Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, with the working title The Red Witch, is due out from MUP later this year. While completing his PhD with the very meta topic of writing about writing a biog of KSP, he was a frequent blogger. Getting the book finished and being the stay at home father to two young children slowed him down a bit, but let’s hope as the nappy haze dissipates we see him back here more often.
Katharine Susannah Prichard spent the 1940s working on her Western Australian goldfields trilogy, which finally appeared as The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950). It’s a saga that tells the story of the development of the goldfields through the fortunes of one family, and interwoven with folklore, historical events, and technical descriptions. It is Katharine’s attempt at writing faithful to her communist convictions … Read on …
Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was an important chronicler of the lives of Sydney’s underclass, perhaps not so popular as Ruth Park, but with a grittier style and a better understanding (Park and Tennant were both of the middle class, but Park’s depictions of the people of Sydney’s inner suburbs tended towards patronising, whereas Tennant’s were genuinely sympathetic and tempered by her early association with the Communism).
Tell Morning This (1967) is a rambunctious, entertaining novel of the seamier side of life in and around Kings Cross during the latter stage of WWII. This is more or less the same period/locale as that covered by Cusack & James’ Come in Spinner and interestingly they seem to have had similar publication histories. Although the winner of a major prize in 1948, Come in Spinner had to be abridged to get past the censors and a full version was not published until 1987. Tennant writes of Tell Morning This
A brief version of this book appeared in those years when paper was hard to come by and censors unduly sensitive. The choice was to cut by at least a third or to lay the manuscript aside … the remnant, The Joyful Condemned , looked much the same.
From Tell Morning This (Tennant), Say Not to Death (Cusack) and The Drums go Bang (Park) you get a pretty good idea of the housing shortage, and resulting squalid, crowded rooming houses in inner Sydney in the 1940s and 50s. I wish we had the same insight into Melbourne, but as I wrote elsewhere, for a while ‘they’ had all the good writers.
The central characters of Tell Morning This are Rene (short for Irene), a fifteen year old prostitute and David, a medical student and conscientious objector to the War – interesting, because despite my own background in the anti-war movement as a draft-resister, I commented recently that I thought that the Japanese threat was so imminent that if I had been born a quarter century earlier I would have joined up.
Rene was a hefty chunk of a girl with a nose flat across the bridge, good teeth, and hair that was temporarily blonde and curled nearly as high as the storm’s. Its original colour had been a nasty red.
Rene, whose only family is “a bunch of files in the Department”, has been brought up by the McGarty’s, a complicated family of sly groggers and petty thieves you need a spreadsheet to keep up with. David is a quiet, thoughtful good-looking boy whose mother had died in childbirth and his father, a judge, had been shot dead about 15 years earlier. A woman, Terry Lago, got life for the murder but is widely believed to be covering for her career criminal husband who has disappeared.
Imprisonment is the novel’s central theme. Rene and her friends, whose only source of income (and amusement) is to be picked up off the streets by US servicemen, are routinely rounded up for ‘being in moral danger’ and put into youth detention, the pinnacle of which is the infamous Parramatta Girls Training School (which Tennant gives the alias Petworth); David’s cousin Henrietta runs a model detention centre, until she is promoted to Petworth and fails; David spends six months in gaol during the course of the novel, and will have further spells of six months until the War ends (or his spirit breaks); a vindictive doctor, as Terry Lago is approaching release, commits her to indefinite detention in a mental home.
Tennant famously biffed a cop in order to research this novel from the inside, and she seems to have done a pretty thorough job (of the research. I’m sure the biffing was quite gentle). There’s a lot about the power structures, formal and informal, in the men’s, women’s and girls’ institutions; and about different reactions to incarceration. There’s even an evil smelling prison tram which runs between Long Bay and the central courts – the men all chained together must shuffle around in a circle if one of them needs to use the can.
David in gaol refuses to work, in the belief that the work is to assist the army, and so is put into solitary, not the dreaded dark cells, the black peter, but the yards, only half roofed
They shut him, by his own fault, in this narrow cocoon, and from a mild white grub of a boy he was hatching into something that very closely resembled a human hornet. His hatred of the governor, when every morning, the man said: “The magistrate has been delayed. He will be here tomorrow”, was the greater in that he detected real pleasure, malicious pleasure in this delay.
This is a big book, 446pp, with a cast to match. David’s family of do-gooder aunts, the Aumbrys, who live in a fine old house on the North Shore; the McGartys – Grandma bedridden, who brought up Rene till she became too much to manage; her daughter who runs Grandma’s house in the Cross as a rooming house and who has banned Rene; a nephew who runs a pub nearby and another who drives for Sydney’s Mr Big; the Cobbetts who have a shop out in a semi-rural outer suburb and who are connected to Mr Big and to Terry Largo. And then there’s Mr Big’s daughter Margot who wants to join the Aumbrys in do-gooding and who is keen on David.
Of course there are Americans, who in between missions, spend time and lavish money on Rene and all her underage friends, all generally in a state of undress, even when out, and ready to jump into bed. And there’s Marie, a minor character really, who has a baby which Rene loves; who is given a home by the Aumbrys to save her from the Department but which she hates for its boredom, until at last she runs away to Melbourne, is bored there too and comes back to have another baby which she is relieved to discover is white.
