Journal: 003, On the Road Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent audiobooks

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

Currently reading

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Elizabeth Macarthur, Michelle Scott Tucker

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth Macarthur, undated, State Library of NSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right at the end Michelle allows herself a little whimsy:

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

So no, not a Lydia.

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

 

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

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

Carpentaria, Alexis Wright

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Alexis Wright (1950- ) is a Waanyi woman of the “southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria”. For non-Australians the Gulf of Carpentaria is the big body of water in the north of Australia – between the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula – and the Gulf country is the land to its immediate south: largely unpopulated, flat, tropical, seasonal rivers, mud flats and mangroves.

The Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (2006) made Wright’s reputation as a writer, but it is often mentioned that this is her second novel and I had to do some searching to find her first: Plains of Promise (UQP, 1997). She has also written some notable works of non-fiction, most recently her genre-busting (and large!) study of Tracker Tilmouth, Tracker (Giramondo, 2017).

Now I have to make an admission. I first listened to Carpentaria some years ago and intensely disliked it. Maybe I conflated Alexis Wright with Alex Miller but anyway I thought this was a white guy book, patronising and worst of all, magic realism. Since then I have read real magic realism from South America, not the fashionable, western wannabe stuff; sub-Saharan African spiritual realism; and above all, have made some inroads into the considerable body of Australian Indigenous Lit. with which we are now blessed, but particularly Kim Scott’s Benang (1999). So second time round I had a context for understanding what I was reading and of course found it marvellous.

The novel is set in the coastal township of Desperance, Qld which may be based on aspects of Burketown or Karumba. I wondered how personally Indigenous people in these towns took Wright’s depictions of them and their disputes, but Wright herself grew up in Cloncurry, 400 km south, not that there are any towns in between, so I guess her depictions are generic rather than particular.

We follow the lives of town elder Normal Phantom, his wife Angel Day and their son Will. Not linearly but swirling backwards and forwards in oral story telling fashion – much enhanced by the choice of Noongar actor Isaac Drandich to do the reading – to pick up aspects of the story that might have earlier been glossed over, as we slowly build up to the confrontation between Indigenous forces supporting Will Phantom and the local Big Miner, and the subsequent fall-out.

Indigenous Lit. has an element of looking at white middle class life from ‘underneath’ – Marie Munkara’s sardonic depictions of Darwin bureaucrats for  example – which gives a new aspect to our view of ourselves in general and to the myths of the Australian bushman in particular. Not just the casual, and not so casual, violence, but the self-interested decision making. Terra Nullius has an entirely new meaning when seen from the point of view of the people of whom the Land was supposedly Empty.

But Indigenous Lit. also has elements which are entirely its own. Country which lives. Fauna seemingly sentient and effective. Carpentaria begins:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously – if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of tears ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Norm Phantom and Angel Day, not able to live in the township proper, build themselves a ‘castle’ in the pricklebush, outside the town limits, from scraps salvaged at the tip; raise a family of three boys, Will is the third, three girls and one more boy, Kevin, intelligent, lively, inquisitive, damaged in a mine accident and murdered by young white men playing out KKK fantasies. Norm is at odds with a rival faction led by old Joseph Midnight, from different country and so they end up westside mob, Norm’s lot, and eastside mob, on opposite sides of the town.

We find Norm older, Angel Day gone off with the preacher Mozzie Fishman who leads a convoy of followers in battered cars, his two older boys in secure employment with the mine, Will unemployed with a reputation for rebellion – a reputation whose slow unfolding is the core of the novel – estranged from his father, and as we discover eventually, partnered with Hope, old Midnight’s granddaughter and with a son, Bala. The daughters, abandoned by their men, home again, caring for Kevin.

An old man appears from the sea, walking in over the mud flats, amnesiac, given the name Elias Smith, is befriended by Norm and spends long days with him, out on the Gulf, fishing. When trouble comes he takes Hope and Bala in his dinghy, disappears into the mist. Reappears dead, sitting up in his boat with bags of ocean fish, floating in an inland lagoon. Discovered by Will and Fishman.

