All posts by Naomi Parry

Historian, heritage consultant, museums person.

Suspended in the new normal

Something very big is happening in Australia right now as the entire eastern seaboard and the Great Dividing Range burns out, taking human lives, homes, farms, businesses, livestock, wildlife, threatened species and sacred places with it. I was in Narooma on New Year’s Eve with my partner Neill, having headed to the south coast of NSW in the hope of respite from the month-long anxiety of living between two big unpredictable fires in my Katoomba home. On the way down we stopped with mountains friends in their holiday home at South Durras. They said they’d had word of something happening near Narooma and warnings of extremely adverse weather conditions but we couldn’t find out much. We arrived to blue skies at Bateman’s Bay – the first blue I’d seen for a month. When we approached the road to our AirBNB near Corunna Lake there was a sign saying it was closed due to bushfires. Our hosts were mystified – they hadn’t heard a thing. There was nothing much on Fires Near Me. It was 22 degrees. There was no smoke. It seemed fine.
A massive thunder crack at 5.30am signalled the lightning strike on Cobargo, which was just 20km from where we were sleeping. We rose at 8am to sky so dark we thought it was dawn and found our hosts had pulled in their staff and kids to prepare for the conflagration. We decided we would get out of their way. We drove into town to find no traffic lights and that all roads out to the north and south were cut. By 9am we were settling into the evacuation centre at Narooma PCYC, with friends and safe, but without communications, electricity, access to shops, fuel, banks, or any information about what was happening in the hills around us. We are all such babies without our smartphones and EFTPOS – by 11am most of us had no reception and later that night the mobile services were all diverted to emergency services so phones did not work at all. Fires Near Me crashed completely (it links to 000 callouts, which were apparently coming every four seconds from Cobargo, Bateman’s Bay and Malua Bay) and Live Traffic and Google Maps conflicted. Everyone turned to ABC radio, listening in using the precious batteries in our cars.
We all sat there under a deep red sky, with the air filled with smoke and ash, and a light drizzle that put black streaks over everything. By 11am the sky was black overhead (that was Cobargo) but you could see the fire roaring through the hills to the west – a foreboding glow on the horizon. Puffs of white to the north-east were, we later found out, fires in Bateman’s Bay, Malua Bay, Rosedale. And to the north was Mogo and Lake Conjola and Bendalong. Lots of people had come in a hurry, woken by a knock on their door in the early morning and told they had to leave, and no one would be able to defend their properties. The day was long in the gloom of the PCYC but what else could we do but settle in. Suspended animation, literally.
I hasten to add here that we two were fine – we had cash, some food, and a car full of petrol so we knew we had the capacity to leave if the roads ever opened. We weren’t worried for ourselves and none of our kids were with us but we felt for those who had houses in the line of the fire and my friend with her young child and baby. Still, it was sobering to see how long it took for the state government agencies to arrive, and how hard it was to rustle up enough generators, fuel, water, medicines, nappies, blankets and foodstuffs to keep everyone going – even in a country area where properties are often equipped with such things. There was plenty of initiative on display – local butchers, bakers and cinemas came by with the stuff from their now useless freezers and community and church organisations whipped up tea and coffee and sausage sizzles (no vegans were catered for). Someone filled a car boot with dog food. Anglicare Disaster Relief and the Red Cross were there and began asking everyone to sign in. The ABC radio was a godsend and big thanks to Telstra for offering free use of the payphones and wifi points, where dozens gathered. Eurobodalla Shire Council did a superb job of keeping people calm and informed and the RFS were great at telling us what they did and did not know (the latter outweighed the former). Regular meetings outside the PCYC with the disaster liaison person, the police and the RFS were a key source of information and helped put paid to the whispers of what was really happening. We were safe but we were cut off and we knew nobody was really in charge.
We managed pretty well. The 500 or so people in and around the PCYC, and the couple of thousand in the town, were good and kind to each other. The dogs (so many!) were serene and seemed to understand the situation required them to be sensible and sedate. Cats sat silently in a line of boxes near where the tea was being made and horses ate grass on the foreshore. A friend in the mountains reached us via facebook in a rare moment of mobile reception and put us onto her mother, who had a waterfront apartment, and there we waited, safe and comfortable, wondering what would happen next. We got her gas BBQ going so we could eat and wandered about the town on New Year’s Eve, up to the candlelit golf club and down to the foreshore, where a disco mounted by the ‘Renegade Fire Services’ entertained a group of dancers and dogs, many of them stranded in town like us. A DJ spun tunes from the top of a demobbed fire truck to welcome in the New Year, sending laser lights through the smoke and making a sublime moment of people dancing and smiling despite everything.
Waking up the next day was a time to count the many losses. We heard of lost lives. We heard that other towns had no water or sewerage. People were still coming into the evacuation centre but the roads opened momentarily to the south, presenting the first opportunity for those who had petrol enough to get right away to Canberra or Eden. Of course the locals could not so easily flee.
We waited one more day and walked the town and its beaches. The shoreline was full of crumpled black leaves that looked like shards of silk; like widows’ weeds. We laughed with Blue Mountains locals who had also come to the south coast with the same dumb idea of escaping our own fires. We found new friends in Narooma and at a phone box I ran into a former workmate who lives there now. The next morning we headed out ourselves, driving south although the northern route was technically open (it turned out nobody got past Ulladulla that day). We drove through poor blasted Cobargo, through smoking black paddocks (not bush, just paddocks and scrub and open land that is normally green and should not burn like that). We climbed Browns Mountain, through the noxious gas laying over the bare-eaten Monaro Plains, and to family in the choking air of Canberra. The next day we threaded our way up through two more fires, and got home to Katoomba. At home we endured the disgusting heat of Saturday, watching the ABC as the disaster rolled over even more of the south, knowing the southerly buster we all used to pray for would bring more death and destruction. The tiny bit of rain we got yesterday only prolongs the agony.
If this fire season is the new normal, we aren’t ready for it. This country needs extraordinary resources to fight the fires but also to deal with the people displaced by their arrival. An emergency is only one lightning strike away from anyone and it’s going to be a challenge to keep communications up and maintain evacuation routes. And what do we do about the air that is poisoned and the black slicks in our seas and the animals starving because the whole land is burned?

