Revealing Lives—Hiram and Me

My grandfather returned from the First World War in 1919. He worked ferociously for 18 years to build a family, a career, a community, a nation. And then he died.

I never knew him.

Getting to know you

I’m reaching an age where family history beckons me. I have time to ask questions now. Who were the people who came before me, what shaped their lives, how have their lives shaped mine? Today, it’s easy to answer basic questions about living people. Our lives are documented and captured ad nauseum, often unwittingly and unknowingly. My brother-in-law, for example, doesn’t own any electronic devices and he’s never used a computer. He might be surprised at the extent of his online presence—news articles, photographs, community records—none of it intentionally generated by him. Even without Twitter or Instagram or Facebook accounts, he’s easy to ‘find’.

Compare that with my grandfather’s life a century ago. No internet, no mobile phones, even cameras are a novelty. How do I come to know this man? His name is Hiram.

The curated life

I have an assortment of physical items that once belonged to my grandfather. Among them, a certificate verifying his membership of the Juvenile Order of Rechabites and a card outlining the rules for his local Harriers club. There’s the receipt from the hotel where he and my grandmother spent their first night as a married couple, and a business card for the real estate agency he set up with his brother-in-law. There are pictures of the town carnival he helped establish and his handwritten notes for speeches delivered at political rallies. Most numerous of all is the memorabilia from his war service: colour patches, medallions, poems, photographs, postcards, international currency, leave passes.

What strikes me is how intentional this collection is. It has already been carefully curated (and censored?) to provide a version of his life; each item deliberately retained by my grandfather, then by his wife and, later, by their daughter—my mother. It’s private and personal.

The subject in the frame—changing perspectives

Through the objects in the curated collection, I can discover what my grandfather considered important. I can see how he chose to be seen—a teetotaller, an amateur athlete, a husband, a businessman, a community leader, a political activist, a serviceman. But there are other sources of information, too. Does the material they hold align with the image he preserved?

There is the public record—family notices in newspapers, published obituaries, cemetery listings and the like, and there are official sources—certificates from Births, Deaths and Marriages; military service records; repatriation files.

In both the public and official sources, Hiram loses agency. Another person or organisation takes charge of his life narrative, and their intentions differ from his. It’s like changing the lens in a camera—the subject in the frame remains the same, but the perspective shifts.

Let me give you an example. There is a whispered story in my family, gleaned from relatives long dead. The story goes that my grandfather died from the effects of mustard gas poisoning, sustained during the war. My understanding is that the longer-term health effects of mustard gas inhalation are respiratory disease and, potentially, lung cancer. Hiram’s death certificate—an official source—records his cause of death as kidney cirrhosis, hyperpiesia (persistent high blood pressure) and heart failure. His lungs were fine. So what is the story behind the bare facts? Is the family’s mustard gas tale a furphy and, if it is, why was it told?

 Change the lens again and yet another perspective is revealed.

Hiram’s Repatriation Commission files detail his medical condition over a period of 20 years. His reported symptoms include headaches, insomnia, ‘nerve trouble’ and a ‘feeling of depression’. The symptoms are attributed to the ‘strain of active service’. (His treatment comprised tonics, sedatives and liniments.) Am I now looking at a man diminished by shell shock, or what, today, I would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? No hint of this possibility exists in the brief obituary published in the Melbourne Age. Lauded in this source for his community engagement, Hiram is quintessentially a ‘well known member of the 59th Battalion’.

The privately collated collection, the whispered family folklore, the public record, and the official sources offer variant versions of one life.

The revelations of time travel

Cover image courtesy of Black Inc.

In his book The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft, Tom Griffiths writes: ‘History … is a powerful disciplinary tool in the search for truth. But its greatest virtue is uncompromising complexity. As we study the past it changes before our eyes, affected by our gaze and eluding definitive capture … The art of time travel is to maintain a critical poise and grace in this dizzy space. There is a further hazard: we never return to exactly the same present from which we left, for time cycles on remorselessly even when we seek to defy it. And in the course of our quest we find that we, too, have changed’ (p. 321).

The question I posed initially about my grandfather was: ‘How do I come to know this man?’ One answer is, ‘I can’t’. I can know about him, using the historian’s tools. I can glean something of what he thought significant in his own life, and I can see how he is rendered by others. The essential Hiram may be undiscoverable.

But perhaps there is another question worth asking.

As I seek to rediscover an ancestral life, how might that quest change me?

There may be hazards, as Griffiths warns, in time travel. There could also be gifts.

