Monthly Archives: August 2011

Count me in

In my professional work as an historian I frequently use census returns. Theologians well know the role the census played in determining the place of Jesus’ birth some 2000 years ago. For genealogists and social historians, the census has long been a key tool of research for understanding the nineteenth century – at least in those nations which retain original census returns.

The advent of the digital age has seen most available censuses published on line, usually for a fee, and this has transformed our ability to interrogate the past. One can subscribe to sites such as ancestry.co.uk or findmypast.co.uk and actually discover how many blacksmiths there were in England in 1861, or how many farmers had slaves in the United States of America in 1850.

Sadly, the only complete census which Australians can access is the 1828 Census of New South Wales, as the convict stain and the fear of our ancestral doings has long restrained colonial, state and commonwealth governments from retaining more than statistical summaries of population data.

The new search engines allow me to pursue individuals in the past as never before. A paper I am currently writing on Australia’s first Anglican deaconess (hi Marion) has allowed me to identify facts about her upbringing and religious life in England solely because of the decennial census which tells me where she was and what she was doing in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871. The picture these returns have painted is one I could never have uncovered by any other means.

So when it comes to census night, 9 August 2011, I relish the opportunity to record for posterity who I am, where I live, and with whom I share my life. (If you haven’t done so, for heaven’s sake tick the box that allows the Australian Bureau of Statistics to record your details. The future will thank you.)

Paradoxically, the census is the only way I can say to the Australian people that I live in a same-sex relationship, and the only place where I can record the longevity of that relationship. We laugh about census night, which seems to bring a moment of extraordinary privilege in the form of wealth and happiness each quinquennium.

In 1996 we had just moved into the same dwelling, and could celebrate the relative prosperity of tax-free postgraduate scholarships after years on Austudy.

In 2001, we were freshly reunited after two years living in separate countries. I was in the middle of the only 12-week period of full-time work I had for the surrounding five years, and we were living in what must be Melbourne’s most luxurious curate’s flat.

In 2006, we were living in Melbourne’s second-most luxurious curate’s flat, and both working full-time.

This year, our fourth census, we are again reunited after three years on opposite sides of the globe, and I am now in a permanent full-time job that I love.

Still, the census brings regrets. First, it doesn’t count our faithful companion Pusey who, I suspect, provides comfort and joy in a form found in households around the country.

Second, why on earth does the census allow us to identify as ‘Anglican (Church of England)’ when the Church of England has never existed in this land? The temptation to identify myself as ‘Other: Episcopalian’ or even ‘Other: Jedi’ was strong.

 

 

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Mortal stone

It was irresistible. The whiteness of the stone glowed softly in the filtered light of the church, projecting the image of a man who had recently broken the bonds of youth. His face conveyed the attraction of a strength that comes from trustworthy kindness, while his capable body was clothed with the authority of untorn but well-worn military garb that claimed him as a leader of men. Like a king, his hands were not clasped in prayer, but rested alongside his body, for prayer could not aid him.

I had to hold his hand.

Although I was alone with him, I hesitated: stone monuments are not made to be caressed. This twentieth-century monument was not the reason I had come here yet its otherworldly qualities had called my attention far more effectively than any siste, viator! ever could. The tombs I normally study hedge themselves with iron grills, or are engraven with inscriptions declaring themselves off limits to the damaging human touch.

The power of this memorial was shocking. The sculptor had taken the medieval archetype of a life-size effigy recumbent on a tomb chest then gently tilted its elements towards modernity. In particular, the effigy was carved in white stone, thrown into relief by the darkness of the ledge on which it lay, and unadorned by the whirls of paint or gold that obscured the base material in the aesthetic world of earlier generations.

Tentatively, I placed my hand in his.

Did I seek to offer comfort to this lost generation? Or did I seek reassurance that our dreams should not be abandoned?

The stone was colder than death. This tomb did not memorialise a now forgotten son, brother and uncle; instead, using the very tropes of memory whose deaths it signified, it stood for the English tradition that had perished in the battlefields of the Great War.

The realist fiction was broken.

The rural parish church ceased to be a verdant window into a thousand years of history and resumed its place as a silent sepulchre in the midst of frozen fields.

Extract from a paper presented at the ‘Hearts and Stones’ collaboratory of the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions 1100-1800, Saturday 30 July 2011

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