The Nightmarkets, Alan Wearne

Cover illustration by Noela Hills

In my one school year in Melbourne, fourth form at Blackburn South High, Alan Wearne was a couple of years ahead of me and I was friends with his brother. He went on to Monash and I, via yet another bush high school (thanks Dad), to Melbourne. But I saw him around occasionally, the last time in ’74 or ’75 when I offered to give him a lift in my old truck to a poetry conference in Brisbane. He politely declined, the organisers had given him a return air ticket.

The Nightmarkets (1986) is a longish, 300pp, verse novel. I’ve read it a few times since it came out, not because I like poetry, which I don’t, but because it feels so intensely familiar. Wearne writes, not of Melbourne, but of the suburbs he knows so well – Blackburn, Burwood, Brunswick, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, and these are my suburbs too. Blackburn South was an endless expanse of three and four bedroom boxes with red tile roofs when we were growing up. From our new house we could look across the apple orchards, long gone now, to Channel O on Springvale Rd, while the Wearnes lived in a slightly older part of the suburb near the shops on Canterbury Rd. I earned pocket money at Pentland’s newsagency and some freezing mornings would have to get on my bike to deliver their paper. Just this week Mum has moved to a retirement village only a couple of hundred yards up the road.

The novel covers the period 1965-1982, and centres on the state election campaign of 1982 won by the John Cain-led Labor party, presaging Bob Hawke’s federal election win the following year. The central character, the Alan Wearne figure, is Ian Metcalfe. His older brother Robert, who was jailed for two years at the end of the 60s as a draft resister, is a Labor candidate. We get the story partly from Ian and partly from other principal characters, over the course of 10 sections. For most of the period 1969-75 I was in Melbourne, in the inner suburbs, in the anti-war movement, and this all feels very personal.

Briefly, Ian’s ex-girlfriend Sue becomes the lover of an older, old-money type, federal MP, John McTaggart, with a property out Mt Macedon way, who wants to form a new political party (yes, like Don Chipp’s Democrats, or if you’re a real politics wonk, like Gordon Barton‘s Australia Party). Sue introduces Ian, who’s doing not much, to McTaggart who commissions him to check out a murder which might be political, at a South Melbourne brothel. Ian promptly falls in love with Terri, a prostitute. Meanwhile Robert works stolidly towards getting elected.

Wearne’s poetry is both vernacular and (loosely!) contained within formal structures of rhyme and rhythm. I was a maths/science student with next to no Eng.Lit. education so more than that I cannot say. The opening lines are typical (Ian, 1980):

With your chaotic indecision, visiting mother can be a problem:
‘Hi, Mum.’ ‘Hi Ian.’ If you glower, she’s anxious not to pile up the home truths
(you’re the touchy one). She’s careful and cares, hope you exercise, the job situation improves,
hopes you’re sleeping well, eating well. ‘For dinner, Ian, or just lobbing in?’
She uses your terms, smiling about it, maybe to tease you.

The introductory section sets the scene – Robert’s jailing, Ian discovering sex, the rise and fall of Gough:

I was still with Allison, working in a bookshop.
Its phone rang. My mother screeched, ‘Gough’s got the sack!’
and hung up. Stockbrokers sprawled saturated in bubbly. ‘That big bastard’s off my back,’

Into the Fraser years Ian smokes dope and puts out a poetry magazine, The Hummer. The section ends: “… But this far into my ranting is quite enough,/ Please meet my first lover, still my closest friend, Sue Dobson.”

Back from an ‘over-planned’ trip to England, Sue stays with Ian and Allison – “someone had been having fun – nice to know/ an old boyfriend had settled… Told them this./ She trumped: ‘Great to get along with Ian’s old fucks.’” After an affair with a lead guitarist, she works on The Hummer, then as a freelance, writes a newspaper profile on McTaggart, starts sleeping with him, is surprised as it develops into a relationship, takes him home to meet Dad, in Florizel St (Burwood). Ian and Allison part, Ian “opting for minimal loft living, presumed celibacy.”

Ian learns about Sue and McTaggart from Allison on Christmas eve, goes out to his brother’s for Christmas lunch “back in Blackburn, where everyone lived when we were young”, spends the rest of the day with the old gang from The Hummer at Sue’s. “She cornered me: Well, your turn to be warned. John wants to meet you.” The next morning McTaggart wakes Ian from his hangover, “’I’m shouting lunch at Lulus. Ever been? Expensive, yes, but certainly not stuffy; / you’d hate my club.’” He wants Ian to look into an upmarket brothel, Crystal Palace, where a prostitute has been murdered who might have been gathering dirt on her clientele –“medicine, the judiciary, even certain police, politicians …”

‘It is bizarre, I understand.’ You, I thought, you: want: me: to: but he
proposed a four-figure sum
(of a middling bracket), to get doubled when I returned with facts …

He starts meeting/paying for Terri during the day, tells her he’s a researcher. She calls him professor, or sometimes, darls. Can’t meet her ‘outside’, she has a boyfriend, Ross, who’s sort of a dealer.

We hear from Robert, on a road trip to a Labor conference in Adelaide, from Ian again and then Terri. The plot takes a holiday but the text, the poetry, carries you on, as we get deeper into the characters. Terri and Ross bump into Ian a couple of times in inner suburban pubs, then Ross away in Thailand, Ian persuades Terri to come home with him.