Breakfast with Dan Bourchier, ABC666 Canberra

This morning I had the pleasure of doing breakfast radio in Canberra with the wonderfully clever Dan Bourchier, to talk about my work here as writer-in-residence on The Level and Endeavour House, where I am hosted by the Australia Institute. It was a great interview and if you care to listen, it’s about 1:45 into this segment.

On The Level at Endeavour House

I’m really pleased to announce that I’m starting my new year in Canberra, where I’m the inaugural writer-in-residence for the Australia Institute at The Level, in Endeavour House. It’s a funky co-working space in Manuka, and I’m very happy to be here.

I’m working on my long-cherished project about Musquito, and I can’t begin to tell you how encouraging it is to receive this support from the Australia Institute, which is an organisation devoted to progressive ideas and social change. Great people, and as well as that the food in Manuka is to die for!  It’s quite strange to be entirely alone and have no one to look after, but also wonderful.

A podcast on New South Wales and the Great War

In March I addressed a lunchtime seminar of the Royal Australian Historical Society and talk to them about the book. The Society then suggested I turn the talk into a podcast, so I had a go. It was interesting recording the podcast – I tried to use the radio trick of talking like you are having a conversation with a friend, except if I really was having a conversation with a friend it wouldn’t sound as formal or polite as this.

There is no MP3 for this, you have to watch it on YouTube, but that’s cool because then you can see the images I’m talking about.

