Miles Franklin in America

Verna Coleman, Miles Franklin in America, Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career
(Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1981)

Reviewed by Adrian Cameron, March 2021

In 2013 I attended in Canberra a conference for the Australian Teachers of History as part of Canberra’s Centenary celebrations. One of the most impressive speakers was Professor Marilyn Lake. She was looking at Australia in 1913. It was her view that in those days Australia was seen internationally to be the pinnacle of progressive development. She argued that the link between “progressives” in Australia and the USA (particularly in Chicago) was strong and that the Americans were very impressed with the steps being taken by the new nation. She indicated that she was writing a book on this link, which arrived in the Yass Library six years later!

Stella Miles Franklin started work in a Department Store. Then later, via a network that linked across the Pacific, she joined the National Women Trade Union League. As an employee, she travelled on their behalf across many parts of the USA to support workers and unionists involved in major union action.

Though she started as just an administrative assistant, eventually she became editor of ‘Life and Labour’, a journal on working women, for the NWTU. In this role, Stella Franklin attended the 1912 Progressive Party presidential convention, where former president Theodore Roosevelt was nominated as their candidate after he had broken away from the Republicans. He was unsuccessful and progressive policies (pro-union and pro-women) were lost.

Having had my interest in this period developed, I came across this book on Miles Franklin. Franklin left Australia in 1906 to seek literary success overseas but arrived in San Francisco just days after the devastating earthquake! After assisting with voluntary work she then headed for Chicago, which was then seen as both the best and worst of life in a Mega-City.

Continue reading

Kieran Donaghue, German Lessons

German Lessons is a new novel by Canberra writer, Kieran Donaghue.

This dramatic and profound story shows us how history is lived at the personal level. In the early 1930s, Frank Hannaford, a young Australian Catholic, goes to Germany to study. He learns German, he makes friends. While the Nazis are consolidating their power, ordinary German Catholics are mostly resistant. Then the Catholic Church in Germany suddenly withdraws its opposition to National Socialism and the group of students is torn apart.

Visit Kieran’s website http://www.kierandonaghue.com to find out more about the author and the background to the story.

German Lessons is published by Palaver Press, a start-up publisher dedicated to fostering new ideas in the fields of ethics and reconciliation. Find out more at smallpressnetwork.com.au, or at http://www.palaver.com/about.

Pam Blakeley of the Vintage Reds had the pleasure of meeting Kieran and interviewing him for our website.

Interview with Kieran Donaghue, December 2019

You’ve focused on the dilemma for the Catholic Church as Nazism takes over. Why did you decide to look closely at this situation?

It goes back to the figure of Eugenio Pacelli. He became Pope Pius XII in 1939 and was Pope through the second world war and up until his death in 1958. There is substantial controversy about Pius XII and what he did, or more importantly did not do, in support of the Jews. There is significant evidence that he was aware of the Holocaust relatively early in the war, yet it seems he did very little to thwart it, though questions remain about his scope for action.  [photo: Wikimedia Commons]

I read a book called Hitler’s Pope [by John Cornwell, published 1999], a controversial title, which reviews arguments relating to Pius XII during the second world war. In reading this it became evident to me that in the early 1930s the Catholic Church was a vehement opponent of Nazism. Right up until Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933 and the subsequent election where the Nazi Party took complete control, the Catholic Church had opposed Nazism. But once the Nazis were firmly in power this opposition disappeared almost overnight.

In historical terms that’s interesting: Why did it happen? Was it inevitable? But these are questions for historians. I was more interested in the possibility of a fictional exploration of this time.

Continue reading

Ion Idriess, Forty Fathoms Deep

Ion Idriess, Forty Fathoms Deep (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1937)

Review essay by Pamela Blakeley, December 2019

By the early 1930s Broome in Western Australia was a thriving town, ‘a tiny place, yet the richest and greatest pearling port the world has ever known’. Idriess spent more than a year there and wrote Forty Fathoms Deep based on his own experiences and first-hand information.

The main story is about the romantic, guitar-playing Castilla Toledo from Manila. He is a young, good-looking diver on Bernard Bardwell’s lugger Phyllis, and he is desperate to find a pearl so that he can marry the white girl of his dreams. Every now and then a pearl is discovered inside the pearl shell which is the basis of the industry. Approximately one pearl shell in 500 contains a natural pearl. At the time a single pearl could fetch hundreds or thousands of pounds in Broome and far more when it was resold in Europe. Bardwell warns Toledo against the girl, an adventuress from down south, and indeed she marries another man as soon as Toledo has put to sea. Toledo finds
another girl. He still needs a pearl in order to marry.

