Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally


This book, about the experiences of a group of Australian nurses during the First World War, is superb.  It’s not for the squeamish, because it doesn’t pull any punches in getting across the horrors of working in military hospitals in wartime – first in Egypt and on the Greek islands, during the Dardanelles campaign, and then in France -, nor of the Spanish flu with which the book ends, but it doesn’t half get the message across.

Today is, of course, Gallipoli Day, Anzac Day.  The usual commemorations in Australia and New Zealand will not be taking place this year, and the march through the centre of Bury, headquarters of the Lancashire Fusiliers who were so heavily involved in the campaign, will not be taking place either.  I know that it’s a very, very important day for our friends in Australia and New Zealand, and that alternative ways are being made to mark it during this strange time.

The book sees two sisters, daughters of a “cow cocky” (small dairy farmer) in a rural part of New South Wales, leave their jobs in Australian hospitals to become Army nurses.  We follow them and their friends/comrades as they work in different places.  We also see them narrowly escape with their lives after their ship is torpedoed –  based on the real life sinking of the SS Marquette, in which 10 nurses, from New Zealand, were amongst the 167 people who lost their lives – and again when the field hospitals come under fire.

There are also several sub-plots involving religious and ethical issues – possibly reflecting the fact that the author was at one time intending to become a Catholic priest.  Is it OK to use excess morphine to ease the passing of someone who’s not going to survive anyway?  Should the Quaker fiancé of one of the sisters, who volunteered for the Medical Corps, be obliged to move into a combatant role when ordered to do so?

And, whilst the descriptions of wounds and treatment are in many ways specific to war, and in particular to the Great War, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of washing hands and of wearing clean scrubs, and of whether or not wearing face masks can help to prevent infection.  There are also bizarre rumours that the Spanish flu was created in a German laboratory.  Does this sound familiar?

The style of writing takes some getting used to – there’s an awful lot of speech with no speech marks, which I found quite annoying – but it really is an excellent read.

The two sisters, Naomi and Sally, have recently lost their mother.  Sally had a stash of morphine, and thought that Naomi used it to help their mother, who was terminally ill, to die.  It later turns out that she didn’t, but Sally feels guilty that the issue arose.  They both answer the call for nurses to join up, and sail initially to Egypt, working first in Cairo and then in Alexandria.  In Alexandria, they’re based for most of the time on board hospital ships, moving between there and the Greek island of Lemnos.  Initially, they’re mainly treating syphilis cases, but then the Dardanelles campaign starts … and the descriptions of the war wounds and the desperate attempts to treat them are harrowing but fascinating, and very well-written.  Later, they work on the Western Front.

It’s not all blood and gore.  They’re able to do plenty of sightseeing in Egypt, in Lemnos, and at the ports where they stop en route to and from (Naomi at one point returns to Australia, accompanying soldiers who’ve been invalided out), and later in Britain and France.  The Pyramids, Rouen Cathedral and Table Mountain are amongst the trips described.  There’s also a lot of flirtation and romance – all the nurses seem to get umpteen marriage proposals!   Sadly, not all the men are romantic: there’s one very distressing sub-plot in which one of the sisters’ friends is raped by a hospital orderly.

Another friend becomes engaged to a soldier, but he’s then killed in action.  Another suffers serious injuries when the ship sinks, then contracts TB, and is then killed in a road traffic accident.  And … well, the book ends with the devastating effects of the Spanish flu.

There’s a lot to take in.  A considerable amount of emphasis is put on the rivalry between the different Australian states, reminding us that this was still very soon after federation and that people were still getting used to it.  There’s also a lot about religion – I’m not sure why, but we’re told what religion practically every character is.  Maybe it’s just to emphasise that those who served came from many different backgrounds.  Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Anglicans and Quakers all feature.

In particular, there’s quite a lot about the dilemmas faced by Quakers in relation to active service, as already mentioned.  Another of the Quaker characters is a woman from Manchester (hooray!!) who’s married to a viscount and is using his money to fund a private nursing initiative – many of which existed during the Great War, playing an important role.  Naomi joins this voluntary hospital, whilst Sally remains in base hospitals, so we see things from both angles.