Rene and David bump into each other from time time, and each feels sorry for the other. We follow their separate paths, Rene to slowly become aware who her mother is, and David who shot his father; neither looking, but with everyone around them knowing, knowing becomes inevitable.
What a marvellous book. What took me so long to get to it.
I have in my ‘possession’ an essay entitled The Solid Mandala and Patrick White’s Late Modernity by Nicholas Birns. I say in my possession when in fact it has been residing under an icon on my screen for some months and I forget how it got there. Downloaded from a letter from Professor Brother-in-Law maybe. Birns I’m pretty sure is a US academic and editor or past editor of the literary journal Antipodes. The essay itself is an extended discussion of the definition of ‘Late Modernity’ which is of some relevance to our upcoming AWW Gen 3 Week, Part II.
Late modernity as understood in this piece is composed of two key aspects. One is the dominance of the innovative, labyrinthine Modernist aesthetics developed in the previous generation – the generation born in the late nineteenth century, that of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and, most important for White’s text, T.S. Eliot – and inherited by the second-generation modernists, writers like White who were born in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The other is the political predominance of welfare state models and a strong public sector that provided significant employment. These two aspects are contrasted with the era of neoliberalism of the postmodern era (roughly 1970 and after) …
You’ll remember of course I have defined Gen 3 as the period from the end of WWI to the end of the 1950s. Now, it is very easy to argue that the 1950s in Australia extended well into the 1960s, and certainly that was true of my own white, rural, middle class, teenage years. But I am sticking with 1960 as the changeover from Gen 3 to Gen 4 because The Beatles; southern European immigration; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the Pill; Women’s Lib; and because it seems to fit with a changing of the guard from the mostly women writers of the inter-War years to a new generation around Thea Astley, Thomas Keneally, Helen Garner and David Ireland say.
These issues of periodisation indeed present many pitfalls. When dealing with the near past, people of different generations have different perspectives upon not only the nature of the near past but its degree of proximity; the very idea of a near past implies some people still living for which that past is still a part of active memory …
Ain’t that the truth! I am very passionate about my lived experience of ‘the sixties’ – which occurred I must say mostly in the early seventies.
Much as I deplore the end of the ‘welfare state’, I struggle to see its relevance to the literature of Gen 3. Indeed much of the writing in the Social Realism stream is to do with the failure of the state to provide the underclass with meaningful welfare (or employment), and to the largely middle class modernist stream it is irrelevant. An example of the former might be Say No to Death and the latter, Waterway. However, Birns argues that
… Waldo Brown and his brother Arthur, the co-protagonists of The Solid Mandala, are people who, in the late modern paradigm, however tormented and limited their lives are in individual terms, are provided a firm social foundation by their polity, and that this is an important factor in comprehending the novel and their place in it.
Waldo is I think employed by the Library, with a sense of security only a distant memory today. I am not going to argue with him (Birns) and indeed was more engaged by how he differentiated between this period and its successor, contrasting the conservatism and security underlying Late Modernism with the following generation of Regan/Thatcherism and globalism now generally contained in the catch-all “neo-liberalism”, and the cultural commodification of post-modernism. Subjects for another day! And how we are going define the end of Gen 4 I have no idea.
AWW Gen 3 Week, Part II. I will start putting up reviews in the next day or so. Quite a number of you are planning to contribute, not all on the same day I hope, and I am quietly confident that with the two I have ready, I will be able to put up a review/guest review/repost each day for the week. Off the top of my head we will have Kylie Tennant, Christina Stead, Marjorie Barnard, Eve Langley, KS Prichard, Ernestine Hill, Elizabeth Harrower. Bloggers I haven’t spoken to can drop me a line here. And there will be a summary after the end of the Week with links to everyone’s reviews. I’m back at work as of yesterday, through to about 25 Jan, so hopefully I’ll be able to use Invasion Day to do my write-up.
Since AWW Gen 3 Week last year (here) I have put up the following posts (Woolf and Sackville-West are of course English but their works are central to the modernist project).
Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers (1915) (wadh) Daisy Bates (theaustralianlegend) Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines (1938) (wadh) Miles Franklin, Bring the Monkey (1933) (wadh) Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin (1967) (wadh) Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (1936) (wadh) Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death (1951) (wadh) Melbourne and Sydney (theaustralianlegend)
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (1915) (wadh) Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent (1931) (wadh)
Sue (Whispering Gums) has three posts scheduled under the Bill Curates banner over the next week or so. If you miss them there’ll be links in the end-of-week summary.
If you were paying attention, you might have noticed I plan to slow read the annotated Such is Life over the course of 2021. Such is Life, which is the first great modernist classic of Australian Literature, was published, by the Bulletin, after a long struggle, in 1903. I have written about it previously in Such is Life, Abridged! (here) and in Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin (here).
Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) was born near Yarra Glen, Victoria, the second of five brothers. Miles Franklin describes an almost Austen-esqe home environment of shared reading and writing with mother keeping journals of the boys’ writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. In 1852 the family moved to Kyneton (90 km north of Melbourne on the road to Bendigo) where Joseph went to school. In 1868 they took up land, “Sand Hills”, around Lake Cooper (map) in the names of Samuel (senior), Joseph and Isaac, building themselves homes which survived into the 1950s.
At Glenlyon he met Leonie Selina Germain, of French descent. They were married at Christchurch, Daylesford, on 27 May 1867; Leonie was 16. His wife was to remain an enigma to him and a mystery to both her contemporaries and to later observers of the human scene.
