1788 (2), Watkin Tench

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

see also:

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

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1788, Watkin Tench

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Watkin Tench, artist unknown

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

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

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

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

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

A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: Tench begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

see also:

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

 

An Australian Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo Independent Australia (here)

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Blastus of Bandicoot, Miles Franklin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Light Between the Oceans, M.L. Stedman

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Let’s get one thing clear right at the beginning. I found this popular novel turgid and melodramatic. Towards the end of its interminable 10 hours on audiobook I started skipping instead of listening one more time to how unhappy the two mother/protagonists were, and to all the plainly silly plot devices keeping them and the child in close proximity to one another.

Still with me? A brave soldier (officer) returned from the Great War joins the lighthouse service and is assigned to a light on remote Janus Island off the southwest corner of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, hence the title. The officer, Tom Sherbourne, meets and marries a local girl, Isobel, and takes her to live on the island. Shortly after her third miscarriage, a dinghy is cast up on the island carrying a dead man and a live baby girl, a few weeks old. Rather than report this discovery Tom is persuaded by Isobel to keep the baby and for them to raise her as their own.

Spoilers. Only after two years does it become apparent that the baby is in fact that of another local woman, Hannah. And it is another two years after that before Hannah is made aware that her daughter is still alive. Tom is arrested. The baby, now old enough to have her own opinions, is returned to Hannah, who for some reason doesn’t go and live in Perth or Sydney or London, anywhere the child might adjust to her new situation in peace, but stays on instead in the small town where she and her daughter must inevitably run into Isobel. This drags on for hours seemingly while a case is made out against Tom, who has assumed all the blame, until at last some sort of resolution is achieved.

It seems to me that maybe 40 years ago it became fashionable (in Australia) to write about the First World War as an unmitigated horror – which it was – and to discuss soldiers returned from that war as damaged, traumatised. Two books stand out in that regard, David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982) which rapidly became the standard ‘text’ on war in schools, and 1915 (1979) by Roger Macdonald. In retrospect I believe these books and the many that followed, including the Light Between the Oceans, were and are code for providing a path towards acceptance for soldiers returned from the illegal and unnecessary Vietnam War, and for understanding what we now call PTSD.

Stedman employs the familiar, indeed worn-out trope of the strong, silent returned soldier unable to speak the horrors he has seen, for Tom, in contrast with Isobel’s once free spirit descending further into despair with each successive miscarriage, to provide a background for their flawed decision making. Whether this essay on moral relativism needed to be set in a work of historical fiction is a moot point. I certainly don’t think Stedman contributes anything new to our understanding of 1920s Western Australia, or to take a wider view, to our understanding of post WWI Australia.

And if you as readers want to know more about children separated from their mothers then maybe you could try Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review), or one of the many other Indigenous accounts of the Stolen Generations. Thousands of Aboriginal children were taken forcibly from their homes and put into institutions and then into service, and to get worked up about one imaginary white child is both an indulgence and insulting. And no, I haven’t forgotten about all the children removed from teenage single mothers right up to the 1960s.

If you’re interested in the setting, there is no Janus Island and indeed, as far as I know, no islands at all 100 miles (160 km) off the southwest coast. The coastal township of the story, Port Partageuse appears to be a composite of the town of Augusta, nearby Cape Leeuwin, which does have a lighthouse (#4 on map), and Point D’Entrecasteaux which is a bit further south.

The Light Between the Oceans has its good points. The characterisations, particularly of Tom and Isobel, are excellent and if the author had decided they should have kept the child, I would have sympathised, instead of running out of patience with them is I eventually did. The descriptions of the rugged island and later of the West Australian bush are also excellent. This is Stedman’s first novel and I would not be surprised to learn it was the product of a creative writing degree – passages of good descriptive writing around an immature plot.

 

M.L. Stedman, The Light Between the Oceans, Random House, Melbourne, 2012. Audio version: AudioGo, 2012, read by Noah Taylor (10 hrs 20 min)

For a contrasting view try Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here)
Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest likes it despite its faults (here)

Like Nothing on this Earth, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

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Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (2017) is a sizeable book, almost 600pp, covering the history of a small part of Western Australia with a current population of maybe 100,000, depending which provincial cities are included. I have already referred to it – in fact that was my reason for spending fifty bucks to buy it – in my posts on Jack Davis (here and here) and will do so again when, hopefully soon, I get to Dorothy Hewett. So this is not so much a review as an introduction.

