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)

 

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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)

Human Toll, Barbara Baynton

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Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) was born and grew up in the Hunter Valley region of NSW, well watered farming country a couple of hundred km north west of Sydney, but in her late teens began working as a governess further out and in 1880 she married Alex Frater, older brother to some of her charges, and they took up a largely uncleared property near Coonamble in western NSW, “the nearest neighbour a day’s ride away.” Frater was often away and eventually he ran off with Baynton’s niece who was helping in the house, leaving Baynton with three children to support. Over time, Baynton got a divorce, moved to Sydney, married Dr Baynton and so on (more here) and began writing, under the influence of the Bulletin’s AG Stephens.

The intense isolation and fear that Baynton felt, alone in the bush in the outback, is reflected in all her (relatively few) stories, and it is often remarked what a bleaker view she brings to the mostly male Bulletin school with all its mateship and good cheer in adversity.

By 1909 when her only novel (or novella, it’s 180 pp),  Human Toll was published, Baynton was a widow, living in London. Stephens was not available to provide advice or editing as he was for Bush Studies (1902), her earlier collection of short short stories, which I think had all appeared in the Bulletin during the previous decade, and this might account for the structure of the story being relatively difficult to follow, although individual passages are often excellent.

Human Toll commences with a little girl, variously Lovey, Ursie and Ursula, already motherless, coming to terms with the death of her father. She is on a remote, semi arid sheep property in the care of her father’s mate Boshy and an Aboriginal couple Nungi and Queeby. Boshy wishes to continue as the girl’s guardian but their nearest neighbour – yes, “a day’s ride away” – Cameron and his daughter Margaret come and take her (and all the father’s papers). Ursula is sent to Cameron’s sister, a widow in a small country town, who also has the care of Cameron’s son Andrew, a few years older than Ursula, to attend school.

The widow marries a grasping Presbyterian preacher, Mr Civil. Andrew often has to stand between Civil and Ursula when the former is handing out punishments. Boshy sometimes comes to town and later provides the money for Ursula to attend boarding school. Mrs Civil dies and Civil becomes ‘nicer’ to Ursula when he thinks she might inherit her father’s property (which Cameron seems to have taken over), or Boshy’s mysterious “fortune”.

Spoilers: It all comes to a head at a town dance when Andrew ignores Ursula, gets drunk, and in the morning is found to have “married” Ursula’s friend, Mina. Mina is thrown out of home and Andrew and Palmer, his brother in law, take the two girls back to the original property (where Nungi now has a new and less amenable wife). There the two young woman – with no love at all lost between them – are abandoned; Nungi refuses to continue seeing to the sheep; his new wife is of little assistance around the house; Mina has a baby which she attempts to kill; Ursula runs off with the baby and becomes hopelessly lost in the bush.

Human Toll makes clear – by contrast – how much Australian fiction is written with a niceness, a middle class sensibility, that underplays people’s essential selfishness. Ursula is your ordinary moral, right-thinking heroine but all the supporting cast are nasty and brutish. Cameron apparently steals Ursula’s property; the preacher lives off the money Cameron pays for Ursula’s support, and later enters her bedroom:

He advanced to her, misled by her passiveness. She aimed a heavy blow at his leering face with the candlestick, but he dodged it, and, terrified of a noisy scene, he rushed to his room.

The townspeople are all at each other’s throats, though at least at the dance, they enjoyed themselves:

Then Neddy Neale, dragging his dazed partner, swished past where Palmer and Ursula stood. Gus Stein, with Pat the Jew’s daughter and Andrew with Mina, still kept the floor, but now the rat-tat-tat accompaniment knuckled from the bottom of a tin dish by Dave Heeley, Neale’s drover mate, till, tired out, even he ceased.

Then the dancing husband of the singer, importuned, momentarily disengaged his partner to grab his concertina, and with this resting on the girl’s back, he kept the dancers going, till he, though much encouraged, wearied. Dry-throated and panting, some of the wine-maddened performers tried to hoarsely bellow independent tunes, which in turn yielded to impotent yells.

