BOOK REVIEW: ‘Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia’.

90. Oz Convicts

Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia

Author: Lucy Williams

No. of Pages: 202

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 5

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Writing in this volume’s Introduction, the authors states that, over a four-year period, ‘…She spent almost every day banished beyond the seas, out of time and space, in convict Australia’. She continues ‘This book is a collection of the tales I found there’. While an admirable precis of what is to follow, it must however be qualified by two of the author’s subsequent statements, both of which appear on page xiii of the volume. These are:

‘All the stories related here are based on original records’.

‘Using my knowledge of the period, places and criminal justice system, I have in some cases made suggestions for the most likely scenario…but…cannot know for sure’.

After reading these statements, this reviewer found himself asking ‘How much of what appears within this volume is in fact true (with ‘true’ being defined as ‘An accurate representation of what actually occurred’)? To state that ‘All the stories related here are based on original records’, implies very strongly that in fact ‘truth’ may be absent from the majority of the tales that are related, with the ‘original records’ have been used only as a foundation; the key word in this instance being ‘Based’. This is a definition supported by the Oxford Dictionary when it states that ‘Based on’ is as the foundation or starting point for something’, while the author, by then stating that ‘…I have in some cases made suggestions for the most likely scenario but cannot know for sure’, compounds the problem further. Against such a background, to question ‘How much of what is within the volume is true?’ is not unreasonable, and indeed, this reviewer found himself asking that question repeatedly during the review process. He believes that what has resulted from these two statements is a work of ‘Faction’ (defined as ‘A plausible mixture of fact and fiction’), but as there is no way to know which is which, and with ‘Scepticism’ now attending every word, the volume’s reputation and authority has inevitably suffered.

The volume opens with the expected Contents page, this is in turn being followed by an Acknowledgements section within-which the author thanks those individuals and organisations who assisted her in the creation of the work. The previously-mentioned Introduction follows. Subtitled The Lives of the Lagged, this summarises the narrative presented within the main part of the volume, while providing additional background concerning the records accessed during its writing, the individuals involved and the political and social circumstances which resulted in the ‘Transportation’ phenomenon. Where necessary, subheadings within the section deal with specific aspects of the story being presented.  The five Chapters which constitute the volume’s major section now appear. These take the reader from the process and reasons by which prisoners became ‘Transportees’, to descriptions of conditions within the penal colonies themselves. As with the Introduction, subheadings within each Chapter are used to detail specific individuals and events. A Conclusion section placed after Chapter Five (The Hothouse of Humanity on the Swan River) acts as a summary to what has gone before while presenting the author’s thoughts on the process. The Conclusion is in turn followed by a three-page Appendix. Although no background information is provided, its content appears to be three letters written by one Margaret Catchpole to two separate individuals in 1802. The Appendix is in turn followed by a five–page section titled Tracing Transportees: Resources for the Reader. The title is self-explanatory. A section titled Suggested Reading placed after that section is analogous to a Bibliography, and is followed by the Index; the volume’s final section. Twenty four Images appear in an eight-page section placed in the book’s centre. These are both colour and monochrome in format and contain reproductions of individual portraits, advertisements, documents, structures and ephemera relevant to the narrative. While each image is informatively captioned, not all carry citations to indicate their origins. Neither the Contents page nor the Index acknowledges the existence of the images section or its contents. The numerous Quotes that appear throughout the volume carry no authenticating citations and as a result could well be imaginary; there is no indication to the contrary. Curiously, and despite the immense distances involved in both the transportation process itself and on the continent of Australia, the volume contains no Maps.

As previously-noted (and by the author’s own admission), this volume is a work of faction; ‘actual’ history ‘embroidered’ and ‘imagined’ to create a pre-determined narrative. As such, it cannot be considered to be an authoritative historical work. The previously-mentioned lack of citations for any of the numerous quotes appearing within the book only serves to re-emphasise the point. The result is a potentially-valuable resource reduced to little more than a collection of interesting tales, some of which may actually be true. Regrettably, the Index does not help, being best described as ‘incomplete’ in its entries. When reviewing this volume, and in the course of random searching, this reviewer had occasion on to seek Index entries for  Millbank, Pentonville and Portland (all on page 21) and Ned Kelly (page 181). Nothing was found and subsequent equally-random searches, returned similar results. What other, similar, information may be missing cannot be known. The absence of Maps has already been alluded-to.

