Spanish conquerors to the area. They truly have remarkable experiences, and they went 100-odd days crossing the Pacific. That is epic, as are their encounters with a whale shark, various other wildlife, storms, and just life in general. For that aspect, I don’t regret reading it.

The negatives… well. To start with the journey itself – no, even before. The description of cutting down massive old balsa trees for the construction of the raft had me cringing. Then there’s the seemingly-wanton ‘fishing’ while they’re at sea: they’re hooking and killing far more shark and other fish than they eat, which is just awful. (It is kind of hilarious to read of the flying fish just randomly landing on the boat, I will admit, and eating those makes sense – especially when they’ve been piling up throughout the night.) Also, Thor at least is married and… in the entire book, no mention of the wife. Ever. Not even before the journey, when he’s in America trying to convince people of his theories.

And, yes, here’s the rub, the sticking point, the main problem. Thor goes on this journey to show that it would have been possible for humans to sail from South America to Polynesia, and thereby be the progenitors of at least some of the people living in those islands, and therefore responsible for the impressive statues and pyramids and other ‘advanced’ things that can be found on some islands. But not the Inca, oh no, and not the Olmec, or anyone else you might have heard of: rather, it was a white, bearded race who apparently came before the Inca. And were more civilised, and taught them everything and then got chased off. So… yeah. His entire premise is deeply, deeply racist. This also comes out in descriptions of the Polynesians and others. I’m privileged because I’m white; if a person of native South American – anywhere on that continent – or Polynesian or, I’m afraid, Jewish descent said they were thinking of reading this, I would want to have a good long conversation with them so that they knew what they were getting into. This absolutely means the entire book is problematic, and being a ripping adventure yarn in no way excuses it. It is written in 1947, which offers some context for why Heyerdahl thought it was appropriate to write such things and the publishers apparently had no problem with it – hey, no Polynesian is likely to read it, amiright? and why would they complain even if they did? etc.

Did it have fun bits to read? Totally. Is the book problematic? Absolutely. Did I buy the other two books he wrote, to try and show that Egyptians AND Mesopotamians got to South America by boat? I absolutely did and fully intend to read them to rip the theories to shreds.

Queens of the Wild

I received this book via NetGalley. It’s out at the end of May, 2022.

As an Arts student of the late 90s, who did do some mythology-type subjects, I have vaguely come across some of the ideas that Hutton explodes here. So that was quite the trip.

The main idea: that the four concepts, or beings, or narrative tools – Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, The Lady of the Night, and the Cailleach – are in no way part of a pagan religion that has survived sin Europe since pre-Christian times. No matter all the stories about witches as pagans or Beltane feasts.

In the opening Hutton revives a differentiation (first proposed by himself in 1991) between two concepts: ‘surviving paganism’, where a pre-Christian religion has actually survived beneath/within Christianity; and ‘pagan survival’, where a belief of object has been redeployed from a pre-Christian to a Christian religious context.

This book has a LOT of historiography, as Hutton explores some of the why and some of the how for the development of the idea that four specific concepts have a long, pagan, pedigree. The very first chapter was probably my favourite, as he explores the development of the study of folklore and how various academic and non-academic types explored and theorised beliefs – especially peasant beliefs – and how attitudes to those sorts of things changed over time. Following the thread from one person to another – occasionally from just one article to an explosion of theories, books, films, and other academic articles – was astonishing.

In the four main chapters, Hutton seeks to find the four characters he has chosen to interrogate – to find the earliest mentions, to find their possible connections to pre-Christian ideas, to find the ways in which they’ve been used in the academic literature. In every case, he comes to the conclusion that none of these are true ‘surviving paganism’ – always with the caveat that more information may be found, and that of course there’s a dearth of written information for so much of the early part of the pre-Christian/Christian boundary. He’s pretty convincing, unsurprisingly.

Moderately academic, but I think accessible for a reader with only a basic knowledge of both the historiography and the characters he explores (which is me).

The Normans: Power, Conquest & Culture in 11th Century Europe

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 22 March, 2022.

I love the Normans. I have been fascinated by them as a group for a pretty long time now. The conquest of England! Randomly being in Sicily! The First Crusades! Occasionally popping up elsewhere!

I also love a good interrogation of sources. And asking new questions, or using new information to contribute to questions already asked.

Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Given the above, I can’t say how easy this would be to read for someone with zero knowledge of the Normans. Even I found it hard to follow the Roberts and Rogers and various families (honestly I kind of stopped caring about whether I was completely following who was related to who; it didn’t seem to matter in some instances, and Green often reminded me when it did). It should also be noted that there is more historiography than I think is usual for a purely narrative sort of history, so if learning what specific historians (medieval and modern) have said about specific issues is not your cup of tea, you may well find this book a bit annoying. For the rest of us… this is a really great, and thorough, examination of the Normans in the 11th century.

