Examining the remains

Hallmarks of Geoffrey Blainey’s career include his spectacularly good titles and his masterful command of prose. Devotees of Blainey have long admired both qualities in such books as The Tyranny of Distance, A Land Half Won, The Rush that Never Ended and Triumph of the Nomads. In his most recent book, Black Kettle and Full Moon, Blainey has triumphed again.

The immediate impression Black Kettle and Full Moon gives is of a weighty volume in which Viking has given more care to the text than to the illustrations. The font is generously sized and spaced, spread over a significant number of pages. But though it has been dressed with period images on the cover and on the inside, these seem to lack the punch and creativity that might have otherwise completed a terrific book.

The unusual and valuable thing about Black Kettle and Full Moon is that it covers a forgotten period of Australian history—the years between the 19th-century gold rushes and the cataclysmic days of the Great War. The historical consciousness of most Australians, if they have one, tends to jump from the Eureka Stockade of the 1850s, landing momentarily at federation, to Gallipoli and the birth of the Anzac legend. The period that Blainey recovers here is a forgotten one in our national memory, yet he considers it to be both ‘crucial’ and ‘fascinating’.

This is mostly a social history of Australia, but it’s not a rehash of the many others now in circulation. It pays close attention to the details of everyday life for earlier Australians. This is not a ‘big picture’ history. Rather, it looks at what people ate, drank and read; where and how they shopped; how they told the time, cast light into a darkened room and forecast the weather.

Black Kettle and Full Moon has two parts. The first resonates with Blainey’s earlier books, in terms of technology and science. An interest in such things as climate, gas lighting, printing, shipping and cameras is quintessential Blainey. Indeed, in some ways this book is what his Tyranny of Distance set out to do 40 years ago: it praises the scientific advancements of Australians and captures the way that technology shaped their everyday lives. As he says, the story starts out with candles and billy tea, and concludes with ice cream and the telephone.

A combination of science and myth ruled many aspects of Australian life during this time: an often uncomfortable balance between what was proven to work in the antipodean climate and what was still protected by superstition from the old country. We are told that farmers killed livestock and planted crops based on the pattern of the moon; that households made their own candles by pouring fat into metal moulds; that the new steel pen aided the advancement of the letter as a conveyor of news.

These quaint tales of everyday customs had a surprisingly strong relationship with significant events. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Blainey’s discussion of moonlight. For just as the society hostess relied on her almanac to plan an event around a predicted full moon, knowing that guests would have sufficient light to travel by, so too did Ned Kelly employ a full moon for some of his most daring robberies, ensuring sufficient moonlight to make a difficult getaway on horseback:

A glance at old almanacs reveals that he made his two celebrated raids on banks—at the small town of Euroa in December 1878, and Jerilderie the following February—when the moon was full. The raids were carried out when the moon was in such a position as to be favourable to their enterprise.
It seems that the Eureka Stockade may have been planned around the advent of the full moon. A fact, argues Blainey, that was critical both in the strategy and in the defeat of the stockaders. Explorers such as Burke and Wills and, more successfully, John Forrest, made use of the moonlight as they advanced across unfamiliar desert terrain. It is partly for these reasons that this is an exciting book. In uncovering the aspects of ‘everyday’ life and custom that are now forgotten, Blainey has also added to our understanding of certain key events within Australian history.

In the second part of the book, Blainey describes the social and domestic aspects of Australian life. He writes of how Australians cooked, what they ate, what they smoked, and where they shopped. He describes the household economies that were made in times of financial hardship—the patched clothes that children wore, the way food was seen as the main target of constricting family budgets. In the 1890s, writes Blainey, the ‘land of meat had temporarily become, for many, the land of dripping’. Pumpkin, potatoes and bread were the cheapest items in the 1890s kitchen pantry, though many looked to cut back on such expensive items as beef, pork, butter, cheese, bacon and eggs. Even coffee, tea, beer and tobacco were quickly rationed when necessary. And in times of adversity, social services were rarely available. Instead, these were the years in which friendly societies, trade unions and community co-operatives were the main source of social support.

But this was also the age of chocolate and sweet treats. In fact, writes Blainey, the appetite for cocoa and chocolate was indulged more often in Australia than in England, where people were generally less wealthy. And though the chocolate bar itself was probably not in common currency until nearer to the Great War, boiled lollies were cheap and had long been a favourite.

These kinds of small details have appeared regularly in all of Blainey’s work. But in Black Kettle and Full Moon he indulges in a rich collection of anecdotes, stories and factual accounts, showing how the combination of all these things added up to an Australian way of life. For example, on the Australian penchant for sweet things, Blainey writes that the word ‘lolly’ was probably in use from the 1850s. While luxurious chocolates were normally imported from Europe for the affluent, boiled sweets were as often made in family kitchens as they were in urban factories. Those who did buy their sweets from a store would find them displayed in tall glass jars on the shop counter:

The shopkeeper thrust his hand inside the jar and clutched the lollies and then weighed them or counted them. The sticky sweets were wrapped in newspaper or greaseproof paper and then handed to the purchaser. Most lollies were touched by human fingers … It was believed that glass jars protected lollies from germs and dust. The germs, however, entered the jar at their pleasure. The shopkeeper did not wear gloves and did not use metal tongs, and so the lollies were easily contaminated. But the feeling among medical men was that, if an infectious disease was traced to a shop, goods in jars were safe but goods in the open air were suspect.

Blainey has often tended to focus on the south-east corner of Australia, particularly Victoria. To me, the test of this book’s strength was whether it embraced the peripheries of the nation as much as it did the people of Sydney and Melbourne. And it’s not too bad. John Forrest appears on the same pages as Burke and Wills. The account of the complicated routine in Melbourne to broadcast the progress of the mail steamer from England is accompanied by the practices in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. We find that Hobart had two mail deliveries a day while Sydney and Launceston had four. And though Blainey might have reverted in Part Two to a customary use of Victoria’s post-gold rush decades as representative of all Australia, he appears to resist the temptation and continues to pay surprising attention to the rest of the nation—both urban and rural.

But there are still some readers for whom alarm bells will rightly ring. Black Kettle and Full Moon claims to be a history of ‘our forebears’ which, by necessity, excludes the great numbers of people who descend from Australia’s immigrants of the 20th century. It suggests that Blainey’s Australia is still a British Australia, both then and possibly now. It implies what many already suppose, that he is uncomfortable with the period of Australia’s history that has followed World War II. Little is said about rich and poor, convicts or Aborigines, churches, clothes and houses. But, then, Blainey doesn’t claim to do so.

The innovation of this book, combined with all the hallmarks of Blainey’s own trade, makes it a significant and highly readable contribution to the bookshelves of Australian history. It is unlikely to incite controversy among the profession. Rather, it will be valued and appreciated by those who normally enjoy his work, and questioned, even disliked by those who normally do not. Black Kettle and Full Moon is based on important new material. But it is not a new Blainey.       

Dr Deborah Gare is a lecturer in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame (Australia).

 

 

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