I know: getting involved with a client might give commonsense the shove,
was breaking that first parlour law. But, I thought, Terri, now’s
the time you’ve had enough of rules. Outside your job the only powers
that ought to be are yours. You like him and want him. What’s that prove?

Ross comes home. Crystal Palace is not as exclusive as it used to be. Terri thinks she’ll go with Ross, next time he goes away. Sue’s turn, she meets McTaggart’s ex, is told she has a predecessor, McTaggart’s PA, Veronica Lim. “Really? Another thing that everybody knew, I didn’t know?” She takes a break:

and wouldn’t I crawl the clichéd mile
of broken glass to view the leader and his shy if warm smile
swap for the grin of some sexist smarty:
‘Sue, haven’t I said we’ve affirmative action right through our party?’
Oh, shuddup: ‘That’s just an equal balance of pricks to cunts
for you. Huh? And don’t look so damn hurt.’

We hear from John: “Your photographer having sprained something, you arrived alone: smallish, your hair brushed back and held with a light thin scarf, a broadcast of fading freckles, a mouth that knew it could pout.” And from his mother, the usual landed ‘gentry’/private school back story. Ian wraps up. “It’s ending. Her Ross has returned. ‘My opponent’ goes too far,/ but my rival, anyway has returned.” Still, he sees her again.

In Blackburn, “through gravel-edged Myrtle Grove, Acacia Avenue. How quiet and private/ it seems going on back to my brother’s or mother’s”, the election rolls to its inevitable (happy) conclusion.

The subscript to the title reads ‘This book should become a classic of our literature’. It hasn’t and I don’t suppose it will, but it’s certainly one of my favourites, and I recommend it to all Melburnians (Sydneyites wouldn’t get it).


Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986

see also:
Alan Wearne online (here)
SMH review, Peter Craven, 23 March, 2013 (here)
Pulping our Poetry, The Australian, 7 July, 2007 (here)

Miles Franklin Central


It’s become clear that I need one central place which links to all my Miles Franklin material. Following a tip from Lisa (ANZLL) I have added the tag ‘Miles Franklin’ to all the  posts in which she appears – that’s Miles not Lisa – which hopefully makes them more searchable by Google. I have listed below as much as I can come up with of work by and about Franklin, in the order in which it was written, and added links as appropriate. At some date I’ll transfer this to a ‘page’, but not straight away.

Miles Franklin was born at her maternal grandmother’s property, Talbingo, in the highlands of southern New South Wales, on 14 October 1879, the eldest child of Australian-born parents, John Maurice Franklin and Susannah Margaret Eleanor Franklin, née Lampe (Roderick  gives her mother’s names as Margaret Susannah Helena). Her christian names were Stella Maria Sarah Miles, and she was generally known as Stella. Her siblings were Ida Lampe (‘Linda’), Mervyn Gladstone, Una Vernon (died aged 6 months), Norman Rankin, Hume Talmage (‘Tal’) and Laurel.

Franklin was educated privately at the Franklin property, Brindabella from 1887-89 then at Thornford Public School, until she was 16.

She died on 19 September 1954 at Seacombe Private Hospital, Drummoyne, NSW. The cause of death was given as heart attack, chronic myocarditis and pleurisy. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered at Jounama Creek, Talbingo, since submerged by the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.

Franklin left the bulk of her estate to fund the Miles Franklin Literary Award for ‘the Novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian Life in any of its phases …’. From its inception in 1957 the Miles Franklin has grown to be Australia’s most important literary award. In 2013 women writers and publishers instituted another annual award named after Franklin, the Stella Prize for writing by Australian women in all genres.


My Brilliant Career (1901)

The End of My Career (1902 – unpublished) see My Career Goes Bung

On the Outside Track (1903 – unpublished) see Cockatoos

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909)

The Net of Circumstance (1915) by Mr & Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau

On Dearborn Street (1981), Review

Merlin of the Empiah/Mervynda (1925 – unpublished) see Prelude to Waking

Up The Country (1928) by Brent of Bin Bin, Review

Ten Creeks Run (1930) by Brent of Bin Bin, Review

Back to Bool Bool (1931) by Brent of Bin Bin

Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931)

Bring the Monkey (1933)

All That Swagger (1936)

Pioneers on Parade (1939) with Dymphna Cusack

My Career Goes Bung (1946), Review

Prelude to Waking (1950) by Brent of Bin Bin

Cockatoos (1954) by Brent of Bin Bin, Review

Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (1956) by Brent of Bin Bin



Too many to list. See ‘essays, sketches’ in the Index, Roe, 2008


Life and Labor (1911-15) Journal of NWTUL

How the Londoner Takes his War (1916) by Dissenting Diarist, here

Ne Mari Nishta: Six Months with the Serbs (1918), here

Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and His Book (1944) with Kate Baker

Laughter, Not for a Cage (1956)

Childhood at Brindabella (1963)

Jill Roe ed., My Congenials, Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters (1993)

Paul Brunton ed., The Diaries of Miles Franklin (2004)


Roe lists 31 plays by Franklin. I won’t list them all here unless I start reading them. A couple of interesting ones: ‘By Far Kaimacktcthalan’ deals with her time in Serbia in WWI; and ‘The Ten Mile’ after a number of iterations became the novel Old Blastus of Bandicoot.


Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin (1967)

Verna Coleman, Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career (1981)

Colin Roderick, Miles Franklin: Her Brilliant Career (1982), Review

W. Blake, Miles Franklin: Novelist and Feminist (1991)

Sylvia Martin, Passionate Friends (2001), Review

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (2008), ANZLL Review


Colin Roderick, ‘Brent of Bin Bin’, The Australian Novel, Wm Brooks, Sydney, 1945

Henrietta Drake-Brockman, ‘Miles Franklin’, Australia Writes, T. Inglis Moore ed., Cheshire, Melbourne, 1953

Verna Coleman, Foreword, My Career Goes Bung, A&R, Sydney, 1980

Roy Duncan, Introduction, On Dearborn Street, UQP, Brisbane, 1981

Elizabeth Webby, Introduction, My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung, A&R, Sydney, 1990


Miles Franklin was angry about her schooling (14.06.15), here

Such is Life, Abridged! (03.02.16), here

Miles Franklin’s War (25.04.16), here

Brent of Bin Bin, Miles Franklin (02.09.16), here

Miles Franklin, Canberra, the Griffins (12.12.16), here


Cockatoos, Miles Franklin


Cockatoos (1954) is the third novel, chronologically, in the family saga Miles Franklin wrote under the alias Brent of Bin Bin (more here). In Australia cockatoos  come in great flocks to scratch seed from the ground and Franklin uses the term, and its diminutive, cockies, derogatorily, to describe poor dirt-farmers scratching a living from the soil.

Cockatoos was re-written from the unpublished On the Outside Track which Franklin had written in 1903 in a second failed attempt to distinguish the author from the heroine after the embarrassment of her first novel, My Brilliant Career (1901), being taken as autobiography – the first attempt was The End of My Career, also not published until much later as My Career Goes Bung (1946).

As Franklin’s third attempt at writing the story of her ‘coming of age’, or fourth counting the re-writing to bring the main characters into line with the earlier books in the saga, Cockatoos demonstrates much greater maturity in both writing and characterisation, while still retaining the verve of her early years.

For Cockatoos the setting moves from the NSW high country of the first two novels in the saga to the plains south of Goulburn, and the small farming community of Oswald’s Ridges, representing Thornford where Franklin grew up. The period is the end of the C19th, years of drought and of colonial enthusiasm for the Boer War, when Franklin was in her late teens. The central figure, Ignez Milford, is despite Franklin’s concerns, still largely autobiographical. (‘Ignez’ was apparently a nickname for Agnes).

Oswald’s Ridges was indebted to Ignez Milford for adding spice to the daily round. Her lively and unconventional ideas caused commotion among tamer fowl. She had taken it into her head to have a musical career and her parents had weakened to let her come  as far as Goulburn to study… for safety Ignez had been deposited with the Mazeres and the Healeys. She parcelled her time between the houses to obviate any jealousy and to divide the wear and tear of her presence.

The Mazere and Healey families, along with the Pooles, are at the centre of the previous books in the saga, and we last saw Ignez, briefly, as a young girl during the search for a missing child in Ten Creeks Run. Sensibly, Franklin avoids further embarrassing her parents by leaving them up country and having Ignez live with relatives.

In addition to musical gifts Ignez was an avid reader and took a precocious interest in politics. She despised the usual small talk of women so that they censured her as unsexed … “I hope you’re going to vote for woman’s suffrage at the next election,” she observed on Sunday evening at tea after church… She had been reading the work of Lady Windeyer and Miss Rose Scott and ardently espoused their platform*.

The  novel covers the interactions of maybe 20 young people – in their late teens and early 20s – children of farmers, scions of the early squatting families and visitors from up the country, and it is difficult to keep track of their names, let alone their relative social standings, religion – protestant or Catholic, and all their second-cousin type connections to the ‘first families’ of the earlier novels. Ostensibly, this is a novel of who is keen on whom, keenly observed and interesting in its own right, but as a student of Miles Franklin I am more interested in Cockatoos as a new view of her adolescence. Franklin had a strong but unusual contralto voice and she discusses at length the loss of her (potential) career as an opera singer:

Thumping on the piano was permissible only when no household task awaited. Practice in the mornings bordered on immorality… Circumstances physically and mentally were against her development as an artist…

Ignez herself did not yet know that her ambitions were impossible. She could assimilate theoretical knowledge in any odd moment and her inner resources were so fertile she was not easy to frustrate. She withdrew into daydreams for her real being. Every paragraph in the newspapers concerning writers, singers, and other artists was savoured.

Luckily she is also both a reader and a writer. In My Career Goes Bung Sybylla’s old teacher advises her: “… be Australian. It is the highest form of culture and craftsmanship in art to use local materials. That way you stand a chance of adding to culture.” In Cockatoos Ignez confides to a friend: “… I want to write too. There’s so much hypocrisy in books. I want to write one that’ll show up the humbug… Just for a lark I’ll write a skit on the romances in books.” Ignez and some of her more serious friends gather out of the reach of bothersome aunts and parents to discuss books and to read excerpts from their own writings. Ignez invents a bush heroine, Nita, with a ‘smudge on her nose’, and so we see the genesis of My Brilliant Career.

