Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee

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J.M. Coetzee – the initials stand for John Maxwell, I had to look that up – was born in South Africa in 1940 and there he made his name as a novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. A year earlier he had migrated to Australia and has since become a citizen. We are blessed to have him.

His eighth novel Disgrace (1999) would seem to mark the end of his South African ‘period’. Since arriving in Australia Coetzee has written five more novels, of which Diary of a Bad Year (2007) is the third. In his introduction to the Text Classics edition (2012) Peter Goldsworthy writes of Coetzee that “each of his novels seems almost wilfully different from its predecessors.”

Diary is certainly “wilfully different”. It is written in three voices. The first, which occupies the top two thirds or so of each page is a series of opinions, varying in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages. The second is separated from the first by a horizontal line across the page and is the voice of an ageing author, living in an apartment tower in Sydney. The third, likewise separated from the second by a horizontal line, is the voice of his typist, the sexy Anya.

I read, and I will say right here, and enjoyed, the novel more or less as it appeared on the page. So, I would read the opinion piece until I reached a convenient stopping point on the following page. Then I would read the ageing author’s and then Anya’s sections, often, because they were shorter, a couple of pages at a time.

The novel is further divided, beginning with ‘Strong Opinions, 12 September 2005 – 31 May 2006’ with pieces from ’01. On the origins of the State’ to ’31. On the Afterlife’; and then a second section ‘Second Diary’ with softer opinions from ’01. A Dream’ to ’24. On Dostoyevsky’.


When I was young and politically active it was common to engage in debates about peoples, nations, governments and states, the distinctions between which are deliberately obscured in these days of government-induced anti-terrorist hysteria. As always, the class in control of the state apparatus must have an ‘other’ whom we the people are made to fear in order to justify their tightening hold on the levers of power. Coetzee in his first opinion discusses our complicity, but also what he regards as our helplessness, in living (and dying) within the bounds of the state, and cites the film The Seven Samurai as an example of people choosing to be ruled in return for being protected.

The Kurosawan story of the origin of the state is still played out in our times in Africa, where gangs of armed men grab power … Though these African military gangs are often no larger or more powerful than the organized criminal gangs of Asia or eastern Europe, their activities are respectfully covered in the media … under the heading of politics (world affairs) rather than crime.

The second opinion ‘On Anarchism’ begins well but ends in pessimism. We may choose Servitude or Revolt, but there is a third way “chosen by millions and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism …”

And so we go on, from the general to the particular, discussing today’s ‘other’, Islamist terrorists, and how our quietism makes us complicit in the horrors which our governments perpetrate ‘on our behalf’.

Coetzee writes both as an Australian: “The Australian government … has been the most abject of the so-called Coalition of the Willing, and has even been prepared to suffer with no more than a tight little smile the humiliation of getting nothing in return.” And as a (former) South African: “The generation of white South Africans to which I belong, and the next generation, and perhaps the generation after that too, will go bowed under the shame of the crimes that were committed in their name.” And so will we, under the crimes, the indefinite imprisonment of non-white refugees, the war in Iraq, that are being committed in our names.

The opinions drift on to other matters, finally pitching up against God and the afterlife where I am less comfortable, and so on to the second section where they become more or less his random thoughts on life and literature, but well worth reading for all that.


The ageing author while doing his washing in the common laundry room runs into a pretty Filipina and attempts to engage her in conversation. Her name is Anya. She lives in a penthouse apartment with Alan, an accountant/financier. She is about 25 and she has a nice arse. After a while he offers her well over the odds to type up his work for him – a series of pieces for a book with contributions from six notable authors, to be published in Germany, entitled Strong Opinions.

He writes, “The passions and prejudices out of which my opinions grew were laid down long before I first set eyes on Anya, and were by now so strong – that is to say, so settled, so rigid – that aside from the odd word here and there there was no chance that refraction through her gaze could alter their angle.” But it does.


Then, 20 pages in, we start getting Anya’s thoughts too. Though as the ageing author – mostly referred to by Anya as Senor C and later, by Alan, as Juan, under a misapprehension that he is Colombian – reports what Anya says, and as Anya reports what Alan says, it is easy to lose track of whose opinion it is that we are reading.

Anya is bored by the political pieces and encourages the ageing author to write on other subjects, the books he reads and the birds he watches in the park. We think that she is keeping her distance, but later we learn that she is always aware of her power as an object of desire and subtly encourages the author to think that way about her, and right at the end we learn what genuine affection she has for him.

For a while this part of the novel is dominated by Alan’s schemes to steal the author’s considerable wealth, but after a drunken dinner à trois, this all comes to nought and Anya leaves him and moves up north to live with her mother.


Coetzee is obviously an important world writer, but he is also an important Australian writer. He writes yes that life goes on, but also that all the while our government is shaming us, and we would do well to heed him.

 

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, first pub. 2007. This edition Text Classics, 2012

see also:

Sue at Whispering Gums approaches from a different angle altogether (here)
Kim at Reading Matters says “a great read if you’re looking for something meaty and clever” (here)

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1788 (2), Watkin Tench

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1788 (1996) is a book in three parts: I reviewed previously the first two, Tim Flannery’s, The Extraordinary Watkin Tench,  and Tench’s account of the voyage out (here). Herewith a review of Tench’s –

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: According to this web site for visitors, “the Eora, Cadigal, Guringai, Wangal, Gammeraigal and Wallumedegal people … were the original inhabitants of Sydney’s harbour foreshore.” Governor Phillip had hoped that his new settlement and the local Aboriginals would live side by side, though I think he was planning on the Aboriginals doing most of the compromising. Tench writes early on:

With the natives we were very little more acquainted than on our arrival in the country. Our intercourse with them was neither frequent or cordial. They seemed studiously to avoid us, either from fear, jealousy or hatred… I was inclined to attribute this conduct to a spirit of malignant levity. But a further acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity … has entirely reversed my opinion and led me to conclude that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them by unprincipled individuals among us caused the evils we had experienced.