White men occupy the peripheries of the story, the policeman, Truthfull, growing fat, sleeping with Norm’s daughter, the only way to get him out of the house; Stan Bruiser, former snake oil salesman made good, now cattleman and town mayor: “If you can’t use it, eat it, or fuck it, it’s no use to you… everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times until he ran them into the ground and raped them.” That this is sayable, writeable, over and over, not just by Wright, but by writers black and white, from Rosa Praed onwards is an indictment of the redneck North, of Queensland, of Australia. Of all of us.

But the real villain is Gurfurrit, the mining company, fiercely, murderously protective of its rights. And the most telling part of the story is the light that comes into the men’s eyes when they realise that they have taken on the mining company and won. One win after two centuries of defeats.

The most important part of this book is the writing, which is outstanding, but it also a confronting, unmissable story of love and eco-terrorism and life in the far north.

 

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria, Giramondo, Sydney, 2006. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2006, read by Isaac Drandich. 520pp/19.16 hours

see also:
Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
my review of Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s Indigenous Reading list (here)

The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Richard Flanagan

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Why do we read? For different reasons probably, though we’re all very passionate about it. Do we read, and of course I mean do we read fiction, to be beguiled by stories, to while away the time, or to see revealed truths we had not previously considered? Or for some other reason. Ex-Mrs Legend – and I must remark here that this month marks 40 years since we met over books which we have shared and argued about ever since – berates me for my insistence on authenticity in my narrators, a subject which I suspect you too barely tolerate.

But to put it baldly, I think a novel with an inauthentic narrator is a novel into which the author has not put their heart. And that brings me to Richard Flanagan. Flanagan was born in 1961 of Irish stock and grew up in a mining town on the remote and rugged Tasmanian west coast. He has a M Litt in History from Oxford and his father was a prisoner of war on the Burma Railway.

Richard Flanagan knows Tasmania, he is a literary writer of some merit, he can tell a story.

Richard Flanagan is not a woman, and he is not a Slovenian refugee from World War II, but these are the characters he chooses for his protagonists in The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), his second novel.

Briefly, in 1954 a woman walks out of a workers hut into the snow, disappearing into the forest in deepest Tasmania, leaving behind her three year old daughter Sonja. The woman, Maria, was the wife of Bojan Buloh. They had married after the War and been accepted as refugees into Australia where Bojan was a labourer on the construction of dams for the Hydro.

Bojan is an alcoholic and violent. Sonja as a child is sometimes in his care – when he has work in Hobart – and is sometimes farmed out. At 16 she walks out on him, ending up in Sydney. Twenty something years later she returns to Hobart, seeking out old friends. It transpires that she’s pregnant, we hear much of her and Bojan’s back stories, they make contact, he’s still an alcoholic and it goes on from there.

This novel, and this novelist, are liked by lots of people, are almost certainly liked by most of you. But not me – not this novel anyway (if I remember correctly, I didn’t mind Gould’s Book of Fish). The principal protagonist is in fact the woman Sonja, and some of the things that Flanagan attempts I found risible – describing what she likes during sex, being pregnant, her waters breaking, having a baby, I laughed out loud when his (sorry, her) nipples began to leak at about 8 months. This is bullshit, stuff he’s read somewhere just the same as I have, what can he possibly have to tell me about being a woman? What he can he possibly have to tell you?

Sonja is ten years older than Flanagan himself, so Bojan is a good generation older. The descriptions of fifties and sixties Tasmania are researched, albeit informed by his and his family’s lived experience, even so he gets stuff wrong. Someone has told him that slowing down in an FJ (1950s Holden car) slows down the windscreen wipers, when in fact they actually slow down when the car accelerates.

I admit that Flanagan living where he did would have met or observed men like Bojan but why write a novel from Bojan’s, let alone his daughter’s, perspective? AS Patric demonstrates in Black Rock White City (here) that whatever we Anglos (or Celts) think, the lives of migrants/refugees out of war zones are complicated in ways that we can only dimly understand.