After five years Joe gave up, rented nearby while he tried a bit of gold prospecting, then with a wagon and bullocks, he uprooted his tiny, French wife and their children to follow him as a bullocky through the backblocks of NSW. His oldest son Felix, not a budding writer, who had command of Furphy’s second wagon wrote to his grandfather in 1883 –
“I have no books hear but the third book and the story of the too dogs and father reads nothing but shakspere everybody carries books but they are yellow novels …”.
Older brother John, a blacksmith, had in the meanwhile set up the famous Furphy Foundry in Shepparton. When Joseph’s enterprise failed, due to drought and disease in the cattle, Leonie wrote home for help and a position was made for Joseph at the foundry. At last, around 1887, already in his forties, Furphy had a settled home and could begin to write. Still it took him till 1897 to write up his great work and another six years of typing, cutting and emendations to get it published.
Contrary to usage, these memoirs are published, not “in compliance with the entreaties of friends,” but in direct opposition thereto …
SUCH IS LIFE
Unemployed at last! …
… Whilst a peculiar defect – which I scarcely like to call an oversight in mental construction – shuts me from the flowery pathway of the romancer, a co-ordinate requital endows me, I trust, with the more sterling, if less ornamental qualities of the chronicler.
And so we are underway with the fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, “a Government official, of the ninth class; paid rather according to my grade than my merit… Candidly, I was only a Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector..” Having chosen at random from his 22 Lett’s Pocket Diaries, he plans to give us a record of the week beginning Sunday, the 9th of September, 1883, as an example of his life.
The fore part of the day was altogether devoid of interest or event. Overhead, the sun blazing wastefully and thanklessly through a rarefied atmosphere; underfoot, the hot, black clay, thirsting for spring rain, and bare except for inedible roley-poleys, coarse tussocks, and the woody stubble of close-eaten salt bush; between sky and earth, a solitary wayfarer, wisely lapt in philosophic torpor. Ten yards behind the grey saddle horse follows a black pack-horse, lightly loaded; and three yards behind the pack-horse ambles listlessly a tall, slate-coloured kangaroo dog, furnished with the usual poison muzzle …
… the level black-soil plains of the Riverina Proper … away beyond the horizon, southward still, the geodesic curve carries that monotony across the zone of salt-bush, myall, and swamp box; across the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee, and on to the Victorian border – say, two hundred and fifty miles.
… and against the background of a pine-ridge, a mile ahead, I saw some wool teams.
There were five bullock teams with wagons loaded with bales of wool, bound for the river port of Echuca on the Murray River which marks the Victoria/NSW border – Steve Thompson’s twenty; Cooper’s eighteen; Dixon’s eighteen; and Price’s two teams of fourteen. Collins, knowing Thompson, Dixon and Price settles down with them and joins their consultations. The bullockies’ pressing need is to settle somewhere for the evening where their cattle can get feed and water, and where they won’t be chased off by the actual owner of the paddock they choose to camp on.
The annotations are endnotes, with no indication in the text that there is one, so that you must read the front and the back of the book at the same time, for text and annotation to match.
Such is Life The thematic phrase which gives the book its title did not originate with Ned Kelly, though the belief that he used it at his hanging explains its currency in Australia. It is at least as old as WJ Temple, 1796: “This interruption is very teasing; but such is Life”.
Kangaroo dog. A greyhound-deerhound cross
Riverina Proper ‘This central point of the universe’. In the C19th the term applied to all southern NSW north of the Murray, east of the Darling and west of the Great Divide.
Pine Ridge We are out on the Hay plains, whose almost perfectly flatness, hence ‘the geodesic curve’ of the horizon, is broken in places by lines of sandhills bound by the Australian cypress pine.
FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).
This appears to be a first edition hardback. I have no idea where I got it, the price on the flyleaf says $3.00, so presumably second hand. It might be Lisa’s (she reviewed it in 2009), I’m very remiss at recording where I get books. It’s printed on a lovely thick creamy stock and the pages have been folded and bound without being guillotined. The Pages (2008) was Bail’s next novel after the famous and MF Award winning Eucalyptus (1998) so perhaps Big Things were Expected.
Wikipedia says Bail was born in 1941 in Adelaide, lives in Sydney, and has written 5 novels of which The Pages was the fourth.
Bail’s writing style seems thoughtful, seems to convey thought as it floats along. I can’t generalize too much because it is too long since I read Eucalyptus, but from memory they feel the same. The Pages is the story of a self-taught philosopher, one of three adult, unmarried children who have inherited a sheep station in mid-western NSW. Bail mentions Goolgowi and Merriwagga, which would have them on the Hay plains, black soil country, so flat that the horizon is a perfect semi circle, and not too far from the Murrumbidgee (map).
In fact, I’m “there” right now, making a start on Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life. To the extent that Bail describes the property it feels like country a bit closer to Sydney, on the gentle western slopes of the Great Divide. But you know what a purist I am, and I know what purists you’re not.
The plot, I think there’s a plot, is that Erica, a university philosopher is invited out to the property to study the unpublished writings of Wesley Antill, who has been travelling and studying while his sister and brother, Lindsey and Roger, run the station. Wesley has come home, taken over the old unused shearing shed as his workspace, and has died.