The difficulties’ mentioned above notwithstanding, while this volume may have little to offer for serious researchers, it is still a collection of ‘Convict Stories’, and as a result may appeal to readers seeking ‘Human interest’ tales about the transportee’s experiences. Readers seeking descriptions of ‘lower class’ life in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Great Britain, may also find its contents of interest, these suggestions being made with the qualification that what is appears before the reader may not in fact be true.

This is undoubtedly a ‘sincere’ book, written to explain a complicated situation and doing it well, but to present a narrative as ‘true’ when it is patently not, comes at a cost. Were that it was not so.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I have given this volume a 5.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia’.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia

Author: Elizabeth Tynan

Total Number of Pages: 373

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7 ½

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In the book’s Acknowledgements section, the author writes that, in her opinion ‘The Maralinga story is a vast sprawling saga. This book is an attempt to provide a concise overview that will be of interest to the general reader, as well as offering a fresh perspective based upon years of analysis of the many diverse forms of evidence available…I have…sought to…show marlinga in its historical and scientific context’. As a ‘Statement of intent’, it is admirable. She also notes (in the volume’s Prologue) that ‘The word Maralinga means ‘thunder’ in Garik…It was exactly the right name. The thunder that rolled across the plains was an ominous sound that heralded a new leading player in a nuclear-armed and infinitely dangerous world’. The volume ends with the following sentence: ‘If there is a word that speaks not only of thunder but also of government secrecy, nuclear colonialism, reckless national pride, bigotry towards indigenous peoples, nuclear scientific arrogance, human folly and the resilience of victims, surely that word is maralinga’.

Regrettably (and despite the noble intentions expressed above), what has eventually resulted is a subjective volume written to meet a pre-determined outcome. To the author, the Maralinga saga has no redeeming features.

Within the volume itself, the Contents page is followed by a four page Acknowledgments section within-which the individuals and organisations (and even animals) which contributed to this book are thanked.  It also reveals the volume’s origins, these being that a visit to an organisation in Melbourne in 2004 ‘…Planted the seed of an idea that later became my PhD thesis and still later became this book’. An Abbreviations section is next, giving interpretation to the numerous acronyms and abbreviations which appear throughout the book. A single page Measurements section follows. This gives the equivalents necessary to convert British Imperial measurements into their metric equivalents, while also noting the differences between Australia’s ‘Imperial’ currency (comprising Pounds Shillings and Pence) and the metric-based one that replaced it in 1966.Two pages of Maps follow. This section contains four maps. One is a general outline of Australia indicating the location of the nuclear test sites in relation to the rest of the continent. Its companions show the individual test sites in greater detail. Curiously (and although noted only as Map on the Contents page), the section itself carries the additional title British nuclear tests in Australia – test sites within its pages. Which one is correct is not known.  A Prologue follows.  This provides a summary of what is to follow; the 12 Chapters which comprise the main part of the volume.  These largely record the decisions and events that were associated with the various nuclear tests which comprised the ‘Maralinga’ series. However (and for unknown reasons), throughout the volume the author also uses the ‘Stream of consciousness’ narrative-form to describe events. Chapter One (Maralinga buried, uncovered) is one such example.  This writing style is more commonly associated with works of fiction. Where used within the volume, and with no supporting citations to provide verification, the result is, at best, a work of ‘Faction’ (that is ‘Facts combined with imagination to produce an end result that is a combination of both’). The appropriateness of such narrative-forms within a volume purporting to be an authoritative work is debatable. An Appendix is placed after the final chapter. Its title (British Atomic tests in Australia) is self-explanatory. A Glossary follows, and is in turn followed by a section titled References. This is somewhat analogous to a Notes section in a volume in which Footnote or Endnote citations appear. As such devices are not used within this book, its presence is unexplained.  A Bibliography placed after the References section records both the electronic and printed material used in creating this work and is followed in turn by the Index; the volume’s final section.  The book contains no photographs.