It’s also supposed to be about the relationship between the two sisters, but I’m not sure that that came across as well as it was meant to.  That’s my only criticism, though.  This is a superb book.  Highly recommended.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.



Great Australian Railway Journeys – BBC 2


I really want Michael Portillo’s job. He gets paid for reading historical books and going on exciting railway journeys all over the world! And he seems to have become rather a cult figure: there were people in Australia holding a Michael Portillo lookalike competition. Seriously.

Whereas most British TV programmes about Australia focus on Sydney and Melbourne, this showed us the “Ghan” railway journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, featuring cute baby kangaroos, camels, and some thought-provoking discussions about the effect that the building of telegraph wires had on 19th century Australia. The most interesting bit, though, was about Aboriginal storytelling. As with the griots mentioned in the foreword to Alex Haley’s “Roots”, the idea of a trained human memory and just how much information people can recall and recount, and pass down the generations, is absolutely fascinating. The days of the epics and the bards are long gone here: we write everything down, or put it in our mobile phones. But the Aboriginal storytelling culture lives on. No other culture in the world can match that.

The paintings were brilliant too, but it was the storytelling that particularly interested me. We heard a lot about Aboriginal traditions and lifestyles in this first episode, and we also heard “Stolen Generation” stories about the horrific removal of mixed-race children from their families, and the effect that that’s still having now. Michael Portillo’s programmes are about a lot more than railways. But, in terms of the history of the railways, we were told about the competition between Queensland and South Australia to build railways across the Northern Territory, and also about how important the coming of telegraph wires to Australia was: before then, it was taking three to four months to get information between Australia and Britain, when information could be passed between Britain and the US in a few hours, at a time when most white Australians had family and friends in Britain, as well as the political ties.

Wildlife featured as well. Kangaroos! Camels. Apparently there are 200,000 feral camels in Australia. They were introduced there as beasts of burden … and went forth and multiplied.  Less excitingly but more importantly, cattle. And there was so much room, so much space … miles and miles of space.

Then, at the end, Michael attended an Anzac Day commemoration in Darwin.  As I said, this is about much more than railways.

All in all, a very watchable hour’s TV. But, however interesting the subject matter, it’s the presenter who makes or breaks programmes like these, and Michael definitely makes them. He’s an important reminder, amid all the abuse and nastiness that we’re doubtless going to have to put up with on our television screens and on our social media over the next six weeks, that politicians, whether or not we agree with their views, are just human beings like the rest of us. And he comes across as being a very nice one.  These railway programmes have been going since 2010, and may there be many more of them!

A Quintette in Queensland and Verena visits New Zealand by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


These are two of the four “geography readers” written by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), the author of the Chalet School series and many other books, in 1951, intended to inform readers about different Commonwealth countries.  They’re intended to be educational but are written as stories – one about five cousins on a sugar cane farm in Queensland, and one about a girl touring New Zealand.  The word “reader” makes me think of an American school text book, but, whilst these are clearly meant to be educational, and contain a huge amount of information, they are stories, and they’re quite good fun.  Also, given that these books were written nearly seventy years ago, it does EBD great credit that it’s made clear to Verena that “Some of our finest men have been Maoris”.  There are a lot of info dumps, but they’re all interesting, and they’re all woven into the stories.  I enjoyed these far more than I was expecting to.

A Quintette in Queensland is about a group of five children at a sugar cane farm in Queensland. Is “farm” the right word? I keep wanting to say “plantation”, but that’s obviously wrong. Station, maybe? Anyway!  We’ve got the three children who live there, and their two cousins who are visiting from New Zealand during the long school holidays. Three boys and two girls – four of whom are aged between 14 and 16, and one who’s younger. So, apart from the setting, it’s quite an Enid Blyton/Lorna Hill/Arthur Ransome set-up. The kids are all at boarding school, which seems a bit unlikely, and the book’s set in July – which fits with both the British long school holidays and the cane cutting season, but certainly doesn’t fit with the Australian school year. You’d think EBD would have realised that! Oh well, never mind. Seeing as she seemed to think that Toronto was full of French-speaking convent schools and that fictional countries moved around the Balkans at will, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised. Bless her!

