Tag Archives: history


Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2007) by Dan Koeppel describes the importance, history and current problems of the banana. Like Salt, Cod and other books on a single commodity Koeppel manages to make the book an engaging read.

The current large, seedless bananas that we eat are fairly recent and also are fairly fragile. As they don’t have seeds and change rapidly they are highly susceptible to disease. The Cavendish, which today is the most common type is a replacement for the Gros Michel that was taken down by Panama disease. Today Cavendish plantations have been infected with it and other diseases.

The book looks at the importance, fragility and history of the banana. A lot of the book concerns the way large US companies ran the governments of central American countries for their own aims. It’s pretty dramatic.

Later chapters look at how scientists are trying to breed tougher and better bananas and the difficulty of doing so. The role of GM in making better bananas is also discussed.

It’s a really well done book on a subject that would seem at first glance to not be particularly interesting. It’s definitely worth a read.


The Death and Life of Australian Soccer

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer (2017) by Joe Gorman is a marvellous history of Australian men’s soccer leagues since World War Two.

Australian soccer or football is an odd beast. in a country with four national codes of football it has, for decades, been the most played but least watched code. In addition, after being played mainly by some British migrants the game changed radically with the surge in post war migration.  

For many people with a wog name, like myself, the game is tied up with identity. There are memories of going to games with parents, there are memories of watching games in places that were known through family stories. And yet, it was clear that some teams were not really for you to support. Gorman captures the issue with real skill. He also looks at the issue of ‘which team do you support’, Australia or the team of your ethnicity.

The book starts with post WWII immigration and the story of Andrew Dettre, a Hungarian immigrant who wrote for Soccer World and later worked in the Whitlam government.

There is a chapter on Canberra City, a club which was a prototype for A-League type teams that are without an ethnic base that represent a whole city. As a child I went to Canberra City games. The book gives the team quite a bit of praise. Remembering the actual games it’s generous.

The pre-NSL soccer days and then the formation, rise and fall of the NSL gets a lot of attention. Gorman looks objectively at the quality of the ethnic clubs such as Marconi, South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights and Sydney Croatia but also goes into detail about the crowd violence, particularly between the Croatian and Serb teams.

The rise of the A-League and it’s success is very well dealt with. Gorman writes honestly about how the quality of the football in the first years of the A-League was definitely worse than in the NSL. But he also appreciates the numbers of supporters and the depth of support for some of the new teams. The book also has the failures of a number of the new A-League teams. The A-League still has some of the financial issues that have always dogged Australian soccer.

Gorman writes quite a bit about The Socceroos, their qualification for the World Cup in 1974, 2006 and 2010. The portrait of Johnny Warren in particular is very good and really quite touching.

About the only thing the book doesn’t include is a look at the difficulty of running Australian sports teams in general. The NBL has more former clubs than current clubs, the AFL has moved many teams to avoid them folding, the NRL has merged clubs and Rugby Union is now abolishing teams. It’s worth considering this when saying how badly run a lot of soccer teams are.

The book does note that soccer is the most played game in the country. Gorman also does provide some discussion of the success of women’s soccer in Australia. About the only thing missing from the book is a bit more discussion of how many Australians did, for a long time, watch soccer, it just wasn’t Australian. From the 1980s onwards SBS had soccer on TV and before that Match of the Day was on Australian TV for years. From the  late 1980s SBS also had Italian Soccer. SBS also had finals of the Champions’ League and Europa League and their predecessors. Today there are kids growing up who love soccer but don’t actually go to many, or any games but do follow Messi, Ronaldo and co. It’s not ideal, but it does involve playing soccer and watching soccer.

Overall the book is really fascinating for anyone with an interest in Australian soccer. Gorman has done great research and written a book that highlights the issues for soccer in Australia. Hopefully Les Murray, the great SBS soccer presenter, got a look at the book before he died. He would have been really impressed.

The Habsburg Empire

The Habsburg Empire: A Very Short Introduction (2017) by Martyn Rady is a book that describes the main history of one of Europe’s most important dynasties. Rady is a professor of European Studies at University College London and got his PhD in Budapest so he has a great background for writing a book on the Habsburgs.

