Randolph Bourne vs The State, H.W. Morton

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“War is the Health of the State”

‘Had Randolph Bourne never written another line he would have earned immortality from those words alone. “War is the health of the State”, he announced, and went on to explain: “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the herd sense.”‘ Morton.

When I came up to uni at the beginning of 1969 I thought I was a Fabian. But after just one meeting of the august Melbourne University Labor Club I was shunted off to the anarchists next door (in Union House) and there I stayed – though a lot of my activity in the anti-war movement of those years was under the banner of SDS*.

I had been introduced to Fabianism by my school librarian at Blackburn South High when we spent a year in Melbourne while dad finished his BA preparatory to becoming a DI (district inspector of schools). For a boy from the bush this was a year of intense stimulation, social and intellectual, maths and chess, politics and religion (atheism), before I returned to the bush, to the mud landscape and mud minds of Colac, for an inadequate matriculation.

Sometime during 1969-71, the years encompassing two highly successful Moratoriums, lots of smaller demos, anti-conscription pamphleteering and my own ‘failure to register’ and subsequent police dodging, I became the proud owner of a handful of Anarchy periodicals and in particular Anarchy 31 and its lead article ‘Randolph Bourne vs the State’ by HW Morton (about whom I can tell you nothing).

So first, let us be clear about “the State”.

The world is regrettably divided into armed and mutually hostile geographic entities which we call “countries”. Coinciding (usually) with a country is a body of people – a “nation” (Presumably because nations and countries don’t always coincide Morton uses “society” for the people in a country).

The “State” is the organizing principle of a Nation and determines how it is governed, how its Government is formed and what form it should take.

To go on to politics, Socialism is the belief that the wealth of a nation should be equitably distributed to all the people of that nation. Anarchists believe that the socialist State can only be preserved by distributing the powers of government to as many people as possible, while Communists believe the opposite. Strangely, both believe in an eventual utopia entirely without government.

Randolph Bourne (1886-1918) wrote The State in New York during the First World War. It was reissued in the early 1960s – hence Morton’s critique in Anarchy 31 – and is now available online. “In its incomplete form the essay defines the State, describes its activities, and discusses its historic evolution.” Morton is critical of Bourne’s analysis of the historical development of the State, and thinks he had not read any anarchist theory. His understanding “could have been considerably enhanced had he studied Kropotkin. Conversely, Kropotkin could have benefitted from reading Bourne on War.” And it is his analysis of the State in relation to War that has most influenced me.

 The nation in war-time attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war.

It is this “uniformity of feeling”, intolerance of difference, this “herd feeling” as Bourne inelegantly puts it, which politicians, the class which benefits most from the power of the State, are constantly aspiring to with their confected but often lethal oppositions to Others.

I could go on. I do don’t I? Anzac Day and the glorification of the Military Ideal does that to me. If you’re interested in reading further, both Morton’s and Bourne’s essays are at the links below.

 

H.W. Morton, Randolph Bourne vs The State, Anarchy 31 (Vol 3 No.9) Sept. 1963, Freedom Press, London. here

Randolph Bourne, The State, 1918 here


*Conscription was conducted by a ballot process—the draft. All men were required to register on reaching 20 years of age, but only those whose birthdays were selected in a twice-yearly ballot would be compelled to serve two years in the army and five years in the army reserve. This was the generation entering Australian universities from the mid-1960s.

The Melbourne University Labor Club initially led student opposition to the war and its membership grew until it split in 1968 over the question of whether to be an activist or educative group. From this split new organisations emerged.2 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) established itself in a shared house in Palmerston Street in Carlton which became known as the Centre for Democratic Action. Members of the SDS, Harry Van Moorst and Michael Hamel-Green, explained their philosophy: traditional politics was morally unacceptable and should be replaced by participatory democracy. Collective, decentralised decision-making and direct, non-violent action such as theatre, street demonstrations and leafleting all aimed to empower participants in a new politics.3 In cooperation with the Melbourne University Draft Resisters Union and the Radical Action Movement, SDS urged students to refuse to register for the draft, and led them to declare Union House a place of safety for draft resisters who had gone ‘underground’, hiding from the police.

Suzanne Fairbanks, University of Melbourne archives (here)

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An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s the only commercial radio I heard was on the farm during school holidays, the radio in granddad’s ute tuned to 3SH Swan Hill (except around midday when he insisted on Blue Hills and the rural stock prices), playing Bobby Darrin, Dion, Ricky Nelson; I can still sing Vic Dana’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Even when I was a teenager the most popular singers on radio included Frank Sinatra, Matt Munro, and Tom Jones, and this at a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been around for 2 or 3 years. As the 60s passed I got into the Animals, the Loved Ones, Janice Joplin, King Crimson, the Doors – though sadly my all time favourite was and is Roy Orbison – but Sinatra et al were still around.