At the end of 1788 with the locals showing signs of armed resistance Phillip determined to capture some both as hostages and hopefully to provide a link between the white and black communities. In the event, they captured one man, naming him ‘Manly’ as it was some time before he allowed his captors to call him by his Aboriginal name Arabanoo. He was taken to tell his people what had happened to him but that did not result in any further contact.

In March 1789 a party of convicts left their work and attacked some Aboriginals at Botany Bay. They were repulsed, one convict was killed and a number were severely wounded. Arabanoo witnessed the flogging of the survivors, unhappily despite understanding its cause, and the later hanging of six marines for the theft of stores.

In April and May the bodies of Aboriginals were found who had obviously died of smallpox. This mystifies Tench as the last smallpox case amongst the whites had been 18 months earlier in South Africa. Some sufferers come into the settlement to be nursed, a couple of the younger ones survive and are fostered. The dead are interred by Arabanoo who is infected in turn and dies on 18 May.

His fidelity and gratitude, particularly to his friend the governor, were constant and undeviating and deserve to be recorded. Although of a gentle and placable temper, we early discovered that he was impatient of indignity and allowed of no superiority on our part. He knew that he was in our power, but the independence of his  mind never forsook him.

At this time an inlet between the cliffs of Broken Bay (in the northern part of the maps below) is discovered to be the mouth of a freshwater river which they name Hawkesbury, and farming is commenced on its banks, at Richmond Hill. The locals, bearing signs of smallpox, “showed every sign of welcome and friendship.” Tench who has his own small outpost at Rose Hill, upstream from Sydney Harbour was inspired to conduct his own explorations inland, towards the Blue Mountains. On the second day “we found ourselves on the banks of a river nearly as broad as the Thames at Putney”. It was given the name Nepean though as they later discovered, it is actually an upstream extension of the Hawkesbury.

Traces of the natives appeared at every step; sometimes in their hunting huts …; sometimes in marks on trees …; or in squirrel traps; or … in decoys for the purpose of ensnaring birds.

By the end of 1789 supplies of food were running out and thievery had become rife. Our first ‘police force’ consisted of 12 night watchmen selected from the most reliable of the convicts. Access to the locals’ knowledge of resources becoming daily more desirable, two more men were captured, Baneelon (Benelong) and Colbee, who soon escaped.

[Baneelon’s] powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity. He acquired knowledge, both of our manners and language, faster than his predecessor had done. He willingly communicated information, sang, danced and capered, told us all the customs of his country and all the details of his family economy.

By mid 1790 the food (and clothing) situation was getting desperate. The salt pork and rice was now three years old and crawling. Rations were reduced. Baneelon couldn’t stand it and took off. More than 200 convicts and marines were offloaded to Norfolk Island (where they could presumably live off the land) but there, the colony’s larger ship, Sirius, was lost leaving them only with the little Supply. Finally, the Second Fleet began to dribble in, first the Juliana with a cargo of convict women, then the Justinian carrying supplies, then three more ships with convicts. Tench is (rightly) indignant as the death rate, approaching 40%, amongst convicts this time was almost entirely due to private contractors withholding rations, some of which they were able to sell at enormous prices on arrival.

Baneelon was later discovered, though not recaptured, with Colbee and a large number of their fellows at Manly beach, cutting up and eating a whale carcass. He expressed a wish to speak to the governor, who came a day or so later. For his trouble Phillip copped a spear in the shoulder, apparently from a man from a tribe further north.

Soon after, the colonists began a more regular intercourse with Baneelon in particular and with the locals in general. Baneelon introduced them to his wife, Barangaroo, and with a number of other men visited the settlement, no longer fearing that he would be detained.

In November 1790 the Supply returned from Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies) with fresh supplies having completed the first circumnavigation of the continent (then New Holland, now Australia). Tench reports that attempts at cultivation in Sydney have been abandoned,  and that “necessary public buildings advance fast”. At Rose Hill, 200 acres have been cleared of which about 90 are given over to crops of wheat, barley, maize etc. They have fowls and hogs, but no cows or sheep.

With the natives we are now hand and glove. They throng the camp every day, and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome.

James Ruse, a former convict turned farmer reports, “The greatest check on me is the dishonesty of the convicts who, in spite of all my vigilance, rob me almost every night.”

A “brick house of twelve feet square” was built for Baneelon at a site chosen by him (Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House). There is an episode at the house where Baneelon attempts to cut off the head of a young Botany Bay woman he has taken prisoner. He is subdued and the woman is hospitalized but it is two days before his rage subsides. Tench remarks he saw no other instance of hostages being sacrificed.

In December a sergeant who was greatly disliked by the locals is speared and dies. He is the seventeenth colonist to die in this way and the Governor dispatches Tench with 50 men to exact retribution from the Bideegal people on Botany Bay. Phillip initially asked for ten men to be killed, though on Tench’s suggestion this was watered down to two to be hung and six to be sent to Norfolk Island. In the event, Tench’s party was bogged down in the swamps around the bay and no one was taken.