So, we get back to ‘why do we read fiction?’. We read light fiction and genre fiction for entertainment, to pass the time. The author creates an environment, sets up a scenario within that environment and brings it to a (hopefully) logical conclusion. In SF those scenarios might sometimes be read as a metaphor for the real world, and of course genre and literary fiction have very porous boundaries, but if the writer follows the rules of the world they have established then we are satisfied. We are entertained.

But is that why we read literary fiction? I think not. Literary fiction that is not just about the writing itself, tells a story not necessarily even with a beginning or an end but just a slice of one or more lives, with the intention of making us think about life or an aspect of life. And in my opinion, any genuine insight by the author can only arise out of their lived experience.

Flanagan is a fine story teller, but for as long as he remains unwilling to invest himself in his fiction (and I gather that at last he does in First Person) then he is just writing entertainments. We should not give his ‘insights’ in The Sound of One Hand Clapping any more credence than we give Helen Darville’s (Demidenko) in The Hand that Signed the Paper.

 

Richard Flanagan, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, 1997. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2012. Read by Humphrey Bower

see also:

Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Richard Flanagan, First Person (here)

My brief thoughts on Flanagan’s The Road to the Deep North (here)

 

Taboo, W.E. Harney

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In putting away Kim Scott’s Taboo after reading and writing it up for my last post (here) I saw I had another Taboo, a gift as it turns out from my father to his father for Christmas, 1944, the first book by white bushman cum writer Bill Harney (1895-1962) who mixed closely with the Indigenous people of northern Australia, in the cattle and fishing industries, and at the time this book was written, as a Native Affairs patrol officer.

Let me be clear that it is not my intention to endorse the views contained in this book, nor to offer it as alternative to Scott’s, but rather to make a critical reading of an old-fashioned account by an ostensibly sympathetic observer of peoples maybe only one generation removed from the “old ways”.

Harney’s Taboo is a collection of stories with an extended Introduction by the anthropologist AP Elkin (ADB). Elkin, in his time a noted defender of the rights of Aborigines, writes:

… Harney has lived in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, for about twenty years, contracting, trading and working at this, that and the other. From the moment he realized that the natives, though different from us, were human like ourselves, he has taken a sympathetic and intelligent interest in them, seeking to understand them.

He goes on to speculate on the causes of ‘aboriginal depopulation’, citing ‘clashes’, introduced diseases, and ‘psychological’: “the upsetting of that balance or equilibrium between man, his fellows and nature, which had been developed in the course of centuries” and which the coming of the white man brought to a sudden end.

… almost every story in this book is a concrete illustration of the change wrought in the natives’ manner of life by contact with the white man and his ways, and of the disastrous consequences.

Reverie: Harney sits on the beach with trepang curing, watching an old man singing dreamtime songs to children, and muses on similarities between cultures. “Their numerous customs, so like our own, point to a common origin.”

Cananda: A legend of love and jealousy recorded in the hope it may never be forgotten, tied to a story told by a white trader on a sailing vessel in the Gulf, of hearing the spirit of a man cry out overhead at the moment of his death a hundred miles away.

The Law:  A harsh story of Ramajerrie who refused to be a stockman but instead lived by raiding the bosses’ cattle, who took leniency as a sign to continue, so his little band of marauders were shot up and the survivors tricked into eating poisoned flour; and his son Ngiaroo, who was sceptical of traditional law and was killed for failing to give up his wife to an elder, while his killer, who did respect traditional law, is sentenced to jail.

The Secret: The sad tale of a man who saves the life of the policeman arresting him out of fear of being blamed, and is honoured for it; then saves the life of a little white girl through his own bravery, but is cursed and left to die for making her cry.