Erica makes the long drive, 600 or 700 km, with her therapist friend Sophie for company. The homestead, and there are many like it still, out in what was once incredibly prosperous merino country, is the usual single story, wide verandahs all round, cavernous central passage, 10 bedrooms, enormous kitchen etc. So there’s plenty of room and they settle in for an indefinite stay.
All these five are late-thirtyish, unattached-ish. Sophie is a type, asking all the standard feely feely questions, in a messy relationship with a married guy, not knowing when to pull back. I think she and Lindsey are there just to bulk out the cast a bit, they don’t contribute much. I am uneasy with the omniscient (male) author being Erica but she is mostly just a device for discussing Wesley. Roger is the strong silent type, almost to the point of parody, and provides a minor love interest for Erica and Sophie to compete over. Wesley is there on and off throughout. We start a new chapter and there we are ‘in’ Wesley, a few years earlier.
Here, Wesley is finding his feet in Kings Cross (Sydney) –
Street people spotted Wesley as a yokel, not only for his red ears and premature crow’s feet, and the tan boots – only missing item being the hat – but also his wide-open gaze of one who had never before seen at close quarters eye-sliding men and women, jittery, and yet matter-of-fact types, flaunting themselves to make a quid – and the wear and tear it takes out on the eye, mouth, skin and sympathies in general.
He gets a room, meets a neighbour sunbathing on the roof, and despite his general yokelness is soon sleeping with her, and even after he leaves Australia, they maintain a relationship. He is also the toy boy of one of his mother’s friends, his mother refusing to live out in the bush and instead maintaining an apartment in an inner-city hotel.
To his sister he wrote, ‘My neighbour next door is like you. I’m trying to work out why exactly. (When I know I’ll let you know.) Is about your size. Don’t screw your nose up! Name is Rosie. She tells me there’s no problem attending lectures at the university. All I do is tag along as if I’m a student too, which of course I am.
I expected Bail to use this work as an excuse to philosophise, which he doesn’t, though there is a good deal on the process of philosophising. Even when Erica finally gets round to Wesley’s papers – spread out on the shearing shed floor and not a mouse poo in sight – they prove to be largely autobiographical.
Wesley moves on to London and then Europe, so that Bail can provide descriptions of place from memory probably, casually accumulating mistresses along the way. Toward the end, one leaves him, he organizes for Rosie to join him, it doesn’t go well and he returns to Australia, to the station on the edge of the outback.
Yes, I enjoyed reading it, it flows nicely, the subsidiary characters are often interesting and we get to know Wesley and to a lesser extent, Erica. Sometimes good writing is worth reading just for its own sake and this is one of those times.
Murray Bail, The Pages, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008. 199pp.
see also reviews by: Lisa/ANZLL (here) Kimbofo/Reading Matters (here) Sue/Whispering Gums (here)
Last year I had a photo to illustrate John Dos Passos’ great USA, so this year, belatedly, I have the Spanish Flu, which apparently originated in Kansas, USA not that anyone would ever point fingers (story accompanying photo here).
I’m envious of the (few) new releases I read in 2019, there was nothing like that that caught my attention this year past, though at least I finally got to Too Much Lip (so so) and Pink Mountain on Locust Island (pretty good). My stats say I read 6 books from 2019/20 but none stuck, well except for the idiosyncratic The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan. I have just purchased and made a start on Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People. She is a fine (Western Australian) writer, quirky and funny, and if you haven’t yet read Rubik you really should.
If you care about the latest books, Kate W of Booksaremyfavouriteandbest lists her favourites for 2020 (here) and THE 2020 List of Lists (here). Of course the real best read of 2020 was every newspaper and newsletter (NYT, Palmer Report, HuffPost, Truthout, Guardian) in the days after 3 Nov. It is hard to believe that a man so unselfconsciously stupid was able to win even one election.
But if like me you like your books to season for a while here are the (Australian) Best Reads for half centuries past –
There were 18 novels published, including one Patrick White, and two or three other interesting works –
Jessica Anderson, The Last Man’s Head Dianne Cilento, The Hybrid George Johnston ed., The World of Charmian Clift Geoffrey Dutton, Tamara Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch Cynthia Nolan, A Bride for St Thomas Oodgeroo Noonuccal, My People (verse) Barry Oakley, A Salute to the Great McCarthy (football!) Sayers ed., James Bonwick, Western Victoria – will review “soon” Dai Stivens, A Horse of Air (1970 Miles Franklin Award winner) Patrick White, The Vivesector
A hard year for readers. The number of books published was down 4 or 5 on 1919, none of the novels stands out. Louisa Lawson died and amongst the births were Gwen Harwood, Leo McKern (Rumpole!), Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and Colin Thiele.
JHM Abbott, The Castle Vane AH Adams, The Australians Louis Esson, Dead Timber (a collection of plays) Vance Palmer, The Shanty-keeper’s Daughter Pyke (?), Coles Picture Book Conrad Sayce, The Valley of a Thousand Deaths (also designed Winthrop Hall, UWA) Arthur Wright, A Rough Passage
Nine books (8 last year), including two novels, one famous! Adam Lindsay Gordon died. Mrs Gunn, Henry Handel Richardson and Ethel Turner were born.
Martin Cash, The Adventures of Martin Cash (convict, bushranger) Marcus Clarke, For the Term of his Natural Life Adam Lindsay Gordon, Bush Ballads & Galloping Rhymes John R Houlding, Rural and City Life (by “Old Boomerang”) Maitland, The Higher Law (English author, English book)
Nothing much to see here. One book. Joseph Banks died, Raffaello Carboni was born (his book on his experience of the Eureka Stockade is excellent and I really must get myself another copy).