The one great difficulty is that throughout, all speech is rendered as dialect, and between a childish Ursie, the Aussies, the Aborigines and the Germans, this is often quite hard to follow.

The novel ends with an astonishing tour de force, a stream of consciousness, over 20 or so pages, as Ursula struggles, increasingly crazed by thirst, disoriented and incoherent, through the bush:

What a most peculiar thing that was, the leaning tree which earlier she had passed – oh, surely long ago – days and weeks ago; and why did she pass it? Why? she wondered, and her enfeebled mind rested in this futile query. Oh – screaming – she knew why. She was lost in the Bush, and, as long ago she called, “Andree, Andree!” Now, now, she was growing like a child. A child! Worse, for when a child she had conquered herself …

Baynton was a writer for only a brief period of her life, and this is a shame. She apparently commenced another novel, a comedy of manners set in England, which would at least have provided an interesting contrast to her earlier work, but it was never published.

 

Barbara Baynton, Human Toll, first pub. 1909, republished in Barbara Baynton, edited by Sally Krimmer & Alan Lawson, UQP, Brisbane, 1980

see also:
Barbara Baynton, Between Two Worlds (1989) by Penne Hackforth-Jones (here)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate – a comparison with Henry Lawson’s Water Them Geraniums (here)

Mr Jelly’s Business, Arthur Upfield

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Born in England, Arthur Upfield (1890-1964) moved to Australia in 1911, enlisting with the first AIF in 1914. Demobbed in London in 1919, he returned to Australia in 1921,  travelling and working extensively throughout the bush. According to the ADB, he began writing in the late 1920s. His first novel, The Barrakee Mystery (1929), originally had a white protagonist, but influenced by an Indigenous friend, Leon Wood, it was rewritten and became the first of 29 ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ detective novels. Bony is mixed race identifying as Aboriginal, as is his wife, university educated, and a Detective Inspector in the Queensland police force – although his long-suffering chief often has to lend him out to other forces around Australia.

Mr Jelly’s Business (1937), which appears to be number four in the series, is set at Burracoppin in Western Australia, a hamlet of half a dozen houses and rail siding/wheat storage facility between Merredin and Southern Cross, on the main east-west rail line, highway, and water pipe-line. Also the location, near enough, as I commented in my review, of Stephen Daisley’s (much less convincing) Coming Rain.

Bolinda Books commence all their Bony mysteries with a warning that the language used (about Aboriginals) reflects common usage at the time. Upfield has an obviously loving attitude towards his protagonist and means only to point out the strengths of Indigenous culture. But still. They are very enjoyable novels to listen to, but I sometimes wonder what or how much acceptance of casual racism that implies.

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Upfield’s map of Burracoppin

Upfield worked around Burracoppin, clearing bush (probably along the rabbit-proof fence which runs north-south on the right hand side of the map), and except that the rail line was relocated to the north of the town and a modern silo built when the line was converted from narrow to standard gauge, very little has changed since he was there more than eighty years ago.

The ostensible mystery is that a farmer, George Loftus, well under the weather, left Leonard Wallace’s hotel at 1 am, forgot to turn off towards the Old York Rd at the end of town and instead continued along the track to the rabbit-proof fence. Attempting to turn around, he backed his car into the ditch along which ran the Goldfields water pipeline, abandoned it and was never seen again.

There is a second mystery, which only gradually becomes apparent, and that is where does farmer and widower, Mr Jelly go when he disappears for days at a time, even during the harvest, without telling his daughters.

Bony embeds himself in the town as a worker for the State Rabbit Department, living in the working men’s quarters and eating at Mrs Poole’s boarding house.

Mrs Poole was about forty years old, tall and still handsome … Into her brown eyes flashed suspicion at sight of the half-caste, at which he was amused, as he always was when the almost universal distrust of his colour was raised in the minds of white women.

The country, through which I drive nearly every day while I’m on the Kalgoorlie run, is lovingly and knowledgeably described.