It’s only a short book, so we don’t get to know any of the kids that well, but they’re all generally nice kids – no-one is bossy, or a troublemaker. The three who live there are the children of the owners, rather than of the people who actually cut the sugar – although it is pointed out that it’s hard to get domestic staff there, so the mum has to do the housework herself (yes, really!).  The girls have to help – and Chalet School fans will be amused to find that this includes taking the mattresses off the beds and airing them every day. The boys do not have to do housework, but the older boys help with cutting the sugar. This was published in 1951, so I’m not going to moan about the gender division of labour, but I’m just pointing it out!   And, although the girls and the younger boy have to take shelter in bad weather, later on, whilst the older boys front it out, the girls do generally get to be equally involved in everything, and no-one suggests that machinery and industrial processes won’t interest them.  Hooray!!

EBD does write quite well about mixed gender groups.  She never really tries it in the Chalet School series, except in Joey & Co in Tyrol … and it’s not easy to judge the quality of someone’s writing on a book in which a man who’s planning to take off in a home-made spaceship turns out to be someone’s long-lost cousin.  I’m always sorry that we see so little of the Russell and Bettany boys.

Anyway!  There’s a huge amount of information in it. I’m afraid that all I really know about the Australian sugar cane industry is that Luke O’Neill in The Thorn Birds devoted himself to cane-cutting, instead of living with his wife Meggie. However, apparently everything in the book is pretty accurate, with the possible exception of a reference to houses having “winter rooms” that were only used when heavy rain meant that people couldn’t leave their homes. We hear about the plant life, the animal life (especially the toads!), and, in a lot of detail, about the processes of cutting and refining the sugar cane, and about the lives of the owners and the staff … although the staff don’t really don’t feature that much.  We even hear about the type of clothing that the cane cutters wear.  The idea that they need to wear clothes made of material that absorbs sweat, to make sure that they don’t get rheumatism, is very EBD, a bit like keeping your blazer on whilst hiking up a mountain on a swelteringly hot day, but the idea that wet clothes caused rheumatism was certainly very common back in the day.

Then, at the end, the children go on a camping trip – with the parents initially in attendance, which would never have happened in a Blyton, Hill or Ransome book! This being an EBD book, there’s a weather trauma and a medical trauma, but it’s nothing very serious – thanks to the use of permanganate crystals. Chalet School fans will know that Stephen Venables, Jem Russell’s nasty brother-in-law, met a sticky end after wandering around in rural North Queensland without permanganate crystals!

All in all, it’s very readable, and it feels a lot less didactic than the sections in the Swiss Chalet School books in which mistresses lecture the girls about the places they’re visiting.  I was a historian pretty much from birth  :-), so I quite like the info dumps on the school trips, but I know that a lot of people don’t … and I’m not convinced that the Chalet School girls do!  The story format in these “readers” works really well.

Verena visits New Zealand has much more of a typically EBD set-up.  Thirteen-year-old Verena has been very ill with scarlet fever, and “outgrown her strength”.  An uncle who is over in Britain from New Zealand on business offers to take her back with him for a year (as you do), because the sea air and the wonderful New Zealand air will be just what she needs.

This one, without wanting to give too much away,  feels far more like a plug for immigration!  Emigration, rather, seeing as it seems to be aimed at a British audience.  There’s a lot of talk about how wonderful the education system is in New Zealand, and the opportunities there.  But it’s made clear that only people who want to work on the land are needed.  No white collar workers.  And definitely no wusses – only tough people!  Seems like a rather insensitive thing to say to someone who’s so weak that she’s been told to take six months off school, but a lot of EBD characters do tend to be a bit tactless!

