Bombs, Clothes Lines and Jeeps

A partially opened door to our bomb shelter.

The entrance to our bomb shelter, note the ventilation hole above the door.

Our apartment in Singapore is like most apartments in Australia but one corner of it is quite different.

We have a bomb shelter.

Yes, our nine-year old apartment has a fair dinkum bomb shelter. This is because all apartments in Singapore are required to have a bomb shelter under Singapore’s Civil Defence Shelter Act 1997.

As you can see from the thick door and walls, this room is designed to withstand a blast.

The bomb shelter is the strongest place in the apartment so when an explosion hits the idea is that the building crumbles but the bomb shelter stands strong. The shelters in a building are placed on top of each other for reinforcement. You might be 23 stories in the sky with a sheer drop outside your bomb shelter door but you are safe, albeit squashed in a small, dark room on top of a lot of other small, dark rooms. Continue reading

History in the Building at the National Museum of Singapore

I find buildings interesting, not the rectangular glass and concrete blocks which plague cities world-wide, but buildings that have a story. The building may demonstrate thought in its design or it may have been a place where people made stories which changed their society at the time or which we are interested in today.

The building housing the National Museum of Singapore is one of those buildings. On the weekend we travelled through the concrete and glass buildings that dominate the roads of Singapore and there it was – a statement of Singapore’s British colonial past.

White building with dome on top.

The National Museum of Singapore.

It was opened in 1887 and has been extended and modified several times since. Most recently it was closed for over three years in the early years of this century for extensive renovation and expansion. Continue reading

Travelling Back in Time

History is about time. That is so obvious that it is easy to take it for granted. While I have been moving I have been pondering what time means for my book.

Some Exciting News marked a new era for Stumbling Through the Past. I finished it on the last day I will be in Australia for some months. I hit the ‘publish’ button, then shut down my computer ready for the drive to Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. I had finally reached the day I was going to Singapore.

Suitcases deposited, exorbitant overweight luggage charge paid, I zoomed away into the sky through the sunset and beyond, heading backwards in time.

I travelled further back than most.

Wiltshire standing with several soldiers sitting.

Captain Wiltshire (left) with soldiers at Gallipoli. Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial H14019.

Ensconced in my seat I opened my laptop and went back to the evacuation of Gallipoli in World War I. Captain Wiltshire was marshalling his troops in their final march to the beach and the waiting ships. It was a dangerous time. If the Turks realised what was happening the Allied troops would have suffered massive casualties. Wiltshire described in his diary how the troops deadened the sound of their boots by wrapping torn blankets around them for their final march on the peninsula. The evacuation was a triumph snatched from the debacle that was Gallipoli. The soldiers reached the island of Lemnos safely. Continue reading

Some Exciting News!

Stick in sand with footsteps sunk in sandYou may have noticed that my blog posts have been sporadic of late. This is because my life has been in turmoil.

I am writing this on the day that I am leaving Australia for Singapore. Hubble has a great new IT job and I am very happy to move to a new place and new cultures while still doing what I do online. An international move is complicated enough but then an unexpected thing happened.

The paper I delivered to the Australian Historical Association conference in Brisbane was received very well. Unexpectedly I have now landed myself the task of writing a book.

This all happened in the last month we were to be in Australia. So in the midst getting rid of a heap of stuff from our house via Gumtree, visiting four states to catch up with family and deliver stuff and more, I have been working out how to manage the research and writing of an Australian history. Continue reading

Big Questions in History: Historians and Public Policy

‘Big Questions in History’ has been the topic of the final plenary panel session at the last few conferences of the Australian Historical Association. These plenary panels have been my favourite session at every conference I have attended. The panels discuss some aspect of historians engaging with people who are not historians. Last year the plenary panel discussed ‘Who is our Audience’. This year the topic was ‘How can Historians Influence Policy’.

This was a powerful session. The ‘Big Questions’ series is always a good demonstration that history really matters, that it is not some arcane, abstract discipline. It matters to every person on the planet. If you get the history wrong, if you hide the uncomfortable bits, injustice ensues.

History opens up the possibility that it doesn’t have to be like this, Professor Ann McGrath said in her opening remarks as chair of the panel. History shows that we can take action to change things, she said.

Book cover of The Reef

The Reef: A Passionate History by Iain McCalman (Penguin: 2013).

If historians want to influence society then they need to get involved with communities said Professor Iain McCalman from the University of Sydney. He is a historian who feels deeply about the subject of his writing and it showed in his impassioned delivery at the start of the plenary panel. His book is titled, Reef: A Passionate History. He talked about how he could use his status as an author to discuss current issues concerning the management of the Great Barrier Reef with the media. He pointed out that historians can do powerful work with local communities and activists on issues.

Professor Tom Griffiths of the Australian National University concurred. “It is worth going straight to the people”, he said. “It is the ordinary people who are leading innovation re renewable energy… The people are moving faster on this issue than we can measure… They are acting on their pragmatism and dreams.” Continue reading

Violence and the Intimate Frontier

In my continuing series of posts about the Australian Historical Association today I write up some notes I made at two plenary panels. These notes are not a comprehensive overview of the panels; rather they are a handful of the thoughts presented which particularly resonated with me. 

Conflict in history is the theme of the Australian Historical Association conference which was held in Brisbane last week. Held just weeks away from the centenary of World War I, the immediate assumption is that this conference would be about the history of wars in other places such as the world wars. However, a plenary panel and other papers presented throughout the conference demonstrate that historians are continuing to research conflicts on Australian soil.

Book cover, Out of the Silence

Out of the Silence: The history and memory of South Australia’s frontier wars, by Robert Foster and Amanda Nettelbeck (Wakefield Press, 2012)

Australia has a history of conflict on this continent which goes well beyond the bombing of Darwin during World War II. As Australian historians over the last twenty to thirty years have found, the settlement of Australia by Europeans was not peaceful. Violence and conflict can also be expressed in many forms.

Military aspects of frontier violence have taken away from inter-cultural violence on the Australian frontiers observed Professor Amanda Nettelbeck of the University of Adelaide. When we think of conflict between two peoples we think of armed conflict between two groups of strangers who do not know each other. Yet conflict between two peoples can be waged between people who know each other, who perhaps grow up with each other and even live under the same roof. Nettelbeck reminded us that when thinking of conflict between Aborigines and settlers we should also consider the intimate and everyday aspects of the violence. Continue reading

Exhibition of Soldier Diaries at State Library NSW

war diaries sitting amongst red poppies

Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

We gasped as we entered the exhibition. The enormous room was dominated by a wall of hundreds of World War I diaries. Born at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, the Middle East or on an Australian naval boat, these diaries now sit in the calm and comfortable conditions of a new exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

There are big diaries, little diaries, stout ones and thin ones. Some contain pragmatic accounts of the experiences of the diarists; others contain discussions of the literature they read and their thoughts as they battled internally about the horrors they were participating in.

The State Library of New South Wales has launched a major new exhibition that draws on the wealth of material in the diaries. Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I is comprehensive. It includes the familiar aspects of Australian participation that you would expect – Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East. But it also includes the often overlooked military action by the Australian Navy and World War I in New Guinea. The exhibition has a section on Australian prisoners of War and scattered throughout are the words of a World War I nurse and army chaplains. Continue reading