John Oxley, Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales (available free on Proj Gutenberg (here))
Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian Literature, 2nd Ed., OUP, Melbourne, 1992
My first edition hardback of Say No to Death (1951) doesn’t have a dust jacket but I imagine that is it above. I was going to write first and probably only edition, until I saw some paperbacks in Images – publishers Allen&Unwin, Seven Seas and Great Books, which implies that it’s out of copyright – and a cover, in English, on a Russian site, pictured below along with an intriguing book I hadn’t previously heard of – Dymphna by Norman Freehill with Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 81).
I didn’t have Cusack down as a Communist, of whom there were a number in Gen 3, but from Images I could see she was obviously published in Eastern Europe and so looked further.
Late in 1948 Cusack consolidated a long-term if intermittent relationship with Norman Randolph Freehill, then chief-of-staff of the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper, the Tribune… In 1949 Cusack, and later Freehill, sailed for Europe. When health permitted, she worked on the manuscripts that she had taken to London, including Say No to Death
A committed social reformer, she interpreted history through the lives of ordinary people and used various forms of popular culture to entertain, inform and educate. She regarded herself, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, as an `écrivain engagé’—one for whom the pen was mightier than the sword. Despite constant illness, she was a brave and prominent anti-nuclear activist in the World Peace Movement during the Cold War era.
If you’re interested in that sort of stuff, ADB also says the play Comets Soon Pass (1943) “was her personal catharsis and artistic reprisal for the defection of her former lover, the novelist Xavier Herbert”.
Before I go on I should clarify what I’m attempting to achieve by looking again next month at Australian Women Writers Gen 3, which covers the period from immediately after the Great War to the end of the fifties. In our first go we looked at the transition away from the blokey Bulletin era of ‘the nineties’, to the new movements of Modernism and Social Realism, and for Communists, Socialist Realism (I won’t question you on the difference, though it’s important), and the rise of a family-based Pioneer legend as a counter to the Bulletin’s misogynist ‘Lone Hand’.
Please, by all means look some more at the pre-War (WWII) period, but I also need to be clear in my own mind about the transition to Gen 4 which occurred after the War. I was born in rural Victoria in 1951 so this is personal. Australia’s eastern seaboard, where 80% of us live, was White. White, white, white. And not just white, but totally, homogeneously Brit. “Home” was England and the only ethnic diversity came from Irish Catholics. Victoria’s remnant Aboriginal population was hidden away at Lake Tyers and it was the same, to a large extent, in the other eastern states until you got into the outback. The writing of the 1940s and 50s represented that and continued on the stories of white middle-class privilege, and of working class hardship and housing shortage ongoing from the Depression years, almost without a break.
Even before the War, migration had commenced with Eastern European Jews, then came assisted migrants in their thousands from the UK, Italy and Greece, so by the 1960s we were a totally different place. Add in the sexual revolution which arose out of/coincided with the Pill, the popular music revolution, the baby boom, the anti-war movement, and you can see why this must be my transition point from Gen 3 to Gen 4.
This, as always, leaves two important writers on the cusp, Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020) and Thea Astley (1925-2004) who published their first novels in respectively 1957 and 1958. I’m going to make a captain’s call and put Harrower in Gen 3 and Astley in Gen 4. My reasoning is that Harrower wrote mostly in the 1950s, she was a modernist, after Eleanor Dark and Patrick White say, and her subject was the monocultural middle class suburbs of Sydney. Astley on the other hand, wrote prolifically throughout the second half of the C20th and her theme was much more the clash of cultures.
So, back to Say No to Death. I have reviewed Cusack’s first, Jungfrau (1936), should have reviewed her second, the spoof Pioneers on Parade (1939) written with Miles Franklin, have reviewed her third,Come in Spinner (1951) co-written with Florence James and also Caddie (1953) for which Cusack wrote the Introduction and which is a memoir written by her and James’ housekeeper when they were living together in the Blue Mountains writing Come in Spinner.
Say No to Death was her fourth, not counting five or six plays which Cusack thought might be her real vocation. It wasn’t one I had planned to read, but was getting – am still – bogged down in Christina Stead’s Little Hotel, and so grabbed the nearest to hand off the shelf of possibles for this Gen3/II introduction. It’s a shame to tell you any of the story at all, as it is much better if the developments come up in their proper place, but yes, I’m going to.
The setting is Sydney, 1947, starting in the crowded suburbs around the Cross, described elsewhere with much more feeling and detail by Ruth Park who had arrived there to live in shambolic rooming houses three or four years earlier with her new husband D’Arcy Niland and his brother. There Jan and her sister Doreen share a one room flat.
The novel begins with Bart Templeton, a soldier who had fought in New Guinea before re-enlisting, returning from a year or so with the Occupation forces in Japan. Jan is at the wharf to meet him, at the back of the welcome-home crowd, ready to walk away if he doesn’t acknowledge her.