At about the same time a party of convicts including a woman (Mary Bryant, not named by Tench) seize the governor’s cutter and succeed in making their way up the coast and around the top of Australia to Timor. The Dutch there send them on to London but they are only required to see out the one or two years remaining on their sentences before being released.

Tench points out that the white convicts working in Sydney often put up with much hotter conditions than those prevailing in the West Indies and that the arguments of apologists for slavery are nonsense. ” Shall I again be told that the sufferings of the wretched Africans are indispensable for the culture of our sugar colonies; that white men are incapable of sustaining the heat of the climate!”

The greater part of this account is about relations between the colonists and the locals. Every effort is made to call each person they meet by his or her proper name and as many other words as possible are learned and recorded; even Rose Hill is in 1791 given its local name, Parramatta. Where convicts are caught stealing from Aborigines they are flogged, a process which incidentally the Aborigines did not enjoy having to observe.

Tench is a good writer and has a wry humour, as when, discussing a desolate lookout point in the bush, he writes “His Excellency was pleased to give [it] the name Tench’s Prospect Mount.” Or when he notes of 20 convicts who set out to walk overland to China. “I trust no man would feel more reluctant than myself to cast an illiberal national reflection… But … all these people were Irish.” Prior to his departure at the end of 1791 he makes a tour of all the farms around Rose Hill/Parramatta, which are producing tobacco and grapes as well as grain. Then of Sydney he writes, “This place had long been considered only as a depot for stores. It exhibited nothing but a few old scattered huts and some sterile gardens.” There is absolutely no reason for this account not to be more widely read.

 

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Tench’s map of the Port Jackson area, 1793
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Sydney today

 

Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996

see also:

The Resident Judge on Grace Karskens’ The Colony (here).

1788, Watkin Tench

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Watkin Tench, artist unknown

The Extraordinary Watkin Tench: Early in 1787 the First Fleet, eleven ships containing over 1,000 men, women and children, gathered off the coast of England for the voyage to Australia. 1788 is a reissue of Watkin Tench’s published writings on the voyage and subsequent settlement, edited and introduced by Tim Flannery.

According to Flannery, publishers wanting first-hand accounts “flocked to sign up the principals of the venture”. Tench, only a captain in the Marines, was almost an afterthought, but his A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay was the first out, in April 1789 – and probably the most readable. His A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson followed in 1793.

Tench was born in 1758 or ’59, in Chester where his parents ran a dancing academy and boarding school. He entered the marine corps (soldiers attached to the Royal Navy) at age 16 and saw immediate service in the American War of Independence where he was for three months a prisoner of war. After the war he was on half pay which may be why he signed up for a three year tour with the First Fleet and the new settlement. He subsequently returned to England, married, and died in Devonport on 7 May 1833.

Of utmost importance is Tench’s relations with the Indigenous people of the Sydney area. He learned their language, although he did not leave behind a dictionary or grammar as far as I can see, and was “a friend and confidante of the Aborigines who attached themselves to the settlement”.

The following accounts are familiar because so often relied on to form the bases of our histories and historical fictions, notably Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land. But they are also well worth reading in their own right.

A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: Tench begins

The marines and convicts having been previously embarked in the river at Portsmouth and Plymouth, the whole fleet destined for the expedition rendezvoused at the Mother Bank on the 16th of March 1787 and remained there until the 13th of May following.

Eight weeks doing nothing with 759 convicts, the men in leg irons, confined below deck. “Few complaints or lamentations were to be heard among them”. Eventually, finally, Governor Phillip comes on board and they set off.

The number of convicts was 565 men, 192 women, and eighteen children. The major part of the prisoners were mechanics and husbandmen, selected on purpose by order of government.

Crossing the Atlantic, they called first at Tenerife, then at Rio de Janeiro where they were well looked after, Governor Phillip having been “for many years a captain in their navy, and commanded a ship of war on this station.” We learn that Brazil had only just started growing its own coffee, having previously had to import it from Portugal; and that although their principal crop was sugar, their rum was less than palatable.

James Cook had written (in 1773) that the women would indicate their availability by throwing flowers at the visitors’ feet. Tench regrets that this appeared to be no longer the case:

We were so deplorably unfortunate as to walk every evening before their windows and balconies without being honoured with a single bouquet, though nymphs and flowers were in equal and great abundance.

In many ways this is a ‘Lonely Planet’ account, Tench telling his readers where they might stay, what there is to see, and what currency to use.

Next, and final, stop is Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. They top up their stores – enough for two years – and

on the 12th of November [1787] we weighed anchor and soon left far behind every scene of civilisation and humanised manners to explore a remote and barbarous land and plant in it those happy arts which alone constitute the pre-eminence and dignity of other countries.

Sailing eastward across the Indian Ocean at around 40º of latitude, they sight the southern tip of “Van Diemen” on 7th January 1788 then loop out into the Tasman Sea, not sighting land again until “the 19th at only the distance of seventeen leagues [95 km] from our desired port”. By the morning of the 20th the whole fleet had cast anchor in Botany Bay. Only one marine and 24 convicts had perished en route.

Phillip in the Supply had arrived two days earlier. He found “the natives tolerably numerous” on the south shore “shouting and making many uncouth signs and gestures” so he landed a boat on the north shore where there were only six men “in order to take possession of his new territory and bring about an intercourse between its new and old masters.”