It was years before I realised that this confusion of singers hadn’t popped up out of nowhere but represented the continuation of a variety of streams – pre-war Swing (Sinatra), African-American Blues and White Country Rock. And of course over time they merged, continued, threw off new streams (and somewhere around Hip-Hop became unlistenable*).

Literature has as many streams as music. And for some reason – maybe with Climate Change its time has come – the stream that has come to the fore recently is Speculative Fiction and in particular Women’s SF – which I have argued elsewhere differs in significant ways from Men’s (aka ‘Mainstream’) SF. I wonder (idly!) if a part of the reason for this emergence -within Literature, rather than off to one side in genre – is the popularity of Margaret Attwood and her resolute refusal to be genre-ised.

In the past few years I have reviewed Jane Rawson (here, here, here), Ellen van Neerven (here), Alexis Wright (here). Charlotte Wood (here), Claire Coleman (here), and, to throw in a guy, Rodney Hall (here) not just because of my ongoing interest in SF but because they are genuinely at the forefront of new literature in Australia. And then there’s also Georgia Blain (here), Nathan Hobby (here), Robert Edeson (here, here) and Sue Parritt (here), of whom only the last is completely ‘straight’ SF.

Krissy Kneen is not an author I know, but this appears to be her sixth novel. It is a mixture of Speculative and Erotic fiction that I enjoyed. As for “streams”, the only direct predecessor I can think of is Linda Jaivin and the lightweight, amusing, sexy Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

The novel begins with Caspar, a lecturer in Literature – a guy in the first person, lecturing: “If an author uses first person, a reader is trapped in her or his perspective …” – focusing his attention on the prettiest girl in his class. It soon becomes apparent that Caspar serially has affairs with a girl from each of his classes.

He gets his comeuppence when Liv, a previous afairee, leaves him a gift of a memory stick and a virtual reality suit which enables him to re-live their love-making as she experienced it, and he becomes “trapped in her perspective”. This on its own is a powerful short story. To be a man experiencing his fumblings and shortcomings from the woman’s point of view is intensely humbling,

I still have her skin on me. I still feel her hurt, her disappointment, her terrible bittersweet scent of ennui.

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

 but Kneen’s ambition is greater than this and she leads us on through four more ‘short stories’, each also in the first person, from the POV of a person other than Liv, as Liv ages and refines her use of the suit.

Liv is a researcher working with paedophiles to see if they can use the suit to develop empathy. Her subject, Ronnie becomes a jellyfish, becomes all jellyfish through all time.

Cameron is a – 50 years of science fiction and I can’t recall the word for a robot with human consciousness, ahh, android – an android who looks like a pre-teen boy and who ‘genuinely’ wishes to make love with paedophiles, no. 35 in a sequence of androids who have been progressively “improved” and their predecessors eliminated, happy in his work until he is subverted by a girl his own age, Ellen.

M is trans, in a time when gender reassignment is readily available to minors. She has a genuinely asexual partner but slowly becomes attracted to an old lady, Liv, who is belatedly undertaking her own transition to trans.

Finally the ‘first person’ is Liv, beyond a century old, using all her money to to hire, becoming friends with a beautiful prostitute, in the suit experiencing youth and sex for the last time. In each of the stories Liv is a person who constructs narratives from the captured experiences of herself and others.

If this were one of my narratives I would begin here.

The first time I paid a prostitute to masturbate me was when my body had died. I was nothing more than a collection of thought patterns, memories stored digitally, circuits firing like synapses, and yet this woman was slipping her fingers up and inside me.

Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction. If she were a singer I think she would be Ani DiFranco.

 

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

see also: Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)


*Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer shows how much I know – New Yorker

Journal: 003, On the Road Again

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This is Monday night, meant to be the end of my first day owner-drivering, but Dragan had an ’emergency’ on Saturday and called me in to work early – I almost never say no when I’m asked to work: first you knock back jobs, then you don’t get offered is a ‘rule’ engraved on my heart, or on my anxiety gene – while I was driving son Lou to the airport. Still one daughter, Psyche, with one day left of her holiday with us, but she gave me permission and off I went. Hopefully I’ll make it up to her with a trip to Darwin.

An odd, diverse, needed holiday, spent getting permits etc in place for the truck, and my back, a few visits to the physio to get it into place (successfully), a week with all the kids in town for the first time in a few years, babysitters in place for the grandkids and a night out in the city with ex-ML & the kids and their favourite cousin (Hi Cait), a couple of days in Melbourne with mum, coinciding with Michelle Scott Tucker’s book release – boy, is she (justifiably!) excited.