Links and sources

Useful starting points for information on the lives of 19th and 20th century Australians include:

  • Trove: a gathering of content from ‘libraries, museums, archives, repositories and other research and collecting organisations big and small’
  • Family History’, National Library of Australia: a research guide that includes links to directories; almanacs; electoral rolls; Births, Deaths and Marriages registers; and answers to ‘Frequently Asked Questions’
  • Ryerson Index: an ‘index to death notices appearing in Australian newspapers’ from 1803 onwards
  • National Archives of Australia
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • And, for information on returned services personnel, the Australian War Memorial

Mustard Gas’, World Health Organisation, 2011

Tom Griffiths. The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft. Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc., 2016

There and Back Again (with apologies to Bilbo Baggins)

The choice

This is the choice: join the procession of cars and trucks conga-lining up the Hume Freeway, or, catch the train from the station a few minutes’ walk from home.  My destination is Bowral where I will meet a friend travelling from Sydney. It is to be a recreational day; I opt for the train.

My ‘home’ station is Queanbeyan. Built in the 1880s, the station, according to its heritage listing, is ‘a fine example of a Victorian first-class station building … signifying Queanbeyan as an important location in Southern NSW, even prior to the declaration of Canberra as the nation’s capital.’

As Canberra evolved, Queanbeyan regularly suffered the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. It was derided as a shabby ‘struggle town’, eking out its existence on the border of the booming capital. But when I arrive at the station building on the morning of my journey, the sun is bursting warmly above the trees, and there’s a welcome party of magpie song and cherry-plum blossom. The slings and arrows pass me by.

Company on the journey

I board my train at 06:54 precisely and begin the slow crawl through the cuttings and tunnels beside the Molonglo River. I unzip my Kindle from its joey-like pouch. I have two newly downloaded books. One is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, the other, Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter. I have been anticipating the latter for some months, but I opt for delayed gratification and choose Clarke’s memoir instead.

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Clarke’s book seems more fitting in a week dominated by community debates over whether a cartoon in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, depicting tennis player Serena Williams, constitutes racial vilification, and whether, given the choice, Indigenous youths in Western Australia would apparently prefer death by drowning over arrest and incarceration.

In Clarke’s prologue, I read her personal reflection: The cumulative effect of being subject to racially motivated incidents is ‘like a poison: it eats away at the very essence of your being. Left unchecked, it can drive you to the unthinkable’. Just like those boys in Perth.

The lie of the land

The train mooches on, oblivious to the trauma on the page, and rattles into Goulburn. Entering country towns via the railway tracks is like coming into a house through the servants’ entrance. The rail route exposes the face that is usually turned away from public view. We slip past rolling stock and shipping containers and empty wooden pallets, the detritus of industry.

Schlerophyll forest_1

Schlerophyll forest and mproved pasture

Moving off again, we pass a jigsaw landscape of dry sclerophyll forest and ‘improved’ pasture. A green skin lies across the cleared paddocks – a false hope in the midst of drought. A truer story is told in the cracked earth of empty dams. I wonder how we conceived the term ‘improved’ pasture for this denuded land; how we came to think of it as an improvement on the grasses and trees that had adapted to the soil and climate conditions over millennia.

My phone rings as the train pulls into Bowral station. My friend is waiting for me at the junction of Wingecarribee and Bong Bong Streets. Both names reference the region’s Indigenous past. ‘Bong Bong’ is Bowral’s main street, the name linking back to one of the groups of Gundungurra people who call the area home. There used to be a white settlement called Bong Bong, on the road to the present-day town of Moss Vale. The settlement was short-lived, unlike the culture of the people who bear the name.

Book towns

After coffee at The Press Shop and a perusal of the stationery at Bespoke LetterPress, my friend and I make our way into the Spring sunshine. We roam up and down Bong Bong Street, venturing into several bookshops. In the plainly named Bookshop Bowral, I come across a copy of Alex Johnson’s Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word. Although Bowral does not appear in the International Organization of Book Towns (IOBT) register (the one Australian entry is Clunes in Victoria), Johnson includes the Southern Highlands town in his list.

According to the IOBT, a book town is ‘a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty.’ I think back to the largely unremembered history of the Bong Bong people and the beauty of a dry sclerophyll forest. I’m not sure this is what the IOBT has in mind.

Reading on…

It’s time to re-trace my steps to the railway station and make my way back to Queanbeyan. On the return trip, I pick up Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race once more.

My reading will continue on after my train journey ends. It will be several days before I reach the section in which Clarke recounts being repeatedly given abusive notes during her school days. On one of these notes was ‘a cartoon drawing of a black girl. Her lips were swollen to a ridiculous size. Her afro was tatty and minstrel-esque. The girl’s broad bulbous nose took up half her face…’ I could be reading a description of the cartoon published by the Herald Sun.

The thing is, unlike Clarke, I can put this book down at my reading journey’s end and walk away in the relative security of my white skin. Although, that’s not completely true – every journey changes me, if I let it in.

Links and sources

Bowral Station platform