An interview commenced, in which the conduct of both parties pleased each other so much that the strangers returned to their ships with a much better opinion of the natives than they had landed with; and the latter seemed highly entertained with their new acquaintance …”

Botany Bay is too open and lacks potable water but before they can move to  neighbouring Port Jackson two more ships arrive, totally unexpectedly, under the command of the French Captain, la Perouse. The French stay some weeks anchored in Botany Bay and relations are amicable.

On 26th January 1788 the fleet moved from Botany Bay and settlement was commenced at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). “Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business … it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form until 7th of February” when the military and convicts assembled to hear His Majesty’s commission read, establishing the territory of New South Wales.

Relations between Aborigines and the British are mostly cordial but remote. Tench believes that contrary to Cook’s reports, “That celebrated navigator, we were willing to believe had somehow by his conduct offended them, which prevented the intercourse that would otherwise have taken place.” The following year Cook “offended” some Hawaiians and was killed.

Over the course of 1778, ships depart, the supply ships for China to load tea, others back to England, and a subsidiary settlement is commenced on Norfolk Island. The soldiers and convicts build huts to house themselves; courts are established and convicts are flogged and in a few cases executed; 17 whites are killed or seriously wounded by Aborigines. Existing food supplies are supplemented with fish (not plentiful) and kangaroo. Interestingly ‘kangaroo’ was a word unknown to the locals and they thought that the whites who used it meant any large animal.

This first account ends on the 1st of October with the Sirius set to return to England “by which conveyance the opportunity of writing to you is afforded to me.”

 

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Tench’s map of the Port Jackson area, 1793
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Sydney today

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: I have already written too much and Tench too apologises for adding to the already (in 1793) considerable literature on the founding of New South Wales. I’ll be as brief as I can, but urge you to read this for yourselves.

No, on further consideration, I have already said less about first contact than I had planned, so I’ll put up a proper review of A Complete Account in a couple of weeks.

 

Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996

see also:

The Resident Judge on ‘the Foundational Orgy’ of 6 Feb, 1788 (here), and on Grace Karskens’ The Colony (here).

 

The Spare Room, Helen Garner

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The Spare Room is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this book and real people, living or dead, is coincidental.” Except of course that this is an almost journalistic account of Helen Garner’s nursing of her friend, Jenya Osborne (Wiki), Nicola in this ‘novel’, who is dying of cancer.

Peter Carey, for the back cover blurb, calls this “A PERFECT NOVEL, imbued with all Garner’s usual clear-eyed grace …”. But Robert Dessaix writes in his review, “[Garner’s works] are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. ”

Let Garner have the last word, “She doesn’t want to define fiction, and the notion that it should be entirely made up is, of course, absurd.” [Interview in The Age, 29 Mar. 2008]

Garner, and her protagonist ‘Helen’, were about 60 when The Spare Room was written, living in an inner-northern Melbourne suburb within walking distance of the Broadmeadows train line, with her daughter’s family next door, when she accepted a request from an old friend, Nicola, to stay for three weeks while she underwent a course of ‘alternative’ therapy for her terminal cancer.

Before Nicola arrives Helen discusses her with her therapist friend, Leo:

‘You work with cancer patients,’ I said. ‘Does this sound bad?’
He shrugged. ‘Pretty bad. Stage four.’
‘How many stages are there?’
‘Four’
[…]
‘Maybe that’s why she’s coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the one.’
‘What one?’
‘The one to tell her she’s going to die.’

In Sydney, Nicola, an old hippy, has a house on the northern beaches accessible only by dinghy and a long clamber up from the beach. This involves an effort which for some time she has been too weak to make and so she has been staying with her niece and the niece’s boyfriend, Iris and Gab, in their one-bedroom flat closer to the city. Unbeknownst to Nicola, Helen and Iris have been discussing her via email.

The treatment that Nicola has chosen involves injections of huge doses of Vitamin C which incapacitate her and leave her in tremendous pain, which she attempts to deal with, initially at least, with aspirin, though Helen quickly gets her to a real doctor and a prescription for proper pain killers.

Garner’s writing is spare and to the point. For three weeks she takes us through the day to day struggle of getting Nicola to appointments; of edging her back to conventional medicine; of the sleepless nights spent removing and replacing bedding soaked with night sweats; Helen’s own life and work, even her relationship with her granddaughter, on hold for the duration.

The heart of this story is not the failure of alternative therapy; not the huge workload imposed on Helen, the long nights, the hours spent ferrying Nicola to and from appointments; nor even Nicola’s refusal to give up on alternative therapy in the face of all evidence to the contrary; but of Helen dealing with her anger – her anger with the venal and incompetent alternative therapists, with Nicola’s rictus of a smile in denial of her punishing pain, but most of all, with Nicola’s refusal to face up to her impending death.

Yet through it all, Helen maintains her love for Nicola and remains committed to caring for her for the whole three weeks. I don’t think Helen is ever angry at Nicola for asking this of her and I certainly don’t think she begins to hate her, although this was the impression I retained from listening to all those Radio National discussions of The Spare Room back in 2008.

Iris and Gab come for a short stay and they encourage Helen to confront Nicola with her anger:

The last of my self-control gave way.
‘Get that grin off your face. Get it off, or I’ll wipe it off for you.’
It faded of its own accord. She took two steps backwards, gaping at me. ‘Why are you so angry?’
‘This house is full of anger! Can’t you feel it? The rooms are stuffed with it. And a lot of it’s got to be yours.’
[…]
‘Everyone’s angry, everyone’s scared,’ I shouted. ‘You’re angry and scared. But you won’t admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade, so you dump your shit on me. I’m sick with it. I can’t breathe.’

