The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle by J.D. Dixon

‘He has never seen anything accurately.’

Willem J. Gyle is a labourer in Edinburgh. He’s big, fit and strong, but his thought processes are slow because of oxygen deprivation during birth. His life has its patterns and routines, and Willem is comfortable. Willem lives in a flat with his Mam and his little dog Jap.

But then Willem is laid off. The building trade is hit by a recession, and the site where Willem works is locked and abandoned. Willem turns up for a few days: he can’t find his Mam, and isn’t sure what to do. He’s worried, too, that the lock will rust if no-one oils it. Willem and Jap are together, though, so part of his routine remains the same. Sadly, fate isn’t finished with Willem.
His Mam dies, and he ends up homeless. Jap is taken from him. What will Willem do?

The balance of the novel (over four parts) takes us through Willem’s increasingly bleak future. Without an address, he can’t get benefits, or medical assistance. With his savings spent (and stolen from him) he resorts to begging and theft. He sleeps where he can.

‘A few people look at him, they see his face and his clothes. He is unwashed, unclean.’

Gradually, Willem realizes that no-one will help him. His life is full of indignities, he’s tried to follow the rules as he understood them but somehow, he’s become invisible. He needs to find and take what he needs for himself. Sometimes, other people get hurt.

Willem leaves Edinburgh, and heads for the Highlands. And, for a brief period, I allow myself to hope that he’ll find a safe place. That somehow, he’ll be able to escape his past and frame a new future. Willem is a keen observer of nature, fascinated by the changing seasons and the activity of birds. But the past won’t allow him to escape, and he’s judged for what he’s done. There’s no chance, and probably no words to explain why.

The ending is inevitable. The only uncertainty is the where and when. One of the strengths of this story is how it requires the reader to think about how we treat those who are disadvantaged and homeless, how we expect them to observe rules which suit us without being flexible in trying to meet their needs. How far can a person be pushed before they transcend the usual accepted limits? Is Willem’s behaviour understandable? Is it possible to read this story without feeling some sympathy for Willem and some empathy for the situation he finds himself in?

I’m torn.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Thistle Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Photography of Peter Dombrovskis (journeys into the wild with an introduction and commentary by Bob Brown)

‘In 2007 the National Library of Australia acquired over 3,000 colour transparencies that make up the Dombrovskis archive.’

Peter Dombrovskis (2 March 1945 – 28 March 1996) was an Australian photographer, best known for his Tasmanian scenes. Peter Dombrovskis was born, to Latvian parents, in a refugee camp in Germany. He and his mother migrated to Australia in 1950, and settled in Fern Tree, a suburb of Hobart, situated below kunanyi/Mount Wellington.

Peter Dombrovskis, who was a protégé of renowned wildlife photographer and activist Olegas Truchanas (1923-1972), took photographs of the Tasmanian wilderness. Those photographs were used in Mr Dombrovskis’s annual calendars as well as in calendars produced by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society. While I don’t have any of these calendars, I do have a number of postcards featuring his work.

‘Many of us will never go to the wilderness he photographed, but into the most ordinary everyday places he brought something beautiful, contemplative and powerful.’

In late December 2017, I went to the National Library of Australia to see an exhibition on some of Peter Dombrovskis’s photographs. The National Library of Australia printed 70 of the colour transparencies it holds for this special exhibition. Most (not all) of those photographs are of remote and inaccessible parts of Tasmania. I particularly love the photographs of reflections in the remote lakes, as well as images of the Painted Cliffs (Maria Island).

But Peter Dombrovskis’s most famous photograph is undoubtedly the one entitled: Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River (c1980). This particular photograph captured what would have been lost if the Gordon-below-Franklin dam had been built. This photograph was used extensively during the last four years of the ‘No Dams’ campaign. The fight to build the dam ended up in the High Court of Australia. The High Court heard the case in 1983 and announced its decision on July 1. It found by a majority of four votes to three that the Commonwealth Government had the power to stop the dam. Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray accepted the decision, halted the dam works and the Franklin was saved.

‘Dombrovskis’ contribution to the environmental movement is profound but his technical ability and artistry as a photographer are equally celebrated.’

There are other photographs, too, of opportunistic plants clinging to life on what you might think are barren rocks, of reflections in isolated lakes, of nature absent of the impact of humankind. These are photographs to consider, contemplate and revisit.

For those with access to the National Library of Australia’s website, it is possible to see the digitized Dombrovskis collection online.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin by Judith Brett

‘Deakin was forty-four when he moved from colonial to federal politics and into the full glare of national history.’

