Im­ages from the past show a dif­fi­dent land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Jim David­son has plunged into the vast­ness of the Na­tional Li­brary Ar­chives, pulled out hun­dreds of post­card plums and ar­ranged them in a gallery. To move through it is a de­light.

David­son is in love with his sub­ject, a car­tophile, and his com­ments have as much to of­fer as the cards: “Post­cards may freeze an im­age, but by fram­ing, nam­ing and pro­ject­ing it they con­fer a new con­tem­po­rane­ity, making it fresh again.” These im­ages live and breathe. Caught by the cam­era, and para­dox­i­cally freed by the cam­era, they open up a world that seems in­vul­ner­a­ble. The Bri­tish Em­pire rules the globe and Aus­tralia is fed­er­ated, youth­ful and safe.

David­son be­gins Mo­ments in Time with a brief his­tory. The golden age of the post­card ex­tended from 1900 to about 1920. In 1910 cen­tral Syd­ney had three mail de­liv­er­ies a day and han­dled more than 12 mil­lion post­cards a year. (Mel­bourne, still proudly dom­i­nant, had four de­liv­er­ies a day.) One could send a card in the morn­ing to ar­range a meet­ing in the af­ter­noon.

Ed­war­dian busi­ness was boom­ing, and where there are booms there are en­trepreneurs. The most en­ter­pris­ing was Ge­orge Rose, founder of the Rose Stere­o­graphic Com­pany. First he went hiking into the coun­try with tri­pod and shoul­der bags car­ry­ing his plates. Later, he adapted a bus and fit­ted it with a pho­to­graphic plat­form, with liv­ing quar­ters and a dark­room un­der­neath. He took nearly 20,000 pho­to­graphs, an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of im­ages over an ex­cep­tional length of time.

Though David­son has ar­ranged his col­lec­tion of sub­jects al­pha­bet­i­cally, it’s not hard to dis­cern a nar­ra­tive, an un­der­ly­ing theme: pa­tri­o­tism. In Ed­war­dian times it was like a fever. Two cards fea­ture Ed­ward VII. The first, dated 1907, celebrates Em­pire Day, with an in­scrip­tion that was to be re­cited at state school assem­blies ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing for the next 50 years: “I love God and my Coun­try; I hon­our the Flag; I will serve the King, and cheer­fully obey my Par­ents, Teach­ers and the Laws.”

The sec­ond shows his memo­rial ser­vice out­side Par­lia­ment House, then in Mel­bourne: a crush of top hats and mil­i­tary hel­mets. David­son’s com­ments are re­spect­ful, but cry out for an al­ter­na­tive voice. Here goes: Ed­ward, also known as the Ca­resser. In­ter­ested in horserid­ing, shoot­ing, eat­ing, drink­ing and other men’s wives. Liked an eight-course lunch and 12-course din­ner, topped off with sand­wiches be­fore bed­time.

David­son’s post­cards move on to World War I and Ad­vance Aus­tralia, with square-jawed Dig­gers, ri­fle at the ready, un­der the rising sun badge. On the page be­fore, Shrap­nel Gully, Gal­lipoli, 1915, and next to that Gal­lipoli’s ob­verse side: a sol­dier giv­ing a tur­baned trader a bunch of fives. Again, David­son is tact­ful: “On leave, Aus­tralians en­coun­tered Egyp­tians of­fer­ing goods and ser­vices; it was not a pretty ex­change. Cal­low re­cruits met des­per­a­tion, and struck out wildly.” (In fact in Cairo the Aus­tralians left be­hind a rep­u­ta­tion for loutish­ness that lin­gered.)

If wartime hor­rors weren’t post­card ma­te­rial, the Ar­mistice cer­tainly was. First, a tri­umphal pa­rade of Aus­tralian troops through Lon­don, then a church ser­vice at Caulfield Mil­i­tary Hos­pi­tal. At the rear of the in­evitable dig­ni­taries, a row of beds, most likely con­tain­ing those who would soon be classed as TPI: to­tally and per­ma­nently in­ca­pac­i­tated, con­demned to op­er­ate lifts, sell joke books at street cor­ners, or hawk shoelaces door to door.

These in­tro­duce the un­der­classes: shear­ers in sin­glets and braces, a bul­lock team drag­ging a house down a coun­try road, a cork-hat­ted swag­man in­spect­ing what the dog ac­tu­ally did on the tucker box (shat on it), and a won­der­ful tinted photo of a fam­ily out­side a house built around a huge fallen tree (“Likely,” sug­gests David­son, “vic­tims of the sav­age de­pres­sion of the 1890s, when so many left Mel­bourne that its pop­u­la­tion fell by 50,000.’’)

Still there were con­so­la­tions — though the beach, at least in Ed­war­dian times, was not one of them. There are no swim­mers in the tinted panorama of Queen­scliff — the wa­ters are just a back­drop to the fash­ion­able promenade on the sand. It was the guest­house that of­fered re­lease from these whale­bone pro­pri­eties. Its vogue lasted into the 1950s, no­tably the Moun­tain Grand, fea­tured in three post­cards, and styling it­self the Switzerland of the South.

In wartime, in the 1940s, we were taken by our mother to one such in­sti­tu­tion, which was run on prison camp lines. Meals were an­nounced by a bell. We all lined up at long ta­bles while du­bi­ous viands were put be­fore us. The lady com­man­dant presided, alert for any mis­be­haviour.

In a so­ci­ety this con­ven­tional, erot­ica has

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