Nicola gets a new diagnosis which means an operation and then recuperation in Melbourne but Helen cannot face even one more day beyond the 21 requested. In a final chapter Garner fills us in on Nicola’s final weeks – she has the operation and recuperates in the Windsor Hotel (a fine old hotel and a Melbourne icon) with carers flown down from Sydney, then Helen flies to Sydney to join the women in Iris’s apartment seeing Nicola through to the end.

As seemingly with all Garner’s work, this is a story about Garner, about Garner’s reaction to the stress of having sole care of a dying, loved friend. We know this is the third time she has had to do this, first for her sister, then her mother, so perhaps its about her reaction to them dying too, despite her care for them. Garner’s utter honesty about her own reactions make The Spare Room unputdownable.

 

Helen Garner, The Spare Room, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

Robert Dessaix’s review in The Monthly (here)
Jason Steger, The Age, Melbourne, 29 Mar 2008, Interview: It’s fiction and that’s a fact, (here)

Michelle at Adventures in Biography is a Garner fan and has posts on Garner’s This House of Grief (here and here)
Sue at Whispering Gums must be a fan too. A list of her Garner posts (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers is not a fan but she has reviewed The Spare Room (here)
My review of Garner’s essay collection The Feel of Steel (here)

An Australian Trump

Donald Trump
photo released by US Embassy, Venezuela (here)

This is, or is meant to be, a blog about representations of Australianness, so I was intrigued to see in yesterday morning’s (Mon 28 Aug. 17) Crikey roundup:

Why Germany will never have a Trump (Der Spiegel): “Who could emerge as a German Trump? There are no men like him in the German political world, nor are they prevalent in other areas of German life either. This aggressive, primitive archetype is no longer accepted here. The American masculinity myth stretches back to the cowboy, while the German equivalent is rooted in the soldier — and the latter died in World War II.”

Like the American cowboy, the Australian Legend has its roots in the myth of the Noble Frontiersman – a simple, honest man living in and conquering nature – while I guess the author is saying that the German equivalent is derived from the ideal Prussian officer. But what is the connection between “masculinity myths” and elections? And are we as equally likely as the Americans to elect a Trump?

Here is the central question of the essay: “Why does the U.S. — the political, moral and military leader of the Western world since the end of World War II — now have a dangerous laughing stock, a man who has isolated his country, as its president? Why does Germany, a former pariah, now enjoy a more positive political standing than ever before?”

The author’s thesis is that since Hitler and since the Holocaust, Germans have been frightened by what they were capable of, and have made a conscious effort to be both moral and conservative – ie. slow to change.

In the U.S., the individual may prevail, but in German politics it is the system that rules. This means that the circumstances in Washington change more starkly depending on who is in office. The governing system in Germany is more stable, uniform and enduring.

Before Trump, America and Germany both had mostly centre-right governments and were both run by competent career politicians. However, though the author doesn’t say so, Trump did have precursors in Ronald Regan and George W Bush. Regan was best known for being an actor and Dubya was a cipher. Both were fronts for competent, if seriously right wing cabinets. (It is my theory that much of the present incivility in politics arises from right wing anger at and retaliation for the general derision that Dubya attracted). The Der Spiegel essay attempts to analyse what it is about America that made Trump possible, and I will attempt to do the same for Australia.

Dreams: In Hollywood anything is possible and Regan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Trump himself, best known to Americans as a reality tv star, demonstrate that there is only a low bar to crossing over into ‘real life’. Germans take themselves more seriously.

Salvation: Right back to the Mayflower Americans have believed that the One will come, to save them. Hitler makes this belief impossible for modern Germans.

Freaks: The US primaries offer aspiring politicians the chance to appeal direct to the public; an opportunity that does not exist to the same extent in the party systems of Germany and Australia.

Media: There is no German equivalent to Fox News, not even the right wing Axel Springer Group which is constrained by its constitution. Australia’s nearest equivalent is the poorly watched Sky TV and the (Murdoch owned) tabloid newspapers. This difference may decline in importance as consumers follow more targeted news sources on the internet.

Business: Germans see themselves as engineers, Americans as entrepreneurs. Trump the property speculator would not be so admired in Germany. In Australia? – I give you Alan Bond.

Change: The US four year cycle offers opportunities for radical discontinuities in policy. Germans prize continuity. The Australian system, which is much closer to the German than the US, nevertheless has the American tendency for severe directional changes, eg. from Whitlam to Fraser or from Rudd to Abbott, which implies that the difference is cultural rather than systemic.

Class: Germany does not have the enormous divide between liberal, educated, metropolitan elites and the red-necks of the mid-west and the south which characterises the US. Red necks have more opportunities to influence policy in America (and Australia) than they do in Germany. The author does not discuss the significant underclasses in both countries.

Egotism: America believes that it has a duty to lead the world. Americans react inconsistently when their leadership is challenged. Germany also has a leadership role, but its history leads it to work through consensus.

Morality: Americans are moralistic but Germans are moral, arising of course out of their guilt for the Holocaust, and demonstrated most recently in their enormous intake of refugees.

Dynamism: The Americans have a huge appetite for reinvention which the Germans lack and which the author regrets: “our nation of splendorous boredom isn’t particularly well-equipped for the future.”