It’s interesting too, to see Franklin who despite numerous ‘promising’ relationships remained unmarried all her life, at this time of flirting and young love. Here Blanche, a ‘good’ girl, discovers that young men are attracted by more than womanliness:

Now Ignez, who wanted to have a public career and parade on the stage, who argued with men about women’s rights and asserted that she had the right to exercise her brains, who said that women should ride astride and had been seen galloping with her undergarments exposed, was finding special favour.

Though Ignez herself is quick to warn off any of the young men who want to engage in ‘silliness’. “If you or anyone else came to see me in the silly way it would be useless, as I’m going to London to study music. I wouldn’t marry even if a prince asked me.”

As always, it is a delight to see Australia of more than 100 years ago described by someone who was actually there. At a concert in Goulburn Franklin is scathing about social distinctions, “The old bush town in the hollow clung to its English County recipe as faithfully as circumstances permitted”. Then “the festival of favourites began with the local glee club disguised as darkies in imitation of Yankee jokes that were puerile in the first place.” But finally, Ignez gets to listen to another contralto, an up and coming Australian, and realizes that her own “bullfrog” voice is the real deal. “The volume of her unwieldy organ frightened her that she might be a freak … Now she sat rapt, released into a larger self.”

England declares war on the Boers, and many of the young men are eager to join up. Franklin is anti-war, as I wrote last year in Miles Franklin’s War, and Ignez is scathing, “I’d never marry a man who had been slaughtering other men. It would make me creepy.”

Ignez goes up to Sydney to get advice about training her voice. She sees a prostitute run over by a tram and is sickened when men justify recourse to prostitutes as an outlet for their ‘urges’. When the business partner of her city connections corners her and kisses her she is distraught and rushes off to the high country to be reassured about the ‘facts of life’ by her cousin Milly, young wife of Bert Poole, the central figures in Ten Creeks Run. This concern about being kissed is in all Franklin’s coming of age novels, despite the fact that the latter two were re-written when Franklin was in her 40s or 50s.

Nita: The Story of a Real Girl is published without Ignez’s knowledge and so we see again the reactions of Franklin to being famous, lauded by Sydney society, and of her family and  neighbours to seeing themselves in print. Ignez is more concerned about her voice which has failed through being over-strained, but the money from royalties is welcome, and may permit her to visit a specialist in Paris. Her parents permit her to accompany family friends to London. This generation of the youth of Oswald’s Ridges is growing up and leaving. Two boys won’t be returning from South Africa, another is on his way to the USA, one girl is helped out of poverty to become a nurse, others find husbands.

Cockatoos is an important work. It is both a perceptive view of country life in NSW at the turn of the C20th and a lightly-fictionalized memoir of the adolescence of one of our best early authors.


Miles Franklin, Cockatoos, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954

see also:
Brent of Bin Bin, Miles Franklin (here)
Miles Franklin, Up The Country (here)
Miles Franklin, Ten Creeks Run (here)

* Mary Elizabeth Windeyer (1836-1912) and Rose Scott (1847-1925) were foundation members of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW. The obvious feminism of My Brilliant Career led to Franklin being invited to stay in Scott’s harbourside home in 1902 (and to Scott’s less than flattering portrayal as Mrs Crasterton in My Career Goes Bung).

Women – well, white women – gained the right to vote in NSW and Australian elections in 1902. The vote Franklin is referring to might be the first referendum on Federation in June 1898 (Suffragists were mostly on the Yes side).

A Week in the Future, Catherine Helen Spence


“Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was hailed at the end of her long life as ‘The Grand Old Woman of Australia’, known for her achievements as a social reformer, essayist, journalist, preacher and advocate for electoral reform. Her philanthropic work has been justly praised, while her literary achievement is still overlooked, although her eight novels reflect a most interesting exploration of the nature of fiction.” (Prologue)

A Week in the Future, a novella of about 100 pp, was originally published as a serial in The Centennial Magazine: An Australian Monthly from Dec. 1888 to Jul. 1889 – presumably as part of the celebration of the first 100 years of white settlement in NSW – and was reissued as a handsome (21cm x 27 cm) hardback, with a Prologue by Lesley Durrell Ljungdahl and illustrations from (London) Punch, the Bulletin and The Centennial Magazine, in time for its own centenary and NSW’s bi-centenary. I can’t tell you anything about Ljungdahl except that he/she completed a PhD thesis on Spence at UNSW in 1992.

Spence uses A Week in the Future to advance the ideas of British feminist and reformer Jane Hume Clapperton (1832-1914) who wrote Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness (1885). According to Ljungdahl, Spence’s borrowings from Clapperton “are so flagrant that sometimes they amount to plagiarism.” In case you’re wondering, scientific meliorism “is an essentially optimistic faith in society’s potential capacity for improvement” and is opposed to socialism in that socialism advocates forced change whereas scientific meliorism advocates change adopted gradually and voluntarily.

The protagonist, Emily Bethel, is an unmarried, middle class woman in her sixties living in Adelaide, which is to say she is standing in for the author, but is frail (Spence lived to be 85) and with the assistance of her doctor exchanges the two years of failing health left to her for one week of good health, one hundred years in the future, in the city of her choice, London.

So how does Spence in 1888 imagine London in 1988, what are her predictions? She sets them out in seven chapters, one subject area for each day of the week.