Alfred Deakin (3 August 1856 to 7 October 1919) was Australia’s second prime minister. He was prime minister three times within the first ten years of Australia’s federation (as the second, fifth and seventh prime ministers). He served from 24 September 1903 to 27 April 1904; from 5 July 1905 to 13 November 1908; and from 2 June 1909 to 29 April 1910. The first two times Mr Deakin served as prime minister, it was as leader of the Protectionists. The third time, he became prime minster after his Fusion Party withdrew support from Andrew Fisher’s Labor Party. But who was Alfred Deakin, and what did he stand for?

Ms Brett writes:

‘I wrote this book to bring Deakin back into Australia’s contemporary political imagination, to understand how he shaped the country we live in today, and for the lessons he could teach us about how to handle unstable parliaments.’

Alfred Deakin was born in Melbourne. He studied at Melbourne University, and was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1879, aged twenty-two. During this time, he contributed to a number of reforms and was also involved in developing irrigation in Australia.

During the 1890s, Mr Deakin participated in the conferences established to draft a constitution for the proposed federation of the Australian colonies. Compromises were required, as was campaigning in the colonies: not all colonies were equally in favour of federation. Mr Deakin also fought hard to have the proposed constitution accepted by the Government of the United Kingdom. In 1887, he was offered and declined a knighthood.

While the history of Australia’s federation fascinates some of us, it’s the context Ms Brett provides which makes her book so valuable. And this context becomes even more important once federation has taken place. For example, it’s difficult for many of us to understand (from the viewpoint of being Australian in the twenty-first century) why this bill was considered so important:

‘On 7 August 1901 Edmund Barton introduced the Immigration Restriction Bill to Federal Parliament. The achievement of a White Australia had been one of the motivations for federation.’

It’s also difficult (for me at least) to appreciate Mr Deakin’s interest in non-conventional spirituality. By including quotes from Mr Deakin’s diaries, and writing about the times in which he lived, Ms Brett provides information which gives me a better understanding of how (and perhaps why) this was so important to Mr Deakin.

On one level, it is difficult to understand why such a man was drawn to politics. And there’s no shortage of evidence that Alfred Deakin considered life outside politics (for example as a preacher). But it seems to me, after finishing this biography, that his high ideals and sense of public service were greater motivation.

Ms Brett’s biography has better informed me about both the man and the politician. While some of his ideas seem out of place today, many of the challenges he faced as prime minister are contemporary. He was an effective leader in minority governments and, as well, Ms Brett writes that:

‘Deakin was the first politician to see Australia’s proximity to Asia as an opportunity as well as a threat.’

So, who should read this biography? I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia and the first ten years after federation. I’d also recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-written book about the life and times of one of Australia’s founding fathers.

‘Watt noted that, though he might have had many honours, ‘he had died plain Alfred Deakin’.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Explainer: the evidence for the Tasmanian genocide

 This article was republished from The Conversation

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The painting Group of Natives of Tasmania, 1859, by Robert Dowling. Wikimedia

Kristyn Harman, University of Tasmania

At a public meeting in Hobart in the late 1830s, Solicitor-General Alfred Stephen, later Chief Justice of New South Wales, shared with the assembled crowd his solution for dealing with “the Aboriginal problem”. If the colony could not protect its convict servants from Aboriginal attack “without extermination”, said Stephen, “then I say boldly and broadly exterminate!”

Voluminous written and archaeological records and oral histories provide irrefutable proof that colonial wars were fought on Australian soil between British colonists and Aboriginal people. More controversially, surviving evidence indicates the British enacted genocidal policies and practices – the intentional destruction of a people and their culture.

When lawyer Raphael Lemkin formulated the idea of “genocide” after the second world war, he included Tasmania as a case study in his history of the concept. Lemkin drew heavily on James Bonwick’s 1870 book, The Last of the Tasmanians, to engage with the island’s violent colonial past.

An image of Wooreddy by English artist Benjamin Duterrau. Wikimedia

Curiously, books published before and since Bonwick’s have stuck to a master narrative crafted during and immediately after the Tasmanian conflict. This held that the implementation and subsequent failure of conciliatory policies were the ultimate cause of the destruction of the majority of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The effect of this narrative was to play down the culpability of the government and senior colonists.

More recent works have challenged this narrative. In his 2014 book, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Tom Lawson made a compelling case for the use of the word “genocide” in the context of Tasmania’s colonial war in the 1820s and early 1830s, a time when the island was called Van Diemen’s Land. As Lawson writes, in the colony’s early decades, “extermination” and “extirpation” were words used by colonists when discussing the devastating consequences of the colonial invasion for the island’s Aboriginal inhabitants.