I really liked how Green examined what was going on in Normandy, England, Sicily/Italy and Antioch/the First Crusade as a way of trying to see if there really is something to the very IDEA of ‘being a Norman’ – which honestly is a brave thing when you’re entire book is about ‘the Normans’ – but that’s exactly the point of it. Some people at least claimed the Normans as Very Special People with a Very Special Place in the World (via God or character or whatever else). Is that actually true? Is it even possible to speak of “Normans”? Gosh I love these sorts of questions. I also quite like that Green doesn’t entirely come to a complete answer. She has some suggestions – that maybe Normans themselves in the 11th century weren’t alway seeing themselves as ‘Normans’ – and also proposes a whole bunch more avenues for investigation. Which is the other awesome thing that Green does – she’s not just using the old Williams of history (Jumieges, Malmesbury, etc), but adding in archaeology and DNA and various other sources to make a way more interesting and complete picture.

Overall, not My First Introduction to Medieval History, but a really great work on a group of people who had a fairly hefty impact on medieval Europe (and beyond).

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan

I read this courtesy of the publisher, Bloomsbury. It’s out now; $39.99 trade paperback.

… and I thought I was an iconoclast. What a remarkable, thought-provoking and intriguing biography.

Things I already knew about Magellan: he did not circumnavigate the world. I learned that in a book about how Basques influenced the world, because the captain of the only one of Magellan’s boats that did, actually, go around the globe was captained by a Basque.

Things I did not know: most of what Fernandez-Armesto discusses in this book. I did not know that Magellan (to use his Anglicised name) was Portuguese who ditched that kingdom and went to Spain – a traitorous act at the time. I did not know that he was a little too keen on chivalric romances and maybe wanting to emulate them. I definitely did not know what a truly dreadful leader and person in general he was.

OK, that last bit is something of an exaggeration. Indeed one of the problems that Fernandez-Armesto discusses here is the difficulty of ever truly understanding someone like Magellan: partly because of the temporal distance, as well as the mental distance, between me and a Portuguese court-educated man of the 1500s; but also because much of the evidence is deeply conflicted. There’s something close to hagiography by someone who was on the voyage and managed not to die… but there’s also plenty of accounts from men who mutinied. So how do you get to ‘the truth’, and what even is that.

Anyway. As a biography this is awesome. The author brings the context wonderfully to life, exploring what the world was like for someone like Magellan in the 16th century – what Europe knew of the world, and what the world knew of Europe; what kings and adventurers wanted, how empire was going, knowledge of the Atlantic and Pacific, and so on.

Something I had never really appreciated before reading this: just how Very Big the Pacific is. Especially for those accustomed to the Atlantic.

For the historians, Fernandez-Armesto skilfully uses primary sources to make his points, and to show people in their own words – and they never get overwhelming, or in the way of the story. It’s a really great example of how such sources can and should be used.

And finally, the last chapter is called “Aftermath and Apotheosis”, and this is where my iconoclast remark comes in. I got the sense that Fernandez-Armesto doesn’t necessarily like Magellan – which is fine, if intriguing; he certainly proves that Magellan deserves to be studied, if only to learn what he can show about his world. And beyond that, Fernandez-Armesto completely goes to town on previous biographers who do love Magellan, and all those companies who use Magellan’s name as if it’s some sort of shorthand for scientific endeavour or great achievements or frankly anything good. Because what the author shows is that Magellan deserves none of that. He had no scientific interest; he was out for the main chance. He didn’t achieve anything much that was great: yes, he sailed through the straits that bear his name, but he didn’t know they were there and he wasn’t the pilot or navigator anyway PLUS the cost in human suffering was enormous.

This is a great book. If you’re keen on the history of exploration, or early modern biographies, or learning the story behind a fairly familiar name, this is an excellent choice.

Women’s History Month: Jean McLean (part 3)

History Council of Victoria

Yes, I know; three posts from Jean McLean does seem to fall into the same trap I mentioned in my first post. But the reality is that she has given a great deal of thought to the issues around the Vietnam War protests, and that she was a vital part of the whole thing – particularly in organising the May 1970 moratorium. And so, I give her the final word, about organising that moratorium – and about how it reflected the enormous change in Australian attitudes. In the mid 1960s, most adults supported the idea of conscription, and the Vietnam War also seemed necessary to many. But the 8 May 1970 moratorium saw somewhere between 60 and 100,000 people on the streets of Melbourne, and more in other capital cities; and then in 1972, Whitlam was elected, and most agree that the conscription issue was a significant factor in that. So here’s Jean’s perspective on how you keep going over nearly a decade (longer than most other excerpts):

Jean McLean interview

Transcript

Alex: You said before that, obviously, the campaign had a beginning, a middle and an end. But you didn’t know that when you started – – –

Jean: Oh, no.