Monday, Associated Homes: Spence describes a society built around cooperatives both for employment and housing, following the ideas of socialist mill owner Robert Owen (1771-1858). Emily runs into a woman of her own age, Mrs Carmichael, who turns out to be the granddaughter of the niece she left behind in Adelaide. Mrs Carmichael lives in Robert Owen House, which like the buildings around it, which have replaced traditional row housing, has accommodation for 20 families and substantial gardens for fruit and vegetables. Dining is communal at set times, and individual sitting rooms have been replaced by activity rooms. This is a middle class vision and the 20 families employ a number of servants, but of course the servants lead middle class lives elsewhere. Women, with no domestic work, are “set free to pursue bread-winning avocations”. Population growth is held to zero by restricting families to a maximum 3 children. The most shocking prediction is that “idiot children” are destroyed at birth.

Tuesday, Co-operative Production & Distribution: This chapter starts out on newspapers, which are much thinner than before as universal peace means there is less news, and co-op stores obviate any need for display advertisements:

“Where are Holloway’s Pills, Eno’s Fruit Salt, Pears’ Soap, Hop Bitters, and such like?”

“Not now worth advertising apparently. Sales are made to the stores, which are not induced to buy by plausible advertisements.”

It seems there was a period early in the century when armies were disbanded and soldiers turned to farming and manufacturing. The problem of excess labour was solved by emigration and the turning of unproductive land to agriculture, so that by 1988 the UK and Australia have similar populations – around 30 million. Although there continues to be some trade, each country largely produces what it needs for itself and uses tariffs and immigration controls to prevent “coolies and Chinese coming to destroy all we have struggled for!” Though the populations of India and China too have been stabilized by reducing family size.

Spence does predict decimal currency, the Russian Revolution, the end of the British Empire and the independence of India.

Emily goes out of London on a nationalized (steam) train – unlike Australia, the railways in England in the 1880s were privately owned – and visits a farming collective. Farming is still labour intensive, though more efficient. All workers work 6 hour days, horses are used sparingly and much of the heavy work is done by stationary steam engines.

She visits a cotton factory, staffed mostly by women, who are happy, share in the profits and write music and poetry in their 18 hours per day of leisure; and a ‘great Emporium’ where everything is available, and at reasonable prices, except birthday and Christmas cards.

On returning that evening to Robert Owen House she found that “Wagner’s was not really the music of the future, for no one seemed to have heard of him. Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn were still known and loved.”

Wednesday, Childhood & Education: Children are home schooled till 8 years – in the nursery in the case of associated homes – then attend state schools until 14. There are no exams, no competition, no ‘breaking of wills’. “The prizes at school, like the prizes of life, used to be won from defeated and mortified competitors.” After 14, children go to work, but many make use of their ‘abundant leisure’ to continue their high school educations at Continuation schools, which are taught by volunteers. At London University Emily sees “mixed classes of youths and maidens, or what would have been maidens in our time” (what is she suggesting!)

Thursday, Marriage & the Relations of the Sexes: Emily attends the marriage of her great-grandniece, a religious ceremony conducted by a clergywoman. The religions have persevered though “even the Catholic Church has been made to feel that the interests of humanity as interpreted by common sense and experience are paramount” which means apparently they accede to the general custom of early, childless marriages and easy divorce. Later marriages, with children, involve longer, although still no-fault, divorces.

Friday, Government & Laws: When Emily ventures into the city she finds that London has been greatly diminished by the near-cessation of international trade. Many of the dockland warehouses have been converted into co-operative housing; parks and gardens are everywhere; the Underground has fallen into disuse – “there was plenty of space above to run all the necessary trains. Omnibuses were no more, the tramcars were no longer drawn by horses.” The population of London (and of Paris and New York) has been brought down to about a million.

As for government, there is a president, a senate with representatives for each ‘province’ in England (10), Ireland (4), Scotland (4) and Wales (2), and the House of Commons. Ireland has been ‘pacified’ but Spence does not say how, nor much about the revolution which brought about the removal of the royal family and the House of Lords.

In the hundred years that had elapsed since I had known the world, first had come a cataclysm sweeping away the old foundations and much that had been reared upon them, and from these had gradually emerged a new society… No longer were the prizes of life held by the few through inheritance, or snatched by energy, by business talent, by unscrupulous rapacity, or by subtle craft.

Saturday, Literature & Art; Music; the Drama & Sport: Of course, being British, the Revolution had been polite. In the National Gallery Emily sees in the paintings of that period “there was not such savagery in the expression of the surging crowds who wrought this revolution as we were used to see in the pictures of the French Revolutionary period.” Art, she discovers in this utopia, is amateur and naturalistic. Novels, and the plots of plays and operas, suffer from the lack of drama in everyday lives. Emily attends an ‘Italian’ opera, and professes herself well pleased. Sport, it appears, is played by everyone, on the ‘village green’.

Sunday, Religion & Morality: The leaders of the revolution were Socialists, Communists, Nihilists – secularists all – but were surprised to find that “large numbers of the new generation, rising up, clung to the faith in the unseen and the unknown,” so that churches of various denominations continue, though without their previous wealth – and with no mention of Jews or Muslims. The chapter (and the book) ends with a prayer.

Spence is not Jules Verne or HG Wells and makes no attempt at science fiction, although she has great faith in advances in medicine and birth control. Her aim is to discuss a better way of living, which I think she does successfully. A Week in the Future, though densely argued is quite readable, and I don’t think she should be judged for failing to predict air travel, automobiles, rock’n’roll or short skirts.