Nick Brodie’s 2017 book, The Vandemonian War: The Secret History of Britain’s Tasmanian Invasion, argues that the war was a highly orchestrated, yet deliberately downplayed, series of campaigns to efface Tasmanian Aboriginal people from their country. Brodie’s book makes extensive use of over 1,000 pages handwritten by Colonel George Arthur, revealing exactly how he prosecuted the Vandemonian War. (Disclaimer: Nick Brodie is my partner and occasional research collaborator.)

Arthur’s correspondence tells all

In his dual roles as lieutenant-governor of the colony and colonel commanding the military, Arthur directed a series of offensives against Aboriginal people.

Imperial soldiers, paramilitaries and volunteer parties were regularly deployed. Some parties were assigned Aboriginal auxiliaries as guides. Arthur’s war eventually included the largest ground offensive in Australian colonial history.

The last four Tasmanian Aboriginal captives at Oyster Cove Aboriginal Station. This photo was taken in the 1860s. Wikimedia

Shortly after he arrived in the colony in 1824, Arthur began stockpiling weapons. He blurred the lines between military men and civilians. Military officers and soldiers were given civil powers.

Former soldiers were encouraged to settle in Van Diemen’s Land and to help quell Aboriginal resistance. Settlers were issued with hundreds of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Convicts who fought against Aboriginal people were rewarded.

Military and civilian parties scoured the island for Aboriginal people, taking some prisoner and injuring or killing others. They destroyed Aboriginal campsites and caches of weapons.

Arthur knew his war parties were killing their opponents, but continued to send them out regardless. He feigned ignorance after John Batman, leader of one of the parties and later founding father of Melbourne, fatally shot two injured Aboriginal prisoners in his custody.

Colonial strategy became more severe over time. Bounties were introduced at £5 for an adult Aboriginal person and £2 per child to encourage colonists to bring in live captives. These payments were later extended to cover not only the living but also the dead.

Arthur’s regime leaked stories to the press to manage the public’s understanding of the war. It publicly announced the retirement of parties that it continued to support, and selectively recorded evidence given to an investigative committee.

As the war progressed, Arthur ordered men to conduct many covert operations. While there were some expressions of empathy for Aboriginal people, many reports painted them as aggressors, thereby justifying government action and even secrecy.

Ultimately, a couple of thousand soldiers, settlers and convicts were recruited for a general movement against Aboriginal people in late 1830. During this major campaign, Arthur rode his horse up and down the lines. He personally oversaw the operation. He sent dedicated skirmishing parties out in front of “the line”. Surviving records do not reveal how many casualties may have resulted.

Map of Indigenous Tasmania. Wikimedia

In the latter stages of the war, Arthur sent George Augustus Robinson to carry out so-called diplomatic “friendly missions” to Aboriginal people. While these were taking place, Arthur continued to orchestrate military and paramilitary operations, including some conducted by nominally diplomatic operatives.

Eventually, Arthur declared that details of the war had to become a military secret. He then continued with a series of major military offensives against the island’s remaining Aboriginal population.

By the mid-1830s almost all of Tasmania’s surviving Aboriginal inhabitants lived on small islands in Bass Strait, some with sealers and others at the Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island. From an Aboriginal population numbering somewhere in the thousands on the eve of invasion, within a generation just a few dozen remained.

Whereas the master narrative framed this state of affairs as proof of a benign government caring for unfortunate victims of circumstance, the colony’s archives reveal that Aboriginal people were removed from their ancient homelands by means fair and foul. This was the intent of the government, revealed by its actions and instructions and obfuscations. In the language of the day the Aboriginal Tasmanians had been deliberately, knowingly and wilfully extirpated. Today we could call it genocide.

Learning from New Zealand

As well as legacies of death and dispossession, the colony left a legacy of deliberate forgetting. Our neighbours across the Tasman Sea acknowledge and now formally commemorate the 19th-century New Zealand wars. The first Rā Maumahara, a national day of remembrance, was held on October 28 2017.

Yet today in Australia people quibble over whether the nation’s colonial conflicts ought to be called “wars”, or indeed whether any conflicts took place.

Despite some differences, wars prosecuted in the Australian colonies share strong similarities with the New Zealand wars. British colonists and imperial soldiers fought against Indigenous people who took up arms to protect their families, land, resources and sovereignty.

Yet colonists perceived their Indigenous opponents differently. Through British eyes, Māori were feared as a martial foe. Australian Aboriginal people, on the other hand, were considered incapable of organising armed resistance despite extensive evidence to the contrary.