This is an interesting essay. The author investigates how the way Americans and Germans see themselves influences the sort of government they choose, though without really addressing the issue of cowboys vs (ex-) soldiers. As for Australia – I would say our stolid, suburban middle classes have far more influence than any image of ourselves as independent, larrikin bushmen, and that the outliers – Latham, Abbott – thrown up from time to time by our party system are evidence of the influence of extremists within the factions, rather than of weirdness in the electorate.

So, are we as equally likely as the Americans to elect a Trump? Of course the answer is Yes. Leaving aside Pauline Hanson who is only a minor irritant despite often being mentioned in this context, and taking into account the differences in our political systems, there is no doubt that the 2013 election of a leadership team headed by Tony Abbott and containing Barnaby Joyce, Joe Hockey, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Kevin Andrews, George Brandis … contained all the elements – narcissism, clownishness and incompetence – to qualify.

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photo Independent Australia (here)

Dirk Kurbjuweit, A Tale of Two Countries: Why there won’t be a German Trump, Der Spiegel Online, 23 Aug. 2017

The World Today, ABC, Mon. 28 Aug. 2017, contained an interview with the editor of Der Spiegel re this essay (here)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Blastus of Bandicoot, Miles Franklin

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Miles Franklin was a fine literary stylist as the opening lines to Old Blastus attest:

It was in those days, so lately fled, when horseless carriages were a curiosity beyond the seaboard. Some young bloods had made the journey from Sydney to Melbourne in one as the most enterprising adventure at command following the picturesque performances of the Boer War, and had thereby rendered themselves as glamorous as minor fighter pilots of later years.

However, by 1931 when Old Blastus of Bandicoot came out Franklin was 52 and only just beginning to achieve critical success, as Brent of Bin Bin, after decades in the wilderness. Commercial success was something else, as these were Depression years and in any case British publishers paid a discounted rate for sales in Australia (Franklin’s publisher was Blackwoods of Edinburgh). Old Blastus, the first novel to be published under Franklin’s own name since Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), arose out of one of her many unsuccessful attempts to write and have staged a play in London in the years after the War, and is dedicated “to Annie, May, Leslie, Ethel & Ruby who first heard this story in its original dramatic form”.

Shockingly, my 1945 Australian Pocket Library edition is ‘by Miles Franklin, Author of “Bring the Monkey”, “All that Swagger”, “Joseph Furphy” etc., etc’. No mention of the famous My Brilliant Career! Franklin was prominent in the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Jill Roe writes, “FAW plans to ensure the survival and development of Australian literature when the war [WWII] was over took several forms” including the Australian Pocket Library which had print runs of 25,000 “an astonishing figure”. There is more (here) in this 1946 essay from the University of Toronto Quarterly:

The Commonwealth Literary Fund, since 1908 an active force in furthering the cause of Australian culture, aided by an annual government grant of about $15,000, agreed to underwrite the reprinting of standard, out-of print books, in cheap editions, in order to alleviate the book famine. Arrangements were made with publishers, an Advisory Board selected twenty three initial titles, and in 1944 the first of the reprints began to appear.

The book famine was the result of paper shortages during the War. Other FAW authors to have books published in this series included M. Barnard Eldershaw (The Glass House), and Frank Dalby Davidson (Man Shy).

Despite the silly title – and Franklin’s neologisms while they sometimes add colour, more often act to prevent her writing being taken seriously – Old Blastus is an interesting and often amusing account of farm life in Franklin home territory, the plains south of Goulburn, NSW now home to Canberra, in the first decade of the C20th.

Interestingly, to describe the country she re-uses a phrase from Ten Creeks Run: “Over the nearer rolling widths the spire of Canberra church came to view in its Plain, and Mount Ainslie”, rendering it this time as: “all the way across the rolling treeless plain guarded by its lone English spire, till leaving the shouldered masses of Black Mountain and Ainslie …” And she’s still fussed about her young heroines kissing: “‘Oh, people don’t kiss unless they’re engaged or something deadly,’ laughed Dora, her light words disguising her fluttering pulses.”

The story begins with Old Blastus, William Barry, upset that one of his neighbours has brought back the district’s first automobile after a visit to Sydney. “Nothing had so titillated the neighbourhood since Mabel Barry ‘went wrong'” which is a clue to the reveal at the end. Mabel is Barry’s oldest daughter. She was “thirty-seven and looked forty-five, and thought of nothing but work”. Dora, the Miles Franklin figure, is the younger daughter, verging on 18. “She sang with natural ease and her voice was much admired by those who heard it raised in the tuneful Weatherly melodies.” Of course she rides like the wind, and is sometimes allowed to ride unaccompanied “contrary to custom” into Queanbeyan for singing lessons. In case you haven’t been keeping up, Miles Franklin was both a horsewoman and a singer and so are all her young heroines. The other family members are Mother, and Arthur, a brother ten months or maybe fewer Dora’s junior. And there’s another clue.

Barry lives in a state of feud with his neighbours but Dora is oblivious to what is openly discussed by everyone else, and admires not just the car, but also the car-owner’s son, Ross Lindsey. Dora is restless, her father forbids socialising, she lacks occupation, does not really think she’ll make it as a singer, nor “did she feel capable of writing a book as that other girl, about whom everyone, even the old bushwhackers, made such a fuss” (Miles herself, of course!).