But, as I said, work. So no time for a leisurely setting up, just chuck in the bedding, tuckerbox, a few days’ fruit and veg, tools, work clothes. Hook up and go. Fuel up; run one trailer to Kewdale road train assembly area (near the airport a few km from the CBD); go back for a second, hook them up (pic above). It’s already late; head out of town and over the Bindoon hills. Sleep near New Norcia. Hook up a third trailer at Wubin, the northern edge of the wheatbelt, on the Great Northern Hwy, before the scrub and desert that stretch north forever. Destination Karratha, 1,500 km up the coast but 1,800 km by this inland route.

The first breakdown of my new career occurs an hour out of Wubin. The left hand steer tyre blows as I’m pulling out of a parking bay and the left side of the truck settles almost to the road. My first reaction in any breakdown is to despair, then to phone someone and share my despair, and only then to begin working on a solution. It has given me a reputation for being unmechanical – which is true – but ignores the fact that I generally get going again.

Unluckily the first 300 km out of Wubin is out of phone range – no towns, no mines – so I despair on my own. Until I see that I can jack the truck up by reaching my arms through the wheel arch and using blocks and two jacks to progressively lift the axle high enough to get the wheel off and the spare on. There are other problems, in particular the wheel nuts are too tight, but other drivers stop to help, and eventually it’s all done.

And that’s the key, “other drivers stop to help”. I’ll write a longer post one day about truck drivers and the Australian Legend, but suffice it to say for now that as long as long distance truck drivers preach and practice ‘stopping to help’ the old ways of the bush aren’t dead.

Because Dragan got me going late on Saturday, because of the time lost broken down, because my bloody airconditioner is out of gas, tonight I’m comfortably ensconced in a motel and I’ll unload in the morning.

I was going to write a ‘literary’ post about this trip, about the old towns Roebourne and Cossack that Daisy Bates came to 110 years ago and that Karratha replaced, but I’ve written about them before (here) so I’ll just mention my favourite artist, whose works of Indigenous-Impressionist grasslands I can’t afford, Marlene Harold of the Roebourne mob, Yinjaa-Barni (here). Not forgetting that tomorrow I’ll be unloading on the Burrup Penninsula, a gallery of Indigenous rock art with a history in millenia to match the Louvre and Notre Dame’s centuries, and as much significance, except in the minds of mining-mad Western Australians.

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When I pulled up tonight I was three quarters of the way through Prime Cut, a Western Australian crime fiction novel. I wouldn’t give away the ending in any case (see this very interesting Daily Review article about ‘spoilers’) so this is as good as time as any for a mini review.

I don’t know Alan Carter but I’d be surprised if he’s not an English migrant resident in WA. The story begins with a double murder in England coinciding with Sunderland’s surprise win in the 1973 FA Cup then moves to the WA south coast, Kim Scott country, in the 2000s.

The protagonist is DSC Cato Kwong, demoted to the Stock Squad (investigating stock, ie farm animal, theft) for taking short cuts in a murder investigation. He is called to Hopetoun, coastal hamlet become thriving dormitory town for the new BHP (here called Western Mining) nickel mine outside Ravensthorpe 50 km inland, where an old very ex-girlfriend Tess Maguire is sergeant in charge of a two-person station.

Her offsider is Indigenous and there is a nod to the Cocanarup Massacre and the possibility of a non-white history for Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe.

A body, or at least a torso is washed up on shore – discarded by a frenzy of sharks – and subsequently a matching head washes up as well. Meanwhile a retired ex-copper from Sunderland now living in Busselton (also south of Perth but on the west coast) becomes aware of an old murder in Adelaide almost identical to the Sunderland one and of sightings of the principal suspect in WA.

The two streams of investigation come together (inevitably), a policeman is murdered on the jetty at Hopetoun  …

If you want to know whodunnit or if Cato has it off with Tess then you’d better ask me on Weds when I’ve had some driving time to listen to the end. Though I did mean to say that the reading is for the Association for the Blind, WA and that sometimes their readings are a bit flat. However, in this case their reader, Jim Malcolm, an Australian of British extraction by the sound of him, is a natural and does a good job.

Recent audiobooks

Mark Billingham (M, Eng), Time of Death (2015)
Alan Carter (M, Aust/WA), Prime Cut, Fremantle Press, 2011 (Audio edition: Association for the Blind of WA, 2012)

Currently reading

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text, Melbourne, 2017
Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest, 2008 (translated Joel Martinsen, 2015)

 

 

 

 

Bohemia Beach, Justine Ettler

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It’s two decades since the last Justine Ettler novel. In 1995 and ’96 she published her smash hit The River Ophelia (review) – reissued last year – followed by Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review) then, nothing. If you read my interview with Justine coinciding with the re-release you might remember that she is a deliberately post-modern writer, referencing in particular Kathy Acker, and that her planned third novel which contained ‘cut-ups’ of real people was unable to be published, at least partly due to satirical renditions of the Murdochs.

The long interregnum began “because I hated being bullied and conflated with my character [‘Justine’ in TRO], I loathed my notoriety and felt the people I was dealing with didn’t really have me or my books’ best interests at heart.” (Author Interview, Justine Ettler). But she has at last resumed writing fiction and we now have her fourth (third published) novel, Bohemia Beach, due for release in May.