New Zealand has begun a new chapter of national commemoration for the wars fought on its soil. Is Australia ready to follow suit? Or will it, by omission, continue to perpetuate the secrecies of its own wartime propaganda?

The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren

‘She could reinvent herself.’

Theresa sees ghosts. The ghosts that Theresa sees are the ghosts that haunt you, the ghosts which indicate how you are going to die. Mostly Theresa sees the ghosts of battered women: she works to find emergency housing for women in crisis. And how close the ghosts are gives an indication of how soon death might come. Theresa helps where she can, but one of her interventions leads to her being injured. Theresa, still grieving from losing the love of her life, moves from her home and job. She moves to be with her aunt and uncle, who’ve lost a daughter to suicide.

Grief is personal; it is both physical and psychic. In this novel, Ms Warren constructs a world in which grief has its own momentum. Theresa tries to recover her cousin’s art for her art and uncle. This takes her on a harrowing journey, into a physical grief hole from which few escape. Along the way, Theresa meets Sol Evictus. He’s a charismatic singer, loved by many. So why does Theresa think he needs to be destroyed? And, given that Theresa can see no ghosts around him, how can he be destroyed?

Ms Warren has written a novel which takes me into some horrible spaces, with no real confidence that there is any light in the tunnel. How can Theresa triumph against such evil? It seems like Sol Evictus is untouchable (except on his own terms). I kept reading: is this horror with lashings of fantasy, or vice versa? Does it really matter? While I’m hoping that Theresa will triumph, that various family secrets will be explained, and that her aunt and uncle will find peace, I’m thinking about the many and varied manifestations of grief.

The book’s artwork, by Keely Van Order, is perfect.

The novel ended. My thinking about it continues. I can see why this novel has won a number of awards, including the top fiction award at the 2017 ACT Writing and Publishing Awards, and Best Novel at the 2017 Ditmar Awards. I suspect I need to add Ms Warren’s other novels to my reading list. Powerful, disturbing, recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong

It’s hard to write a review for this novel without spoilers, but important to read it without knowing the ending.  If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you thought of it.


‘Six Australian flags hang rich and solemn, three each side of the doorway.’

One week out from an Australian Federal election, and the government announces a new hard-line policy regarding maritime assistance to asylum seekers vessels in distress. Cassius Calvert, Minister for Border Integrity makes the announcement:

‘From this point forward, no unidentified vessels in Australian territorial waters will be offered any form of maritime assistance. None .’

The Minister goes on to say that:

‘Any further incursions into territorial waters will be met with remote measures by our private sector partners, Core Resolve. ’

To the west of Australia, two vessels set off. The Takalar sets out from Makassar carrying asylum-seekers, the Java Ridge sets out from Bali carrying a group of Australian surf tourists. The two vessels will meet at Pulau Dana, north-west of Ashmore Reef. Isi Natoli, skipper of the Java Ridge had another destination in mind, but an incoming storm changes her plans. The Java Ridge takes shelter inside a lagoon. The Takalar is experiencing engine trouble, and has limped around the island, seeking a way into the lagoon. They’ve seen the Java Ridge: ‘A boat just like theirs.’
Surely, now, they will be safe?

In a fast-moving novel, full of drama, heartbreak and tension, Mr Serong had me hooked from near the beginning until the end. And the ending? Should I be grateful that it’s fiction, and cling to my belief that the Australian government would never be so callous? Or should I wonder where the fine line between fact and fiction is, and whether it might shift?

There are many powerful passages in this novel but this one in particular will stay with me:

‘Look out wider, Minister. Forget about the boat people for a moment. This dependence on the private sector, it’s creating cracks for things to fall into. The mark of a totalitarian state isn’t all the picaresque violence and the rallies: it’s the fact that things start to vanish.’

An unsettling and disturbing read. A novel to read and discuss while we think about how we Australians wish to see Australia perceived in the wider world.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Warren Mundine in Black + White

‘Race Politics and Changing Australia.’

In this book, Nyunggai Warren Mundine sets out to tell a story. It’s a story about his own life, about his family and about Australian politics. It’s also about the process and progress of change, about history, and some of the barriers to success.

As I read the book, I was reminded that until 1967 that aspects of life for many Aboriginal people were controlled by the state or territory in which they lived. I was reminded (again) of the harm such control can do. How do people learn to take responsibility, to manage their affairs when they have no autonomy?

Mr Mundine writes:

‘After the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal people started to receive equal pay across the board through a combination of changes to laws and industrial decisions over about a decade. For some regional industries, like the pastoral industry, this meant a huge jump in expenses. Most Aboriginal people in those industries had never actually received equal wages. Instead of getting a pay increase, they lost their jobs and were kicked off their lands. The pastoralists lost a cheap source of labour and weren’t willing or able to pay them full wages.