They had reached the summit of the long slope. Before them lay a great semicircle of low, flat country chequered by wheat and fallow paddocks: to the east and south-east reaching to the foot of a sand rise similar to that on which they stood; to the south far beyond the horizon; to the south-west extending to a sand rise which drew closer the farther north it came… The [Loftus] house lay not quite half a mile from the road at the foot of a long outcrop of granite with oaktrees [sheoaks] growing in the crevices.

A little like Maigret (my other favourite), Bony works his way into a case by absorbing all the details, though of course Bony is the better tracker, and allowing intuition to build. Over the days he works on the fence, felling timber, splitting posts, drinks (sparingly) at the pub, goes to the local dance, gets to meet all the locals.

I don’t know what I enjoy more, the gentle progress of Bony’s detectings, or the descriptions of a way of life not so long gone that I don’t have my own memories of harvesting and carting bagged wheat, of an Australia, particularly in the bush, before widespread mechanisation. You can take it as read that Bony makes friends with Mrs Poole, the Wallaces, the Jelly girls, his workmates. That he uses his tremendous powers of observation and deduction to come up with solutions to both the mysteries and to a third – who milks Mrs Poole’s cow in the early mornings? My interest today is the implied racism.

To Bony, used to the solitudes of the eastern side of the great heart of Australia, the bustle and noise [of the harvest] seemed to push him spiritually farther away from his aboriginal ancestry than at times had the roar and bitter grimness of the cities. Here was the white man’s life in all its naked virility, all its indomitable courage, its inventive genius. From the spot on which he was standing he could see mile beyond mile of land, which had been abandoned in its desolation by the hardy nomadic aborigines and now was one huge chequered garden. This morning Bony was proud that he was half white and wistfully longed to escape the environment of the mid-race for the upper plane of the white.

What is left unsaid? First of course that the Queensland and West Australian police forces were and are hotbeds of institutionalised racism, in which Bony could not possibly have survived. That in the Depression when all workers (in this town) other than returned servicemen had been sacked, there would have been active hostility to an Aboriginal man employed ‘out of turn’. That the Noongar people didn’t abandon their land, they were forced off it. That it was illegal to serve alcohol to Bony unless he produced his citizenship papers. That most white women wouldn’t have danced with Bony however well he spoke.

Michelle/Adventures in Biography and Sue/Whispering Gums, with posts on respectively Maxine Beneba’s The Hate Race (here) and the Boundless ‘multicultural’ festival (here) earlier this week, have also been discussing who should speak for Indigenous people and perhaps, how should white authors speak about Indigenous people. Whether Upfield was right or wrong to write in the way he did all those years ago I’m not sure. Certainly his heart was in the right place, as they say. I think he is still worth reading, but critically. I don’t read anything unquestioningly any more, but questioning is doubly important in this fraught area of race relations.

 

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Sunrise, Burracoppin, 2 Nov. 17 (looking south from highway over former railway easement and Goldfields pipeline to hotel)

Arthur W. Upfield, Mr Jelly’s Business, first published 1937. Audio version, Bolinda, 2012, read by Peter Hosking. My library’s paper copy was published in 2013 by Read How You Want which I think must be print-on-demand.

Coming Rain, Stephen Daisley

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I’ve written before, especially in the context of other bloggers’ reviews of Stephen Orr’s The Hands, that I don’t like (modern) books about blokes in the bush. They seem to me the literary equivalent of a Holden ute flying multiple flags on Australia Day.* However, I listened recently to Coming Rain (2015) and thought that I would discuss some of the issues it raises for me. Unfortunately, the next book I listened to was a ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ detective story, Mr Jelly’s Business (1937) set in almost exactly the same Western Australian wheatbelt location, and the two became so mixed in my mind that I’ve had to re-read a paper copy of Coming Rain to unsort them.

Coming Rain is textbook Australian Legend, two itinerant workers in the 1950s head a hundred miles or so out into the wheatbelt from Perth in their old Ford truck to do a spot of shearing. What Daisley thinks he brings to this tired old trope, I’m not sure. Certainly not the few Aboriginal words he throws in for political correctness, nor even the parallel story told from the point of view of a dingo bitch which at least adds a touch of White Fang (Jack London), or more pertinently, Dusty (Frank Dalby Davidson).