Ettler was famously at the heart of 1990s Australian Grunge Lit., a  categorisation repudiated by all the authors in it except maybe Linda Javin who didn’t really belong there anyway, but who took advantage of the popularity of Eat Me (1995), her work of middle class women’s erotica, to pump out the grunge-ish (and amusing) Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

Andrew McGahan (Praise) and Christos Tsiolkas (Loaded) soon moved on to more mainstream styles, as did Javin. McGahan has been all over the place, including detective fiction (Last Drinks), and a much-lauded work of Indigenous appropriation, White Earth; while Tsiolkas progressed to literary interrogations of homosexuality, being Greek-Australian, and middle class mores.

In this novel Ettler has moved on too. Sort of. Her protagonist Cathy is a thirtyish, alcoholic, concert pianist. Ettler herself is apparently an accomplished musician, a flautist, and this shows in her writing about Cathy’s music, both listening and performance. But Ettler also has a PhD in postmodern literature and that shows too. There is a brief mention of Cathy from Wuthering Heights at the beginning although I can’t really see it in the text, but the main reference is to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).

ULB’s principal characters are (alright, I cheated here, it’s a fair while since I read it): “Tomáš, an adulterous surgeon; his wife Tereza, a photographer anguished by her husband’s infidelities; Tomáš’s lover Sabina, a free-spirited artist; Franz, a Swiss university professor and lover of Sabina; and finally Šimon, Tomáš’s estranged son from an earlier marriage” (wiki), and the setting is Prague, in the Spring of 1968.

I said moved on/sort of (from Grunge) because the novel is in the first person and a good deal of Cathy’s alcohol-deadened sensibility is very grunge-like. Cathy drinks a lot, to the extent that I’m surprised it doesn’t kill her – remember when sailors on shore leave would die of alcoholic poisoning and ‘derros’ had the DTs (delirium tremens), neither seem to happen (or be reported) any more – but here she is, about to step onstage:

Ok, I admit it, I’ve had a couple of glasses – well, a bottle or so – since leaving the hotel, but I’m nowhere near pissed. Would bygones never be bygones? That damn Copenhagen concert and the damage it did to my reputation; the scandal that followed my tumble off the front of the stage at the end of the second encore, not a scheduled bow, mind you, a spontaneous one, and one I just slightly overdid, but still, when are they going to let me move on? Yes, it’s true, waking up in the American ambassador’s residence in bed with two guys I didn’t know – one in front, the other behind – was a very bad look but God, everyone makes mistakes – right?

The problem I have is that it’s all a bit forced. Ettler struggles, trying and failing to get back to the hectic flow of her early writing. Nikki Gemmell, the same age as Ettler, and whose second novel Cleave/Alice Springs (1998) could easily be characterised as ‘outback grunge’, provides a back cover blurb, ” This is a mesmerising story of art and addiction – the author at her provocative best.” But she’s being kind.

The story, not told sequentially, is that Cathy performs in Prague, her mother’s home town; becomes fascinated by an older man, Tomáš, who may or may not have known her mother, and adopting (intermittently) the name Tereza, goes with him to a party at his family castle out in the country when she should be on a flight to New York for a concert there. Tomáš alternately sleeps with her and plays up to his dancer friend Anna. Drunk, she’s raped by Franz (a kindly man apparently in Kundera’s work); makes her way back to Prague. A nice American boy sleeps with her and offers to fly her to New York –

Do you ever have that dream which begins with an objective you must achieve, and with every move you make, you’re never any closer? I do all the time. TMI I know. Then there’s the one where I’m in a railway yard and there’re trains coming and the more tracks I cross the more there are to cross. All right I’ll stop now (there’s another one where I’m falling from an enormous height towards water, and then I fall through the surface of the water and I’m at an enormous height in the sky falling …).

And so Cathy’s repeated attempts to leave Prague are derailed by drunkenness or betrayal until finally she is swept away in a flood and wakes up in a bed in London and has it all been a dream?

At which point I advise you to stop, I wish I had, it all goes a bit Mills & Boonish from there. Cathy goes through that standard falling for the good guy then the bad guy thing, when in contemporary Oz Lit you’d have hoped her choices were at least good guy/bad guy/no guy. But we’ll forgive her (Ettler) and look forward to the next, the third hopefully, written when she was still young and edgy.