Hughes-D’Aeth writes that when he first saw a satellite image of WA he was struck “by the sharp line that ringed Perth to the north and east, stretching roughly from Geraldton to Esperance and marking out an area most West Australians know as the wheatbelt.” This line, known as the clearing line, “follows the rabbit-proof fence which also marks (more or less) the minimum rainfall threshold, the 10-inch line … below which cropping is unsustainable.” It also nearly coincides with the outer edge of Noongar country, the home of the Indigenous peoples of the South-West.

Outside the line is semi-arid scrub and the remnants of the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest remaining temperate forest, on the in side is sandy farmland, degraded to within an inch of its life and criss-crossed with salt pans. The wheatbelt’s other boundary is a line from north of Perth south to Albany, excluding the Darling Escarpment, Perth and the high rainfall, heavily forested south-west corner. I know the wheatbelt well as I drive through it 3 or 4 times a week, I spent all my school holidays on wheat farms (in Victoria), and in earlier years I delivered farm machinery into WA and spent a season carting grain, including from Nomans Lake where Albert Facey ended up (map).

This book traces the creation of the Western Australian wheatbelt during the course of the twentieth century by considering the creative writing of those who lived in the wheatbelt at various points in their lives and then wrote about that experience.

The eleven authors covered, who get a chapter each, are:

Albert Facey (1894-1982)

Cyril E. Goode (1907-83)

James Pollard (1900-71)

John Keith Ewers (1904-78)

Peter Cowan (1914-2002)

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002)

Jack Davis (1917-2000)

Barbara York Main (1929- )

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007)

Tom Flood (1955- )

John Kinsella (1963- )

Of these I have read Facey, famous of course for his ‘primitive’ memoir, A Fortunate Life, bits of Hewett, Davis, and Jolley and I really must get to Kinsella. Notable by his absence is Kim Scott, whose home country (see Kayang and Me), around Ravensthorpe, west of Esperance, was opened up to cropping after WWII, though the author mentions him briefly in the Introduction. The others I not only haven’t read, I haven’t heard of, so I have some reading to do.

The author does however discuss at some length two other important authors he has excluded: Randolph Stow (1935-2010) grew up on farms around Geraldton, but in his writing focussed on larger properties, ‘stations’. “Crops are a distant background , and one sees no evidence of the ideology of wheat.” KS Prichard (1883-1969) is more difficult again. Hugo Throssell had taken up land at Cowcowing before the war, and on returning home he married Prichard and took her there for two years before she could stand it no longer. She does not mention this in her autobiography or in any of her novels. Only in the short story “Christmas Tree”, included in the collection Potch and Colour (1944) does she tell the story of a woman “looking over her farm for the last time, as the bank has called in their mortgage”. (Nathan Hobby’s review here. In looking this up I see that Hughes-d’Aeth is Nathan’s PhD supervisor.)

Elizabeth Jolley did not in fact live in the wheatbelt, though The Well is set on a wheat farm near York or Brookton, just over the Ranges from Perth, the location also, a century earlier when land clearing had just started, for The Boy in the Bush by DH Lawrence and Mollie Skinner. Two other well-known books not included are The Fringe Dwellers, Nene Gare, which is not about farming, but Mr Comeaway’s work on the Geraldton wharves would have been mostly lumping bagged wheat; and Xavier Herbert’s  memoir of growing up in the wheatbelt, Disturbing Element.

In his Preface Hughes-d’Aeth says that the ‘event’ of the creation of the wheatbelt was also the destruction of “a vast territory of native wilderness with a bio-diversity almost without equal on the planet.” Total land cleared up to 1970 was 200,000 square kilometres (by comparison, the landmass of Britain is only 230,000 square kilometres). He then says something that I have often thought and even sometimes argued (here for instance):

I have gradually come to realise the particular value of creative writing as a document of record.

Hughes-d’Aeth touches on another subject I have discussed elsewhere, the contrast between farming and the outback pursuits of the mythical Australian. In the poems and stories of the 1890s “we find bushrangers and drovers, boundary riders and billabongs, shearers and prospectors. We do not find many stories or songs about people farming grain.” These are the rival ‘legends’, of the independent bushman on one hand and the pioneer, stay-at-home man with his wife and kids, on the other, working to scratch a living out of a bit of dirt.