This reviewer found several areas of concern when viewing this volume. In addition to the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style previously-noted, the lack of citations for the numerous Quotes reduces the latter’s authority (and consequent research value) to almost zero; they might just as well be imagined.  The authority of the Index is also questionable, as random checking found several omissions; New Zealand (for example) although mentioned twice on page 23, is absent from the Index.  As the absence of other entries was also noted, the true extent of such ‘omissions’ cannot be known. The lack of photographic images is also unfortunate as their presence would have provided visual reinforcement to the narrative.

As previously noted, this volume is subjective in its treatment of its subject. As such it will no doubt confirm well-held and entrenched viewpoints. That detail notwithstanding, it is likely to be of interest to Political Scientists with a specific interest in British nuclear policies and international Cold War politics. Australians seeking information about the Maralinga tests and their country’s relationships with the British are also likely to find it of interest. Academic librarians might also find it worthy of inclusion within their collections. The author’s lack of objectivity does however mean that is not the ‘Standard Work of Reference’ that it could have been; it should be treated accordingly.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7 ½.

Note: This title was originally published in Australia in 2016, with this edition, published in 2018, being the first in Great Britain. It has not been updated in the interval.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War

Author: Christopher Knowles

Total Number of Printed Pages: 220

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6

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In the introductory voice-over text of the television series Star Trek, viewers were told that the spacecraft’s mission was ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’. This is a reasonable summation of this volume, with the only real difference being that the author had a party of paying tourists with him when he ‘boldly went’ into what was at that time, a completely foreign world; one that lurked all-unknown, behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains.

This book is part autobiography and part travelogue, and, while narrating events that occurred enroute, inevitably contains the author’s personal views concerning those he was travelling with, the countries being travelled through and the people and systems he encountered while doing so. Ostensibly it narrates the author’s experiences while taking a party of tourists from London to Hong Kong during 1981; a time when the Cold War was at its height and Westerners were a novelty east of the Berlin Wall, In fact, however, it is not. Despite being  presented as a single event, this volume is in reality a compendium of several journeys made over an indeterminate period. It is a narrative that is held together with what is ultimately a fictional thread. Although not evident from the title, the author makes this clear in the Preface. Within that section (and when referring to the narrative that is being presented), he states that ‘What follows, combined into a single imaginary journey, is a selection of events that occurred over the years’. He also notes that ‘All the events are true and with the exception of the incarceration in Ulan Bator, which was the unfortunate fate of another, most happened to me’. The author concludes ‘…I have taken the liberty of occasionally taking them [the events] out of their original content in order to preserve the narrative flow’. The end result is what can best be described as a work of ‘faction’; a narrative that is part fact and part fiction. There is no way of knowing which is which. That this should be the case in a volume promoting itself as a ‘truthful’ narration of a single event, raises questions concerning the veracity of the information it contains.

The bulk of the book consists of 12 Chapters, which take the reader on a train journey from London to Hong Kong. Each Chapter covers a specific section of the over-all journey and relates events that occurred while travelling over it. The section is preceded by a Preface which provides a synopsis of what the book contains. An Acknowledgements section follows; within it the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s creation. Unsourced colour photographs appear randomly throughout the work, and are possibly from the author’s own collection. Their captions are informative, but there is no reference to their existence on the Contents Page. A single Map traces the journey that the narrative describes. There is no Index.

Because of its subject, this volume is likely to appeal to both those who made similar journeys and to ‘armchair travellers’ in search of a good story. Those who are interested in life in Eastern Europe and Communist China during the ‘Cold War’ may also find it informative. Sociologists seeking information about life in micro-communities (train passengers on long journeys) or of everyday life under Communist rule might also find it of interest. Although it is more concerned with the journey rather than the ‘technical details’, railway enthusiasts might also find the descriptions of trains interesting.

This book is well-written and engages the reader with its narrative. However, the fact that (in this reviewer’s opinion) it is a volume of ‘faction’ reduces its usefulness considerably. This is reflected in its Rating. It was potentially worthy of a much higher rating than it received.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 6.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’