Don's diary: Tales of the transported

January 31, 2003

After 31 years in academe, the invitation for me to travel at public expense to the Australian National University, Canberra, is one not to be missed.

My wife is keen to accompany me, not least because she wants to see those places her late father visited and photographed in the second world war when, as a young medical orderly, he sailed to Sydney on hospital ships carrying the Anzac dead and injured back home.

Paul Pickering, senior research fellow at the ANU, and I have just completed a book on Chartism, which explores the careers of a number of doctors, ministers of religion and journalists who sided with the new working class.

The plan is for me to lecture on Chartism, launch the book in the old high commissioner's residence and to explore the archives at the nearby National Library of Australia.

Sunday - Wednesday
The 18-hour flight to Sydney is a killer, but I keep reminding myself what the journey must have been like for the convicted Chartist leader and fellow Welshman, John Frost, who, in 1840, was transported (at public expense) on a perilous journey that took months.

We stay in the Surry Hills, conveniently situated for exploring. Take photos at the exact spots where my wife's father clicked in 1943. I tease Ange about keeping her eyes open for some of his old girlfriends and any Celtic look-alike in their early 50s! Alas, we do not recognise anyone but cannot fail to be impressed by the informality of the average Aussie. As they are sport-mad too, I feign an Irish-Welsh pedigree with a strong interest in Rugby: it pays dividends.

Thursday - Tuesday
Travel in such comfort and efficiency by train to Canberra that I feel like writing to Tony Blair. Canberra has been largely purpose-built along the shores of the artificially made Lake Burley Griffin. Any reservations we have about its contrived nature are removed by the very warm welcome we receive from the Pickering family and faculty staff. What really impresses me about this group of academics is not just their many publications, but their humility.

Fortunately, no one falls asleep in my pre-launch Chartist lecture. Director of the centre Iain McCallman presides, paying tribute to the courage and vision of our subjects. The Australian wine begins to flow and I am on a high. It is an occasion that I will never forget. However, it is back to the grindstone the next day when I pick up some nuggets on Chartism in the National Library archives.

Thursday - Friday
Return to Sydney and finish the tour down memory lane with a visit to idyllic Bondi Beach. A number of Australian Saga holiday-makers - mainly female - are promenading, but we lack the courage to ask if they remember a dashing and brave young Welsh soldier from 1943.

The return flight is even harder, but by denying ourselves alcohol and managing to sleep we stave off jet lag. Relieved to find that our house is in one piece; no evidence of wild parties held by our offspring. The book launch and Bondi are but very happy memories.

Owen R. Ashton is professor of history and director of the Centre for the Study of Chartism at Staffordshire University. His book Friends of the People (Merlin Press, 2002) was co-authored with Paul Pickering.

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