And so we go on with stories and photos and a great deal of Aboriginal language and knowledge. Stories of laws abandoned because traditional punishments are illegal under white man’s law; stories of white men misusing the law to prevent their ‘house gins’ being claimed in traditional marriages; and over and over again, stories of Indigenous people being murdered in the name of justice, or more often, just to prevent them from living and hunting on cattle pasture, which of course includes all the best water:

Nugget was of a different clay from Jack; he was a hard man. Pity help the native who crossed his path. Some of them tried it once, but he gave them a feed – rice flavoured with arsenic; and …

people heard of the murder [of Jack], and a body of white men with a policeman in charge started out in pursuit of the killers – a punitive expedition, the strong chasing the weak, killing all that came in their way, the innocent as well as the guilty. [The Good Samaritan]

I think however, that in his own mind at least, Harney’s thesis is that the Aborigines are/were a primitive (but interesting) people giving way to a superior civilization,

Of course, we smile at these simple people, with their foolish superstitions; nevertheless, I have found that behind their ideas is a deal of logic. [The Mumba]

And he is fair enough to point out that “we once hung camphor bags around children’s necks to keep away sickness” and that a great many whites wear the crucifixes and medallions of their own superstitions.

Let us end with Justice, the story of a man whose mother was chased over a cliff when he was a babe in arms, was brought up ‘white’, visited the city, but in his home town –

… saw natives led about on chains, prisoners for some paltry offence, being given a feed of half-cooked rice and then a drink of water just before they got to town, so that, as they marched down the street, the people were amazed at the way they were treated – they looked so full. The knowing ones laughed at the joke – the police did well out of the native arrests, as they received one shilling a feed per man.

He saw, “and being intelligent, understood”, and ran away to the bush, raising the “standard of revolt, carrying death to the white man in its trail”, until he and his little band were chased down and killed.

So these are stories which were current, no doubt well known and thought unexceptional, when John Howard (1939- ) was a boy and yet which, when they were revived and substantiated during his prime ministership, he mendaciously labelled as a “black armband” view of history.

 

W.E. Harney, Taboo, Australasian Publishing Co., Sydney, 1943

see also my post on Ion Idriess and particularly his novel Nemarluk which is from the same period and general location (here)

 

Taboo, Kim Scott

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The biggest issues we face today are the flat-lining of the Australian and most western economies after decades of neo-liberal pro-market, anti-worker policies; and the refusal of right-wing politicians to allow even the possibility of a consensus for dealing with global warming.

Yet the biggest, the dominant issue in Australian Lit. is clearly what it means to be an Australian – Anglo, Indigenous, or otherwise – in this land we whites stole from its Indigenous inhabitants, the oldest continuing civilization on Earth. And which by the way, we continue to steal by all the artificial constraints State and Federal governments put around Native Title determinations when the graceful thing to do after the Mabo judgement would have been to declare all Crown land Indigenous and to negotiate with the traditional owners using that as the starting point.

This blog was started to investigate notions of Australianness, so I would say that, but look at who is prominent in Aust.Lit today and what books are receiving the most attention. None is about the failure of the welfare state or the casualization of work or the disappearance of free education or the obscene wealth of the very rich, and very few are about climate change. It is a subject for another post, the question of which writers at the height of their powers today, clearly stand head and shoulders above their fellows, but I would suggest three names, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright and Chris Tsialkos, and two of those are Indigenous and the third, Tsialkos is concerned to investigate Australianness from his own non-Anglo, non-straight background.

Taboo (2017) is both personal for Kim Scott and political. Personal in that it is a continuation of his exploration of his roots as a Wirlomin Noongar man, a sequel to the story he began telling in Benang (1999), and political in that he uses the return of the Wirlomin to the site of the Cocanarup Massacre and the reaction of the current (fictionalised) owners of Kocanarup Station as a metaphor for how whites of good intentions everywhere struggle to recognise the depth of the ongoing harm that they are party to.


Noongar: those Indigenous people whose country is all the south-western portion of Western Australia (from south of Geraldton to west of Esperance).

Wirlomin: the south-easternmost of 14 language groups making up the Noongar. Their country is centred on the present-day towns of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

For maps of Australian Indigenous language groups see the ‘Aboriginal Australia’ page above (or here). The AIATSIS map labels the Wirlomin region as ‘Minang’.