Alex:  – – – and I’ve read a lot about just how distressing the 1966 election was in terms of hoping against hope that it wouldn’t happen, and then it did. 

Jean: Yeah, well, we thought that would all happen just like that. 

Alex: Yeah. How did you keep enthusiastic? How did you – how did you keep an organisation like that – you, in general – how did you keep going? 

Jean: Well, part of it was, there was Ian Turner, but also a guy called Max Teichmann, he’d been a philosopher, and then he became an international affairs lecturer. He went through phases of being left and being right, but luckily I had him in the left bit. But he was very good, because he understood the history of all this anti-conscription stuff better than I did. I mean, I didn’t read a book then think, I’ll do it. 

And at that election, and at the ’69, when people were, you know, young people who’d been handing out how to vote cards, and they were crying, “Oh, we’ve lost.” Max said, “No. We got more votes this time. We’ll get more votes next time.” And he did that again with the ’69, you know? He said, “It takes time. It takes time for people to understand. We’re doing better.” So – – – 

Alex: So you had a long-term vision – – – 

Jean: Yeah. Able to see in the long term. And also because we got more and more support. We didn’t get less. We got more. 

Alex: Yeah. So you could see that you were having an effect? 

Jean: Yeah, yeah. And I must say that, obviously, the reason that they don’t allow journalists into the Middle East wars is because every night that it was on the television, every single night, there was what was happening in Vietnam. And it was all terrible. And – you know? And they’d try and tell you something, “Oh, we won, we killed five thousand Viet Cong.” And people said, “That’s disgusting.” 

So, now, they don’t let people know what’s happening. You know, and it was just, sort of – – –

Alex: The media really played into showing people just how terrible things were, and then you’re right there, your organisation’s right there, and gives some people a real way of reacting against it. 

Jean: Exactly.

Alex: I guess, if anybody knows anything about the anti-conscription movement, they tend to know about the moratorium marches. Do you think they were effective?

Jean: Oh, incredibly so. Because – and the Victorian one was the most successful, in part because of Jim Cairns. Who was the deputy prime minister – he’s been written out of history. 

Alex: Yeah.

Jean: He’s been written out of history, you know? You never hear anyone talk about Jim Cairns. And yet, it was Jim who, in ’62, he spoke out against the war. The secret war in Laos. And, anyway, he was the chair of the moratorium. And so, you know, we had to do the work, because he was in Parliament. You know, but he’d come to address meetings. But he was a very important figurehead, because he spoke very, very well against war. 

So anyway, the moratorium movement in Melbourne – we started with a meeting of all the different groups. Save Our Sons, the Youth Campaign Against Conscription, all the different groups. We met in Richmond Town Hall. And we worked out programs, including – like, we used to go and – I was – Jim was the chair, I was deputy chair, Bernie Taft was another deputy chair. And Harry Van Moorst was – for one of them was the deputy chair. 

 Anyway, we’d have meetings, and – we’d go and address people at – through working with the trade union movement – at all the factory doors. Sometimes we were allowed in the dining room, depending on the make-up of the factories. Others, we had to speak at the gates. But we did that. We went, you know, just hundreds of meetings. We went and distributed leaflets. We raised funds. 

So that by the time May the 8th turned up, there were just hundreds and hundreds of people. The police had been told – and I had a police spy, a brother of a friend who was in the police, and he said – like, he just told us that they’d been given instructions in the morning, that they’d have all the horses at the top of town, and they’d have all these police – so they’d break up the demonstration, they wouldn’t allow it to happen. 

 And so we had a meeting at the Assembly Hall the morning of the demo, where we were going to get everybody to be marshals. They’d have a band. So everybody had to try and make sure there was no – nobody’d get out and start hitting. You know, bash them. 

Anyway, so then we came out of that meeting, and my friend said, “All the rules have been changed. We’ve now been told to make sure that the demonstration isn’t – you know, facilitate. Facilitate the demonstration.” Make sure that – no cars in the way when we march, you know, so the route from the gardens down, to march. 