 

Justine Ettler, Bohemia Beach, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2018

see also:
Author Interview, Justine Ettler (here)
Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia (review)
Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review)
Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity (review)
Nikki Gemmell, Love Song (review)

Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox, T.A.G. Hungerford

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TAG (Tom) Hungerford (1915-2011) was born in Perth, WA, fell into journalism, served in the 2nd AIF in the Pacific in WWII, and eventually, around retirement age, became a full time writer. His four novels include Sowers in the Wind (1954) which won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but “was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces.” (wiki)

Lisa at ANZLitLovers recently reviewed, and loved, his collection of autobiographical stories, Stories From Suburban Road (1983) (here) and that inspired me to see what I had on my own shelves – I have purchased a lot of pre-loved Oz Lit in bulk over the past few years and so have only a vague idea of what I own – coming up with Hungerford’s first collection of short fiction, Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox (1977) published by our own marvellous Fremantle Arts Centre Press (on which more here).

In 1990 the Fremantle Arts Centre Press (now just Fremantle Press) established the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for unpublished Western Australian writers. Previous winners include fellow blogger Nathan Hobby with The Fur (review) and Robert Edeson with The Weaver Fish (review). I see I also have the 1990 winner, Brenda Walker’s Crush so I’d better review that too.

The first story, the title story of this collection sets the tone (the period is the 1920s when Hungerford was around 10 years old) –

You mightn’t think there’d be a very strong connection between an old Chinese market gardener and a pillarbox owned by the Queen of England – but there was: a long and intimate, and in many ways a romantic one too.

Both the pillarbox and the Chinaman first knew South Perth as a rushy riverside retreat of cow paddocks and market gardens and bush, where the settlers along the river bank had their own jetties, and flat bottomed boats for travelling to and from Perth, and horses leaned thoughtfully over every second front fence along the one main road through the suburb.

South Perth is now an upmarket suburb of apartment buildings and big houses facing across Perth Water to the CBD, though there are still 1930s brick houses in the less favoured streets. I live just a few kilometres upstream in a riverside flat in a formerly working class suburb of uniform fibro boxes on sandy, quarter acre lots. But what I love most of all is the connections to my own past – to the employer who ran cows on the South Perth foreshore before the War, to the Chinese market gardeners keeping to themselves on the highway in Stawell (Vic) when I lived there in the seventies, to the horses still drawing milk floats when I was at high school in Melbourne, and my great aunt’s lovely house, a refuge for all her country rellos, with stables out the back, in Surrey Hills (Melbourne).

Eventually the pillarbox with its “VR, 1857” is gone and the market gardens, and the Chinamen too, all called “Charlie”, living in tin sheds on their lots, and Suburban Rd, now Mill Point Road, is no longer a “ribbon of red gravel” through “a double line of the loveliest trees”, though the trees are still there, where the road passes the zoo and drops down towards the freeway.

The next story is of a woman, pregnant, drinking and smoking with a neighbour, unable to understand her young daughter and particularly her determination to watch what sounds like Playschool on TV. My parents weren’t drinkers but I have plenty of mates who’d identify with these Saturday nights –

“What do you do with …?” The friend nodded in the direction of the doorway. “When you go to the club I mean?”

“Oh … wrap her up, and put her in the back seat. Duck out a couple of times, to look. She sleeps OK.”

And Sunday sessions. I remember Sunday sessions! (The Lady in the Box)

Some of the stories are straight out of the Australian Legend playbook, the mainstay of Oz Lit for a century, the lone Aussie guy in the outback with and without his mates. With variations of course. A Lithuanian reffo makes his way outback and is finally accepted into the brotherhood when he solves a problem for his tough, station foreman (The Talisman); a tough alpha male in his forties, a fishing boat skipper in a North West hamlet, is on the way down and his ‘mate’ is looking for greener pastures – or as the title implies, wishes to attach himself to another shark (Remora)

Because this is Western Australia, Aboriginals play an important part. Of course Hungerford is old fashioned, about feminism too which clearly bemuses him, but not unsympathetic. In Perth, in these stories, the Indigenous locals are in the background – ‘scarecrow “blackies” and their stick-insect children, whose tangled black hair and blazing eyes I can still see, all these long years after they have gone to their dreaming … [trudging] through the streets of the quiet riverside suburb which they used to own’ – or servant women, probably brought down from up north, who ‘would hang their heads so that their curly brown hair made a curtain before their faces.’ But in ‘The Only One who Forgot’ an Aboriginal boy is front and centre. An orphan just coming into adolescence, he befriends a little blonde girl and his (white) foster mother, out of fear of his coming sexual awareness, beats him –

She swung her open hand across his mouth, hard. The blood ran from his lips and he stood still, his fingers creeping along his jaw toward it. The woman’s eyes blazed.

“Nigger!” she cried, shrill with fear. “Damn black nigger!”

We get on to love and marriage, or sex and marriage not working out more often, but the story I enjoyed most takes a diversion to Hong Kong, after the war, when the narrator runs into the daughter of the big house on the hill above the South Perth foreshore, whom he had met when he was a ten year old accompanying his piano tuner father, and she gives him some surprising explanations for things which he had then only dimly perceived (Green Grow the Rushes).

