22 July 2014

images of Scottish-Australian history

What has Scotland got to do with the development of Australia? Quite a lot, according to the Art Gallery of Ballarat which has mounted a special exhibition to the relationship between Australia and Scotland, right up to Federation (1/1/1901). The exhibition, For Auld Lang Syne: Images of Scottish Australia from First Fleet to Federation, delves into the most important facets of life - fashion, sport, high art and whiskey. 

Exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Ballarat, 2014

Clearly Australia owes the Scots a lot. The exhibition shows that the first game of golf played in Australia was in Tasmania; Australia’s first Catholic saint Mary Mackillop was a Scottish Gaelic speaker having been taught the language at home in Melbourne in the 1840s by her father and that the wine industry in Australia was founded by the Scot James Busby. Thomas Watling was Australia's first professional artist, a Scot whose paintings beautifully depicted the new colony, its fauna and flora. Alas Watling was a convicted bank note forger and came to Australia involuntarily.

Tough and resourceful, the Scots were more literate and educated than most early settlers in Australia and were less likely to be convicts, so they flourished in their new land. The Scots, with their success­ful estab­lishment of economic and cultural networks, occupied signif­icant posts in the social and political life of the early colon­ies. In particular Scots were prominent among the naval and army officers who ran the NSW penal colony, and they were able to take advantage of generous land grants worked by free convict labour. It is not a coincidence, Patricia Macdonald noted, that three of the early governors hailed from Scotland.  

The exhibition brings together artworks and objects from across Aus­tralia and overseas. What I had not expected was a passion for early Aus­tralians to cast their minds to Scottish culture back At Home. When standing next to the Robert Burns statue in the middle of Bal­larat, the guide said that only Queen Victoria was memorialised more than Burns in Australia. And more than that. The poetry and writings of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns had a sub­stantial infl­uence of our most famous Australian poets eg Banjo Patterson.

Entrance to Glen Etive from near King's House, 1879 
By Waller Paton who migrated from Scotland to Australia.

Curated by Dr Alison Inglis and Patricia Tryon Macdonald, the ex­hibition has been advertised as a fresh contribution towards building Australia’s understanding of its extraordinary cultural inheritance. A collection of paintings of wildlife, Aboriginals and views of Sydney by artist and forger Thomas Watling is worth the trip to Ballarat by itself. His paintings have been sitting in the Natural History Museum in London for well over a hundred years and have never been shown in Australia. Macdonald reminded the viewers that as with so much of that wonderful early art, Watling's works all went back to England and we have very little of it here.

In particular I am grateful (as always) for compreh­ensive catalogue that includes essays by leading scholars on aspects of the Scottish presence in Australia. The closing day will be Sunday 27th July 2014.

Visitors to this Ballarat exhibition might also be interested in a Sunday-visit Villa Alba Museum in Melbourne (Kew) which was built by the Edinburgh-born William Greenlaw in c1884. The notable decorations were done by the Scottish-trained Paterson Brothers; they include an eclectic mixture of painted, stencilled and gilded decoration and feature a 40’ painted mural of Edinburgh and a dining room frieze decorated with scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

19 July 2014

"a conspiracy of Christian goodness" in WW2 France

France had a mixed history when it came to its own Jewish community. Consider the splitting of France into the anti-Semitic German-occupied north and the anti-Semitic Vichy government in the unoccupied South (1940-42). Despite the heroic French Resistance in WW2, there is still an active debate about why the Vichy government allied itself with the Germans - out of an ideological commitment to Nazism? or for pragmatic reasons i.e to gain, with Nazi approval, full powers to replace the French Third Republic.

Overall I was interested to hear historians say that the Vichy government of the early 1940s represented "the revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards". Vichy officials were the sons and grandsons of those men who had wanted Captain Alfred Dreyfus exiled or executed back in the 1890s.

Peter Grose's book, A Good Place to Hide

Of course I knew about the heroic American embassy official Varian Fry and his team. Despite the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, Fry and his small group of volunteers hid refugees in a safe home until they could be smuggled out of Marseilles. During 1940 and 1941 2,200 people were taken across the Spanish border and then to the safety of neutral Portugal from where they could make their way to the USA. Fry also helped others escape on ships leaving Marseilles for the French colony of Martinique, from where they could go to the USA. Fry was a hero, but he was not a Frenchman.

Now a book has come out called A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives in WW2. Written by Peter Grose in 2014 (Allen and Unwin), it tells the amazing story of a brave Pastor Andre Trocme in Le Chambon Sur Lignon (in the isolated upper reaches of the Loire in southern France, 47 ks south of St Etienne) who said that godly Christians had to save human lives, to resist the violence directed at their consciences. He was supported by the church's second cleric, Pastor Edouard Theis.

As the publishers noted, the congregants kept their heads down, they kept their mouths shut and they stuck together to offer sanctuary and shelter to between 3,500 and 5,000 Jews. This is one of the great modern stories of unknown heroism and courage, a story of a community of small villages that conspired to save Jewish lives under the noses of the Germans and of Vichy France. Clearly the pacifist Protestant pastor who broke laws and defied orders to protect the lives of total strangers was a hero. 