At the same time, Aboriginal people gained rights to government benefits, which previously they weren’t entitled to. So those who lost their jobs became full-time welfare recipients .’

I wasn’t aware of this. In 1967, I was a school child living in regional Tasmania. I’d been taught that we no longer had any Tasmanian Aborigines. But in the early 1970s I saw a massive growth in unemployment in Tasmania. Consequently, some of those who became welfare recipients have never been employed since, and this unemployment is now in the third generation for some. Yes, I can see the issue. The longer people are unemployed, the harder it becomes to get employment.

‘Ultimately, the key to tackling long-term unemployment among Aboriginal people is the same as for anyone else. You have to address long-term welfare dependency .’

Some people lose motivation, others try harder. Mr Mundine draws on his own experience of recovering from injury to demonstrate this.

I was particularly interested in what Mr Mundine had to say about Aboriginal incarceration rates. If what he says is true, then surely, we need to focus more on addressing the causes (violence) rather than the consequences (incarceration).

‘High incarceration rates and the epidemic of violence and abuse are two sides of the same coin.
The disparity in Aboriginal incarceration rates overwhelmingly comes down to two things – violence and reoffending. Most Aboriginal prisoners are incarcerated for violent offences and, contrary to myth, only a tiny proportion for traffic and public order offences. Aboriginal people are grossly overrepresented among those incarcerated for violent offences. They are also disproportionately victims of those offences .’

Other issues Mr Mundine raises includes the influence of Green groups in preventing the traditional owners on Cape York from building a real economy . I’m not across the details, but it strikes me as ironic that Green groups would think that traditional owners couldn’t be trusted to manage the land they were custodians of for thousands of years.

There’s much more to Nyunggai Warren Mundine’s story than I can touch on here. It’s a personal story by a great Australian, it’s inspiring and thoughtful. His story touches on successes and failures, and challenges some of what I thought I knew to be fact. Finally, and importantly, it’s a tribute to his parents and their lives.

As Mr Mundine writes:

‘We must not tolerate a narrative that says failure is “cultural” and achievement is “white”.’

I recommend this book to every Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

A Tropical Cure by John Hollenkamp

‘Townsville in February. Hot and steamy.’

And, within a very short period, a few bodies are discovered. First, a taxi driver disappears. His burnt-out cab is found in a desolate spot. Close by, a stolen car is found half submerged in a tidal creek. There’s a body in the boot, but it’s not the cab driver. Then, on the banks of the Ross River, another body is found. This man has had his throat cut and had four fingers amputated. He’s Simon Rowe: a bank manager, a drug dealer and a high-school friend of Darren Mangan.

‘Find a body in a drain, nine times out of ten, it’s crime related. Not random.’

So, what’s happening in Townsville? Are these disappearances and deaths connected? How is Darren Mangan involved? There’s a crime family from Melbourne looking for a missing kilogram of cocaine, a group of kids who push their luck too far, and there’s Eddie. Remember Eddie from ‘Stealth’? Darren is still looking for him. But Darren’s got a few problems of his own to sort out, and he’s being hunted as well.

Mr Hollenkamp has written another high-energy novel, crammed with short, sharp chapters as the action moves between the various characters and intertwined threads. There are plenty of bad guys, most of whom will receive an appropriate comeuppance. Alas, not everything ends quite the way I’d like: a few of the good guys suffer along the way and I’m fairly sure that they won’t all be part of Darren’s next adventure. Because there will be more, won’t there Mr Hollenkamp?

If you’ve not yet read ‘Stealth’, I suggest that you do before reading ‘A Tropical Cure’. The first novel is an introduction to the second, a continuation (in large part) of Darren’s search for Eddie which becomes complicated.

Me, I’m hoping for (at least) a third instalment.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Pincher Martin by William Golding

‘He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body.’

Meet Christopher Hadley ‘Pincher’ Martin, temporary lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Blown off his ship by a German torpedo.  Alone.

Usually, when I write a book review, I try to give some sense of what the book is about, where it is set, and how I reacted to it.  Most books lend themselves to this approach if, mindful of spoilers (for fiction), I avoid too much detail.

Alas, ‘Pincher Martin’ is not in the category of ‘most books’.  It’s a book best read without knowing anything about the story.  It’s a book to read, to think about, and then (in my case at least) to reread. Mr Golding achieved something quite extraordinary in this (comparatively) short novel: we are in Pincher Martin’s mind, and it’s an unforgettable journey.  It’s worth taking the time to read it.


Jennifer Cameron-Smith