An excellent collection, in many ways evocative of a time not quite past, not in our imaginations anyway, and to which we continue to cling.

 

T.A.G. Hungerford, Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1977. Cover image and ‘text collages’ by Robert Birch.

Elizabeth Macarthur, Michelle Scott Tucker

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Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World (2018) is Australian (Melbourne) author Michelle Scott Tucker’s first work. It doesn’t show. This is an assured account of the life of a woman whose name we all know, but who has always – till now – lived in the shadow of her husband John.

Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was born in Bridgerule, Devon where her father was an affluent farmer, in or aspiring to the lower reaches of the landed gentry, and able (and willing) to provide his daughter with a good education. She married army Ensign John Macarthur in 1788 and when, on half pay and needing to support a wife and young son, he joined the newly-formed NSW Corp as a Lieutenant, she sailed with him on the Second Fleet to Sydney Cove, the only officer’s wife to do so.

Michelle points out that Elizabeth was only 9 years older than Jane Austen and that the circumstances in which she was raised would be familiar to readers of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. I’m friends with Michelle and on reading the early chapters of her book was imprudent enough to text her, asking if she thought Elizabeth was a ‘Lydia’. “No idea,” she replied, “I don’t make stuff up”. And she doesn’t. Although her account gets along at a cracking pace, it is clearly documented at every step.

To get back to Elizabeth’s Lydia-ness though, I formed the definite impression that Elizabeth was both strong willed and besotted by John. When their first child is born it is clear marital relations had begun before the marriage, indeed it is probable Elizabeth accompanies John on an uncomfortable trip to London in late pregnancy just to be out of sight of family and villagers doing simple arithmetic; there is that lovely cameo on the front cover, so different from the responsible matron (below) she was to become; she alone of the officers’ wives accompanies her husband to what was little more than a campsite on the other side of the world; and later, although I accept she was a devoted mother, I also suspect that when John returned from his long sojourns in England, bringing with him the older children, it was John she welcomed first not the children. Well, maybe the first time anyway.

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Elizabeth Macarthur, undated, State Library of NSW

Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters home have always been an important source for writers about the early days of white settlement in NSW. We are lucky that she was a constant correspondent with her childhood friend, Bridget Kingdon, daughter of the Anglican vicar at Bridgerule, because to her she allowed herself a little more freedom in writing than she did to her mother. After Bridget’s untimely death in 1802 Elizabeth continued to write to Bridget’s younger sister, Eliza. Later, when John was forced to return to England, they exchanged letters about family and business (though Elizabeth’s to John have not survived) and we also have correspondence between Elizabeth and friends she made in the colony, notably Capt. John Piper.

Elizabeth’s story is often told in Elizabeth’s own words, using short excerpts from her letters, giving an immediacy to the writing that makes the biography flow like a novel without resort to passages of imagination, so-called ‘faction’. And we end up with not just Elizabeth’s story but a whole new perspective on the early years of the colony.

In a way I’ve had years to prepare for this review and it was my intention to have reviewed by now Watkin Tench’s two accounts of the first days of white settlement, MH Ellis’ John Macarthur (1955) and the Eleanor Dark reimagining of first contact and the early days of settlement, The Timeless Land (1941). As it happens I only got to the Tench (here, here).

Tench writes of his shock at the terrible state of the convicts on the arrival of the Second Fleet and Scott Tucker fleshes this out, as the Macarthur’s cabin on the voyage out was actually down with the women convicts. Briefly, with the Second Fleet the British government ‘privatised’ the transport of convicts and the successful tenderers and their ships captains economised on the food and conditions of especially the male convicts in order to sell the left over supplies at extortionate prices on arrival in Sydney. Of the 1017 convicts who were despatched from England 258 died, from starvation, illness, from being almost constantly in irons.

The Macarthur story is well known (to Australians). The initial farm, Elizabeth Farm, on the river at Parramatta (20 km up river from Sydney Harbour). The land grants at Cow Pastures, 20 or 30 km further out, which eventually became Camden Park. The importing of merino sheep, from South Africa and from the King’s flock in England. John’s two long absences in London (1801-05 and 1809-17), the first for a court martial and the second after he, now a civilian, led a rebellion against Governor Bligh. The slow growth of the fine wool industry to serve the mills of England and the Industrial Revolution.

Scott Tucker slowly and surely builds a lawyerly case for John’s fecklessness, right from the beginning. The rushed marriage, his constant disputes with his fellow officers, duels, risky business decisions, grand plans for the future. As he gets older he complains of frequent debilitating bouts of depression, interestingly recognised as illness by both the sufferer and Elizabeth, eventually interspersed with bursts of mania until we, and his family, recognise that he is out of control, in modern terms is bi-polar, and his sons become his guardians.