Catherine Helen Spence, A Week in the Future, Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney, 1987 (first pub. 1889)

True Country, Kim Scott


I have been reading Kim Scott backwards, starting with That Deadman Dance (2010) and ending up here at his first, True Country (1993). With Benang (1999) and Kayang and Me (2005) – I haven’t read Lost (2006) – this is a fine body of work. The seven year gap back to Scott’s last work is to be filled later this year apparently with a new novel, Taboo which, according to the author, might be about a community reconnecting to its ancestral heritage, seeking healing.

Now that I have reached the beginning, it is apparent that over the course of his career as a writer Scott has been ‘growing into his skin’. Benang and Kayang and Me were accounts of his journey to document his roots as a Noongar man; and That Deadman Dance was a powerful imagining of a specific and very short time after first contact in WA when the locals, Scott’s Noongar people, held the upper hand. True Country is the story of a young man with some Indigenous heritage, who has been brought up ‘white’, feeling his way as a teacher in an Aboriginal community up north, feeling his way from idealism to a realistic appraisal of the dysfunction of a community in which the old ways are lost and the new ways are not taking, feeling his way towards beginning to internalise his own indigenous-ness.

The quality of Scott’s writing is high, as we now expect – descriptive, poetic, original – and the story is told in a number of voices. First and omniscient is a voice which might be the voice of the community:

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

And it is a beautiful place, this place, Call it our country, our country all ‘round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall…

Welcome to you.

Then there is Billy, just arrived to teach the secondary students with wife Liz. Billy’s narration starts out as first person but slides into third person, signifying maybe, his being outside himself, observing, as the community sucks him in. Other voices, Aboriginal, chime in through short chapters and notes.

The novel takes us through one school year, through the seasons of Australia’s tropical north – Wet, Dry, Wet – with little episodes, closely told, reminiscent, in style, of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976). There is no plot, or not at least until you look back and see what has changed.

The story’s fictional township, Karnama, is on the Kimberley coast of northern Western Australia, and consists of a Catholic mission, a government school and an Aboriginal community. So the whites are priests and nuns, another couple with an 8yo son who are also newly arrived teachers, a handyman, and a manager and a young, single woman employed by the community. Police and doctors might fly in from Derby, but are not part of the story.

Interestingly, Liz as a character is only lightly sketched, we see her pale skin and red hair but rarely hear her voice. Scott’s work is always autobiographical and I wonder if he has/had a wife he didn’t want to offend. Jasmine, the single woman, is a bomb waiting to go off, until she makes her choice late in the year. Gerrard, the manager is venal, profiteering from his position, and the other teacher couple are anxious, fearful, educating their son at home by school of the air, not allowing him to mix with the locals. But none of the whites is really observed in any depth, except Billy. This is his novel and he is most interested in his interactions with his pupils and their families.

But Who’s Tellin’ this Story?

That short teacher bloke, he bit like us, but –he Nyungar or what? Look at him, he could be. Why’s he wanna know things? He get to school proper early anyway, sun-up even …

Dry season: early morning cool, and I left the first footprints in the dew on the lawn.

The switching back and forth of the voices serves to integrate us, the reader, into the community, stops us identifying wholly with Billy.

Fatima, on older woman, tells stories which Billy transcribes from his tape recorder and reads back to his class. This is an oral culture, and even while the children are being criticised for their failure to learn from books, they are able to quote great chunks of the videos they watched the previous night. But Billy loses interest in collecting stories, why?

Gabriella is local girl made good, a uni student down south who comes back periodically to observe. Beatrice, initially bright and helpful, falls apart, is passed from doctor to doctor in Darwin and Perth, maybe she has offended the gods. Deslie, one of the older boys, is cheerful and willing but a petrol sniffer. Francis, held back by poor eyesight and broken glasses, meets a sad end.

The men, Milton, Alphonse, Raphael, Sebastian show Billy around. Billy comes back from Derby with a ute and a tinny, spends his spare time on the river fishing for barramundi. There are not many vehicles and wherever they go there are people piled in the back, tourists too if the bus is broken down.

The children are touchy feely and dismissive of boundaries. Billy and Liz accept this, sometimes of course grudgingly, but often with pleasure:

One hot afternoon Billy, Liz, the high school kids, they all went for a swim …  The group moved in two major clusters, divided according to sex. The girls grouped around Liz and Jasmine, with Jasmine the main focus … They laughed, they shrieked, they studied her earrings and hair. They asked the two women about boyfriends, husbands. ‘Mr Storey [Billy] hit you ever? What he like when he drunk?’ … The girls held their guests’ hands and put their arms around their shoulders…

Imagine, again, seeing all this from above … The kids are mostly tight in around those teachers. Black skin looks good in the sun, shiny. Then nearly at High Diving, the kids break away and start to race to the river. They shed clothes on the run. They dive. They spear the water…

As we progress, the mood gets darker, Billy and Liz feel their openness is being taken advantage of. Karnama is a, theoretically, dry community but the whites drink and are observed drinking. The mail plane brings in alcohol. Builders working on new housing don’t employ locals, live in a men’s camp, drink and are visited by the women. Raphael is a bad drunk, beats his wives. The wives seek refuge with Billy and Liz.