Jewish Children protected in Chambon
in a facility run by the Organisation to Save the Children  (OSE)
photo credit: Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

But so were the Quakers, the Children’s OSE and the Swiss Red Cross. It is the story of an 18-year-old Jewish boy from Nice who forged 5000 sets of false identity papers to save other Jews and French Resistance fighters from the Nazi concentration camps. And the story of  a glamorous female OSE agent with a wooden leg, who helped to arm and organise the Resistance on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon; the 15-years-old schoolgirl whose parents tried to keep her out of harm’s way in Le Chambon, and who risked her life running suitcases stuffed with money for the Resistance; the 17-years-old Boy Scout who ran 20 missions escorting Jews to safety in Switzerland before joining the Resistance. And it is the story of ordinary citizens who offered sanct­uary, kindness, solidarity and hospitality to people in desperate need, knowing the possible consequences to themselves.

Money was collected to feed and house the refugees. Every train that arrived in Le Chambon was met, every refugee was identified and hiding places were assigned. Even those adults on trains en route to neutral Switzerland were given false papers. Not a single Christian citizen handed over Jewish refugees to the local police or to the Vichy soldiers.

There was a price to pay. In February 1943, French (sic) police arrested Pastors Trocmé and Theis, as well as the headmaster of the local primary school, Roger Darcissac, and imprisoned them near Limoges. The French authorities eventually released the three men and they continued to operate rescue activities until late 1943, when fears of re-arrest forced them into hiding. At that point, Mrs Magda Trocmé took over the leadership of the project to save Jewish lives.

More than 75,000 Jews were deported from France and executed by the Nazis. But not even one from Chambon! Chambon was one of only two towns in Europe named as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem for saving Jews from Nazi extermination. One of two in all of Europe!!!! Then how did I not know this story, before Peter Grose’s fine book came out?
Le Chambon Sur Lignon (in red), near Saint Etienne

15 July 2014

J.M.Barrie's house-museum in Scotland

James Barrie (1860–1937) was the child of a Calvinist family of weavers from Kirriemuir in Angus, close to the Scottish city of Dundee. There were 10 children born to David Barrie and his wife Margaret, so I can­not see how the 10 people (two children died) could live in the two rooms of the white cottage that is now the JM Barrie Museum. Upstairs was the warm kitchen with its lovely food smells; it functioned as a bedroom for most of the children, while the parents and babies slept in the living room on the same floor. Downstairs the weavers’ loom and yarn store was the workspace for James’ father. A small brick washhouse opposite the home served the whole street during Barrie’s childhood.

Barrie left the family home and studied at Edinburgh Univ­ersity; soon he was writing drama reviews for adults for the Edin­burgh Evening Courant and articles for the Nottingham Journal. Yet his two Tommy novels, Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900), were about a boy and young man with childish fantasies. And then his most famous character, Peter Pan, who was initially published in 1901. So we have to ask ourselves why a mature man would be drawing on childlike experiences to create rather strange, make-believe stories?

Barrie's childhood home in Kirriemuir
On the left, the house museum and the museum shop next door
On the right, the washhouse-theatre.

Discover Britain Magazine (July 2014) showed that when he was only 6, Barrie's 13 year old brother David had died in a tragic ice-skating accident. As David had been his mother's favourite child, the loss left Margaret Barrie even more devastated. Young James tried to fill David's place in his mother's love as best he could, including wearing David's clothes and sitting outside the mother’s bedroom for weeks on end, trying to stop her crying. Margaret constantly confused James with David, thus denying him his own individual identity. Yes, she eventually found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. And yes, James went along with the delusions that brought her comfort! But he was only 6 years old ....what choice did he have?

Eventually Barrie and his mother read stories to each other from both their childhoods, favouring books like Robinson Crusoe or books that were written by fellow Scotsman, Sir Walter Scott. Margaret may have distorted James’ notions of everlasting boyhood, but she did help him decide that his future career was definitely going to be in literature.

Barrie's desk was transported from London and placed in his house-museum in Kirriemuir

And there was an additional element of explanation. When Barrie moved to London in 1885, he met the Llewelyn Davies family with five sons who apparently inspired writing about a boy who had magical advent­ures in Kensington Gardens. The boys, who were the cousins of the writer Daphne du Maurier, were said to serve as the inspiration for Barrie's Peter Pan; in fact several of Barrie's characters were specifically named after the lads. Barrie definitely did became their legal guardian following the deaths of their parents in 1907 and 1910, and the five boys were publicly associated with Barrie and Peter Pan for the rest of their lives.

Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, was a fairy play about an ageless boy and an ordinary girl named Wendy who had adventures in the fantasy setting of Neverland. Barrie wrote many other works and was given an imperial honour in 1913, but Peter Pan remained his best known and best loved character.

A statue of Peter Pan, opposite the house museum in Kirriemuir

When Barrie died in 1937 in London, he requested that his body by returned to the family plot in Kirriemuir cemetery in Scotland, alongside his parents and siblings. Today people on a literature pilgrimage can certainly visit the family graves. Then see the JM Barrie Museum at 9 Brechin Road is open Saturday-Wednesday inclusive from noon till 5 PM. The washhouse opposite the home was converted into a theatre in which to stage plays for the locals. The National Trust of Scotland opened the next door cottage at #11 Brechin Road as a visitor recep­t­ion area and shop. Plus the Trust created a garden opposite the cottage to encourage children to play outside, next to the Peter Pan statue.