The two workers are Lew McCleod, in his twenties, and ‘Painter’ Hayes, in his sixties. Lew at age 11 was taken to work with a shearing crew and Painter, who had known his father, took him under his wing. In the following decade Lew never runs into his father nor goes back to see his mother.

We start off with some gratuitous sex for Lew and then a ‘charcoal contract’ near Boddington (in the jarrah forest south of Perth), which I guess sets the scene, before an all-night drive out along the Great Eastern Highway to the edge of the wheatbelt, which would be somewhere between Merredin and Southern Cross (respectively 260 and 360 km east of Perth) in their 1939 Ford truck.

They are to shear 1200 sheep – about 3 days work under normal conditions – for the Drysdales, remnants of an old pioneering family, John, a widower and his private school-educated 19 yo daughter Clara, who are unable to afford labour for the shed and plan to bring the sheep up to the yards and pick up and sort the wool themselves. Which would be fine with so few sheep, except they don’t bother every day, leaving the men to pick up their own fleeces. The property is improbably mostly wheat, this year at least, in those days more labour intensive than sheep, and during the greatest wool boom in Australia’s history, when the whole of Australia up to the Tropic of Capricorn was swarming with merinos.

The Drysdales have been notorious for not employing ‘blackfellas’ and indeed in earlier days, for clearing them off the station altogether. “‘Old man Drysdale and Dingo Smith persuaded them to move down south to round Boddington just after the first war,’ Painter said. ‘Never came back’.” Why Daisley nominates Boddington, which is way south and on the far side of the Darling ranges, I’m not sure, when the Noongars of this region mostly congregated around the regional centres of Merredin and, closer to Perth, Northam and Brookton (when not forced into Native Settlements at Moore River and Carrolup).

Lew and Clara manage to surmount their class and educational differences and engage in a spot of skinny dipping, followed by … well you get the picture. The dingo dips in and out of the story, has a bit of followed by … herself and looks for somewhere to have her pups.

Dingo Smith reappears late in the piece, living in a nearby mining ghost town with all the shops and houses still standing like a model pioneer village, which may have been true in the 50s, though these days old mining towns are just a signpost and a few vague shapes in the ground. (I said between Merredin and Southern Cross because Southern Cross marks the end of the wheatbelt and the beginning of the Goldfields.)

You know I don’t get historical fiction, not the rehashing of things which are familiar to us and are little more than an opportunity for an author to display his research. So it is not enough for Lew and Painter to cook their own dinner, they have to do it on a ‘green Metters stove’, with food from their ‘Coolgardie safe’ (I’m sure we said ‘cool safe’). Daisley has looked up a whole heap of sheep terms – ewe, wether, two-tooth, hogget – implying in the process that all the flock are in their second year. When a truck passes by on the highway it has ‘a powerful American motor’ though most American trucks in those days had petrol motors and a ‘large articulated truck and trailer’ was far more likely to be British.

We solve the murder, Boney catches the late train to Kal and on to the Trans and across the Nularbor. Oops, that’s Mr Jelly. Try again – Mates stick together, a woman gets in the way, things are hard in the bush … that’s probably both of them. Read Coming Rain if you have to, our antediluvian judges are still giving awards to this tired old pap. I’ll still try Stephen Orr, because you ask me nicely, but I really don’t have much time for back in the day when men were bronzed, even ironically.

 

Stephen Daisley, Coming Rain, Text, Melbourne, 2015. Audio version Bolinda Books, read by Paul English.

Lisa at ANZLL who is far more to be trusted than I am, liked it (here)

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1939 Ford truck
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*Holden ute (Wikipedia)

Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman

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The doctrine of Terra Nullius was the ex post facto justification for British settlement in New Holland (Australia); basically, the continent was regarded for legal purposes as uninhabited. That it was occupied by and subject to the laws of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for tens of millenia was not accepted into Australian Common Law until the Mabo decision of 1992 – a decision which ‘conservative’ governments have been at pains ever since to read as narrowly as possible in order to protect the interests of the miners and graziers who are their principal constituency.