He’d behaved pretty lousily to Jan, he was willing to admit. But what else was a cove to do? He’d been her first man – he’d take an oath on that. She was in love with him; there was no doubt about that either, and they’d had a hell of a lot of fun together. And when he’d gone away without saying a word about marrying her she hadn’t reproached him nor even shown what she felt …
He does acknowledge her, taking up where he’d left off and soon they’re on ten days vacation in a shack on a lake somewhere up the Northern Beaches. Towards the end she coughs blood, a bone in her throat maybe, but we know what’s coming and soon it’s clear Jan has TB.
I still find Cusack’s writing style awkward, but the story itself is good. Bart and Jan have their ups and downs. The public system for isolating men and women with TB is a disgrace, crowded ex-WWI army barracks with a 3 – 6 months waiting list, men sleeping on verandahs, working people dying from want of treatment. I can remember my father being terrified of us kids touching stuff in the street or eating with dirty hands and this is why. Maybe every generation has its Covid-19.
Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death, Heinemann, London, 1951. 324pp
see also Sue (Whispering Gums): Dymphna Cusack, A Window in the Dark, memoir (here) Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (here) Delicious Descriptions: Dymphna Cusack’s Sydney (here)
It astonishes me just how ignorant public speakers – journalists, politicians, writers – are of spelling, vocabulary, general knowledge, and how infrequently they are called out for it. It’s a long time since I listened to the ABC’s “local” network – except for football of course – but the self-important pronouncements of men and women whose only qualification is that they have mellow voices is constantly off-putting, not to mention the ABC’s official “non-partisan” stance of giving right-wing lies equal billing with proven science.
The following, not ABC, examples came up this morning while I was reading on-line
Trump fans are calling for “succession” when they mean secession, and that’s pretty much how their night is going. It’s also a reminder that we need to invest more in education.
Palmer Report, 11 Dec 2020
The punishment metered (sic) out to both banks resulted in board and senior management changes, massive fines and reputational damage.
Adele Ferguson, The Age, “Casinos Lose”, 12 Dec 2020
Of course my own spelling is not the best and the number of times I have typed slef instead of self … The quotes were unplanned, what really got my goat was Lindsey Davis in The Ides of April who not once but repeatedly used opaque to mean see-through. As in Flavia Albia, the heroine, standing up to address a crowd in an “opaque” dress and everyone could see her legs. Remember back in the day when editors read what they were publishing.
So here I am, home at last, sitting at the computer, bookwork neglected, waffling on. Just reading odd stories mostly, or getting up to make a sandwich. My next post will be a book review. Promise! It has taken all day, 8 hours at least, to get this far. A proper Perth summer day, stinking hot, me sitting in shorts and nothing else sweating in front of an inadequate fan.
I crossed the border Wednesday latish, so, with a whole day up my sleeve (to do 14 days iso and make it to xmas dinner). Unloaded yesterday, Friday. Milly will drop in tomorrow, she has the grandkids tonight, yet another pancake breakfast I have to forego. She’s five years younger than me (yes I know, than I, but who says than I), already retired and now, moving into a retirement village. My mother’s in a retirement village! And way down the coast. Milly’s retirement village I mean. I have a house down that way so I may have to move to stay in touch.
I’ve been writing (and thinking) a lot about place. Perth is a long, narrow city of 1.1 million people, stretching 100 km along endless white Indian Ocean beaches, on a 20 km wide stretch of sandflats between the ocean and the low hills of the Darling Range, bisected by the Swan River, an insignificant stream opening up in front of the CBD to the lovely expanse of Perth Water. Milly’s new home will be at the southern end of the conurbation, on the estuary of another small waterway, the Peel. Why, I wonder, am I the only one who writes like this. Well, not only, Pam is probably even more passionate about Hobart.
Very early in my blogging life I wrote about an idea I called Intertextual Geography, and more recently I posted on a Tony Hughes-d’Aeth essay on Regional Literature. This is where I’m up to so far on the subject of ‘Place’:
Our knowledge of a given place influences how we read fiction set there; and what we read influences how we see/experience that place.
Writers in a place are influenced by each other, hence Regional Literature.
A regional writer is an ambassador, for good or evil!, presenting his/her place to others.
Much more importantly, our regional writers present our place to us, giving us new ways of experiencing and understanding it.
Now do you see why I get so angry when writers get places wrong? No? I thought not, but I’ll keep chewing away at it anyway.
In comments after the Hughes-d’Aeth review, WG raises the interesting question of how we deal with the different relationship of Indigenous writers to places with which we whites also have a relationship. More to think about. Perhaps I should say:
5. There is no place in Australia (or Canada or the USA) which was not for millenia before our arrival significant to the indigenous people of that place.
Which is trite, but then we’re not proving very good at sharing, are we. Which is as good a segue as any to this story from today’s New York Times: “Of the 7,124 books [widely read, major publishers, 1950-2018] for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people.” (NYT, 11 Dec 2020, Why is Publishing so White?)