The situation is brought to a head when Ross is injured near the Barry property and has to be put up for a week while he recovers. Barry is forced to be polite to the Lindseys, Mrs Barry entertains hopes of resuming her old friendship with Mrs Lindsey, Dora sees enough of Ross to entertain hopes of her own, Ross’s older sister Kate and Dora’s absent older brother Bob resume contact after a 17 year hiatus, and Mabel begins to see a way for her and Arthur out of their unrelenting, and unpaid, drudgery.

Then follows a bazaar during which Dora sings to Ross’s accompaniment. Dora is a hit and is asked to stay with other young ladies in town. Barry is losing control:

What on earth was he to do? The idea that Dora might be able to hold her own – her own virtue, be safe within her own cleanly courage, did not occur to him. His idea was to guard her by main strength. His previous experience of freedom for daughters had been disastrous.

Dora sneaks off to attend a ball in the Lindsey’s woolshed. Her father catches up with her and drags her home, the old kitchen is in an uproar:

“Father came roaring over to Chesham Park.”
“Chesham Park!”
“With a buggy whip as if I were a slave in a harem.”
“That’s what you will be if you go the ways of harlotry.”
“He called me dreadful bad names before everyone and tried to thrash people with his whip as if he was drunk.”
“I pray God I was not too late. By God if I was …”

Franklin has been painting Old Blastus as all bluster, and although no-one actually gets whipped, Dora does get pushed to the ground. I’m not sure Franklin appreciates just how violent the old man’s behaviour is. None of her other (fictional) fathers is like this but it is possible her model was Steele Rudd’s rambunctious ‘Dad’. She was surely aware, and probably envious, of how financially successful Rudd had been with his ‘Dad and Dave’ books.

Lisa (here) and Sue (here) have been discussing bushfires in their recent reviews of Karenlee Thompson’s Flame Tip: Short Fictions and it’s a bushfire which is the climax of Old Blastus. Barry is obsessive about keeping his land cleared, and ploughing and burning firebreaks. Lindsey is rather less so, with long grass right up to the flash new homestead. The scene in the Barry kitchen is brought to an abrupt end when it becomes known that a fire on the boundary of Lindsey’s Chesham Park, driven by rising winds, threatens to engulf the whole community, though not before Dora finally learns Mabel’s secret.

Franklin’s writing is at its best in her descriptions of the fire and the efforts to control it:

… the fire seemed to carry in the air, or to start of spontaneous combustion, straight towards the Lindsey home paddocks. Flames ran up green gum trees as if they were tinder and sent crashing blazing tops in a vast shower of brands and sparks to set alight hundreds of yards around.

Old Blastus is the hero of the hour. Various love lifes are resolved. The community rope in a visiting Lord to present Barry with a car of his own. Mabel leaves Bandicoot for the first time in 17 years and the family find they miss her.

Old Blastus of Bandicoot was a popular book in its day, and a favourite of my father’s as it happens, probably because Franklin combines her always lively writing with likeable characters and a believable plot, which was not a combination she always achieved.

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Miles Franklin, Old Blastus of Bandicoot, First pub. 1931. My copy (above) Australian Pocket Library ‘by arrangement with the Commonwealth Literary Fund’, Melbourne, 1945

For a list of all my Miles Franklin reviews and posts go to Miles Franklin Central (here)

Great Australian Girls, Susan Geason

 

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Before you tar and feather me, ‘Girls’ is Geason’s word, not mine, although  she attempts amelioration with ‘and the remarkable women they became’. And how Ned Kelly, or a female Ned Kelly – do they look like woman’s eyes to you too? – got on the cover I am not sure.

This 1999 book is a collection of biographical sketches of Australian women who shared “qualities like courage and determination, the strength to face adversity and obstacles and still fight on.” The idea of course, although Geason does not say so in her short Introduction, is to provide positive role models for girls when our histories, and the daily press, are so full of role models for boys.

As you might expect, the older stories are of more interest to me, some of the later stories might have been articles in the Women’s Weekly.

Mary Reibey (1777-1855) This is the most extensive account I’ve read of Reibey, who vies with Elizabeth Macarthur for the title of Australia’s first businesswoman. Mary was born in Lancashire into a middle class family. Her parents died early on and she was taken in by her grandmother and educated at Blackburn Free Grammar School. When she was 13 her grandmother died and rather than enter an ‘orphanage’ (a parish poor house probably) Mary ran away, stole and attempted to sell a horse, and although for a short while successfully posing as a boy, was eventually transported to New South Wales as a female convict on the Royal Admiral in 1792. Geason says as “part of the Second Fleet” but I think she is wrong about this, and in fact I think she relies too often on her general knowledge instead of looking things up, as for instance when she says “after a fast run across the Pacific … sailed through Sydney Heads”. In fact sailing ships came from England from the other direction, via Cape Town and the Southern Ocean.

On arrival in Sydney Town, Mary wasn’t selected from a line-up of new arrivals as a ‘wife’, but two years later, at age 17 she married Thomas Reibey, a ship’s officer with the East India Company. Reibey became a prominent businessman, firstly as a farmer on the Hawkesbury, then as the owner of small ships servicing his fellows on the Hawkesbury and subsequently the coastal and Pacific Islands trades. Thomas was often away and Mary was active in running the business, as she continued to do after his death in 1811, growing in prosperity and respectability for the next 40 years.

Geason mentions Mary Reibey’s diary, though not in her extensive list of sources, but here it is at the Mitchell (NSW State Library).