A trip to Broome goes badly. The year draws to an end.

True Country is a stunningly well written book and I hope I have given you some sense of that, but it is also a brave book. Kim Scott, through Billy, confronts his fears and prejudices, the packs of half wild dogs which protect each house, the violence, the lack of purpose and the squalor. And, somehow, at the end he finds himself beginning to belong: “See? Now it is done. Now you know. True Country… We are serious. We are grinning. Welcome to you.”


Kim Scott, True Country, Fremantle Press, Perth, 1993

See also:
Kim Scott, Benang, 1999 (Review)
Kim Scott & Hazel Brown, Kayang and Me, 2005 (Review)
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, 2010 (Review)

Triple Choice Tuesday (and other stuff)


My 85 yo mum is finally moving from the family home to a retirement village a couple of suburbs away in eastern suburbs Melbourne, so I spent last week over there helping her to come to grips with moving – it’s her 12th or 13th move but the first one without dad – and packing up dad’s books. I now have a (physical) TBR which I will never finish, an astonishing number of books about Australia in WWI, a lot of books in average condition which my grandfathers had been given in their schooldays, and a small number of books dating back to the C18th.

Other online friends have been doing it hard in similar situations recently, but my father had a ‘welcome’ death a couple of years ago after being almost completely paralyzed by a stroke 18 months earlier, following 25 years of active retirement on a good income and surrounded by grandchildren. He was very protective of his books and this was the first time I had set hands on all but a few of them. I will probably post more when the boxes arrive here and I start opening them, but for instance I am now the proud owner of a very early (1930s) Mickey Mouse which he had as a child and which I had never seen before. And in case you’re worrying on her behalf, mum has three other sons nearer-by to help on moving day and, to the extent their wives allow, to rescue other family treasures which might else be lost through this necessary downsizing.

Being in Melbourne meant I also got to catch up with Michelle from Adventures in Biography whose (first) book is nearly done, and with Lisa (ANZLL) and spouse, for the first time, for a pleasant lunch and to exchange books. We may have set each other a challenge as she is expecting me to find the good in David Ireland’s recent The World Repair Video Game and I have presented her with Joseph Furphy’s Rigby’s Romance which was excised from the more famous Such is Life.

All this activity – and of course I had a son and plenty of friends to lunch with as well – meant that I got behind in my writing. And work didn’t help by expecting me to run up to Kalgoorlie almost as soon as my plane landed back in Perth. However, I have done the reading for my next couple of posts – a Kim Scott, and a really obscure Catherine Helen Spence I came across in Yarra Cottage Books, Warrandyte – and I thought today I would use up the ‘offcuts’ of a post which I did for Reading Matters after Kim, a London-based Australian who has been blogging forever, wrote asking me to contribute to her on-going series, Triple Choice Tuesday.

Her letter asked for a short personal history plus “three books under the following categories, and explain why you’ve chosen them”:  

A favourite book
A book that changed your world
A book that deserves a wider audience.

I thought that would all be pretty easy and knocked out an answer on the evening of the day she wrote. In fact, my only problem was that I was spoiled for choice. From when I was little, I had my own bookcase, and every book had its place on the shelves. I could lie in bed and recognise each book and recall the story it told. So I had lots of favourite books, and I have continued adding to them in the fifty years since, so that they threaten to overwhelm my whole apartment, not just my bedroom.

Even now, revising this before pressing Publish, I realise I completely failed to consider another long time favourite – one which my father had as a boy also, though I didn’t know it – Kenneth Grahame’s 1895 evocation of a childhood summer, The Golden Age. Anyway, I hung on to my answers for a while and of course ended up rewriting them. Here then are two which ended up on the cutting room floor.

A favourite book: Beau Ideal by PC Wren

Beau Ideal was the first of the Beau Geste trilogy I owned, though I subsequently accumulated a whole shelf of PC Wren novels with their grey cloth covers from second-hand bookshops in the sixties and seventies. Wren’s old fashioned mix of honourable behaviour, British stiff upper lip, militarism and class consciousness obviously had something to say even to me – a draft resister and an anarchist/socialist – but what got me, what gets me every time, is that Beau Ideal is a love story, the story of the hopeless love of a ‘nice American boy’ for Isobel, who is pledged to John Geste, and who for Isobel’s sake must go back into the Sahara to find John who is a prisoner of the French Foreign Legion.

A book that changed my world: The Iron Heel by Jack London.

I was introduced to Fabian socialism by my librarian at Blackburn South High in fourth form (year 10) but a year or so later Nana, my father’s very prim and proper mother, gave me The Iron Heel, thinking no doubt it was another harmless adventure story like London’s White Fang. It is in fact both the first great dystopian novel and a communist analysis of the inevitable end of Capitalist democracy through the rise of the Oligarchy, the Iron Heel, overseeing the destruction of the middle classes and the splitting of the working class into a small, privileged caste of tame-cat unionists and a large underclass of impoverished under-employed (sound familiar!), and so I was converted to revolutionary socialism, which for a while during those Vietnam War years seemed not only logical but achievable.

The novel takes the form of an autobiography written by the wife of the leader of the revolutionaries, recovered and annotated centuries later when the Revolution has finally succeeded and ushered in the Brotherhood of Man. London makes a very unconvincing woman but it’s still an important novel and a “truer prophecy of the future than Brave New World” according to George Orwell.