And finally, that cover. I have no religion, nor any thoughts about spiritualism or life after death, and I hope that when I am dead my body is rendered into compost. But that doesn’t mean that I think images of dead people should be used as decorations on book covers. And given the enormous efforts of Indigenous people over a long period to have the bones of their ancestors returned from museums and given a proper burial, I think it is doubly inappropriate that a skull should be used in this way an the cover of this book.

In fact, despite my great age and years of long-distance truck driving, I have not only never seen a dead person, I avoid seeing people killed on film or television (I certainly don’t find it entertaining!), and have never been the first or even an early attender at a traffic accident, except of course the ones I’ve been in myself. Which is by way of a lead in to the first (and last) scene in the book: a truck loaded with grain loses its brakes at the top of the short steep hill at the eastern end of Ravensthorpe’s main street, gathers speed, missing pedestrians and cars, looks headed towards the roadhouse at the bottom of the hill before veering to the right, towards the creek where, “slowed at last by deep, coarse sand”, it falls slowly onto its side. And as grain pours from the beached tipper trailer, there appears gradually … “Something like a skeleton, but not of bone. At least, not only bone. The limbs are timber. The skull is timber too, dark and burnished, and ivory dentures …”

Except here Ravensthorpe is called Kepalup (in Benang it was Gebalup), Hopetoun 30 km south on the coast is Hopetown and Albany, the main regional centre, 300 km west along the WA south coast, is King George Town (as it was in That Deadman Dance). Other nearby towns, Esperance and Lake Grace for example, keep their names and Perth is just the City. Kocanarup is now owned by the overtly Christian Hortons – Dan, a widower and his brother Malcolm. In the 1880s, at the time of the massacre, it was owned by the Dunns (Dones in Benang).

Dan Horton’s late wife Janet had been a prime mover in the establishment of a ‘Peace Park’ at Kepalup (which may stand in for the Kukenarup Memorial which overlooks Cocanarup Station, 15 km west of Ravensthorpe). A party of Wirlomin, mostly elderly, mostly from King George Town, camp at the Hopetown caravan park by the sea for a retreat, for some of them to dry out, to prepare for the official opening of the Peace Park.

Tilly, the central character is a student at a private girls school in Perth, on scholarship. She is the daughter of a white mother and a Wirlomin father, Jim who has recently died in jail where he had been leading the revival of Wirlomin language and culture. As a baby, till reclaimed by her mother, she was the foster daughter of Dan and Janet Horton.

Tilly comes down on the bus to Lake Grace where she is met by her father’s cousins, twins Gerald and Gerrard Coolman – descendants of the Coolamons of Benang – one who had been in jail with her father and is now dry and a leader of the Wirlomin revival and one who is not, and they continue on to Kokanarup, to meet Dan Horton and to walk around the vaguely defined sites of the massacre up till now treated as taboo. After a night as guests at the Station they go on down to Hopetown and meet up with the others for the retreat.

All the people are carefully, lovingly even described and we get to know them as they tentatively reclaim the language that was forbidden to them when the older ones were sent away “to the mission” as children, and nearly lost, and as they slowly reclaim the springs and creeks and hills and stones of the massacre site. And so Tilly, by upbringing and education a stranger but still a loved family member, learns the words and sites of her people as Scott must have done too when he began the long journey whose beginning is described in Kayang and Me.

For a while, the middle section of the book, we go back. Tilly starts seeing her father, dying in jail, runs away from her mother, gets in harm’s way, is rescued. A malign presence, a large white man, is in her life, in her nightmares, in the lives of many of the people. And in the third, final section he’s in Kepalup.

Benang, in particular, was a poetic work. Taboo is much more plainly written, but that is also its power.

 

Kim Scott, Taboo, Picador, Sydney, 2017

see also:
The Cocanarup Massacre, my post based on Kim Scott’s source material (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review of Taboo (here)
My reviews of Kim Scott’s earlier works –
True Country, 1993 (here)
Benang, 1999 (here)
Kayang and Me, 2005 (here)
That Deadman Dance, 2010 (here)