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) was born on her parent’s property, Oldbury, in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Her mother, an educated woman, daughter of a barrister, took over the property when her husband died two months after Louisa’s birth. There followed eight years of  moves and disruption, not to mention a disastrous re-marriage to an alcoholic, before Charlotte finally had James Atkinson’s will executed in her favour. The lesson Louisa learned from this was the one preached by many of my other Independent Women: “a woman without money and friends was at the mercy of men. Marriage was not the answer… A woman had to gain the skills and knowledge to earn her own living.” Charlotte before her had been an author – of the first children’s book published in the colony – and an amateur botanist. Louisa took up botany at an early age and at 19 started producing nature notes and drawings for the Sydney Illustrated News, and subsequently as ‘A Voice from the Country’ in the Sydney Morning Herald. With her friend Emma Selkirk she made long excursions into the Blue Mountains searching out new plant species –

On horseback, with their long skirts hiked up like trousers, the two would pick their way up and down steep ravines, through dense forest and undergrowth… One of their favourite haunts was the fern gully at the Kurrajong waterfalls, where they discovered several new ferns.

Sounds like the women in Christina Stead’s story ‘On the Road’ in The Salzburg Tales.

Louisa’s major work was an illustrated Australian natural history. In 1870 she sent the ms to famous botanist Ferdinand von Mueller but it was lost in the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War. She also wrote a number of novels though Geason mentions only the first, Gertrude the Emigrant (1857).

Finally, aged 35, she married, but died a couple of years later in childbirth.

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909). I’ve been meaning to look into the life of Mary McKillop for a while and by this account she was a lively and determined woman. Leaving aside the nonsense of “Australia’s first saint”, she famously established an independent order of nuns, the Josephites, against the bitter opposition of Australian Catholic bishops.

In 1865 the three older MacKillop girls set off to Penola [north of Mt Gambier, SA] to start their school. Mary was 24, Annie was 17, and Lexie only 15. They started out teaching classes in their cottage and the local church.

In January 1866, by donning a simple black gown, Mary became a nun, the school became the Institute  of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and a new religious order was born. When she died, aged 67, Mary ‘left behind 750 nuns teaching over 12,000 children in Josephite schools in Australia and New Zealand.’

Next up are Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) whom I discussed here, and will treat at length ‘one day’ soon; and Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson (1870-1946) here and ditto.

May Gibbs (1877-1969) was born in England and came to Australia when she was four. Her father attempted to farm poor country north of Adelaide before giving in and moving to Western Australia where he farmed first at Harvey, south of Perth, then at Butler’s swamp which is now the (inner) suburb, Claremont. (I once had a boss, a milkman, who remembered when cows were run on the South Perth foreshore). May had virtually no formal schooling, but at 20 she became a student at the new Art Gallery and then at 23 she enrolled first at the prestigious London art school, the Cope and Nichol, then after a brief interlude back in Perth, at first Chelsea Polytechnic then at Mr Henry Blackburn’s School for Black and White Artists.

Back in Perth again Gibbs found some work as an illustrator (eventually losing out to Ida Rentoul) but it was not until she moved to Sydney with her friend Rene Heames that she found consistent success. Bib and Bub, the gumnut babies grew out of her work illustrating the NSW Primary Reader and School Magazine, before popping up in Ethel Turner’s The Magic Button, then Gibb’s own books, Gum-Nut Babies and Gum-Blossom Babies appeared ‘just in time for Christmas 1916. Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie came out in 1918 and the rest is history*.

There follow Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) who went from farm girl to international opera star to crippled by polio; Nancy Bird (1915-2009) pioneer commercial aviator; Linda McLean (1917- ) who wrote a memoir of her hardships during the Depression, Pumpkin Pie and Faded Sandshoes; Dawn Fraser (1937- ) the great Australian swimmer whose working class background rubbed too many ‘amateur’ swimming officials up the wrong way; Pat O’Shane (1941- ) a Yalanji-Kunjandji woman, ‘Aboriginal activist and magistrate’; Irene Moss/Kwong Chee Wai Lin (1948- ) characterised as ‘a fighter for justice’, the Race Discrimination Commissioner wife of the Chairman of Australia’s most rapacious bank (Alan Moss, Macquarrie Bank); Lorrie Graham (1954- ) photojournalist; Beverley Buckingham (1965- ) one of the best jockeys in Tasmania until the fall in 1998 which rendered her an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’; Heather Tetu (1967- ) trapeze artist graduate of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and an early organizer of circus exchanges with China, left unable to perform  after a fall in 1992; Sonya Hartnett (1968- ) writer, whom I reviewed recently (here); Fiona Coote (1970- ) heart transplant recipient; Louise Sauvage (1973- ) multi gold medal winning wheelchair racer; Rebecca Smart (1976- ) actor, Buster in The Shiralee (1987), and Const. Donna Janevski in The Water Rats since this book came out; Tamara Anna Cislowska (1977- ) child prodigy pianist; Monique Truong (1985- ) girl.

Monique is definitely my favourite of the ‘others’. When she was 11, her parents’ Canley Vale (Sydney, western suburbs) house was broken into by a gang of schoolboys armed with pistols. Unhappy with what was there to steal they took Monique with them, eventually holing up in a Parramatta hotel –

[The leader] grabbed one of the single beds for himself, while Monique and the other boy shared the second one, a pillow between them.

In the morning Monique slipped a note under the door and was soon rescued, physically unharmed. However, as might be expected, she needed counselling and her family moved to Queensland, where they feel safer.

 

Susan Geason, Great Australian Girls, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

*Lisa, ANZLitLovers attended the session ‘The Real May Gibbs’ at the recent Bendigo Writers’ Festival