Event: the Katoomba launch of New South Wales and the Great War

Megalong Books invites history buffs and students and teachers to an afternoon at Katoomba Falls Kiosk with Katoomba local Dr Naomi Parry and Sydney University’s Professor Stephen Garton, two of the four authors of a New South Wales and the Great War, a new book that Governor David Hurley called “visually arresting and authoritative account of NSW during and after the Great War”.
When the Great War began in August 1914, the people of New South Wales took up the call to arms. NSW sent more people than any other state to serve overseas and many more worked and volunteered to support the war effort. But the economic, political and emotional strains of war, and the loss of so many young men, and some women, in the service of their country, fanned social and political divisions and wrought lasting changes to the society to which serving men and women would return.
New South Wales and the Great War tells this story. It is drawn from the rich visual and written records held by the Anzac Memorial, the State Library of NSW, NSW State Records, the NSW Department of Education and the University of Sydney, as well as collections from Bourke to Gilgandra and Newcastle to Lithgow.
It is the official publication of the NSW Centenary of Anzac Advisory Committee and over summer it was distributed, free of charge, to all public and Catholic schools in New South Wales and to most libraries.
This event is an opportunity to meet the authors and the publisher learn about the writing of this important publication.
Venue: Katoomba Falls Kiosk, Cliff Drive, Katoomba
Date: Sunday 30 April 2017
Time: 2-4pm
Entry by gold coin donation.
Megalong Books will be selling copies on the day.

A decade

Today is the tenth anniversary of the submission of my PhD thesis, ‘”Such a longing”: black and white children in welfare in New South Wales and Tasmania, 1880 to 1940’. I graduated in September 2007, after a revision or two. I’ve had a pretty good run since then – a couple of years as a project officer, a couple as a cultural development officer, three wonderful years as a research fellow on the Find & Connect web resource, before heading to the Dictionary of Sydney and writing New South Wales and the Great War. And now I’ve come back to the substance of my PhD, in a way, working as a senior policy officer at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

Workwise, it’s all been good and I’m pretty happy with that particular life choice. My son was born 18 months after I started my PhD, which I don’t really recommend, although he is the best thing I’ve ever done. Once when he was four and tucking him into bed he told me he wanted to stay up to help me write my PhD. It seemed like it would take forever and it did because he was six before I was done with it. Now, of course, he’s six foot two. Ten years. Wow.


1967 in Tasmania

Collins Street in Hobart. ABC/TAHO

I’ve just come back from Tasmania, my home country. Today is 50 years since the 1967 bushfires, which devastated southern Tasmania. More than 60 people died. The Huon and Channel were also devastated and the town of Snug ravaged, leaving many dead. The fires raged so hard in the foothills of Mt Wellington that authorities contemplated setting off a line of explosives across West Hobart to stop them penetrating into the CBD.

Big fires leave scars. I wrote this in 2015, in an essay I contributed to Dee Michell, JZ Wilson and Verity Archer’s Bread and Roses: Voices of Australian Academics from the Working Class:

We arrived in 1974, at a time when there was little reason to hope in the valley. At intervals in the green rolling hills you could see ash-coloured chimneys, twirled with sheets of whitened corrugated iron and bed springs, marking places where people had lived before the 1967 bushfires, but were too scared or dead to return and clean up. The deaths spooked me as a kid. Tales of people who had hidden in water tanks and boiled had a horrible relevance when you heard that the fires had touched the very corner of your new bedroom. It is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the economic loss that went with those other, profound losses.

There’s a Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery exhibition on at the moment that talks about it, and some brilliant ABC Tasmania and LINC photo galleries that really show how awful it was. As climate change intensifies, we could all face this. I really hope we don’t.

Dr Naomi Parry, MPHA

I just got news that I’ve been accredited as a professional historian by the Professional Historians’ Association of NSW & ACT. This means I can add another set of letters after my name: MPHA.

It’s very exciting to be accepted as a peer by a bunch of historians I respect. On a more personal level, way back when I was a baby heritage practitioner, just after I arrived in Sydney, I worked with some fabulous professional historians. I used to wonder how they got their jobs and now I guess I know.