Toldedo returns to sea and works like a demon, provoking the crew to introduce chilli powder into his lifeline to force him to come up from the bottom of the sea. Towards the close of the season, an unrecognised vessel fishes nearby for several days. Then one afternoon a dinghy comes off her and races towards the lugger. A white man jumps aboard in great excitement. The master immediately takes him down below. The man, naïve in the cunning ways of Broome, has found an exquisite pearl and wants to show it off! The master estimates its worth at over £5000 and suggests showing it to his diver, Toledo. ‘Toldeo’s heart leapt at the sight of the pearl, the world stood still for him.’ They drink and smoke and admire the pearl. They have dinner. Toldeo drinks little himself but keeps the glasses of the two men full. Soon the men are drunk, and the wind has whipped up. The visitor finally wraps the pearl in soft paper, puts it into a match box and, helped by Toledo, takes to his dinghy and rows away unsteadily. However, the pearl is in Toledo’s pocket, the empty matchbox in the pocket of the other man. Continue reading

A little war?

Christina Stead, A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948)

In this prescient novel the characters feel eerily familiar, despite the book being written over seventy years ago. In particular, the analysis of the sexual politics between the older powerful men and the young women feels horribly contemporary. We are taken to the heart of a class of floating racketeers and crooks as they wait like vultures for America to enter World War 2. As the main character Robert Grant explains …’going to be fifty years of capitalism here, want to go and see a new world coming out of the old world. A chance to construct a new world and  remake your life-how do you like that? Let’s go to a cabaret’. When active war in the Pacific begins, so do black market days. Among other shady deals, Grant acquires properties at rock bottom prices from desperate sellers fleeing for their lives; a manor house in England, a farm in Bordeaux and another in Normandy, properties in Germany and Dublin, a brown stone in New York and a house in Rome.          (Photo: National Library of Australia)

Set in New York in the mid-1940s, the ultra-wealthy Grant is at the apex of his own group of hangers on, desperate women and employees. Nominally a cotton dealer, he chisels, blackmails and deceives daily, but in sentimental fits of delusion, he sees himself as a good man and a victim. He believes that he is a socialist, although ‘must a socialist turn out his pockets and say, “rob me”? No sir. Must socialist mean nitwit?’ As a megalomaniac, he is obsessed with having a play written about his search for the perfect woman, to be called The Girl I Want. Continue reading

Why we need unions

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Hard Times, first published in 1854, takes the reader into a harsh, polluted and highly efficient society. It is a northern industrial mill town in England given the name of Coketown. The industrialists are unregulated as employers and in their impact on the environment. The leading industrialist in Coketown, Josiah Bounderby, is also the town magistrate, so any troublemakers are automatically dealt harsh punishment.

Hard Times has been noted since the time of publication as a realistic and bleak portrayal of social and industrial conditions before and during the introduction of organised labour and the union movement. The workers in the textile mills, known as The Hands, are as tightly programmed as robots from birth. We see the schooling at the Model School, based on rote learning and hard discipline, conditioning young people to accept their fate as machines who will soon toil from before light to 9pm at night, with one hour off for lunch. This will provide just enough money to rent a small room to live in and necessities. Even having children means dire poverty, with the extra mouths to feed. There seems to be no escape.

The Hands labour like slaves in Coketown. The town ‘of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled’ is so polluted by industry that the town has a black canal in it, and a river that runs purple with ill-smelling dye, and the buildings rattle in time with the piston of the steam-engines.

Dickens reveals the ideological underpinnings which keep the factories going, and the tragedy and spiritual sickness at the heart of it. The factory owners firmly believe that The Hands are lazy, grasping and wicked. Any suggestion that more could be done to prevent pollution, industrial accidents or child labour are met by the owners with cries of ‘ruination’ and threats of throwing their property into the Atlantic Ocean, for how could the economy get along without them.

The plot also includes an arranged marriage, a bank robbery, an untimely death down an abandoned mine shaft and the doings of a group of circus folk and the return of the heroic old circus dog Merrylegs. The Hands begin to organise themselves.

This is a complex and thrilling story with wonderful characters.

Pam Blakeley
July 2019