The bulk of the story concerns naturally Elizabeth’s management of the family business while John is away. He and later their older sons are valuable envoys in London, but they must be supported in style and Elizabeth must manage the flocks, the horses, the home farm and orchards, the large numbers of convict servants and farm workers, the younger children – the boys were schooled in England, keep the accounts. Above all she must improve the quality of the wool and get it off to England. She has some standing in Colony society both as a modest gentlewoman and as a relatively (though not always!) prosperous businesswoman. Scott Tucker does not think she mixed with convict and emancipist women, but on the other hand neither does she seem to have been a social climber.

There is a proper emphasis throughout the account on the Eora people who were displaced by the colonists, beginning with early friendly relations. But as the original inhabitants, and particularly the Gandagarra from the mountains enclosing the Sydney basin, begin to fight back, Elizabeth’s attitudes harden and she goes along with the retributive raids by government forces which culminate in the 1816 Appin massacre.

Right at the end Michelle allows herself a little whimsy:

Elizabeth was a real-life Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham instead of a Darcy – albeit a Wickham who loved her as much as he was able.

So no, not a Lydia.

As John became increasingly incapable of dealing with his illness, he demanded, in 1831, that Elizabeth leave him. In 1833 the family confined him to Camden Park and Elizabeth who had been living with other members of her extended family was able “to return to dear home” at Elizabeth Farm. John died in April 1834, and Elizabeth, without ever carrying out her oft expressed wish to return to Bridgerule, in February 1850.

 

Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World, Text, Melbourne, 2018

see also:
Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)

Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker

Michelle Author
Michelle Scott Tucker

Michelle Scott Tucker’s first book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is due out, in bookshops everywhere in a day or so. She has been kind enough to grant me interview while I scramble to produce a review. Meanwhile, check out Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review here.

 

Q. So first up, I think you went from school to university to the Commonwealth Public Service. At what stage did you decide to become a writer.

A. Yes, that’s right. After uni (in Melbourne) I moved to Canberra and worked in Australian government policy roles for over a decade, then moved back to Melbourne and into consulting (mainly for government clients). Essentially, I’ve always written for a living. And despite what you’ve heard about government writing, I think my various day jobs gave me a solid grounding in how to turn complex issues and ideas into readable, accessible prose. But I was in my mid-thirties before I realised that writing was always the part of my job I enjoyed most, and that writing – for its own sake – was something I wanted to pursue. And I’ve probably only been confident enough to call myself ‘a writer’ for the last year or two. Getting a publishing contract definitely helped!

 

Q. Your book is a biography of Elizabeth Macarthur, who came out to Sydney on the Second Fleet and was instrumental in establishing the wool industry here in Australia. How did you light on her as a subject? Did you intend all along to demonstrate that she had agency, that she was not just John Macarthur’s wife?

A. One of my government jobs involved (briefly) working with women farmers in outback Queensland. I was young and pretty green, and they were very kind. They explained that there was no such thing as ‘a farmer and his wife’. In reality each farming couple were both farmers, and usually part of a farm family. Although the farm work might be split along gendered lines, the women’s work was just as crucial to the financial viability of their farms as the men’s.

I studied history at uni, and speaking with those outback women made me wonder why farm women seemed to be missing from the Australian historical narrative. So I started doing some basic research, stumbled across Elizabeth Macarthur’s story and found it absolutely compelling – there was so much going on! So yes, I definitely and deliberately set out to demonstrate that she was far more than just someone’s wife.

 

Q. Some time ago I saw a piece in which you imagined from Elizabeth’s point of view the birth and death of (I think) Elizabeth and John’s first second child, while they were still at sea on the way here. Did you ever consider writing this whole work as Historical Fiction? And in the context of this question, how much have you looked into the theory side of modern biographical writing – the mixing in various proportions of documented fact, disputed facts, speculation, authorial research, fiction to cover the gaps and so on.

A. The book opens at sea aboard a convict ship, on a stormy Southern Ocean, with Elizabeth Macarthur giving birth prematurely. No part of the scene is imagined, or fictionalised. The historical record is clear about the premature birth of the baby girl, and her subsequent death, about the ship, about the storms, and even about Elizabeth’s prayers. We know nothing about Elizabeth’s subsequent grief, and I say so.

Nor is any other part of the book fictionalised or imagined, and although occasionally I provide commentary, or speculate about something, it’s clearly flagged as commentary or speculation. If there are disputes or gaps in the historical record (and there are always gaps) I flag them too, and leave the reader to decide. Essentially, I abide by the code that historian Clare Wright calls ‘not making shit up, ever’. In the book, I’ve selected words very carefully so that every sentence is as accurate as possible. But, that said, I do use all the narrative tools associated with fiction to ensure that I present the facts in a compelling, interesting and accessible way. As a result, I seem to have written a history book that reads like a novel.