Playing with the Block Editor/Slideshow: Some images of Perth Water (mine, to forestall copyright issues, and one of Milly’s of South Beach, Freo at sunset)
Margaret Atwood (F, Can), Cat’s Eye (1988) Suzanne Enoch (F, USA), Angel’s Devil (1995) – Romance Michael Connelly (M, USA), The Black Echo (1992) – Crime Leah Fleming (F, Eng), The Girl under the Olive Tree (2013) – Hist.Fic. Christopher Spielberg (M, Ger), 101 Nights (2003) – Crime Emma Hart (F, Eng), The Roommate Agreement (2019) – Romance Mary Anna Evans (F, USA), Floodgates (2009) – Crime Lindsey Davis (F, Eng), The Ides of April (2013) – Hist.Fic/Crime Ruth Downie (F, Eng), Vita Brevis (2016) – Hist.Fic/Crime Pilip K Dick (M, USA), Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970) – SF Donna Milner (F, Can), The Promise of Rain (2010) – Hist.Fic (WWII) Alain de Botton (M, UK), The Course of Love (2016) – a very long lecture Lydia Millet (F, USA), Mermaids in Paradise (2014) – Gen.Fic John Marrs (M, UK), The Good Samaritan (2017) – Crime Isabel Miller (F, USA), Patience & Sarah (1969) Paolo Bacigalupi (M, USA), Pump Six & Other Stories (2008) – SF JD Robb (F, USA), Wonderment in Death (2015) – SF/Crime Martha Mitchell (F, USA), Gone with the Wind (1936) DNF Fern Michaels (F, USA), Fancy Dancer (2012) – Romance Norman Mailer (M, USA), Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984)– Crime John Connolly (M, Ire), The Unquiet (2007) – Crime Adam Mitzner (M, USA), The Girl from Home (2016)– Crime
I also started Dickens’ Dombey & Son, 39 hours!, but the publisher, Brilliance Audio, had made a hash of the first disc, replacing some chapters with unrelated medieval history, so I was forced to give up.
Currently reading, planning to read
Ursula Le Guin (F, USA), The Unreal & the Real Christina Stead (F, Aust/NSW), The Little Hotel Kylie Tennant (F, Aust/NSW), Tell Morning This Ernestine Hill (F, Aust/NSW), The Great Australian Loneliness Joseph Furphy (M, Aust/Vic), Such is Life
Thinking in a Regional Accent: New Ways of Contemplating Australian Writers is a recent essay by WA academic, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth in the ABR which I no longer get, but a copy of which was sent by a friend. HdA was the editor of Like Nothing on this Earth, a compilation of WA Wheatbelt writing which I reviewed a few years ago, so he is an advocate for investigating ‘regional difference’ when analyzing Australian writing.
But what is regional difference? Certainly, one feels that regional difference is at most a weak factor when compared to the forms of difference that most occupy us today: race, gender, class, ethnicity, and, increasingly, sectarian political affiliations.
Yet regional difference is one of the first things I look for in a novel, and the failure or success of the author in delineating it is often where I begin my criticism. I like my novels to be grounded in a particular location, for the author and the reader, to know where they stand.
For [Marxist critic Raymond Williams], what emerged under the name of ‘regions’ in nineteenth-century Britain was essentially a geographical spatialisation of class. Regions were economically subservient peripheries of production. This meant that, for Williams, regional consciousness was a form of class consciousness. With this in mind, it is interesting to go back to how accents work in Australia, where they follow class rather than regional lines.
Is this true in Australia, about class and regions? Not really. Not that I don’t think class is important for understanding Australian writing. The different perspectives of Lawson and Paterson for instance are not just urban and rural; they are the polar opposites of working poor and landed gentry.
So what are Australia’s literary regions? HdA speaks as a Western Australian and the regions he cites are within WA, but I think the first important divide is urban – Melbourne and Sydney really, but if you like, that sliver of coast from Adelaide to Brisbane to which clings 80% of our population – and the rest, the Outback which occupies so much of our imagination. And a close second of course comes Melbourne and Sydney, as in Melbourne v Sydney.
After those two, it is clear the states themselves are regions. Much of our literature is state based. I imagine that Gerald Murnane could have written in Perth, or Thea Astley could have in South Australia (but maybe not that Patrick White could have written outside of Sydney) but the point is they didn’t. Their novels are firmly situated in the places they knew. And if regionalism has any meaning then the bodies of writing around those places is different from the writing around other places.
Probably different cities, different regions have a different feel and that permeates the writing (Lisa yesterday wrote about the imporatance of cylcones in Queensland). But also writers work together and influence each other; and increasingly writers pass through the universities and so are influenced by the writers they find there – Elizabeth Jolley, Kim Scott, John Kinsella in WA (though not all at the same uni) – how could they not be?
The WA Wheatbelt is not really my home region, though I live on the edge of it, and work there, and drive backwards and forwards through it, and so experience a sense of familiarity when I read works which are not just plonked down there but which explore what it means to be in that place – from the memoir A Fortunate Life, to Dorothy Hewett’s fictional Muckinupin, to Arthur Upfield’s spell at Burracoppin, to The Fringe Dwellers, to Jolley’s The Well, to the poetry of Kinsella and Charmaine Papertalk-Green.
Hughes-d’Aeth also discusses regional literature in a slightly different sense
.. it has been inspiring to watch the Wirlomin Noongar grouping (Kim Scott, Clint Bracknell, Claire G. Coleman, and others), who trace their belonging to the south coast of Western Australia, become a nodal point of Noongar cultural and language renaissance, and seriously influence the national imaginary.
Noongar country and the Wheatbelt are more or less the same geographically (the former includes Perth and the latter extends north a little way into Yamaji country and excludes the heavily forested south-west corner), but ‘Wheatbelt’ is such a White concept that I have trouble treating them as one. Do Indigenous Lit and White Lit belong in the same region? Same space, opposite perspectives.