Claire Coleman, the author of this recently released fictional exploration of the doctrine, identifies as Noongar, the indigenous peoples of the south west corner of Western Australia, where Terra Nullius is set. This is her first novel, written while travelling around Australia in a caravan according to this interesting profile (here).

Coleman, like multi-award winning author Kim Scott, is specifically of the people of the Ravensthorpe/Hopetoun region [the Wilomin] and in the interview references a memorial acknowledging the massacre of her family’s ancestors near Ravensthorpe (see my post The Cocanarup Massacre, here) which is also important in Scott’s writing, particularly Benang and Kayang and Me (reviews here and here).

The writer she most reminds me of though is not Scott but Charlotte Wood. Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (review here) is almost a parable, timeless, although probably in a near future, and placeless, set in a generic ‘outback’. As well, the writing of both has a certain flat, unemotional quality suited to the dystopian scenes each is describing.

“The best way to sneak in a statement without people realising is through sci-fi. The best novels are controversial. I wanted to make a connection, so that people sitting on the edge will fall off it.” (Coleman)

The first half of Terra Nullius feels as though it is set a hundred years or more in Australia’s past and it is not until we are half way through that we are made to realise that it is not. Likewise the scrub country which is the novel’s setting has no real place. Perth and the small town of Jerramungup (half way between Albany and Esperance in southern Western Australia) are the only towns mentioned, but they are not important; and the scrub country of the novel borders on the desert, although Jerramungup is in reality separated from the Western Desert by hundreds of kilometers of scrub and temperate woodlands.

The novel consists of a number of stories, told in parallel, which gradually come together [the pedant in me struggles with parallel stories converging]. Jacky runs from a Settler farm where he had been working for no wages and was unable to leave, ie. was a slave. He has only vague memories of being taken from the bush as a child to a mission where he was trained for servitude. Sister Bagra runs the mission:

Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them… Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.

The Head of the Department for the Protection of Natives, known to everyone only as Devil, finds “nothing to like about the job except the satisfaction he received from helping the Natives to help themselves. Natives raising their own children to the primitive ways they lived before he came was unacceptable, they would have to be elevated.”

Esperance runs a camp in the scrub on the edge of desert, her ‘hut’ a single sheet of corrugated iron, her people a motley collection united only in being pushed off their lands by the advancing Settlers.

Sergeant Rohan makes up a party of young Settlers to recapture Jacky, none of them competent trackers, and always on the edge of running out of water as they struggle from one reported sighting to the next.

Jacky finds his way to the mission, breaks in, not for food although he is starving, but for information. A young nun comes on him in the dark, tells him to head east, that he was taken from Jerramungup.

Two young nuns appear to be defying Sister Bagra. Someone has written to the authorities to inform them that Native children reported as absconded may have been mistreated and died. An investigator is coming from ‘home’.

A trooper takes part in a massacre:

Johnny was with them as they chased the terrified, fleeing survivors, in the almost dark, in the glowing red light of scattered coals from campfires, in the light from burning humpies. Some of the Native men grabbed their primitive arms and tried to fight back but men with ancient weapons cannot stand against men with modern guns. They were gunned down… Johnny ran with others of his troop, guns empty – who could be bothered reloading? – running buoyed by their laughter, knives in hands slitting throats and piercing bellies.

but is sickened, as well he might be, and deserts into the bush, meeting up with and being accepted into a party of Native marauders.

Johnny gets ill, is left behind by his mates. Jacky, still heading vaguely east but with no idea of where he is, comes upon Johnny, spares his precious water to revive him.

In her review, Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) writes, “Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…”. What else can I say, except: Well done! Claire Coleman, long may you produce novels as good and original as this one.

Let Johnny, the renegade, have the last word: “Stealing something to eat, that is a crime that would get me flung into jail. Stealing everything, that is just good government.”

 

Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette, Sydney, 2017