Because what had happened was, everywhere you looked that morning, when we were going to the meeting, everywhere you looked, there were people with rolled up banners, there were people with T-shirts, there were – you could see that everyone was going to the demo. This is going to be huge. Couldn’t believe it. Schools! High schools! And they let the kids go, the – you know, the senior kids. All that sort of thing. And, yeah, it was just amazing. And that’s why it was so successful. Was not tweets, but physical meeting and talking. And I still believe that that’s the only real way to do things.  

If you know of a Melbourne woman involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

Women’s History Month: Sue McCulloch (again)

History Council of Victoria

Sue McCulloch was very involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, including working for the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament (CICD) and being the secretary of the Draft Resisters Union. Here she reflects on the position of women overall in the protest movement.

Sue McCulloch interview

Transcript

Alex: And just finally, so the focus of what I’ve been looking at is really the motivation and the actions of women in particular; from your memory, did you get a sense that there were a lot of women? Like, would you have said it would have been about half or less, in terms of people doing things?

Sue: Absolutely. Yes, I do, I think there were at least half who were women. And I – we were not acknowledged. And I think a number of the men, now, these days, would say that, too. We were regarded as, you know, the sort of – the help maids, you know, the people who did the typical kind of role of women. And it was, at the time, when women were also, you know, it did really go hand in hand with the women’s movement. 

And I think women within the anti-war movement were facing the same struggles of recognition and autonomy as women in general. So, you know, the fact that we were in an anti-war movement didn’t necessarily – in fact, it didn’t give us any greater presence or voice. 

In terms of our power in that movement, I think we had less power. You know, there were very strong – the main people in the anti-war movement like Jim Cairns, was sort of the figurehead, the people on the executives of various things were largely all men, except for Jean McLean. Oh, maybe Joan Coxsedge. And one or two others. 

But I don’t think the number of women in those powerful positions reflected by any means the actual number of women who were involved in the entire movement. So it was very frustrating at the time. And I think there were people who actually left the anti-war movement, who found themselves frustrated as women in that movement. They joined the women’s liberation movement more – you know, to be their main focus of activity. Because they just felt that they were not, you know, it was endlessly frustrating for them to be in this movement where they weren’t being given an equal say. 

One of my jobs was as a media liaison person, and it’s actually how I met my daughter’s father, because he was a journalist on The Age. And I used to blindfold him and take him to meet draft resisters and others. But in the newspapers, there were actually a lot of women – like, we were the main people who were usually photographed doing things. There are photographs of Jeanie and me, and a model who – we walked across Collins Street on the 11th day at the 11th hour, you know, when the whole city is kind of stopped for – and we walked out to protest about Vietnam. There were photos of us often in the newspapers, being dragged around. You know, photos of Jeanie being dragged by her hair. I also had long, blonde hair, and a number of others had long, blonde hair, so it was quite often hard to tell who it was. But I’ve got photos of me handing out leaflets at places like Melbourne Grammar, me doing things in the City Square, handing out leaflets to publicise various things. 

So women were often photographed, and in the newspapers, just as much as – or probably as much as the men. Maybe not as much as the men, but certainly significantly. But we were also sort of regarded as these rather, you know, quirky, kind of – yeah. I think because newspapers probably liked to see women rather than men – you know, a bit more colourful, or something. The sexist newspapers of the day. 

If you know of a Melbourne woman involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

Women’s History Month: Robin Laurie

History Council of Victoria banner

Robin Laurie first got involved in protesting against the Vietnam War in London, where she had joined a theatre group who used street theatre in those protests. Back in Melbourne she joined La Mama and the Pram Factory, which also used street theatre. In this excerpt she discusses the purpose of theatre in demonstrations.

Robin Laurie interview

Transcript

Alex: So being involved in the moratorium is that – I’m really interested to know whether, you know, the street theatre and the tableaux and so on, were you specifically invited along to demonstrations? Or was it that you would have been going to the demonstrations and that that – those performances – are what you wanted to contribute?

Robin: Both things happened. We would just go along, and we went, and that’s what we did, you know, because that was our, that’s what we could contribute. It’s always good on a demonstration to have some sort of focus. Something, you know, that’s not just people walking along; it’s like the banners, the things that people had written in the climate strike, it’s always great to read them, you know, and the jokes and the witty things people say and things like that. So we knew that there were other ways to communicate rather than just sort of speeches and flyers and things like that. And we were interested in what they were. But then we did start to get invitations to do something. And sometimes it felt a bit like, you know, we were the – we weren’t the serious part of things. We thought we were just as important and just as, you know, interesting and useful as anything else. But there were some people who were very – yeah, just had different ideas about how to connect with people, communicate – that sometimes we would be specifically invited in to do a five minute piece or something like that. So it’s like, now when there’s a demo, sometimes some – a singer might get up or a band might be asked to perform. So it was like that.