Cutting back across the emergence of bio-regionalist sensibilities in literature and criticism has been the advent of second-wave Indigenous authors like Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, and Tony Birch and of the powerful insinuation of the concept of ‘Country’ into wider Australian discourse
I hadn’t thought of these writers as ‘second-wave’. I guess the implication is that Jack Davis (1917-2000), Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) (1920-1993) and Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson) (1938 – 2019) were the first wave. Davis and Johnson were from WA, were there others over east?
“.. literary regionalism is a critical stance that I find myself adopting, whether I want to or not” is not Hughes-d’Aeth’s conclusion, but I think it makes a good one.
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Thinking in a Regional Accent: New Ways of Contemplating Australian Writers, Australian Book Review, Nov. 2020, no. 426.
Lisa/ANZLL – Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature (here)
Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) was born in England of good upper middle class stock. Her father was professor of poetry at Oxford, Rudyard Kipling was a rello and her godfather was JM Barrie. She was tall, good looking and rebellious, married a bi-sexual, professional signer to disoblige her family, as they say, had two sons, divorced him, and near the end of the Great War, married George Thirkell, a captain in the AIF who had served right through from 1914 – Egypt, Gallipoli, France. Thirkell’s family had land in Tasmania, but he was an engineer.
“Early in 1920 the Thirkells returned to Australia aboard the Friedrichsruh, a horrendous voyage when rank-and-file diggers became increasingly assertive. After a sojourn at Hobart, the family settled in suburban Melbourne. In January 1921 a son, Lancelot George, was born. Thirkell’s business activities as a director of a small engineering firm won only modest rewards.” (ADB)
Angela, needing money, began writing satirical essays and short stories. In 1930 she made her second visit home and stayed there. From 1931 on, for 30 years, she published a novel a year, middlebrow stuff set in Trollope’s Barsetshire, which she said she wouldn’t want her friends to read.
Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934) is something else, a fictionalised account of her post-war voyage to Australia, biting in its contempt of incompetent officers and sometimes laugh out loud funny, which was originally published under the male pseudonym Leslie Parker.
The story is written in a chatty tone in the first person, by Major Bowen a doctor in the AIF who had, like Capt Thirkell whom he no doubt represents, served right through the War.
I have always wanted to write the story of the old ‘Rudolstadt’ which took a shipload of Australian troops home after the War, but there were so many reasons against it. At the time we were all very angry, because it isn’t a fair deal to put families on a troopship where there isn’t any dicipline ..
Bowen’s background is as the son of a Western District (Victoria) property owning family with whom he has only distant relations. I was impressed by Thirkell’s local knowledge, though I waited until I had finished the book to look up her history. It doesn’t say, but perhaps she travelled a bit during her 10 years in Australia. Bowen talks of his mother cooking for shearers – chops for breakfast, a roast joint for dinner and the shoulder for tea. Do people still eat like that! My grandparents did, and sandwiches for morning and afternoon lunch in between, and tea, tea, tea, and maybe a slice of cake for supper.
Still, that’s only the first few pages, and a couple more to deal with the War. But because Bowen mentions fighting in Egypt (in 1914, though it was actually 1915) before Gallipoli, I had to look that up too (here). The AIF landed in Egypt for training at the end of 1914 and some must have taken part in the defence of the Suez when the Turks attacked from Palestine to retake Egypt from the Brits.
After the Armistice, Bowen takes a position at a hospital in Leeds, meets a girl, Celia, to whom it turns out he is related, marries her and after a year or so the Army tells him he is to be repatriated on the Rudolstadt along with many other officers with their wives and children and hundreds of diggers (troops). He wrangles a decent cabin for himself and Celia. His mate Jerry has a suite for his wife, two children and young nanny, but the junior offices are crammed into small cabins below decks not necessarily with their wives; the diggers are a level further down, and beneath them are the cells for hardened criminals who soon have their jailers bluffed and the keys to the cells chucked overboard.
I don’t have to tell you the plot – they sail to Australia, the men cause a lot of trouble, and despite an incompetent CO and his adjutant, Owen and Jerry with the assistance of a few loyal sergeants, save the day. Repeatedly.
The pleasure of the book is in the humour, a lot of which is the author slyly making fun of her husband (whom she had already left). Here they are on first meeting –
The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain they were way out beyond everything. So I asked her if she had read ‘On Our Selection’ … but she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’ so I knew she wasn’t literary.
And here, on wifely duties –
As for Celia, the poor kid didn’t know the first thing about cooking, but she soon got the hang of it, and I can tell you it was good-oh to know there would be a nice hot supper my little missis had cooked, whatever time I got back from the hospital … [he and a mate would] go off somewhere and get a drink and get yarning, and often I’d bring the chap home with me … It was great to walk into our own little sitting room and say “What about some tea, babe?” and introduce her to my pal.
Sometimes I’d take my boots off after supper and Celia would give them a shine for me … She was a great hand at polishing boots, as good as a batman, and it’s a job I’ve never liked somehow.
There’s all that stuff of my father’s and grandfathers’ generations about not swearing in front of women, not even hinting at sex. One bounder shows some officers’ wives a pornographic Indian carving which accidentally ends up overboard. And a great deal of racism about unwashed Egyptians, ‘gyppos’ and Irish Catholics, though the RC chaplain on board shows he’s made of the right stuff.
All in all a fun, nostalgic, read.
Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross, first pub. 1934. Sun Books (pictured above, right), Melbourne, 1966. 177pp. ex libris J. Terry