A book that deserves a wider audience: The Pea Pickers by Eve Langley

I was always going to choose The Pea Pickers which will one day be acknowledged as one of Australia’s four or five great novels.

To see what I did write for Kim, go to Reading Matters (here).

PC Wren, Beau Ideal, John Murray, London, 1928
Jack London, The Iron Heel, Penguin Classics, 2006, first published 1908
Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, Imprint Classics, 1991, first published 1942 (Review)
Miles Franklin, My Career Goes Bung, 1946 (Review)
Catherine Martin, An Australian Girl, 1890 (Review)

Trick or Treat, Kerry Greenwood


Reading other bloggers introduces me not just to books I haven’t read, which of course it does all the time, and to books I might never read, but to whole classes of literature I haven’t previously considered. Two of the latter are ‘Gin Lit’ and ‘Fat Lit’.

Gin Lit if you haven’t run in to it yet, is the invention of Kate W at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and of course is the set of books in which gin is drunk. If it isn’t a thing yet then it should be. But if Gin Lit is just a fun concept, the motivation for seeking out Fat Lit is more serious. Melanie at Grab the Lapels offers the following:

This book [13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad] is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.

This is a game I don’t have much skin in. Firstly, I’m not a women, and then, like a lot of older people, if I say I’m fat it’s mostly because I worry (obsess) about my weight – speaking American, I’m 5 foot 10 and 200 lbs. I’ve been a vegetarian and a competitive swimmer for more than 25 years, but my weight keeps drifting up.

A few weeks ago I listened to a book called Big Girl Panties by Stephanie Evanovich (the author’s name is an interesting conflation of popular author Linda Evanovich and her most famous creation, Stephanie Plum, but if there is a connection I couldn’t see it) in which a youngish obese woman is brought back to merely large by a handsome personal trainer, with whom she of course falls in love. The author treats fatness sympathetically but I thought the emphasis on training and diet probably excluded it from falling within Melanie’s criteria.

But one series which I thought might, was Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delight books ‘featuring Corinna Chapman, baker and reluctant investigator’. Truck drivers are big fans of Greenwood and we have all listened to all the Phryne Fisher mysteries, or at least as many as are out on Bolinda Books. A long time ago I listened to a book of short stories with an Introduction by Greenwood in which she was explicit about wishing to provide women with strong heroines who could perform great deeds without relying on men, and I should have included her in my dissertation on the Independent Woman, but I didn’t and now I can’t find the book.

Once I ran out of Phryne Fishers I listened to a few of the Earthly Delight’s series, though not with as much pleasure, Corinna is a bit too lovey-dovey for me. Corinna Chapman – Earthly Delights is the name of her inner-Melbourne bakery – isn’t independent in the way that Phryne Fisher is, she has a permanent good looking lover Daniel, who may or may not be an operative with Mossad. However, I remember her as large and plain and so thought I would borrow the paper version of Trick or Treat (2007) to review in the context of this new (to me) literary category.

I am sure we all picture and (mis-)remember characters differently both from each other and from the author’s intention. In the end I’m not sure that the big woman I remember is the Corinna Greenwood intends, and in this book Corinna barely describes herself at all. Here she is eating baklava:

We sipped and munched and I tried not to drip onto my nice shirt, and did not succeed. Yanni watched me with a grin.

‘A good woman is one who enjoys her food,’ he said. ‘The generous type. I always liked them generous…’

And here she thinks she is competing for Daniel’s attentions:

Georgie shed her high heels and draped herself over the sofa, long legs and short skirt. She was very beautiful. I sat next to her like a lump. Of what, I had not decided. Granite, perhaps? Or maybe just jelly. Envious jelly.

When Daniel, later, asks, “Surely you weren’t really worried that I might want George rather than you?” she replies:

‘No, why should I think that? … Just because I’m short and fat and dumpy and mousy, and she is tall and gorgeous with baby blue eyes and blonde ringlets?”

The plot of Trick or Treat is a mystery. Or a series of mysteries. In the beginning I wasn’t sure there was a plot. Earthly Delights bakery occupies the ground floor of an apartment building off Flinders Lane in the Melbourne CBD. Corinna occupies one of the apartments above and the other occupants of the building include a witch, some old people, a couple of gay men and so on. Corinna eats, and she eats a lot, at the Jewish delicatessen or the Greek restaurant nearby or with the other tenants in their rooftop garden.

In the back lane behind the bakery strange singing is heard from time to time; young men have to be taken away suffering delusions; these delusions (and the singing) may stem from a bad batch of LSD or may be connected to a convention of witches. Meanwhile, Daniel is on the path of treasure stolen from Jews by a Nazi commander in Greece; some of this treasure turns up in the possession of the ‘King of the Witches’. Daniel does most of the legwork; Corinna, eventually, makes all the connections; we meet lots of colourful characters; and most importantly the gorgeous Georgie is vanquished.

Corinna loves food, but she doesn’t mind a drink either. Here the two Lits coincide (‘intersect’ in set theory), as they do off and on throughout, “[I] poured myself a drink. When a certain tall, dark and gorgeous man appeared, walking like a cat, my pleasure was complete. Daniel and gin and tonic. Wonderful.


Kerry Greenwood, Trick or Treat, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2007