Again, there’s a huge amount of info, but this is about the country as a whole, not just one area or aspect of it.  Verena visits Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and the geyser, hot baths and mud pools at Rotorua, and volcanic Mount Tarawera, as well as spending time at her aunt and uncle’s sheep station (station? farm?) and seeing the shearing, and at fruit farms and a family friend’s dairy farm.  We also hear a lot about New Zealand’s history.  I found this one more interesting than the first one, but that’s just a personal thing: I’m better with history and travel than with tractors and toads 😉 .

Verena also visits a Maori village, and her aunt talks to her about the Maori people.  Modern readers may be a little uncomfortable with the use of the word “civilised” and the fact that wearing European clothes is seen as a marker of this, and obviously this is quite a challenging subject at the moment, ahead of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing, but we need to remember that the book was written nearly seventy years ago.  “Auntie” makes it clear to Verena that Maoris have equal rights and equal privileges with white people, and are able to get into top jobs.  “They are intelligent and friendly.  Some of our finest men have been Maoris.”  Bearing in mind that this was written in 1951, I think that EBD deserves great credit for it.

Verena, presumably having recovered from her illness (which I don’t think is actually mentioned again after the first chapter!), then starts at a school in New Zealand, and makes friends with a girl whose family are from Akaroa, which was established as a French settlement. The friend explains that her grandma came over from France (I’m not sure that any French settlers actually did come over after the initial group arrived in 1840, but never mind), and likes to be addressed as “Grand-mere”. She then explains that the rest of the family are as English as everyone else, because, after all, they are New Zealanders!  I’ve been told by older people from both New Zealand and Australia that many people there still regarded themselves as being very British (EBD has a habit of using “English” rather than “British”, even when talking about places in Wales!) even into the second half of the twentieth century, but I think EBD did go a bit overboard there!! But credit to her for including a little-known piece of New Zealand’s history and heritage.

The two stories are quite different – the Queensland one contains a lot of detail about the ins and outs of the sugar cane industry, whereas the New Zealand one’s more of a travel guide to New Zealand as a whole.  But they’re both good reads, and I think that children reading them at the time would have learned a great deal from them without ever feeling that the books were like school text books.  I’m really looking forward to reading the other two stories, set in Canada and Kenya, when they’re republished.

Incidentally, I’d love to know how EBD came to write these books, which are quite a departure from her usual stories. The introduction written by GGBP, who’ve republished the books – thank you, GGBP, because they were incredibly hard to get hold of previously! – suggests that her publishers, Chambers, were hoping to widen their readership in different parts of the Commonwealth with books written about those countries by an already popular author, but I don’t really follow that. Although these are stories, they’re primarily meant to be educational, and surely they were intended to teach British children about other countries. Kids living in those countries presumably had plenty of educational books about them, written by people who actually lived there or had at least been there! If it was about selling more books worldwide, surely school stories, holiday stories or adventure stories set in the countries concerned would have sold better – maybe involving some of the many CS connections there.

It’s also pointed out that the local authorities seem to have been involved, certainly for the Queensland story which contains a huge amount of information which would probably have been difficult for EBD to access in the UK. Is it possible that they’d approached Chambers about the possibility of their producing books educating British children about their region/country?

They presumably can’t have been thinking of attracting tourists.  How about attracting immigrants?  Whilst this was the age of the Ten Pound Poms, it’s hardly likely that EBD’s audience of (mainly) girls aged between 8 and 14 would have been inspired to plan a career in cutting sugar cane, seen as a male-only job.  The one about New Zealand, however, does very much seem like it’s encouraging people – as long as they’re hard enough!! – to think of moving there.  Or maybe they just wanted people to know more about their region/country?   I think we’re now obsessed with the idea that anything taught to children has to be taught for a reason.  It doesn’t!

Perhaps the people at Chambers thought that there was a lot of interest in different parts of the Commonwealth at this time, and books on the subject by an established author would sell well? Maybe they thought schools would buy them? Hey, maybe EBD just fancied trying her hand at something a bit different!  Whatever the reason, I’m very glad that she did write these, and I’m glad that, thirty-six years after I read my first Chalet School book, I’ve finally had the chance to read these too.