There are a number of much longer and larger books on the Habsburgs out there. But for anyone wanting to come up to speed and get some idea of why the Habsburgs mattered so much and how the empire they ruled over worked at various times this book is ideal.

It covers the period when Phillip the Fair ruled Spain and much of the new world and The Phillipines and indeed contemplated an invasion of China to expand the empire to when the empire broke apart and finally collapsed in 1918.

The Habsburgs are a fascinating dynasty, they seem to have mostly achieved what they did through clever marriages and alliances and not too much by war. They were tolerant for much of their rule and ruled over a diverse collection of peoples for a long time. While it could be argued they held Central Europe back to some degree they also tended to avoid the bloodshed that succeeded them.

The book is well written and very much worth reading for anyone interested in Central European history who doesn’t want to read huge tome where much of the starting material is forgotten by the end. It’s crisp, informative and very well done.

Blind Man’s Bluff

Bling Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (2000) by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew and Annette Lawrence Dew tells some of the story of the remarkable role played by US submarines in the Cold War.

The book starts by describing the changes of submarines after WWII with diesel boats that would remain underwater most of the time to nuclear powered boats that could remain underwater for long periods of time.

The book then gets into some of the exploits of the nuclear powered spying vessels that managed to find downed Soviet boats, find lost US nuclear weapons and to tap Soviet military undersea cables. It’s all pretty remarkable.

The book is a bit over the top though, every second US captain is a swarthy confront superiors type. There is little real detail about how quiet the boats are, from non US submariners I’ve heard that diesel boats are often quieter than nuclear boats, but nowhere is this sort of discussion in the book. Also if you’re not an American the jingoism is a little wearing. It’s also suggested that the US was following most Soviet missile boats, this doesn’t seem to be accurate, the Soviets seemed to have a fairly potent second strike ballistic missile submarine capability. The book itself has a ‘record’ trail. Presumably if these trails were rarely that long there was a lot of time when Soviet boats did do the same thing as US boomers.

For anyone interested in entertaining historical military tales the book has a lot going for it, as reflective history it’s far weaker. Still, it’s enjoyable and surely does provide some accurate information about the remarkable tale of submarines in the Cold War.


Girt (2013) by David Hunt is a humorous look at early Australian history as far as the early 19th century.

Apparently the book is pretty well researched. It’s also quite amusing. The jokes tend to be a bit heavy handed though. It’s full of interesting anecdotes and facts as well. So it’s easy, amusing reading that has a lot of information on just how corrupt, drunk and disorganised it all was.

It’s a fun read and would be well worth giving to high school students who think Australian history is dull.

The Hunter Killers

The Hunter Killers: The Extraordinary Story of the First Wild Weasels (2015) by Dan Hampton describes operations of the US anti-SAM aircraft, the Wild Weasels and their operations in Vietnam.

Ground fire and SAMs often result in the most aircraft losses. In WWII 65% of the allied aircraft lost were lost to ground fire. SAMs make it even more dangerous. Vietnam was the first war in which SAMs were used counter tactics were developed. The F-105 Thunderchief was altered with extra electronics and an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) was used to work out what sensors were reading.

The book mixes a description of what was added to the F-105s, mission reports and a narrative of the Vietnam war to good effect. It’s not a great book but if you’re interested in these sorts of things it’s worth a read. The mission reports are often a bit confusing, but really are quite gripping. The narrative about the Vietnam War is reasonably interesting and is needed to explain the tactics that were used.

It would have been great to have had more explanation of the sensors the Weasels flew with and a bit more of a description of their tactics, but it’s still an enjoyable read for anyone who wants to know more about the remarkable men who flew these missions and how they operated.

Lost to the West

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization (2009) by Lars Brownworth is a quick history of the Byzantine Empire. Brownworth made a series of podcasts about 12 Byzantine Emperors that he turned into this book.

The book isn’t as in depth as John Julius Norwich’s Trilogy, but the advantage is the book is much shorter. It’s fairly readable.

It’s a bit odd reading books like this, you wonder how many of the facts you retain. I enjoyed the book, it’s given me some idea of the history of Byzantium.