I do love reading books and articles about writing and especially about writing biography. I also enjoy reading lots of different kinds of biographies, including those that describe the author’s research process. But I’m really not a fan of including fictionalised scenes in non-fiction narratives. It’s distracting, and rarely adds to my understanding of the subject. If I want the fictionalised version, I’d rather read a historical novel (and I do read lots of those, too). For myself, I wasn’t ever tempted to go down the historical fiction route, not when the real story was so interesting anyway.

 

Q. We your loyal followers have been following the progress of Elizabeth Macarthur for years now on your blog Adventures in Biography. On 4 Jan 2015 you wrote, “I aim to spend 20 minutes every day working on my Elizabeth Macarthur biography.  And slightly less time in my hammock swing …” How did that work out? How long had you already been writing by then. And how long before that had you been thinking about writing?

A. Like all my New Year resolutions, that ’20 minutes a day’ one lasted less than five minutes. Although probably slightly longer than the ‘do more exercise’ or ‘be a nicer person’ resolutions. I have a family, a job, and plenty of things on. I write when I can, in the cracks of my life, so to speak. I started working on the book when my children were tiny, so the actual start date is lost in the baby-haze, but maybe about 12 years ago? I’d do some research, do some writing, do some more research. Some years I didn’t write more than a chapter. But in 2016, once I had a contract, and therefore a deadline, I started writing a whole lot more.

 

Q. When you told me that you had started a blog, in June 2014, I of course started reading it – the first blog I ever read – and also the blogs that you followed. They were/are a fascinating mix of literature, history, and biography and I have followed much the same blogs ever since. I am sure your interaction with these bloggers has been both enjoyable and informative, and we have loved sharing in the progress of your work. What would you say as a writer about being a blogger, that is, does the interaction contribute to your writing, or your thinking?

A. Starting a blog, and being part of that online community of bloggers, has made a huge contribution to my writing – and thinking.

Before becoming a blogger myself, I came across ANZLitLovers and vividly remember nervously posting a comment for the first time. Lisa, the blogger behind ANZLitLovers, was immediately welcoming and supportive and that motivated me to keep exploring the literary blogosphere. It’s a terrific place to learn about and discuss Australian (and other) books.

Through my own blog I’ve made contact with some really lovely people, and their encouragement really did mean (and still means) a great deal to me. We’re friends now, and I occasionally see some of them offline too. A few were directly helpful, for example: Dr Marion Diamond (Historians are Past Caring) generously pointed me towards relevant research information that I’d have never found on my own; and Bernice Barry, a published biographer, shared some incredibly useful insights about what to expect from the publishing process. Twitter and Facebook, in their different ways, have also provided me with useful and interesting connections.

 

Q. If starting writing was the first big step forward, was your acceptance into the Hard Copy programme the next big step? The perspective from the outside was that it of course gave you confidence and practical ideas but there also appeared to be quite a bit of ongoing fellowship and support.

A. My first big step was the culmination of lots of smaller steps. I entered small competitions and didn’t win. I submitted pieces to literary magazines and received lots of rejections. I applied for a fellowship and was shortlisted (the Hazel Rowley). Then I applied for a residential fellowship (to Varuna) and was accepted. Each step drew on what I’d learned from the step before.

Acceptance into the ACT Writers Centre 2015 HardCopy program was a terrific next step; I learnt a huge amount that year and, as you say, gained a valuable friendship group of other non-fiction writers. But the big break was meeting with (and getting incredibly positive feedback from) publishers and agents at the end of the program. During that process the woman who became my agent, Jacinta di Mase, offered to represent me. That was the real break – scoring a top-class agent. Thanks to her efforts, I subsequently received generous offers from seven different publishers for my unfinished manuscript. That’s when it all started to feel real, and I really did start to think of myself as a writer. That feeling also made it easier to carve out more time for writing.

 

Q. Finally, your blog is often overtly feminist, for instance in addressing the inequality of opportunity for women writers compared to men. Would you say that Elizabeth Macarthur is informed by feminism? Or that it is consciously part of a feminist project to redress the balance of male and female stories in histories?

A. Yes, Elizabeth Macarthur is definitely informed by feminism and yes, it is an attempt to redress the balance. The Australian historical narrative is full of white men working (mining, exploring, soldiering, etc).  The Australian historical narrative is also full of white men failing (and there’s perhaps a PhD thesis in this for someone). Bourke and Wills: fail. Ned Kelly: didn’t end well. Even the Gallipoli campaign – the men themselves may have been heroes but it seems to be that not every Australian realises we actually lost that battle.

Elizabeth Macarthur was an interesting, intelligent successful woman who played a crucial role in Australia’s colonial history. Hers is not a household name – but it ought to be. And it’s a bit sad, really, that merely writing about a female historical figure remains a feminist act, but it’s true.

 

Thank you Michelle. I should have my review of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World up early next week (here).

Michelle’s website (here) includes a link to her blog and dates for author talks/book signings (under News & Events).