Alex: I was just going to say, I think – you talked about you know, being useful. Clearly some people did think you were, if we were together you’d see my scare quotes – just entertainment. What do you think, or what were you adding, aside from the quote unquote, just entertainment aspect?

Robin: I think things operate at many different levels. I think words are one. But sometimes you can – there’s something else going on, as well as the words, and you respond, you can see that or hear that, and you respond in a different way. And you might not have – you might not put all that together at the time. But I think sometimes images stay in your head, or stay in your heart or body or wherever that – an image resides. Sometimes an image can affect you in a way that – and it’s different for different people, and it depends if you can find a really powerful image of some kind – but I think they can; and it’s like music and dance and circus – I was a part of circus after that – there’s a physical interaction between people at – a kineasthetic response. And even though you might be on a stage and in front of a big crowd of people, something still happens that’s different to watching a film. And it happens because all your senses are involved, I think. And so it’s not just an intellectual response. I think that’s what I’m trying to say. I think words are really powerful. There are, you know, people who are great orators and poets, and – wish more of our politicians said that capacity – they can be really inspirational. But I guess I always thought too, it’s necessary to find courage. You know, because I think the system we live in is – because it’s based around commodities and things – it’s a system that breeds despair. Because you think, Oh, if only I own this, everything will be right. And you own it and it’s not, you know – perfect example now with the virus. So you need – you need something that can give you courage to contemplate and confront things that are quite difficult in life I think. Life can be quite hard, in many ways. It’s not all rosy and you can’t always do everything you want and live your dream. So I think – I think those things that operate at that sort of level can touch something deeper inside, maybe – or  that’s the hope. Doesn’t happen that often. But it can, it can happen. 

If you know a Melbourne woman who was involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

Women’s History Month: Elisabeth Jackson

History Council of Victoria banner

Elisabeth Jackson was opposed to the Vietnam War and conscription from the beginning, partly through the influence of her parents. She attended demonstrations once she got to Melbourne University, which she discusses in this excerpt.

Elisabeth Jackson interview

Transcript

Alex: Did you do anything to kind of express that when you were at high school, which is obviously where you were at the start? 

Elisabeth: I got into a terrible argument with one of the teachers who thought that the war was a good thing; that the communists had to be stopped at any cost. He was from Eastern Europe, I think. And he was staunchly anti communist. Yeah. 

Alex: So what other sorts of things did you eventually get involved with? Were you involved in any of the demonstrations? 

Elisabeth: Not while I was at school, they weren’t really taking place so much when I was at school. But I started university in 1968. So it was all happening then. So I used to, we’d go to demonstrations regularly. 

Alex: Which university were you at? 

Elisabeth: Melbourne. 

Alex: Did you feel like there was a strong push to be anti war at university, on the campus? 

Elisabeth: Yes. I mean, the left wing clubs and so on were quite strong. 

Alex: Did you get involved in any of them? 

Elisabeth: Not really. I was sort of nominally a member of the Labor Club, but I was still too young and nervous, too… And there was this organisation called the SDS – Harry Van Moorst, who I notice has just died, he was a leading figure in that. So I sort of buzzed around the edges of that, but I mean, I was just very shy and lacking in confidence at that time. So I didn’t get deeply involved. 

Alex: And yet you went along to demonstrations? 

Elisabeth: Yes. 

Alex: That seems to me like the sort of thing that someone who’s shy wouldn’t automatically do. 

Elisabeth: Oh I did, yeah, yeah, I would go with family or friends, yeah. 

Alex: Not a solo thing, but a group thing. 

Elisabeth: Yes. 

Alex: And what was it like being involved in the demonstrations? 

Elisabeth: It was just like being in a demonstration. It was interesting. There were sort of violent clashes at some of the demonstrations. And I was a bit horrified by how some of the people attending them seemed to really like the violence. As soon as the policeman came on a horse, they’d sort of rush over there and start attacking the horse and carrying on trying to stir up violence, which I disapproved of I must say.

Alex: So you are obviously not involved in that aspect. 

Elisabeth: No, no, I stayed well away from that. 

Alex: Did you go to the moratorium march in 1970, the big one? 

Elisabeth: Yes. 

Alex: Obviously, there are differing reports – 60,000 100,000, depending on who you believe – do you remember what it was like to be there?

Elisabeth: It was just amazing to be with all these people – I mean, I don’t know if it was 60,000 or 100,000 – but it was huge. It just went on for block after block after block in the city. And it was quite exciting to be part of such a huge movement. 

If you know a Melbourne woman who was involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!