Though as wheat farming grew in importance, Banjo Paterson at least changed his tune:

We have sung the song of the droving days,
Of the march of the travelling sheep –
How by silent stages and lonely ways
Thin, white battalions creep.
But the man who now by the soil would thrive
Must his spurs to a ploughshare beat:
And the bush bard, changing his tune, may strive
To sing the song of the Wheat!
(Song of the Wheat, 1914)

In his Epilogue: The Wheatbelt in Deep Time, Hughes-d’Aeth sets out the arguments justifying his methodology and adds, “There is no exact precedent in this country for what I have done in studying creative writing and the Western Australian wheatbelt, though I am by no means the first to draw a relationship between Australian literature and place.”

There are many, maybe 120, illustrations, although being included in the text they are of only photocopy quality, good endnotes (yes, I’m getting used to them) and a useful Index. While in places the writing has an academic feel, perhaps that is just Hughes-d’Aeth not treating us general readers as idiots.

Overall this book represents a fascinating approach to an area that is at once Western Australia’s economic heartland, outside of the mines at least, and a potential ecological tragedy. I am looking forward to reading and maybe even reporting on the individual chapters.

 

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2017

The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Elizabeth Jolley

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Up till now I have read only one Elizabeth Jolley, The Well, which I wrote on during my studies 12 or so years ago. I would have used my essay as the basis for a post, being shameless in my recycling, only I cannot find it. My old 3” back-up discs are not well-labelled. I also have Brian Dibble’s 2008 Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley in my TBR, if only I could get to it.

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) was born and grew up in England, and began training as a nurse before entering a complicated marital relationship with Leonard Jolley, with whom she emigrated to Western Australia in 1959. According to Wikipedia (there is no ADB entry), they lived in the comfortable middle class Perth suburb of Claremont until 1970 when they purchased a small orchard at Woorooloo in the Ranges on the outskirts of the city.

Jolley had always been a writer, mostly of short stories, but remained unpublished until 1976. Shortly after this she began to teach one of the earlier Creative Writing courses, at WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin Uni.). Her first novel, Palomino was published in 1980. The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981), a novella really, was her second.

No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time. Newspaper, or Weekly, as she was called by those who knew her, earned her living by cleaning other people’s houses.

And so we begin. ‘Claremont Street’ is an imagined long street in Claremont, mostly residential but with a very old fashioned mixed-business grocery cum haberdashery store. Weekly lives in an old rooming house at one end, opposite an intrusive block of flats, and her clients live along its length. Weekly, who was brought up ‘in service’, cleans and helps out at dinner parties. At the end of each day she plonks down in a chair in the store and gives off a few items of news.

The story has a timeless feel which makes it difficult to place, but Weekly’s friend Nastasya was a teenager during the Russian Revolution and she and Weekly appear to be similar ages. By the time of the story Weekly is in late middle age so perhaps the setting is the early 1960s, before supermarkets had wiped out all the old grocery stores.

We learn that Weekly and her mother had been in service in England, and had emigrated to Australia when her father was killed in an accident. An older sister goes to work in the wheatbelt and we don’t hear of her again, but Weekly’s younger brother, Victor, who had been doing well at school in England, becomes a young con man, hanging around and taking what he can from Weekly and her mother, until at last, owing too much to the wrong type of people, he too disappears.

Weekly and her mother were in service in a large house. House cleaning was the only work they knew. Between them on swollen feet, they waited on Victor, cherishing him, because they knew no other way. And Victor, as he grew older, made his own life which they were obliged to hold in reverence because they did not understand it.

All the time, as Weekly works and saves, we are on the edge of her thoughts, listening in …

It was if her mother’s sigh persisted through the years, sadly and quietly, in the noise of the leaves flustering in front of the broom. Weekly added her own sigh and then shook off the thoughts. It was such a long time ago now.

Eventually Weekly gets a little car, persuades one client to give her an old car they have for sale, and another client, not to be outdone, to pay for her driving lessons, and begins to drive out into the country to seek out a little farmlet to which she might be able to afford to retire.

The fly in the ointment is that Nastasya, who has been used all her life to be waited on, has moved into Weekly’s room and Weekly doesn’t have the heart to abandon her. Twice they head for the ‘hospital’ (nearby Graylands, formerly the Hospital for the Insane) only for Weekly to turn back. So finally Weekly takes Nastasya with her, to the shack on a few acres in the hills and there she comes up with a solution to her need for isolation and quiet that is as shocking as it is funny.

Jolley’s writing is exquisite and her characterisations are brilliant. She writes with great feeling about what it is to be an older woman, but more than that, she writes with insight on what it is to be, in Australia.

 

Elizabeth Jolley, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 1981. Audio version, The Association for the Blind of WA, 2009, read by Coralie Ellement