I feel both grown up and rejuvenated.

Writing community and personal history: Part I

Ron Maslin, woman writing at Condobolin, State Library of NSW, bcp_02914
Ron Maslin, woman writing at Condobolin, State Library of NSW, bcp_02914

The work I am doing right now is mostly editing, in one form or another, so I am spending my days taking the words of others and turning them over and over, to remove the mistakes we all make as we write, and present a polished product. This is proofreading and we all need it, no matter what we are writing, because when we are working so hard to get content across we can no longer see the mistakes we have made; a date here, a silly word choice there, a disastrous error of grammar. It’s simple and straightforward work, very enjoyable, and mostly appreciated by the person being edited.

Other times, one has to be interventionist. Sometimes fact-checking is needed and other times the work has to be cut so hard it must be rewritten. When I am doing this I am obliged to identify what in the piece is not working, why that is, and the words that might work better. It is an intense and reflective process, and that reflection generates plenty of ideas about exactly what it is that makes good (and bad) history. (I then have to sensitively and kindly explain to the person being edited why I have done what I have done, and sometimes they are upset, and my reflections are necessary to win them over, or at least persuade them to accept it).

When I say I am reflecting on history, I’m not talking about a philosophy of history, or even a philosophy of writing. I certainly can’t talk about history in the way that Tom Griffiths and his subjects do in The Art of Time Travel. The down-and-dirty work of editing requires a narrower focus. Narrow doesn’t mean shallow though, because good history writing requires deep thought and a great deal of integrity, as well as commitment to the reader, and to the story.

My PhD supervisor knew that I thought most community history was deathly boring, and used to accuse me of writing it when I had produced something leaden. It got me thinking, and now I edit so much of it, I have to think more. So, a few insights from recent voyages in editing, and some general points from a long career reading community history.

When writing history

  • What matters is the story, so find it. Don’t tell us it is remarkable or important or tragic; show us that it was by setting the context.
  • Don’t do “this happened and then, and then, and then” history. Think in themes, not chronologies. Don’t be afraid to start your story somewhere other than in the beginning.
  • Never say “something was done”. Always tell us who did it. This is called writing in the active voice but it’s not just a grammar technique. Explaining who did what to whom puts the energy, heart and meaning into your story. The mine did not close. The government closed the mine. The workers were not sacked. The boss sacked them.
  • Never try to put yourself into people’s minds or insert thoughts in their heads or words in their mouths. Focus only on what they said, and what you can know about what they did. If they said one thing and did another, point that out, but never say “they must have thought …”

When writing (even a short) biography

  • Don’t tell us they were important/remarkable/amazing. Show us they were, by setting them in context and framing the times they lived in and their place within them.
  • You are writing about a person, so write about their personal life and their personality. It matters. This is particularly important from a feminist/other point of view. It’s important to ask not only how a subject’s personal life affected their actions and emotional wellbeing and capacities. It matters and we need to ask these fundamental questions about women and men.
  • Ask yourself in what ways your subject was awful and why they were like that (without putting your words into their mouths). Be really honest about these things and about how they shaped the person’s life and actions.
  • Then, ask yourself why you like them and be honest about that. Remember, you have an agenda too. What is it?

When writing history in Australia

  • Don’t forget this is Aboriginal land. Always was, always will be. Find out about the people whose land it was and is.
  • And, because of this, every single person who has come here since 1788 was a migrant. You can think of them in waves: Anglo-Irish, Europeans, Chinese, post-war displaced persons, Indo-Chinese, etc, but you must always think of migration as a continuum. We are a migrant country.

And finally, be kind to your reader. They don’t always know what you know, so make sure you give them a few words that will help them understand just why the cool thing you are telling them is so very cool.

Then, when you are finished, give it to a nice editor and let them knock those rough edges off, and hope your readers enjoy it.